The Thespians

For the first several years of the Club’s existence, one man was conspicuous by his absence: David Garrick.[1]
The absence was conspicuous because he was Samuel Johnson’s oldest friend in the metropolis, for both had come from the town of Lichfield where in spite of the difference in their ages—Johnson was the elder by eight years—the two gifted boys had gravitated together. They even came tantalizingly close to a juvenile collaboration: the eleven-year-old Garrick, acting in a children’s performance of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, asked the teenaged Johnson, already an accomplished poet, to provide a prologue. (Sadly, nothing came of it.) When Johnson started his short-lived boarding school at Edial in 1736, David Garrick and his younger brother George were its first pupils. Johnson was always fond of Garrick, but the latter’s meteoric rise as an actor and, eventually, the famous proprietor and manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, sometimes galled him. His own progress was so much slower and more painful.
In his groundbreaking study, The Paradox of the Actor (written 1773, published posthumously only in 1880), Garrick’s French contemporary Denis Diderot paid special attention to Garrick’s radical technique. In the course of five or six seconds, wrote Diderot, Garrick was able to alter his expression “successively from wild delight to temperate pleasure, from this to tranquility, from tranquility to surprise, from surprise to blank astonishment, from that to sorrow, from sorrow to the air of one overwhelmed, from that to fright, from fright to horror, from horror to despair, and thence . . . up again to the point from which he started.”
To modern audiences, this might not seem to describe what we would call a naturalistic performance. But by the standard of the times, that was just how it seems to have been perceived. It is worth noting that it was at this very moment that all the arts were making a notable shift toward realism and informality. Painting was changing from Baroque staginess to a more intimate, personal manner. On the Continent, the so-called Querelle des Bouffons would soon erupt, in which the intellectual vanguard championed the melodic and comic new Italian operas over the stiff formality of the French tradition, exemplified by the works of Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Samuel Richardson’s sensational epistolary novel Pamela, which would change fiction writing forever, appeared in 1740, just after Garrick’s arrival in London. If Garrick was ahead of his time, he was only slightly so. The stage conventions that had satisfied audiences for nearly a century had become ridiculously creaky.
Garrick’s rise to the top of his profession was remarkable, as was his influence on the production and popularity of Shakespeare (as described in my essay “The Shakespeareans”). By the time the Club was founded, he was acknowledged as the greatest actor, director, and manager of his century and perhaps of all time—the English Roscius. Roscius had been the finest actor of ancient Rome; Edmund Burke, in the House of Commons, would commend the English Roscius in a direct imitation of Cicero’s praise of his predecessor.
But the Club members, led by Johnson, shared a certain trepi­dation about admitting Garrick to the exclusive circle. Johnson was even apt to downplay Garrick’s evident talents, implying that he was essentially shallow, a lightweight. “[W]hat does he know? He is not a linguist, he is not a reasoner. A pleasant companion he is; but the mere power of exciting laughter is an unsubstantial talent; and who rises up contented from a table on which whipt syllabub was the principal dish?”
Boswell noticed that “Johnson would let nobody attack Garrick but himself,” and Johnson frequently implied that the great actor was also a great ham. When Boswell asked him, “Would not you, Sir, start as Mr. Garrick does, if you saw a ghost?,” he tartly replied, “I hope not. If I did, I should frighten the ghost.” And like other members of the Club, he was annoyed by the actor’s vanity, while acknowledging that with the lavish praise he was greeted with everywhere, it would have been a miracle if he had not been vain. Adam Smith, who would join the Club in 1775, had summed up in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) the general rule to which Garrick’s particular case adhered: “To those who have been accustomed to the possession, or even to the hope of public admiration, all other pleasures sicken and decay.”
Oliver Goldsmith’s ruthless and clever mock-epitaph for Garrick is especially apt:


Here lies David Garrick, describe him who can,
An abridgment of all that was pleasant in man:
As an actor, confess’d without rival to shine;
As a wit, if not first, in the very first line:
Yet, with talents like these, and an excellent heart,
The man had his failings—a dupe to his art.
Like an ill-judging beauty, his colours he spread,
And beplaster’d with rouge his own natural red.
On the stage he was natural, simple, affecting;
’Twas only that when he was off he was acting
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Though secure of our hearts, yet confoundedly sick
If they were not his own by finessing and trick:
He cast off his friends, as a huntsman his pack,
For he knew when he pleased he could whistle them back.
Of praise a mere glutton, he swallow’d what came,
And the puff of a dunce he mistook it for fame;
Till his relish grown callous, almost to disease,
Who pepper’d the highest was surest to please.


Garrick bore his rather pointed exclusion from the Club with a good grace, but it clearly stung. Sir John Hawkins recalled being grilled about the Club goings-on by him: “‘Were you at the club on Monday night?’—‘What did you talk of?’—‘Was Johnson there?’—‘I suppose he said something of Davy—that Davy was a clever fellow in his way, full of convivial pleasantry, but no poet, no writer, ha?’” Hawkins’ own explanation for Garrick’s exclusion was that Johnson “hated the profession of a player.”
But despite the ambivalence that Johnson—and other Club members, too—displayed about Garrick’s potential membership and, indeed, the very nature of theater and theatricality, the theater was an intimate part of all their lives, in a way that was particular to that historical moment. London was theater-mad. Playwright Arthur Murphy, a friend of many of the Club members, later said that at that time “the theatre engrossed the minds of men to such a degree . . . that there existed in England a fourth estate, King, Lords, and Commons, and Drury-Lane play-house.” Comedy, tragedy, opera, pantomime: all these generated tremendous passion, with spectators vying with one another to cheer on favorite performers, authors and composers.
Drury Lane and Covent Garden were the two principal theaters of Britain, the so-called “patent houses.” Of the two, Drury Lane was the dominant. It had received its patent from Charles II early in the 1660s, under the management of Thomas Killigrew, whose acting company became known as “The King’s Company.” The King indeed took a special interest in the place, as among its many stars was his mistress, the charming comedienne Nell Gwyn. (One of the adulterous couple’s great-grandchildren was a charter member of the Club, Topham Beauclerk.) Rebuilt in 1674 by Christopher Wren, the theater, which along with Covent Garden enjoyed a virtual monopoly on legitimate theater in London, had become Britain’s preeminent playhouse. By the time Garrick joined the theatrical scene in the 1740s, Drury Lane could indeed pride itself on being the kingdom’s spiritual “fourth estate.”
It makes sense when we imagine a time with no films, television, or computer screens, a northern place with long, dark winter evenings to fill. Now, when we can all go home from the theater to a cozy evening in front of the eleven o’clock news or The Late Show, it is quite nice to be informed, on entering a theater, that the play will last just ninety minutes, with no intermission. During Garrick’s era, however, people would have felt cheated by such stingy offerings. They wanted a long, exciting evening with plenty of variety, and the managers obliged: a typical bill of fare would include a five-act main attraction, followed by an “afterpiece” which could be a three-act farce or, alternately, a pantomime. There were also entr’actes consisting of musical interludes, dances, pageants, or masquerades. Theatergoers demanded value for money, and they got it: it was a utilitarian supply-and-demand system that ignored artistic pretensions, much like Sir Joshua Reynolds’ “menu” of offerings for those who came to sit for him. Each season, theater historian Kalman Burnim has estimated, “Drury Lane presented an average of 16 different tragedies, 30 different comedies, and 25 different afterpieces of one variety or other.” It’s staggering, especially when one considers that audiences demanded spectacular sets and costumes into the bargain.
Of London’s population of about 700,000, some 12,000 citizens each night attended the theater: either one of the two royal patent houses, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, or the minor houses like the Haymarket, Goodman’s Fields and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Georgian playhouses were large by modern Broadway or West End standards, with considerable seating capacity, the population of London was small, and there were no foreign tourists to swell the crowds as they do today. There were therefore no long runs, even for the biggest hits. On Broadway nowadays a show generally has to run a year before it starts making its money back. But then, the average run was nine nights; a very big success might run for twenty or twenty-five. Such hits would enter the theater’s repertoire and be revived in later seasons when box office returns were meager.
Garrick’s reign as the greatest of actor-managers began on April 9, 1747. He had accepted the offer of James Lacy, the patent-holder of Drury Lane, of half a share in the theater’s management for £8,000, a sum that the thirty-year-old actor surprisingly had no trouble raising. Garrick and Lacy worked out an arrangement by which each man’s province was entirely separate. Lacy—assisted by Garrick’s younger brother, George—was what would now be defined, more or less, as the general manager, dealing with finances and practical matters, while Garrick might be called the artistic director: he dealt with authors, actors, rehearsals, and controlled nearly the entire artistic domain. The theater itself, last renovated in 1674, by Christopher Wren, was run-down and dilapidated, but with a company of actors that included immortals like Hannah Pritchard, Susannah Cibber, Spranger Barry, Charles Macklin, Kitty Clive, and Peg Woffington, the new administration had a very solid foundation.
Garrick’s management of the Drury Lane would reflect and even help mold the changing mores of the time, the transition from the courtly and aristocratic culture of the seventeenth century to a new bourgeois sensibility and new bourgeois values. The violent history of the last hundred years had revolutionized stage conventions. During the Puritan Interregnum (1649–60) following the English Civil War, all the London theaters were closed, for the Puritans associated the stage with every type of immorality. Upon the Restoration, when the easygoing, womanizing Charles II ascended the throne that had been vacant since the military defeat and subsequent execution of his father, all forms of entertainment were once again legitimized, and the Londoners, fed up with Puritan austerity and intolerance, threw themselves into the new hedonism with a vengeance. The reopening of the theaters in 1660 drew a definitive line between the repressive past and the exciting new era in which the senses—physical, aesthetic, gustatory—would be celebrated rather than denied. Significantly, that same year saw the very first appearance by a professional woman performer on the English stage. Before the 1640s, female characters had been played by young men, but now there was a new focus of popular idolatry: a creature that James Boswell would call “that delicious subject of gallantry, an actress.” Charles II himself led the titillating new fashion by taking the sexy comedienne Nell Gwyn as a mistress.
The Restoration stage mirrored the aristocratic society that had formed around Charles. Its major playwrights—William Congreve, William Wycherley, George Farquhar, John Vanbrugh, and others—were notable for the sophisticated, cynical sexuality characteristic of the day. But values were changing with the rise of a culturally very different middle class. Many sought a purification of the theater. This sort of program suited the powers- that-were; the Georgian monarchy was more bourgeois than the court culture of the Restoration. Its most powerful minister, Robert Walpole (1676–1745), widely regarded as Britain’s first prime minister although that designation was not yet current, had more personal motives for censoring the stage. The theater, at that time, was the most popular and influential forum for British culture, and several of its foremost playwrights, including Henry Fielding and John Gay, had lampooned Walpole in the most transparent and outrageous manner. In 1737, then, Walpole struck back with a new Theatrical Licensing Act, according to which all new plays had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain before they were staged. Anything offensive to the monarchy or the ministry was instantly verboten; so was the loose sexuality that had been so characteristic of the Restoration stage. (Remarkably, this Act was not repealed until 1968.)
Authors were outraged. Samuel Johnson’s “A Complete Vindication of the Licensers of the Stage” (1739) was an attack on the Licensing Act that parodies the censors’ position. And his fears were in the long run proved correct: as it lost its political bite and was cleaned up for middle-class family consumption, the stage gradually lost its central cultural position. Plots became more anodyne, less edgy; sentimentality prevailed. A number of playwrights, tightly controlled under this new Act, turned their talents instead to the new genre of the novel, with unexpected results: by the end of the century, it would be fiction rather than the drama (with a few exceptions) to which one turned for true intelligence, true wit.
Garrick’s own tastes were middle class, and in keeping with the times, he aspired to make the fare at Drury Lane morally improving as well as just plain fun, in a firm refutation of the Restoration aesthetic. He emphasized this priority immediately by engaging his crony Johnson to write a prologue for the very first play performed at Drury Lane under his aegis that he, Garrick, could declaim on stage as a sort of manifesto for the years to come. Johnson (who though he disapproved of censorship was not an admirer of Restoration comedy) obliged with sixty-two elegant lines. He first praised Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, then went on to castigate the dirty-minded Restoration playwrights (“The Wits of Charles”—contemporary playgoers would know what that meant), both for their chosen subjects and for the lifestyles that inspired them. These men had


found easier ways to fame,
Nor wished for Jonson’s art or Shakespeare’s flame;
Themselves they studied, as they felt they writ;
Intrigue was plot, obscenity was wit.
Vice always found a sympathetic friend;
They pleased their age and did not aim to mend.


