Murphy studies at Saint-Omer in France, and is a gifted student of the Latin and Greek classics. He works as an actor in the theatre, becomes a barrister, a journalist and finally a playwright. He edits Gray’s Inn Journal between 1752 and 1754. As Henry Thrale‘s oldest and dearest friend, he introduces Samuel Johnson to the Thrales in January 1765. He is appointed Commissioner of Bankruptcy in 1803.
Murphy is known for his translations of Tacitus in 1753, which are still published as late as 1922. He also writes three biographies – Fielding‘s Works (1762), An Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson (1792), and Life of David Garrick (1801).
An example of Murphy’s theatrical writings is The Citizen, a farce, first produced at Drury Lane in 1761. Philpot, a wealthy skinflint, has bargained with Sir Jasper Wilding for his son Young Philpot to marry Maria Wilding, and for his daughter Sally to marry Wilding’s son, for settlements and twenty thousand pounds paid to Sir Jasper. Young Philpot has lost a fortune, but borrows money from his father and embarks on an insurance fraud involving shipwrecked goods. Maria plans to marry Beaufort, who loves her. As Young Philpot tries to propose, she convinces him she is half-witted, and he spurns her. In the second act, Philpot senior is visiting Corinna, a lady of loose virtue, but hides under the table when his son calls upon her. He overhears as Young Philpot tells her how he has cajoled the money out of his father. Maria’s brother surprises them, and old Philpot is also discovered, to their mutual shame. In the final scene Sir Jasper with a lawyer obtains Philpot’s signature to the agreements, but meanwhile Maria, an educated girl, shows her strong character to Young Philpot and he again refuses to propose. Having signed away his rights old Philpot offers to marry her, but the lawyer reveals himself as Beaufort, and explains that he has swapped the deeds, so that Philpot has unwittingly signed his agreement for Maria to marry Beaufort.
Murphy is thought to have coined the legal term “wilful misconstruction” whilst representing the Donaldson v. Becket appeal to the House of Lords in 1774 against the perpetual possession of copyright.
Arthur Murphy dies at Knightsbridge, London, on June 18, 1805 and is buried at Hammersmith, London. A biography is written in 1811 by Dr. Jesse Foot. Nathaniel Dance-Holland paints Murphy’s portrait which is thought to now be in the Irish National Portrait Collection.
(Pictured: 1777 portrait of Arthur Murphy by Nathaniel Dance-Holland)