But goings-on on the stage, Johnson posited, reflect as well as influence the climate of the times, and emendation of manners must inevitably be a joint venture between the arts and the population at large.


Ah! let not Censure term our fate but choice,
The stage but echoes back the public voice;
The drama’s laws, the drama’s patrons give,
For we that live to please, must please to live.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
To chase the charms of sound, the pomp of show,
For useful mirth and salutary woe;
Bid scenic Virtue from the rising age,
And Truth diffuse her radiance from the stage.


Not that the fare would be any too virtuous at Garrick’s Drury Lane. No! Audiences demanded comedy, farce, and pantomime to balance the serious matter, and Garrick was nothing loath to give them what they liked. As an actor, he was unusual in excelling equally in comedy and tragedy; even in early days, his Abel Drugger in Ben Jonson’s comedy The Alchemist was as popular with audiences as his Richard III, and he played the role for the rest of his professional life. He knew that a successful season at Drury Lane would have to balance genres in order to satisfy what were in effect two audiences: the educated spectators of the middle and upper classes, who would appreciate the tragedy and the more serious fare, and the populace, who would revel in the farces, pantomimes, and musical entertainments that came later in the evening. In any event, this group would still be at work when the entertainments began at 6 p.m., and therefore could not arrive at the theater in time for the tragedy. The custom was that such audience members, showing up late, could come in for half price after the third act of the principal play.
Though later in life Johnson lost interest in the theater, both he and Garrick had been obsessed with it as early as their time at Edial. The boy Garrick enjoyed writing comic scenes in lieu of the Latin translations Johnson assigned him, while the young schoolmaster Johnson, fiercely ambitious, brooded on the theater as a possible avenue to success in the metropolis. Tragedy was the prestigious genre; it was in tragedy, therefore, that he must make his mark, and as early as 1736, while still at Edial, Johnson began work on a standard five-act drama, Irene, to be set in Constantinople at the time of the Christian city’s fall to the Turkish forces of Mahomet II in 1453. The style, to help create the exalted authorial persona Johnson aspired to, must be neoclassical; the model, of course, was Joseph Addison’s Cato, the most highly regarded neoclassical tragedy in England at that time. Neoclassicism was already going out of fashion—Johnson himself, a couple of decades later, would contribute to its deflation—but then it seemed the obvious genre for an aspiring writer with a strong classical education. He based his work on a story from the Elizabethan historian Richard Knolles’s Generall Historie of the Turkes and worked on it intermittently for years.
Classical tragedy was stylistically creaky even by the 1740s, and as the century progressed, heckling critics like Oliver Goldsmith were advocating a more naturalistic mode. But the process was a slow one and far from complete during the early stages of the reign of Garrick, or “King David” as he was sometimes derisively known. Many of the conventions of neoclassical tragedy were still in place, and in his light journalism, Goldsmith enjoyed pointing out some of the more absurd ones. He was especially mordant about the frequent and thoughtless breaking of the fourth wall, and his criticism points ahead to the more naturalistic artistic ideals of the twentieth century. “Several apparent improprieties,” he complained, had “lately come into fashion”:


As, for instance, spreading a carpet punctually at the beginning of the death scene, in order to prevent our actors from spoiling their clothes: this immediately apprises us of the tragedy to follow: for laying the cloth is not a more sure indication of dinner, than laying the carpet of bloody work at Drury Lane.


Goldsmith had fun, too, with the utter disregard that was given, at that time, to actors’ age and appearance, rather as in opera performances today. It was not unusual for Juliet to be played by a middle-aged woman, or even by someone eight months pregnant. Stars were what the audience craved, and they didn’t much care whether they were “right” for the part or not; but Goldsmith pointed out the comic side of the practice.


Beauty, methinks, seems a requisite qualification in an actress. . . . I can never conceive a hero dying for love of a lady totally destitute of beauty. I must think the part unnatural; for I cannot bear to hear him call that face angelic, when even paint cannot hide its wrinkles. I must condemn him of stupidity; and the person whom I can accuse for want of taste, will seldom become the object of my affections or admiration. But if this be a defect, what must be the entire perversion of scenical decorum, when, for instance, we see an actress, that might act the Wapping landlady without a bolster, pining in the character of Jane Shore [a medieval beauty], and, while unwieldy with fat, endeavouring to convince the audience that she is dying with hunger.


What was tolerable in comedy became downright ludicrous in tragedy. The excesses of neoclassical tragedy belonged to an era that was dying, and they grated on the more naturalistic ideals of theatergoers like Goldsmith.


The great secret . . . of tragedy-writing at present, is a perfect acquaintance with theatrical ah’s and oh’s, a certain number of these interspersed with gods! tortures, racks, and damnation, shall distort every actor almost into convulsions, and draw tears from every spectator; a proper use of these will infallibly fill the whole house with applause. But above all, a whining scene must strike most forcibly. . . . Towards the middle of the last act, I would have them enter with wild looks and out-spread arms; there is no necessity for speaking, they are only to groan at each other. . . .


Johnson, for all his overweening ambition, turned out to be no better than most. Perhaps he was even worse. His Irene had been begun a decade previously, and its pompous style was already out of date. Sir John Hawkins, officially if often grudgingly a partisan of Johnson’s, commented that “the diction of the piece was cold and philosophical; it came from the head of the writer, and reached not the hearts of the hearers.” It was all very well for Johnson to object loudly to effects he judged to be cheaply theatrical, but in fact he did not even seem to perceive the basic nature of what was or was not theatrical. Worse, he did not trust Garrick, who had already proved a master at judging the potential theatricality of a piece, to exercise good taste in emending the text. Garrick and his colleagues were mere showmen, he believed, while he, Johnson, aimed to produce a literary masterpiece that would yet be enough of a crowd pleaser to infuse some cash into his meager funds.
Garrick held out little hope for the piece, confiding to Boswell many years later “that Johnson not only had not the faculty of producing the impressions of tragedy, but that he had not the sensibility to perceive them.” He knew that the play would not be actable without serious revisions, but unfortunately “the temper of Johnson”—a nice way of indicating Johnson’s intellectual arrogance—could not tolerate its being “revised and altered at the pleasure of an actor.” Johnson had refused to let his leading character Mahomet have a mad scene: it would only provide Garrick, he said witheringly, with “an opportunity of tossing his hands and kicking his heels.” (This was an unfair jibe, as Garrick had no plans to play the role of the conqueror himself.) The popular Mrs. Pritchard in the title role, by all other accounts a brilliant performer, Johnson deplored as a “vulgar idiot.” “She no more thought of the play out of which her part was taken,” he commented of her Lady Macbeth, “than a shoemaker thinks of the skin, out of which the piece of leather, of which he is making a pair of shoes, is cut.”
Revisions there were—Garrick would not have it otherwise—but they were not enough so as really to improve the piece. The indulgent Boswell concluded that Irene would have been all very well if read simply as a poem, but that it was deficient “in that delicate power of touching the human feelings, which is the principal end of the drama.” When the play opened on February 6, 1749, retitled Mahomet and Irene, it was obvious to all that Johnson was nervous, and the costume he had unaccountably chosen as being appropriate for opening-night dress—a scarlet waistcoat with rich gold lace, and similarly a gold-laced hat—did nothing to add to his comfort. Before the play began the audience began emitting hisses and catcalls, not an unusual occurrence among rowdy London playgoers but nerve-wracking to the proud and prickly tyro dramatist.
One observer recorded that the performance went reasonably well until the end, when Irene, contrary to neoclassical convention, was to be killed in full view of the audience rather than offstage—Garrick thought the gory deed might liven up the turgid tale. Then, as Boswell relates, “Mrs. Pritchard, the heroine of the piece, was to be strangled upon the stage, and was to speak two lines with the bow-string round her neck. The audience cried out ‘Murder! Murder!’ She several times attempted to speak; but in vain. At last she was obliged to go off the stage alive.”
Mahomet and Irene was not exactly a flop, but the popular reaction to it was as lukewarm as Garrick’s own had been—he did know, after all, what sold. Hawkins, always rougher on his friend Johnson than the affectionate Boswell, rendered a brutal judgment on the play: “We read it, admit every position it advances, commend it, lay it by, and forget it: our attention is not awakened by any eminent beauties, for its merit is uniform throughout: all the personages, good or bad, are philosophers.” Garrick drew out the run for the nine nights necessary for a show to be designated a moderate success; as Hawkins snidely remarked, nine nights “was as much as a tragedy which excited no passion could claim.” This took some doing. The play hobbled along on its own strength for six nights, including a benefit performance for Johnson; for the last three nights, Garrick lured ambivalent theatergoers into Drury Lane by following up the tragedy with attractive farces: his own The Lying Valet, Henry Fielding’s The Virgin Unmask’d, and the all-time box office smash, Edward Ravenscroft’s The Anatomist. Then, with considerable relief, he retired Mahomet and Irene from the Drury Lane’s repertory forever. The entire incident only served to illustrate the justice of a complaint Garrick later made when Reynolds asked him to consider producing a play by Reynolds’ nephew: “I hate this traffick with friends.” But while the play was not a hit, Johnson still earned a substantial sum: almost £300, including the sale of the copyright (the exact sum of the valuable pension he would receive some years later). This must surely have confirmed him in his opinion that success came far more easily to stage folk than to those who eked out their living in Grub Street. He appeared to suffer the lack of enthusiasm for his play with perfect equanimity, but its failure secretly rankled; his humiliation may be guessed at by the fact that he never attempted another play. And years later, when Irene was being read aloud to a group at a friend’s country house, he abruptly walked out of the room. Asked by someone present at the scene why he had done this, he simply stated, “Sir, I thought it had been better.”
In any event, neoclassical drama, at least in Britain, was passing into history. In a generation or two even the adored Cato would prove only a quaint period piece. The surprising fact is that no English tragedy of the period has passed into the permanent repertory. Garrick was a noted tragedian, but it was the great Shakespearean tragic roles for which he is remembered, not the tragic creations of his own contemporaries. He was, of course, also a great comedian, and it is perhaps significant that when he had his portrait done in Rome by the famous “swagger portraitist” Pompeo Batoni, he is pictured clutching a volume of the comic Roman playwright Terence rather than some more highbrow work. In 1760–61 Reynolds, who would paint his friend a total of seven times, illustrated the actor’s dilemma in his charming painting David Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy, a witty play on Hercules’ famous choice between pleasure and virtue. Garrick is shown flanked by Comedy, a nubile blonde who cocks her head coyly, painted in the fashionable manner of Correggio, and Tragedy, a formidable robed virago à la Guido Reni, who gestures in the old-fashioned declamatory manner so derided by Goldsmith. As Horace Walpole pointed out when he saw the picture, it was never much of a contest, and its conclusion was foregone: “The former [Tragedy] exhorts him to follow her exalted vocation, but Comedy drags him away, and he seems to yield willingly, though endeavouring to excuse himself, and pleading that he is forced.” The foolish, helpless smile on Garrick’s face discloses his real, if secret, preference for comedy, and his pudgy middle-aged figure emphasizes the actor’s distance from his heroic prototype, Hercules. The allegory also, as art historian Richard Wendorf has pointed out, suggested the choice that the painter himself was constantly required to make, between the intimate portraiture he excelled at and the grand style he felt obliged to champion.
Yes, the attractions of comedy probably tipped the scale for Garrick, just as Reynolds’ painting implies. Along with his celebrated Abel Drugger, Garrick’s popular comic roles included Kitely in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour (a part in which he was painted by Reynolds), Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Captain Plume in Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, Sir John Brute in Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife, in which he memorably appeared in drag (Johann Zoffany’s painting has immortalized the production), the effeminate Mr. Fribble in his own farce Miss in Her Teens, and the title role in another of his own plays, The Farmer’s Return from London. For as well as acting, he was quite a notable author of comedies in his own right, writing for the stage even before he began performing on it. His first farce, Lethe, or Aesop in the Shades, appeared at Drury Lane in 1740; subsequent successes included The Lying Valet, A Peep Behind the Curtain; or, The New Rehearsal (probably inspired by his success as Bayes in the Duke of Buckingham’s The Rehearsal), and Bon Ton; or, High Life above Stairs.
A congenial colleague appeared on the theatrical scene in 1760. The twenty-eight-year-old George Colman was more highly born than most men of the theater of that time: the son of a Resident Minister at the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who died when George was an infant, he had been brought up by his uncle by marriage, William Pulteney—later the Earl of Bath—who sent him to Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, before urging him to undertake a legal career. He was entered at Lincoln’s Inn before being called to the bar in 1757. His true vocation, though, was comedy and satire. Along with his Oxford friend Bonnell Thornton, he founded a smart, opinionated cultural periodical called The Connoisseur, which they published together for nearly three years. In 1759 he made a splash with a parody (undertaken with another friend) of the odes of William Mason and Thomas Gray, having particular fun at the expense of the latter’s attempts at resurrecting the spirit of Celtic poetry and his aspirations to the sublime. One verse of Colman’s “Odes to Obscurity and Oblivion” is sufficient to give the flavor of the whole:


The shallow Fop in antick vest,
Tir’d of the beaten road,
Proud to be singularly drest,
Changes, with every changing moon, the mode.
Say, shall not then the heav’n-born Muses too
Variety pursue?
Shall not applauding Criticks hail the vogue?
Whether the Muse the stile of Cambria’s sons,
Or the rude gabble of the Huns,
Or the broader dialect
Of Caledonia she affect,
Or take, Hibernia, thy still ranker brogue?


Gray’s fan base, which included the economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith, was not amused; those like Johnson, immune to Gray’s supposed sublimities, welcomed the squib. In fact, many years later Johnson would claim that he still considered the youthful parodies to be “Colman’s best things. . . . They exposed a very bad kind of writing.”
Colman had cleverly brought himself to Garrick’s attention with the publication of A Letter of Abuse to D—-d G—-k, Esq., in reality a flattering squib. Garrick was delighted by the comic piece and its praise of himself, and the two men, the elder and the younger, became friends. In 1760 Colman submitted for Garrick’s consideration a one-act afterpiece, a comedy called Polly Honeycombe. Like Colman’s earlier Odes, the play had fun with fashionable literary conventions of the day. It was a farce about the effects on a young girl of reading romantic literature, a theme that would eventually become hackneyed as the habit of reading novels accelerated among the new middle-class readership, especially young women; Polly is a clear precursor to the more famous Lydia Languish in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, as well as to Jane Austen’s early heroine Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey. Polly Honeycombe and her paramour Mr. Scribble pursue their courtship in imitation of the heroes and heroines of their favorite novels—for the most part Richardson’s Clarissa and Fielding’s Tom Jones and Amelia—with absurd consequences. The play’s comedy at first seemed a little crude to Garrick, who was uncertain about its prospects: “the Characters are in general good,” he wrote Colman, “but the Conduct of them & of the Plot is (I think) very deficient—I am persuaded too when You come to reconsider it, that You’ll find the Dialogue in many parts too hastily written.” But his worries were needless. Perhaps he overestimated the public’s taste—not his usual habit. Polly Honeycombe’s plot was indeed deficient, but it turned out to be the most successful afterpiece of its era and remained in the repertory for decades. It might still be there today if modern theaters were in the habit of mounting one-act afterpieces.
The partnership between Garrick and Colman flourished. By December, just before curtain-up at Colman’s benefit night at Drury Lane, Garrick was writing to him with extraordinary affection:


My dear Sir
I have this moment took a peep at the house for the Author of Polley Hon. The Pit & Gallaries are cramed [sic]—the Boxes full to ye last Rows, & Every thing as You & I could Wish for our Friend—I am most happy about it & could not help communicating it to one, I so much Love & Esteem—pray let me see you at yr arrival—the Second Music—& time for me to put on my Fools’ Coat—
Yrs Ever & most affecty
D: Garrick
P.S. I cannot cut ye Jeal[ous] W[ife] without yr participation.
hurry Scurry as usual.


The Jealous Wife here referred to was Colman’s next play, a very free adaptation of Tom Jones. By now Garrick was eager to produce any work the witty, facetious Colman might write; this one would prove a hit that would make its author famous. With an all-star cast that included Garrick and his most accomplished colleagues, Thomas King, Hannah Pritchard, and Kitty Clive, it was a resounding success and remained in the standard theatrical repertory for a century. Garrick, as indicated in the letter, helped Colman by cutting and editing, and he achieved singular success when he took on the leading role of Mr. Oakly, doing much to round out and humanize what might otherwise have been mere caricature.
It was the success of hits like this that prompted Garrick, in 1762, to make substantial alterations to Drury Lane, doubling the seating capacity. Other innovations appear in hindsight to have been wise but did not always suit the turbulent temper of eighteenth-century audiences: his attempts to impose a little order on the theatergoers themselves, for instance, and to make sure that spectators were paying for what they saw. It was the custom when he began at Drury Lane for young gentlemen to enter and exit boxes throughout the performance, so that they could visit with their friends. The result was a lot of distracting noise, and there were a number of people who went in and out without actually paying anything. Garrick stopped the practice by making everyone pay each time upon entering a box. He also abolished, in cooperation with Covent Garden, the practice of giving half-price admission tickets for those who came later in the evening. This caused a series of destructive riots and disturbances in the theater, which ended in Covent Garden being badly damaged. It was all something of a final straw for Garrick, who had been sorely tried the previous decade when Drury Lane had erupted in xenophobic riots over his importation of a troupe of highly accomplished dancers from Paris to perform their hit The Chinese Festival. The Seven Years’ War was imminent, and anti-French sentiment ran high: violence erupted on opening night, and the hysteria intensified over the next few days to something approaching modern football hooliganism. As Drury Lane’s prompter, Richard Cross, reported,


This night the Riot was very Great, the Gentlemen came with Sticks, & tho’ the play went on quiet ’till the last Act, we had there a great Stop, notwithstanding we ended it, & then the rout went on, ye Boxes drove many out of the Pit, & broken heads were plenty on both Sides; the dance began,—was Stop’d—& so again & again—while this was doing numbers were assembl’d in the Passages of the pit, broke down & were getting into the Cellar, but were repuls’d by our Scene men &c.—heavy blows on both sides . . . after ye battle in the Passages numbers went & broke Garrick’s Windows in Southampton Street,—part of ye Guard went to protect it—Garrick was oblig’d to give up the Dancers—& ye Audience disperc’d.


Repairing the damage cost four thousand pounds, an enormous sum at the time.
For those of us accustomed to the decorous behavior of twentieth- and, to a certain extent, twenty-first-century Britons, it’s a salutary lesson that there is no such thing as national character—or if there is one, it is subject to radical changes over the generations. Eighteenth-century Britons were an excitable and frequently violent bunch, and none more so than theater fans. W. J. Lawrence describes the usual scene:


Queues being as yet undreamed of, crowds of a serious magnitude were to be seen struggling round the doors on important occasions at an early hour, much to the ruffling of the well-dressed. When [Samuel] Foote’s Piety in Pattens was produced at the Haymarket in 1773, enough people assembled in front of the house considerably before the opening hour to fill the little theatre three times over. Such was the pressure that women fainted, hats, swords, and cloaks were lost, and one girl had her arm broken. Finally, the doors were burst in, and many gained free ingress. Then, after all, the play greatly disappointed expectations, and the infuriated audience, by way of gaining compensation for the discomforts it had experienced, tore down the panels of the orchestra well and destroyed many of the pit benches.


By 1763, Garrick, a compulsive worker and perfectionist who had poured his heart’s blood into Drury Lane for two decades, was exhausted and fed up with these dramas. “I have been advis’d by several Physicians at ye head of which I reckon Dr Bary to give Myself a Winter’s respite,” he wrote to a colleague; “I have dearly Earn’d it, & shall take it in hopes of being better able to undergo my great fatigues of acting & Management.” It was a propitious moment: the war had come to a close, and British travelers were free to travel in France for the first time in years. Garrick left the theater in the capable hands of Colman, Lacy, and his brother George Garrick and departed on the Grand Tour he had never had the means to undertake as a young man.
He and his wife Eva Maria traveled on the traditional route for such voyages, to Italy via the Alpine pass at Mont Cenis. At Turin he was appalled by the miserable theatrical offerings and the boorish behavior of both audience and performers:


We have nothing here in our way, but a miserable Bouffi Opera, & ye worst dancing I Ever saw—the People in ye Pitt & Boxes talk all ye while as in a Coffee house, & ye Performers are Even with ’Em, for they are very little attentive, laugh & talk to one another, pick their Noses, & while they are unEngag’d in Singing, they walk up to ye Stage Boxes, (in which the other Actors & dancers sit dress’d in Sight of ye Audience) turn their backs, & join in ye laugh & Conversation of their Brethren, without ye least decency or regard to ye Audience; I never was more astonish’d in my life.


At Florence he reveled in the hospitality of Sir Horace Mann, the longtime British Resident—and favorite correspondent of Horace Walpole—whose salon was famous throughout Europe. There, too, he encountered the peripatetic Topham Beauclerk, who was embarked on a lengthy Grand Tour with his friend the Earl of Upper Ossory (Ossory would join the Club himself in 1777). The Garricks were with Beauclerk and Ossory again at the New Year in Naples, along with a posse of British aristocrats who buttered the actor up shamelessly: “We are continually with Lady Orford, Lady Spencer, Lord Exeter Lord Palmerstn & the Nobility of ye Country.” They proceeded to Venice, where the party was dazzled by a regatta—so far superior to any spectacle they had ever seen on a stage—and Garrick tried to palm off on Beauclerk a large quantity of books he thought he had bought at too high a price. He also wrote Beauclerk a mysterious poem that seems to be gently admonishing the younger man about some unsuitable Venetian amour:


Rouse Beauclerk shall thy active youth,
Sunk in the arms of Sloth,
As far from Pleasure as from truth,
At Venice sigh for both.
You, who have rang’d the Cyprian bowers,
With varied bliss uncloy’d
Who never knew to count the hours,
Enjoying and Enjoyed.
Are you, on Lethe’s warf to rot,
Existing in a dream?
Ungratefull!—is the Seine forgot
Or Thame’s brighter stream?
Have you been charm’d with Boufler’s wit,
Or has she talk’d in vain?
For twice six suns need only set,
To hear that tongue again.
O to your wond’ring friends disclose,
What stronger magic charms,
Has Venus from the water rose,
To bless thy youthfull arms?
From Joyless Venice turn thy face,
To sprightly France repair;
Venus is found in ev’ry place,
The Graces only there.


Beauclerk had been very close to the famous salonnière Mme de Boufflers during his stay in Paris the previous year; whether the relationship was sexual or not has never been certain, but Garrick clearly thought that the young man was better off dallying with the brilliant Parisienne than with whatever unsuitable female had chanced to ensnare him in Venice.
The Garricks traveled on through Germany and France, passing close by Voltaire’s home at Ferney on the border between France and Switzerland. The patriarch of the Enlightenment had extended an invitation to the Garricks to visit him—an unusual tribute, for most visitors simply showed up uninvited, treating the elderly sage like some zoo animal to be gawped at (as the callow young James Boswell would do that same year). But Garrick sadly felt he must decline the chance. He was still tired and weak, and, in the words of his biographer Margaret Barton, “he did not feel equal to the tiring journey into the Jura, the irritating arguments about Shakespeare [as a neoclassicist, Voltaire disapproved of Shakespearean ‘barbarities’], and the performances he would be expected to give in Voltaire’s private theatre.” Accordingly, he continued directly to Paris, where he was fêted beyond his wildest expectations. Actors and actresses, writers, Shakespeareans, philosophes, Anglomanes, all were thrilled by the appearance in their midst of this extraordinary performer, who obliged them with private performances of his most famous Shakespearean scenes: the ghost scene from Hamlet, the dagger scene from Macbeth, and Lear’s madness. He was too polite to criticize the French style of acting, which he privately considered mannered and artificial. He was welcomed into the salons of radical Enlightenment philosophes such as Claude-Adrien Helvétius and Baron d’Holbach, where he consorted with Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, Baron von Grimm, and Diderot—whose observations of the English visitor inspired the famous Paradox of the Actor.
Returning to England two years after he had set out, Garrick went back to his work, but it was with a permanently diminished energy and less all-encompassing ambition. He was an older man now, and his health would never quite recover. Even so, the workaholic Garrick had on his travels been laboring, via the mail, on a play he was writing in collaboration with Colman: The Clandestine Marriage. Colman had sent Garrick a draft covering the first four acts and the projected ending; Garrick worked on elaborations and emendations, contributing much to Colman’s Lord Ogleby, a ludicrous senex character.
Until this moment, the friendship between Garrick and Colman had continued to be unusually easy and warm. At Christmas in 1765, Garrick, in the country, greeted Colman with one of his characteristically charming but facile poetic epistles, dashed off in church at the very moment the minister was delivering the sermon:


May Xmas give thee all her cheer,
And lead thee to a happy Year!
Tho Wicked Gout has come by stealth,
And threats Encroachments on my health;
Tho still my foes indulge their spite,
And, what their malice prompts, will write;
Tho now to Me the Stage is hatefull,
And He, who owes me most, ungratefull;
Yet think not, George, my hours are sad,
O No—my heart is more than glad;
That Moment all my cares were gone,
When You & I again were One;
This gives to Christmas all her cheer,
And leads Me to a happy Year.


Nevertheless, tensions were mounting. Garrick had made the surprising and unwelcome announcement that he would not be playing the role of Lord Ogleby that Colman had created on the assumption that Garrick would portray him. Colman was furious, and it’s easy to see why, for the part provided a hilarious star turn for an older actor, tailor-made, one would have thought, for the aging Garrick. In the words of one of the play’s other characters, Lord Ogleby “is full of attentions to the ladies, and smiles, and grins, and leers, and ogles, and fills every wrinkle in his old wizen face with comical expressions of tenderness.” Ogleby’s valet describes his master after the ingestion of some eighteenth-century effort at Viagra: “he’s quite a spectacle, a mere corpse, till he is revived and refreshed from our little magazine here. When the restorative pills and cordial waters warm his stomach, and get into his head, vanity frisks in his heart, and then he sets up for the lover, the rake, and the fine gentleman.” Garrick would have nailed it.
But as he grew older he had come to dread the effort involved in taking on new roles. Colman now went off to Bath in a huff; things only got worse when some mischief-maker repeated an ungenerous comment Garrick had made in private. “Since my return from Bath,” Colman wrote to the older man, “I have been told, but I can hardly believe it, that, in speaking of ‘The Clandestine Marriage,’ you have gone so far as to say, ‘Colman lays a great stress on his having written this character on purpose for me, suppose it should come out that I wrote it!’” Garrick, in other words, was claiming principal authorship of the piece. He had certainly contributed to the character of Lord Ogleby, who bears a marked resemblance to Lord Chalkstone in Garrick’s early farce Lethe; but internal evidence makes it obvious that Garrick did not write the play or even the greater part of The Clandestine Marriage, for it was far superior to anything he had succeeded in writing on his own: the wit was sharper and subtler, the action more unified and sustained. (Margaret Barton characterized Garrick’s usual playwriting technique as simply taking the stage personalities of certain of his well-known actors and actresses and blending them into a play.) The satire, which attacked the heartless practice of treating marriages strictly as business arrangements between families, was also rather sharper than Garrick’s usual style. Garrick of course denied having tried to take credit for Colman’s work. And so the battle raged on.
The Clandestine Marriage opened at Drury Lane in February 1766 to widespread acclaim. It was in fact the most successful play that either man had written, except perhaps for The Jealous Wife, which, though mostly written by Colman, had been extensively emended by Garrick and therefore might also be called a collaboration. It should be assumed, therefore, that the two men worked better together than singly. Sadly, though, this was to be their last such joint venture. The great comic actor Thomas King acted Lord Ogleby, garnering wild enthusiasm from audiences. King was Garrick’s favorite actor: during the course of his remarkable career, he originated many popular roles, and Garrick should have reveled in his protegé’s success. Instead he proved resentful and immediately rued having turned down the role. “I know, that you all take it as granted that no one can excel, if he can equal, King in Lord Ogleby, and he certainly has great merit in the part,” he said; “but it is not MY Lord Ogleby, and it is the only character in which I should now wish to appear.”
The rift between the two friends should have been temporary; but rumor now got out that Colman, with three partners, was trying to obtain the patent of Covent Garden, and on July 1, 1767, the four of them signed the purchase agreement. One of Colman’s partners in the venture was William Powell (Drury Lane’s biggest star aside from Garrick himself), who was in fact under a three-year contract to Garrick; he had recently played the juvenile lead, Lovewell, in The Clandestine Marriage. Garrick, though he tried very hard to play it cool, was transparently nervous about the potential rivalry, not to mention the loss of both his cleverest collaborator and his best young actor, and he nosed about in a desperate effort to sniff out information about the new team at Covent Garden. “Colman has told me that he has an affair to open to Me,” he wrote to his brother George,


but we have always been interrupted by Somebody, or another, so I have not yet had ye Whole, & which he has some qualms in bringing out—however I am prepar’d, & he will be surpriz’d at my little concern & Ease upon this Occasion—I am sure there is Something in it, & yet ye more I think of it, ye more I am puzzled: Who finds Money?—What is the plan?—Who are ye directors? damn me if I comprehend it, but I shall know more. . . .


Somewhat vindictively, Garrick insisted that Powell pay him a full thousand pounds for breaking his contract, and he watched the activities going on in the rival theater with trepidation. Colman’s friendship with Garrick survived this breach—“C—-& I are well togeather,” Garrick was soon informing his brother—but it had cooled substantially. Powell, however, was out in the cold forever so far as Garrick was concerned. Tragically, Powell, the most promising young tragic actor of his day, would die just two years later, at the age of thirty-four.


By this time Oliver Goldsmith, for years a fan and professional critic of the theater, had decided to try his own hand at playwriting.
Goldsmith was one of the nine charter members of the Club. He was a colorful character, to put it mildly, a man now perhaps more famous for his weaknesses and foibles than for his talents. In his native Ireland, and to a certain extent in England, he is still a household name. But in America nowadays, few read his poems or his journalism or even his wonderfully entertaining light novel The Vicar of Wakefield. Serious theatergoers, though, are familiar with his most famous play, a comedy at whose birth his fellow Club members participated.
Goldsmith’s eccentricities were notable. James Boswell has described him as well as anyone:


It has been generally circulated and believed that he was a mere fool in conversation; but, in truth, this has been greatly exaggerated. He had, no doubt, a more than common share of that hurry of ideas which we often find in his countrymen, and which sometimes produces a laughable confusion in expressing them. He was very much what the French call un étourdi [someone dizzy or stunned], and from vanity and an eager desire of being conspicuous wherever he was, he frequently talked carelessly without knowledge of the subject, or even without thought. His person was short, his countenance coarse and vulgar, his deportment that of a scholar aukwardly affecting the easy gentleman. Those who were in any way distinguished, excited envy in him to so ridiculous an excess, that the instances of it are hardly credible. . . . He, I am afraid, had no settled system of any sort, so that his conduct must not be strictly scrutinised; but his affections were social and generous, and when he had money he gave it away very liberally. His desire of imaginary consequence predominated over his attention to truth.


Goldsmith was not a special favorite of Boswell’s—perhaps the younger man was jealous of Goldsmith’s long prior friendship with his idol, Johnson—but Boswell was fair enough to note the Irishman’s generosity, which indeed was a prominent part of his character. Usually broke himself, Goldsmith would be moved by any sob story, particularly from a distressed compatriot, to open his purse. Reynolds remarked that Goldsmith “was often obliged to supplicate a friend for the loan of ten pounds for his immediate relief; yet, if by accident a distressed petitioner told him a piteous tale, nay if a subscription for any folly was proposed to him, he, without any thought of his own poverty, would, with an air of generosity, freely bestow on the person, who solicited for it, the very loan he had himself but just before obtained.”
Goldsmith’s improvidence could irritate as well as charm. Sir John Hawkins was particularly harsh on the poor fellow, blasting him, in print, as an “idiot in the affairs of the world.” (Horace Walpole had been slightly kinder, calling him “an inspired idiot.”) “With the greatest pretensions to polished manners he was rude,” commented Hawkins, “and, when he most meant the contrary, absurd . . . He had some wit, but no humour, and never told a story but he spoiled it.” Hawkins loftily assumed that the other Club members shared his contempt. “As he wrote for the booksellers, we, at the club, looked on him as a mere literary drudge, equal to the task of compiling and translating, but little capable of original, and still less of poetical composition.” This was extraordinarily presumptuous. Johnson himself had put in many long hours writing for the booksellers. In any case he and most of the other Club members were deeply fond of the feckless Goldsmith and respected his God-given gifts. “Whether . . . we take him as a poet,” said Johnson, “—as a comick writer,—or as an historian, he stands in the first class.” And Reynolds asserted that “[n]o man ever wrote so much from his feelings as Dr. Goldsmith. I do not mean here the vulgar opinion of being possessed himself with the passion which he wished to excite. I mean only that he governed himself by an internal feeling of the right rather than by any written rules of art.” He was, in short, a natural: unschooled in the principles of writing or rhetoric, led largely by instinct.
The diminutive Goldsmith was a homely man: in the words of his biographer John Ginger, his mouth was “wide, deflected at the corners, undershot, the full lips jutting forward like nose and temples.” Reynolds’ formal portrait of his friend, now in London’s National Portrait Gallery, shows a man who while far from handsome has been given a certain dignity through the painter’s art: Reynolds’ sister Frances said that it looked very much like the subject but was yet the most flattering picture she had ever known her brother to paint. Goldsmith, who craved attention, normally overdressed outrageously, with heavily laced coats, a powdered, curled and beribboned wig, silk underwear, and even a sword, which made one passerby remark that he looked like an insect stuck on a pin. Reynolds removed all of this paraphernalia and presented him in a simple dark robe, wigless, with hair and chin receding in equal measure, clasping a book and gazing pensively to the side. It is, very deliberately, a portrait for posterity: a far cry from the buffoonish character Reynolds so vividly described in his memoir of the man.
Goldsmith had indeed, as Hawkins snobbishly indicated, started out as a Grub Street hack, just as Johnson had done when he arrived in London a decade earlier, but as with Johnson his talents soon lifted him above the crowd. What money he earned, however, he spent so recklessly that unlike Johnson he had to continue to rely on hackwork even after he had attained fame. Goldsmith had attended Trinity College in Dublin and the medical faculty at Edinburgh (from which he departed without a degree); he then traveled around Europe on a shoestring, arriving in London in 1756. As John Ginger puts it, “As a stranger in London without a decent suit and almost certainly without the threepence a day which would have entitled him to take his place in the discreet interior of a coffee-house, Goldsmith had little chance of lasting even a week as a (self-styled) physician.” He found scattershot jobs as an apothecary’s assistant, a proofreader at Samuel Richardson’s printing house, and a schoolmaster before landing a position at Ralph Griffiths’ Monthly Review to which he contributed essays and reviews. (One of the first books he reviewed—positively, for the most part—was Burke’s Essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful.) He also produced a “life” of Voltaire so thin that even he admitted it was nothing more than a “catch-penny.” Quitting the Monthly Review in the vain hope of procuring a job as a physician in India, he was then compelled to freelance.
A slightly more substantial offering than these early essays was an Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe; a far more substantial one, in fact a book that is still worth reading today, was The Citizen of the World, a series of letters by a fictional Chinese visitor describing his experiences in London, much in the style of (and with a few “borrowings” from) Montesquieu’s famous Persian Letters and the Marquis d’Argens’s Chinese Letters. He also compiled a weekly paper of 32 pages called The Bee. He translated four volumes of Plutarch’s Lives. He wrote a biography of Beau Nash, the master of ceremonies at the fashionable resort and spa town of Bath. It was the publication of his long poem The Traveller in 1764 that really made his name: Boswell reports Johnson as saying that “there has not been so fine a poem since Pope’s time,” and critics agreed. Goldsmith now became famous; but he was still perpetually broke. Johnson recalls a scene a couple of years later:


I received one morning a message from poor Goldsmith that he was in great distress, and, as it was not in his power to come to me, begging that I would come to him as soon as possible. I sent him a guinea, and promised to come to him directly. I accordingly went as soon as I was drest, and found that his landlady had arrested him for his rent, at which he was in a violent passion. I perceived that he had already changed my guinea, and had got a bottle of Madeira and a glass before him. I put the cork into the bottle, desired he would be calm, and began to talk to him of the means by which he might be extricated. He then told me that he had a novel ready for the press, which he produced to me. I looked into it, and saw its merit; told the landlady I should soon return, and having gone to a bookseller, sold it for sixty pounds. I brought Goldsmith the money, and he discharged his rent, not without rating his landlady in a high tone for having used him so ill.


The novel that saved the day was The Vicar of Wakefield, immediately recognized as a classic: it went into several editions within a few months. One critic voiced what many have perceived in Goldsmith’s best works, an apparent effortlessness peculiar to himself. “He appears to tell his story with so much ease and artlessness, that one is almost tempted to think, one could have told it every bit as well without the least study; yet so difficult is it to hit off this mode of composition with any degree of mastery, that he who should try would probably find himself deceived.”
Soon Goldsmith decided to turn his talents to the theater. Knowing instinctively that comedy was his natural genre, he plumped for an old-fashioned plot in the style of the Restoration masters like Vanbrugh and Farquhar, whom he greatly admired, rather than the newfangled comédie larmoyante or “weeping comedy,” which catered to the new middle-class leanings toward “sensibility,” of which he would write a measured critique a few years later. The result was The Good-Natur’d Man, the farcical tale of a young man who is so foolishly amiable and philanthropic that he nearly ruins himself.
Hoping for a deluxe Drury Lane production for his friend’s play, Sir Joshua Reynolds stage-managed a meeting between Goldsmith and Garrick (the actor was not yet a member of the Club and hence not personally known to Goldsmith) at his own home in Leicester Fields early in 1767. It appeared to go well: Garrick showed a lively interest in the play and asked for the opportunity to read it. Goldsmith was very excited, needless to say, at the prospect of a Drury Lane production and entertained fantasies about Garrick himself playing the leading role.
But the star had a bone to pick with the aspiring playwright. Several years previously, Goldsmith, in his Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning, had had a bit of fun with Garrick’s management style: cheapskate theatrical managers cut costs, Goldsmith jibed, by resuscitating the “lumber” of the past rather than take risks on new plays, and if a new play actually did get produced, it would have to be “tried in the manager’s fire, strained through a licenser, suffer from repeated corrections.” He also referred slyly to Garrick’s “attitudes and eyebrows.” Garrick appears to have taken notice. A year later, the position of Secretary of the Society of Arts opened up; when Goldsmith canvassed Garrick for his support, he received only a dusty answer. As Goldsmith had “taken pains to deprive himself of his assistance by an unprovoked attack upon his management of the theatre,” Garrick informed him, it was impossible he could lay claim to any recommendation from him.
It turned out that Garrick had a long, long memory, and now, when The Good-Natur’d Man landed on his desk, he was in no hurry to gratify its author with a speedy decision, in spite of the fact that in the years since the playwright had first earned his displeasure, he had achieved fame as author of The Vicar of Wakefield and The Traveller. Garrick sat on Goldsmith’s precious manuscript for months, suggesting various emendations to Goldsmith while privately informing Johnson and Reynolds that the play was unproduceable. Goldsmith was infuriated each time Garrick suggested ways he could improve the work; he even snobbishly accused Garrick of being a “poor player,” to which Reynolds, who had held Goldsmith’s hand through more than one financial crisis over the years, suggested that perhaps “poor” was not quite the best way to describe their visibly wealthy friend.
Finally it became evident that Drury Lane would not be presenting this play. An irate scene seems to have ensued, for in late July Garrick was writing a rather duplicitous letter to the playwright in which he essayed to exonerate himself: “I was indeed much hurt that yr Warmth [anger, that is] at our last Meeting mistook my sincere & friendly Attentions to yr Play, for ye remains of a former misunderstanding, wch I had as much forgot as if it never had existed”—by which he presumably meant the long-ago jab at Garrick’s attitudes and eyebrows: as usual, Goldsmith had stepped in needlessly and ruined his own shot at success. Of course, it all hurt Garrick far, far more than it did Goldsmith! “I felt more pain in giving my Sentiments,” he told the rejected writer, “than You possibly could in receiving them. [I]t has been ye business & ambition of my Life to live upon ye best terms with Men of Genius. . . .” Goldsmith did not appreciate the condescension, for he knew that he was a far better writer than Garrick or indeed most of Drury Lane’s playwrights.
Members of the Club, protective of the hapless Irishman, came to his rescue. Both Burke and Reynolds put considerable pressure on Colman, now ensconced at Covent Garden, to produce The Good-Natur’d Man there. Colman does not seem to have been much more enthusiastic about the play than Garrick was, but he agreed to give it a try and scheduled the opening night for December. Garrick, adding salt to Goldsmith’s still-throbbing wounds, announced that Drury Lane would be presenting a new comedy by the promising playwright Hugh Kelly, False Delicacy, and that the play would premiere on the very evening decided upon for Goldsmith’s opening.
As Garrick’s biographer Margaret Barton has written, the two plays, False Delicacy and The Good-Natur’d Man, “represented conflicting tendencies in contemporary taste, and the success of one militated against that of the other. False Delicacy was genteel, artificial and sententious . . . ; The Good-Natur’d Man, robust, realistic and humorous, followed the mood of Shakespeare’s early comedies, and was essentially English in feeling.” If Goldsmith’s comedy looked back to an earlier English tradition, Kelly’s more sentimental play looked ahead: to modern tastes it appears psychologically primitive, the sensibilities of its characters, particularly the women, exaggerated out of any proportion, but one can see the beginnings of the kind of psychological realism that would come to fruition a century later.
As with so much of Goldsmith’s work, the best adjective one might use to describe The Good-Natur’d Man is charming. The title character, Honeywood, comprises in his own person the sort of high sensibility Goldsmith meant to hold up to mockery with his play. He is good nature personified, good nature to a fault: as his servant complains, “He calls his extravagance, generosity; and his trusting every body, universal benevolence.” He has lent so much money that he is broke, with bailiffs arriving to cart away his household goods; his excessive modesty has held him back from proposing to the woman he loves, Miss Richland, though his affections are clearly returned. “I consider my own situation,” he sighs, “—a broken fortune, a hopeless passion, friends in distress, the wish but not the power to serve them . . .” Honeywood’s uncle, Sir William, attempts to reform him while recognizing the dangers inherent in the operation: “[W]e must touch his weaknesses with a delicate hand. There are some faults so nearly allied to excellence, that we can scarce weed out the vice without eradicating the virtue.”
We might notice that Honeywood bears a conspicuous resemblance to Goldsmith himself: the profligacy, the absurd generosity, the personal diffidence. Goldsmith, like Honeywood, had been visited by bailiffs in his time. As he did in all his best work, Goldsmith drew on his own idiosyncracies, which he appeared to understand quite well while being unable to do much about them. The fact that he could recognize the self-destructive elements in his own openhandedness gives the play a special piquancy.
Due to some delays in the Covent Garden production, False Delicacy in fact opened six days before The Good-Natur’d Man and was acknowledged a smash hit by the time The Good-Natur’d Man premiered on January 29, 1768. Garrick, in his eagerness to make Goldsmith’s play the failure he had predicted it would be, pulled out all the stops and gave False Delicacy a spectacular production, with a starring performance by Thomas King.
The Club backed the Goldsmith team wholeheartedly. Johnson wrote a stately prologue for The Good-Natur’d Man (though at Goldsmith’s request he changed a reference to “our little bard” to “our anxious bard”). The Club members declared a gala meeting of the Club for the play’s opening: they would attend the theater in force and then repair, with Goldsmith, to the Turk’s Head. The play began awkwardly. William Powell, with all his talent, had a hard time with the role; the good-natured Honeywood can seem too wimpy for an attractive leading man, and the actor who portrays him must deploy all his skills to pull off the characterization. But as this first performance went on, the energy level sustained it, helped by a superb supporting cast, which included the famous comedy actors Edward Shuter and Henry Woodward, and the appealing Mary Bulkley as Miss Richland. By the time the curtain fell, Goldsmith and the Club members still could not be sure whether Covent Garden had a hit or a flop on its hands. The company repaired to the Turk’s Head, where Goldsmith was the life of the party, singing and joking—though onlookers remarked that he did not eat much. Later, when most of the group had gone home, he admitted to Johnson his extreme nervousness and even broke into tears. It turned out that anticipating his play’s success—always an unwise move!—he had taken out a long lease on a suite of rooms in the Temple. Johnson’s characterization of the playwright as “our anxious bard” was an understatement. Through­out the dinner, Goldsmith confided, “I was suffering horrid tortures; and verily believe that if I had put a bit into my mouth it would have strangled me on the spot, I was so excessively ill; but I made more noise than usual to cover all that, and so they never perceived my not eating, nor I believe at all imagined to themselves the anguish of my heart.” The play proved a moderate success, running ten nights and earning its author about five hundred pounds—enough for Goldsmith to decorate his new rooms in his usual magnificent style—but it was not exactly a hit, certainly not on the level of False Delicacy. This is probably because the play’s “low” elements clashed with current predilections for sentiment and decorum. Even such a stock theatrical character as a drunken servant offended bourgeois audiences in 1768, and the comic scene in which Honeywood tries to pass off the bailiffs who have been stationed in his home as a couple of rather eccentric friends caused peculiar offense, so that Goldsmith was compelled to cut it—although modern viewers will find it by far the cleverest and most delightful episode in the play, laugh-out-loud funny even when read on the page.
Two weeks after the opening of The Good-Natur’d Man, George Colman was admitted to the Club. Was it as a reward for having given in to the Club members’ pressure and produced Goldsmith’s play? We’ll probably never know—but it is a tantalizing possibility. In any case, a mere player, now, had been elected to the Club—and before Garrick. Did it rankle? As a young man of the theater rather than a heavy-hitting intellectual, Colman provided a livelier and somewhat more insolent style of wit than the group was generally accustomed to. He was neither sycophantic to, nor intimidated by, Johnson and even had the nerve to produce a burlesque of the master’s ponderous style in the assumed persona of one Lexiphanes, in a fake proposal to publish a supplement to the great Dictionary:


It is easy to foresee, that the idle and illiterate will complain that I have increased their labours by endeavouring to diminish them; and that I have explained what is more easy by what is more difficult—ignotum per ignotius. I expect, on the other hand, the liberal acknowledgements of the learned. He who is buried in scholastick retirement, secluded from the assemblies of the gay, and remote from the circles of the polite, will at once comprehend the definitions, and be grateful for such a seasonable and necessary elucidation of his mother-tongue.
Annexed to this letter is a short specimen of the work, thrown together in a vague and desultory manner, not even adhering to alphabetical concatenation.


Colman’s irreverent humor was inherited by his son, George Colman the Younger, whose 1830 memoir provides a fascinating worm’s-eye view of the distinguished Club members. Great men are often careless of their behavior around children who, they believe, present no threat. The younger Colman, whose memory was prodigious, stored up countless unflattering anecdotes about the less dignified moments of these eminent figures.
By the time the Club finally opened its doors to him, then, Garrick’s relations with both Colman and Goldsmith were strained, and Johnson, though his affection for Garrick was that of a brother, was frequently irked by the younger man. Years later, Boswell intuited the resentment Johnson probably bore against Garrick’s easy success. “Mr Johnson may perhaps be insensibly fretted a little that Davy Garrick, who was his pupil and who came up to London at the same time with him to try the chance of life, should be so very general a favourite and should have fourscore thousand pounds, an immense sum, when he had so little. He accordingly will allow no great merit in acting. Garrick cannot but be hurt at this, and so unhappily there is not the harmony that one would wish.” But in spite of all the hurt feelings, no one blackballed Garrick, and he at long last took his seat with the group—harder to get into, some said, than the Kingdom of Heaven—in 1773. By this time he was fifty-six years old, the elder statesman of the English stage.
Goldsmith, in the meantime, had spent his modest gains from The Good-Natur’d Man almost as soon as they rolled in and was broke again. His friends of the Club did what they could, with Reynolds, for instance, procuring him an appointment as Professor of Ancient History at the newly founded Royal Academy—but it was largely an honorary post. Just as well, since Goldsmith was no very deep historian. Reynolds in fact described his friend’s mind as “entirely unfurnished. When he was engaged in a work, he had all his knowledge to find, which when he found, he knew how to use, but forgot it immediately after he had used it.” (When Goldsmith attempted a book on natural history as a potboiler, Richard Cumberland sympathized: “Poor fellow, he hardly knows an ass from a mule, nor a turkey from a goose, but when he sees it on the table.”) Also, while Reynolds’ proferred Academy post came with no duties to be executed, neither did it offer any salary. All Goldsmith got out of it was prestige and a place at the annual dinner. “Honours to one in my situation,” he wrote ruefully to his brother, “are something like ruffles to a man that wants a shirt.” His long poem The Deserted Village (1770) was a substantial hit, with six editions appearing in its first year alone; it is still considered a classic and regularly anthologized. But he couldn’t control his spending.
While The Good-Natur’d Man had not been a real hit, it had done well enough that he felt he might try his hand at comedy again, and in 1771 he began work on another comedy, provisionally called The Mistakes of a Night, in which two young men mistake a gentleman’s home for an inn and his daughter for a maid, and behave accordingly. He was writing to please audiences and to make money, as he always did, but this time he was also following an artistic program in which he believed passionately. He had long been annoyed with the new fashion for sentimental comedy, or comédie larmoyante—a fashion that had been borrowed from France—and the simultaneous demotion of the more robust style of traditional comedy, a noble English genre, of which Shakespeare had been the consummate master and the Restoration dramatists his worthy heirs. The fact that False Delicacy had done so much better than The Good-Natur’d Man especially rankled with him.
The shift to sentimental comedy was part of a seismic change in cultural history as middle-class mores replaced aristocratic ones. A contemporary critic in the Monthly Review described the process well:


Comedy is a dramatic representation of the prevailing manners of people not in very high or very low life. It must therefore vary, as those manners vary; and be wholly regulated by them. . . . Our customs and manners have undergone a gradual alteration. A general correspondence arising from trade, and the progress of the arts, has brought the nation, as it were, together, and worn off those prepossessions and habits which made every little neighbourhood a separate community, and marked every community with its peculiar character. The business of comedy is therefore changed. . . . Some of our late writers have therefore very judiciously had recourse to what is called Sentimental Comedy, as better suited to the principles and manners of the age. A general politeness has given a sameness to our external appearances; and great degrees of knowledge are every where diffused. An author, therefore, has not that variety of character, and that simplicity and ignorance to describe, which were the capital ingredients in the old Comedy.


If this author implies that the new sentimental comedy is more realistic than the old, he is correct; one of the accusations leveled against Goldsmith was the improbability of his plots. But it was not middle-class verisimilitude he was after; quite the contrary.
In an interesting essay published in early 1773, Goldsmith examined the issue carefully. Tragedy—there was no doubt about it—was on its way out in the brave new bourgeois world. “The pompous train, the swelling phrase, and the unnatural rant, are displaced for that natural portrait of human folly and frailty, of which all are judges, because all have sat for the picture.” Neo-classical tragedy, in other words, did not depict life, while traditional comedy did. But sentimental comedy attempted to lift comedy to a more genteel level, peopling it with the bourgeoisie, and even lords and ladies, rather than the earthier characters that were traditionally the subject of comedy, and with essentially virtuous men and women rather than scoundrels. (Voltaire had contemptuously dubbed comédie larmoyante “the tradesman’s tragedy.”) Goldsmith would seem to have agreed with Horace, who in his Ars Poetica wrote that comedy should illustrate the risible faults of the lower classes, while tragedy should depict kings and gods. The success of the new “weeping” comedies, Goldsmith suggested, probably proceeded “from their flattering everyman in his favorite foible. In these plays almost all the characters are good, and exceedingly generous; they are lavish enough of their tin money on the stage; and though they want humor, have abundance of sentiment and feeling. If they happen to have faults or foibles, the spectator is taught, not only to pardon, but to applaud them, in consideration of the goodness of their hearts; so that folly, instead of being ridiculed, is commended, and the comedy aims at touching our passions without the power of being truly pathetic.” The principal question he poses is “whether, in describing low or middle life, an exhibition of follies be not preferable to a detail of its calamities? Or, in other words, which deserves the preference,—the weeping sentimental comedy so much in fashion at present, or the laughing, and even low comedy, which seems to have been last exhibited by Vanbrugh and Cibber [that is, during the Restoration period, 1660–85]?”
It’s a question that’s still hard to resolve. Both types of comedy are alive and well in the twenty-first century. The sentimental comedy of the later eighteenth century, character-driven rather than plot-driven, has evolved in myriad ways and is now always with us, the rom-com being perhaps its most obvious descendant. Clearly Goldsmith was, in the big picture, wrong to resist the new trend. But within his own historical moment he had a point. Hugh Kelly may have been popular in the 1770s, but no one especially wants to see his plays and their ilk now; eighteenth- century sentimental comedies have proved distressingly perishable. But the play Goldsmith was working on, The Mistakes of a Night—soon to be retitled She Stoops to Conquer—would be, along with the works of a younger Club member, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, one of the very few English comedies of the later eighteenth century to have survived into the popular repertory of the twenty-first.
Within the first few minutes Goldsmith threw down the gauntlet to the cult of sensibility, with Tony Lumpkin, a boorish young squire, carousing in an alehouse with his disreputable cronies and singing a song of his own composition:


When Methodist preachers come down,
A preaching that drinking is sinful,
I’ll wager the rascals a crown,
They always preach best with a skinful.
But when you come down with your pence,
For a slice of their scurvy religion,
I’ll leave it to all men of sense,
But you my good friend are the pigeon.


His drinking buddies approve of the song:


FIRST FELLOW: The ’Squire has got spunk in him.

SECOND FELLOW: I loves to hear him sing, bekeays he never gives us nothing that’s low.

THIRD FELLOW: O damn any thing that’s low, I cannot bear it.


Tony, an eighteenth-century cross between Puck and Dionysus, is deliciously low. And the plot, far from aspiring to middle-class realism, openly defies credulity. Two young gentlemen, Marlow and Hastings, arrive at the alehouse looking for the house of Mr. Hardcastle, where they are expected; Marlow, the son of Mr. Hardcastle’s old friend, is going to be introduced to young Kate Hardcastle as a marital prospect. Tony, in a fit of mischief, tells them they are far from their goal and had better stay at a nearby inn—which is in fact the Hardcastle home. Upon their arrival, they begin ordering their host about peremptorily, thinking him to be the innkeeper. Marlow has let us know that he is terrified of meeting Kate, for respectable women terrify him; he can only be at ease among women of the lower classes. Now he spots Kate, who happens to be dressed informally; believing her to be a barmaid, he makes a pass. She decides to continue in her barmaid’s role as a test of whether Marlow, whom she finds attractive, can love her for herself. The plot twists that follow, most of which are choreographed by the mischievous Tony, are so absurd and the tone so lowbrow that the cultivated Horace Walpole would later dismiss the entire play as “the lowest of all farces.” “It is not the subject I condemn,” Walpole went on, “though very vulgar, but the execution. The drift tends to no moral, no edification of any kind. The situations, however, are well imagined, and make one laugh, in spite of the grossness of the dialogue, the forced witticisms, and total improbability of the whole plan and conduct.”
It seems that George Colman anticipated such responses, for he couldn’t quite make up his mind whether to produce the play, returning the manuscript to Goldsmith with copious notes on how it might be improved. Goldsmith, deeply in debt, as was so often the case, resorted to begging. “I have, as you know,” he wrote to Colman in January 1773, “a large sum of money to make up shortly; by accepting my play, I can readily satisfy my creditor that way. . . . For God’s sake take the play, and let us make the best of it, and let me have the same measure, at least, which you have given as bad plays as mine.”
Samuel Johnson had long since lost interest in the theater. When Goldsmith, in the 1760s, had remonstrated with him that he took no interest in any new play, he had answered snappishly: “Why, Sir, our tastes greatly alter. The lad does not care for the child’s rattle, and the old man does not care for the young man’s whore.” Now, however, he was prepared to make an exception, for upon reading She Stoops to Conquer, he declared that he knew “of no comedy for many years that has so much exhilarated an audience, that has answered so much the great end of comedy—making an audience merry.” Now the forceful Johnson, backed by his cronies in the Club, browbeat poor Colman into submission, practically forcing him, as Johnson claimed, “to bring it on.” Colman agreed, though he was still dubious enough about the project to cut corners, refusing to provide new costumes or appropriate scenery for the production. Actors, too, were wary: Kate Hardcastle and Tony Lumpkin, now regarded as two of the great roles in the English theater, were hard to cast. The most accomplished and popular comedienne of the day, Frances Abington, didn’t think it a good enough bet, and the veteran comedian Henry Woodward also felt he could resist Colman’s offer. In the end the parts went to Mary Bulkley and the more appropriately youthful John Quick.
For opening night, March 15, Johnson pulled together a formidable claque comprised of Club members and sundry other of Goldsmith’s well-wishers, mustering his forces for an early supper in a tavern. Johnson was in a state of “inimitable glee,” according to one eyewitness, while the “anxious bard” worried and fretted by his side. Then, as showtime approached, the claque entered the theater and took prearranged places around the house, having devised a system of signals to indicate to one another when to clap, laugh, or shout. They brought with them one Adam Drummond, who boasted an especially earsplitting, neighing, contagious laugh; he and the stentorian Johnson led the guffawing. (Johnson’s laugh was famously loud: “he was for the most part an exceedingly bad playhouse companion,” complained his friend Hester Thrale, “as his person drew people’s eyes upon the box, and the loudness of his voice made it difficult for me to hear any body but himself.”) Garrick climbed down from his high horse far enough to provide a prologue, which was spoken by Henry Woodward dressed in mourning, presenting Goldsmith as a physician attempting to revive the Comic Muse, long sick and “now a-dying” thanks to the ruthless advance of the comédie larmoyante.


When the sweet maid is laid upon the bier,
Shuter [another leading comic actor] and I shall be chief mourners here.
To her a mawkish drab of spurious breed,
Who deals in sentimentals will succeed!


During these proceedings, the playwright, far too anxious to attend his own premiere, wandered about St. James’s Park in an agony of nerves, showing up at the theater just at a moment when one of his less successful contrivances was being booed by the audience. But that was an unusual moment, for as one of Johnson’s claque boasted, “The success of our manoeuvres was complete.” The show was a hit, with John Quick, as Tony, bringing down the house.
Reviews were mixed, with some critics complaining that while it was all very well to reject “laughing comedy,” this time Goldsmith had taken it too far and descended to farce—and no doubt there were audience members, like Walpole, who agreed with this judgment. Others claimed that the loud laughter throughout the premiere was due to the partiality of the author’s friends, who had packed the house, and predicted that further performances would be more subdued. But to everyone’s surprise the jollity on the second night was even more raucous than that of the first. “Uninterrupted Laughter or clamorous Plaudits accompanied his Muse to the last Line of his Play,” observed the Public Advertiser; “and when it was given out for the Author’s Benefit [the traditional benefit performance for the author] the Theatre was filled with the loudest Acclamations that ever rung within its Walls.” The play ran for twelve nights in its first season, including a Royal “command performance”; Samuel Foote’s Haymarket Theatre mounted six performances during the summer; and then there were a further seven at Covent Garden in the autumn. Goldsmith’s three benefits alone earned him more than five hundred pounds, a very substantial sum. The printed text did well too, selling a remarkable four thousand copies in just three days.
Boswell, marooned in Scotland and therefore unable to see the play, wrote a flattering and characteristically entertaining letter of congratulation to the triumphant Goldsmith, in which he celebrated the playwright’s revival of the true comic spirit. “The English nation was just falling into a lethargy. Their blood was thickened and their minds creamed and mantled like a standing pool; and no wonder—when their comedies which should enliven them, like sparkling champagne, were become mere syrup of poppies, gentle soporific draughts. . . . I am happy to hear that you have waked the spirit of mirth which has so long lain dormant, and revived natural humor and healthy laughter.” Boswell’s daughter Veronica had actually been born during the premiere of She Stoops to Conquer. “I am fond of the coincidence,” he continued. “My little daughter is a fine, healthy, lively child and, I flatter myself, shall be blessed with the cheerfulness of your comic muse. She has nothing of that wretched whining and crying which we see children so often have; nothing of the comédie larmoyante. I hope she shall live to be an agreeable companion and to diffuse gaity over the days of her father, which are sometimes a little cloudy.”
George Colman was ultimately humiliated at having given such a grudging reception to She Stoops to Conquer. He was pilloried in the press, with the Morning Chronicle expressing a hope that in future he would “deliver his opinion with greater modesty and caution.” As the author of this squib went on to say,


The voice of a manager is always the voice of a theatre; and therefore we do not wonder to find his sentiments were adopted by the underlings about him. A manager ought to take example from the procuresses of his neighborhood. They fill their houses with variety, and leave their customers to chuse out of it; the manager of the other house [Garrick, at Drury Lane] has dealt only in sentimental misses; and therefore his rival in stature and office, was unwilling to admit a jolly laughing girl as an inmate: or, as we rather believe, wished through envy to smother that performance which he could never expect to equal.


Ouch! Colman was in such agony that he even fled town and took refuge in Bath, where he hoped he might not attract too much attention. From there he wrote an apology, of sorts, to Goldsmith, begging him to “put me out of my pain one way or another. Either take me off the rack of the Newspapers, or give me the Coup de Grace. In a word . . . I beg if you think I was vile enough to wish ill to your play (whatever I thought of it) e’en say so in yr. preface to it—but if you acquit me of this in your own mind, absolve me in the face of the World.”
All this could have ended badly, but Club dinners proved a soothing atmosphere for the squabbling thespians, and in any case Goldsmith was the last man in the world to hold a grudge. His relationship with Colman did not suffer seriously, and in spite of Goldsmith’s rough early history with Garrick, both men were essentially too good-spirited to remain on the outs. At the end a playful and affectionate friendship developed between the two. Reynolds’ niece, who came to stay with her uncle in the 1770s, recalled them keeping


an immense party laughing till they shrieked. Garrick sat on Goldsmith’s knee; a table-cloth was pinned under Garrick’s chin, and brought behind Goldsmith, hiding both their figures. Garrick then spoke, in his finest style, Hamlet’s speech to his father’s ghost. Goldsmith put out his hands on each side of the cloth, and made burlesque action, tapping his heart, and putting his hand to Garrick’s head and nose, all at the wrong time.


It was a good time, or should have been. Goldsmith even began planning a collaborative Dictionary of Arts and Sciences to be authored by various members of the Club: Reynolds on painting, Garrick on acting, Burney on music, Burke on aesthetics, and so forth. But Goldsmith was inherently self-destructive. He was—unsurprisingly—broke again within a year of She Stoops to Conquer’s triumph, endlessly borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.
This time no one could throw out a lifeline. Hard work and hard living had ruined Goldsmith’s health. In 1772 a urinary tract infection developed into a dangerous inflammation of the bladder that when operated on produced “an amazing discharge of purulent matter.” Goldsmith experienced temporary relief, but the infection moved to the kidneys, causing uremia. Over the next couple of years—the time of She Stoops to Conquer—the illness lurked, striking again in early 1774, when he experienced a violent headache and dosed himself, against doctors’ orders, with a dubious patent medicine of the day. Goldsmith himself, it should be remembered, was a quack doctor; after he downed the fever-powders, he immediately regretted it. These powders, which induced vomiting and diarrhea, might well have played some part in hastening his death, which finally arrived on April 4.
Goldsmith’s closest friends in the Club were devastated. Burke wept when he heard the news. Reynolds, who in recent years had probably been the eccentric author’s closest friend—Goldsmith had dedicated The Deserted Village to him and Reynolds had dedicated in return a fine mezzotint, Resignation—was especially hard hit. According to Reynolds’ student and biographer James Northcote, “He did not touch the pencil for that day, a circumstance most extraordinary for him, who passed no day without a line.” Even Boswell, who could be withering about the awkward Irishman, wrote to Garrick, “I have not been so much affected with any event that has happened of a long time.” Reynolds assumed the irksome task of acting as his friend’s executor and of attempting to straighten out his muddled affairs. He initially imagined a grand funeral and burial at the Abbey, but soon decided that a monument in Poets’ Corner would be a most lasting remembrance as well as providing better value for their very limited funds than lavish obsequies that would soon be over and forgotten. He employed Joseph Nollekens to sculpt a bas-relief and asked Johnson to provide an epigraph, which turned out to be a most moving tribute. Qui nullum fere scribendi genus non tetigit; nullum quod tetigit non ornavit: the departed Goldsmith, Johnson wrote, had “left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn.”
Goldsmith was only forty-five when he died and had written only two plays. Would he have continued as a dramatist—and if so, would he have kept writing along the same lines? It’s impossible to know. But his theatrical torch passed, almost without a pause, to another gifted, feckless, profligate, brilliant Irishman—Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
Twenty-three years Goldsmith’s junior, Sheridan—who would join the Club in 1777, at the age of twenty-five—was already known to its denizens as the son of their acquaintance Thomas Sheridan. The elder Sheridan had been the highly successful manager of Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin where, on a smaller scale, he was engaged in much the same work that Garrick was doing in London—making the stage respectable. His wife Frances, Richard’s mother, was a notable author in her own right, whose prolific output in the 1760s included three plays and several novels, including the very popular Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph. But Thomas Sheridan’s career at Smock Alley came to an abrupt end when he chose a play to produce that aroused political passions in that highly charged atmosphere, and the theater was destroyed in a night of terrifying rioting. Shortly thereafter Thomas, along with his wife and eldest son, decamped for England, leaving the three-year-old Richard and his sister Lissy in Ireland with a nurse, where they stayed until finally joining their parents five years later.
In London, Sheridan gave courses in rhetoric and elocution; one of his pupils there, in fact, was the young James Boswell, who having escaped from his controlling father and his native Scotland had arrived for his first, blissful visit to the metropolis in 1760. The acidulous Samuel Johnson and his cronies, like many who met Thomas Sheridan, were automatically scornful at the idea of an Irishman attempting to teach correct English speech, and much fun was had at Thomas’ expense at the Turk’s Head. He was tolerated by the group, but not much liked. Johnson’s unflattering summary has been recorded: “Why, Sir, Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, Sir, is not in Nature.”
When Richard was thirteen, his parents moved on once again, to France, again leaving him behind. He spent several lonely years boarding at Harrow School, where he in no way distinguished himself. When his mother died two years later, he was notified not by a family member but by the headmaster. It was not until he was seventeen that he rejoined his family, first in London, where his father was acting, reciting, and teaching, and then at Bath, where he set up a rhetorical academy in which he employed Richard as an assistant teacher.
It was here, in Bath, that Richard began his glittering career. As his biographer Fintan O’Toole put it, his long years of isolation and loneliness “had taught him that he could not take his relationship to others and the world for granted. Whatever he wanted, he would have to make for himself. If he wanted love, he would have to dazzle for it. . . . Owing little to his father and with only a tantalising memory for a mother, he was free to conceive of himself.”
And what a conception it was! He stage-managed for himself a romance that would outdo any contrived by Fielding or Richardson and launched himself into the public gaze, then turned the whole thing into art. As his father floundered in his ill-chosen career path, with Bath’s fashionable denizens mocking, as Johnson did, the idea of an Irishman teaching them proper English, the son was beginning, with great energy, to scribble. He was also beginning his long career as a womanizer, and the girl he cast his eye on was none other than the most beautiful, talented and sought-after young person in Bath, the singer Elizabeth Linley. She was the daughter of Thomas Linley, the musical director at Bath’s famous Assembly Rooms, and her startling beauty and fine soprano voice quickly made her the leading attraction there. All pursued her, including Richard’s elder brother Charles, but Thomas Linley had already promised the teenager—“sold” is perhaps the more accurate word—to a much older man, Walter Long, a middle-aged squire who agreed to pay the father a thousand pounds as compensation for the loss of income provided by the girl. But the engagement was broken off at the last minute, presumably because Elizabeth could not bear the idea of the union, at which point Linley had the audacity to threaten Long with a lawsuit. Back in London, the enterprising Samuel Foote turned all this into a commercial comedy, The Maid of Bath, which was a hit at his Haymarket Theatre.
In the meantime, Eliza was being harassed by a less gentlemanly pursuer, one Captain Thomas Mathews, who made threatening attempts to seduce her. Alarmed, she laid plans to escape to a convent in France. With alacrity, the young Sheridan cast himself in the starring role of her rescuer. He organized a complicated flight for both of them to Lille via London, and his knack for drama can be measured by the fact that he introduced her under the pseudonym of “Miss Harlow”—that of Richardson’s heroine Clarissa, herself persecuted by an evil seducer. Before they arrived in Lille, however, Richard proposed to Eliza, and they were married in a Catholic ceremony in a village near Calais. Since they were still minors, the ceremony was not binding, and they did not consummate it; Eliza joined her chosen convent as planned.
Hysteria erupted back in Bath, with Thomas Linley heading off to France to fetch his daughter back and Mathews writing threatening letters to Richard, implicitly challenging him to a duel. Linley, Eliza, and Richard made their way back to England, and the proposed duel took place, with Sheridan victorious and a humiliated Mathews forced to write a public apology for insults he had hurled on his rival.
Eliza was now, perhaps not surprisingly, violently in love with Richard, and the two met secretly to declare their passion. But Mathews’ psychic wounds continued to fester, and he and Richard met for a second duel, which was much more serious. Both were wounded, Richard severely so—to the point that he feared he was dying.
By this time, the private drama had become public spectacle, played out before an avid audience. Eliza and Richard were young, spectacularly attractive, talented. Mathews was none of the above. The second duel, in which Richard had performed less well than Mathews and was possibly even drunk, made him somehow more appealing, more heroic. Now, as Richard lay apparently between life and death, Eliza revealed the secret to her father: she was Richard’s wife! To the delight of her many fans, the young couple went through the marriage ceremony again, this time in a Protestant service, in 1773. Public interest was kept at boiling point throughout these events not only by their natural interest, but through Richard’s clever insertions of tidbits of gossip into the newspapers.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan could not move ahead in the spheres to which he aspired if he were not perceived as a “gentleman.” His birth and talents did not entitle him to that status. His duels were a careful step on his way to achieving it: dueling was a gentleman’s vice, one not practiced by the middle class. The next step on his upward trajectory was his wife’s departure from the stage. Gentlemen’s wives, however talented, did not perform for money. Modern feminists have criticized Sheridan for insisting that Eliza retire; in our own world that would be an intolerable exercise of patriarchal authority and an interference with a woman’s right to her own career. But the times were different, and Eliza appears to have been quite cheerful to leave the stage, confessing that she had never really enjoyed the spotlight. (Her earlier decision to retire to a convent would seem to affirm that preference.) Sheridan’s contemporaries would have judged that he had honored his wife by making her respectable, a “lady.” Observing the commotion from afar, members of the Club discussed the merits of the case.


We talked [Boswell recalled] of a young gentleman’s marriage with an eminent singer, and his determination that she should no longer sing in publick, though . . . her talents would be liberally rewarded, so as to make her a good fortune. It was questioned whether the young gentleman, who had not a shilling in the world, but was blest with very uncommon talents, was not foolishly delicate, or foolishly proud. . . . Johnson, with all the high spirit of a Roman senator, exclaimed, “He resolved wisely and nobly to be sure. He is a brave man. Would not a gentleman be disgraced by having his wife singing publickly for hire? No, Sir, there can be no doubt here. I know not if I should not prepare myself for a publick singer, as readily as let my wife be one.”


Johnson himself, and Reynolds, who was also present, had had to fight very hard for their own current status as gentlemen—if they could be called such, even by that time.
Show business was not exactly the ideal school for a gentleman, but it was the only card the young Sheridan had, and he played it boldly. A play was the thing—and what better material than his own melodramatic experiences? In the fall of 1774, still only twenty-three years of age, Sheridan wrote his play, soon dubbed The Rivals, in just a few weeks, twisting the strands of his own tale for reinvention in the guise of that of his hero and his ingénue, Jack Absolute and Lydia Languish. In doing so he played with countless theatrical conventions of the time, making gentle fun of them as conventions. Lydia is a familiar character of the time, a young woman who has read too many novels—very much like George Colman’s Polly Honeycombe. There is a belligerent, hard-drinking Irishman, Sir Lucius O’Trigger. There is the play’s most famous character, the immortal Mrs. Malaprop, who creatively mangles her language. Plot elements and characters derive from Congreve, from Goldsmith, from the works of Sheridan’s own parents.
Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute, has made a decision his son will marry the heiress Lydia Languish whether he wants to or not. Jack wants to, very much; but he has a problem: Lydia, who has consumed a solid diet of romantic fiction, feels that love isn’t real love unless it is impractical and forbidden. She would prefer love in a cottage with an impecunious lover to a respectable marriage with a social equal. Therefore Jack, in wooing her, has posed as a penniless officer, Ensign Beverley. But if she elopes with someone of Ensign Beverley’s status, she will forfeit her inheritance. From this premise arises a comedy of errors, with Jack and “Beverley,” one and the same man, the titular “rivals.” The plot, as Sheridan’s biographer Fintan O’Toole has pointed out, is “a self-conscious compendium of . . . theatrical clichés, and part of its delight for the audience of the time lay precisely in the recognition of burlesque versions of familiar plots and devices.”
In the spirit of Goldsmith, Sheridan planned The Rivals as a triumphant refutation of comédie larmoyante—a full-blooded masculine comedy with no hint of sentiment; and a timely revival of She Stoops to Conquer was mounted just four days before The Rivals’ premiere, in what was perhaps an effort to warm London audiences up for a “laughing comedy” very much in the tradition of Goldsmith. In another significant move, Edward Shuter, who had played Hardcastle, was cast as the irascible Sir Anthony, and Jane Green, the original Mrs. Hardcastle, took the role of Mrs. Malaprop. Green had started out as a singing ingénue in ballad operas but began putting on weight early and turned her talents to character roles. Shuter was one of the great comic actors of the era: “with strong features, a peculiar turn of countenance and natural passion for humour,” Garrick remarked, “he has the happiness of disposing and altering the muscles of his face into a variety of laughable shapes which, though they may border on grimace, are, however, on the whole irresistible.”
Sheridan’s prologue for the second opening night made his artistic links with Goldsmith more specific, urging spectators to consider well the Comic Muse:


Does she seem formed to teach?
Should you expect to hear this lady preach?
Is grey experience suited to her youth?
Do solemn sentiments become that mouth?
Bid her be grave, those lips should rebel prove
To every theme that slanders mirth or love.


God forbid we should displace her and substitute “The goddess of the woeful countenance, / The sentimental muse!”
The Rivals premiered at Covent Garden on January 17, 1775, but the opening night was a sad disappointment to the young author. “Our expectations,” griped the critic in the Morning Chronicle, “have been some time raised with the hope that they were at last to produce us a truly good comedy; the hour of proof arrives, and we are presented with a piece got up with such flagrant inattention, that half the performers appear to know nothing of their parts, and the play itself is a full hour longer in the representation than any piece on the stage.” Another critic deplored the “many low quibbles and barbarous puns that disgrace the very name of comedy.” (Shakespeare himself, of course, was always being attacked for the very same practices.) But Sheridan was a brash newcomer and perhaps had paid insufficient attention to precedent, expectations, and politesse. The character of Sir Lucius O’Trigger, in particular, was taken exception to as being a mockery of the Irish. “This representation of Sir Lucius,” reprimanded the Morning Chronicle, “is indeed an affront to the common sense of an audience, and is so far from giving the manners of our brave and worthy neighbours, that it scarce equals the picture of a respectable Hotentot.” Irish himself and proud of it, Sheridan had in no way foreseen that this character would be taken as crude caricature. Nor had he been quite aware that the dialogue sometimes skirted a little too close to explicit sexuality for current tastes: Mrs. Malaprop’s “malapropisms”—with the appearance of the play, the English language acquired a new word—frequently presented double entendres with possibly obscene interpretations. And at four hours in length, the play, according to one newspaper report, “lulled several of the middle gallery spectators into a profound SLEEP.”
The Rivals might have folded after a single performance and been lost to history, but Sheridan talked Covent Garden’s manager, Thomas Harris, into giving him an unheard of opportunity—to revise the play and try again. Nowadays, a play headed for Broadway or the West End undergoes workshop productions, out-of-town tryouts, and many nights of previews so that author and director are afforded the opportunity to adjust the material in response to audiences’ reactions. Playwrights rewrite throughout the process, and directors restage scenes, right up to opening night. Eighteenth-century authors and managers were given no such luxury. A new play made its very first appearance on opening night, and it was sink or swim; critics could be brutal. Now, in a mere ten days, Sheridan rewrote the work sharply and recast Sir Lucius, who had been played badly by actor John Lee, with Lawrence Clinch, a family friend.
When the play reopened on January 28, everything seemed magically to fall into place—“so much so, indeed,” writes Fintan O’Toole, “that it is difficult to account for the change merely by reference to Sheridan’s editing of his text and the recasting of one character. It was almost as though the play had had a delayed impact, as if the break had been needed for the play to sink in.” The Rivals, with its combination of conventional theatrical tricks with less conventional new social mores, was unfamiliar, almost exotic to the audiences of the day. With Sheridan’s new and smoother text, viewers found it easier to get on board, and the play became a full-blown success.
Sheridan’s next piece was a short farce, St. Patrick’s Day, written essentially as a thank-you gift to Lawrence Clinch—he who had done so much to save The Rivals—for that actor’s benefit performance at Covent Garden. Sir Lucius, even in his improved second appearance, had been a stage Irishman; Lieutenant O’Connor, the hero of St. Patrick’s Day, is a more heroic type of Hibernian, who triumphs both materially and morally over his English rivals. Sheridan followed this up with The Duenna, which premiered November 21, 1775: a spectacular success that ran 75 performances in its first season alone. The Duenna is what was known as a “pastiche opera,” its musical score an olio of established hit songs by other composers, traditional ballads, and new tunes. In this case the new tunes were provided by Sheridan’s wife and his talented in-laws, with Eliza, her brother Tom, and their father Thomas all providing songs. The elder Thomas also took over the production’s musical direction.
The subversive possibilities of musical theater had been demonstrated with The Beggar’s Opera and would be again with The Marriage of Figaro, the Mozart/Da Ponte opera based on the Beaumarchais play that would be banned by Louis XVI, just a decade after The Duenna. (Byron, among others, greatly preferred The Duenna to the more famous Beggar’s Opera.) Like Gay’s and Beaumarchais’s works, The Duenna rested on a premise that social distinctions are unstable and ultimately meaningless: the titular duenna, a middle-aged and not particularly attractive woman, manages, through clever stage-management and trickery, to unite a pair of star-crossed young lovers and nab for herself a highly eligible mate. Wit, boldness, and talent are capable of winning out over wealth and position, and any prevailing social hierarchy can be revealed as an arbitrary convention. This philosophy would inform Sheridan’s long parliamentary career, in which he championed the rights of the native Irish, the American freedom fighters, and the colonized Indians in their struggles against the British establishment. Of course he recognized that he himself embodied the principle: initially marginalized as an Irish upstart, he would rise to the height of political as well as artistic eminence.


Now approaching sixty, David Garrick was ready to retire. The extreme mobility of the actor’s features had, in Fanny Burney’s description, already rendered them very wrinkled, so that “when he found neither paint nor candle-light, nor dress nor decora­tion, could conceal those lines, or smooth those furrows which were ploughing his complexion; he preferred to triumph, even in foregoing his triumphs, by plunging, through voluntary impulse, from the dazzling summit to which he had mounted, and heroically pronouncing his Farewell!—amidst the universal cry, echoed and re-echoing all around him, of ‘Stop, Garrick, stop!—yet a little longer stop!’”
In 1775 he had hired the neoclassical architect Robert Adam to refurbish completely Drury Lane, which had not seen a makeover since it had been rebuilt in the 1670s after having been burnt down. Months later, after witnessing the remarkable success of Sheridan’s Duenna, he offered the younger man a major share in Drury Lane, effectively making Sheridan his successor as manager of the theater.
Garrick planned his retirement carefully, drawing it out and milking it for maximum publicity, attention, and box office receipts. He let it be known in advance each time he played one of his famous roles for the final time, and audiences jammed into the house. On April 11, 1776 it was Abel Drugger in The Alchemist; on May 9, it was Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. For his last Richard III, the theater was so crowded that the beginning of the play had to be delayed for two hours. “The eagerness of people to see him,” wrote the author Hannah More, “is beyond any thing you can have an idea of. You will see half-a-dozen duchesses and countesses of a night, in the upper boxes: for the fear of not seeing him at all, has humbled those who used to go, not for the purpose of seeing, but of being seen; and they now courtesy to the ground for the worst places in the house.” He chose for his last performance of all, perhaps unsurprisingly, a popular comedy: Susanna Centlivre’s The Wonder, in which, despite his age and gout, he played the romantic lead, Don Felix. When the play concluded, according to his early biographer Thomas Davies, “Mr. Garrick advanced towards the audience with much palpitation of mind, and visible emotion in his countenance. No premeditation whatever could prepare him for this affecting scene. He bowed—he paused—the spectators were all attention.” But the observant George Colman the Younger, though still only an adolescent, was already cannier to the ways of what he called the “sly old Stager” than the panegyrist Davies. Garrick’s valedictory address to his audience, he recalled, “corroborates what I have advanced . . . ; that whenever Garrick chose to show off as himself, (and he generally did so chuse,) he was almost sure to play that character worse than any other,” and “although his Farewell carries the strongest internal evidence of a factitious [planned] speech, he would fain have pass’d it off for an extempore.” Garrick was more believable in the roles of Hamlet or Richard III, in other words, than in that of plain Davy Garrick. His “uncommon abilities had arrived at as close an imitation of Nature as, perhaps, may be attainable,” Colman admitted, but he inevitably gave preference to art “in instances where nature alone should have govern’d his conduct.” Only another man of the theater could have recognized the exquisite art in Roscius’ charming naturalness, and the younger Colman—who would later achieve as much success in the business as his father had done—knew a ham when he saw one.
Boswell and Johnson discussed the retirement in private.


I observed [Boswell writes] that Garrick, who was about to quit the stage, would soon have an easier life. JOHNSON. “I doubt that, Sir.” BOSWELL. “Why, Sir, he will be Atlas with the burthen off his back.” JOHNSON. “But I know not, Sir, if he will be so steady without his load. However, he should never play any more, but be entirely the gentleman, and not partly the player: he should no longer subject himself to be hissed by a mob, or to be insolently treated by performers, whom he used to rule with a high hand, and who would gladly retaliate.” BOSWELL. “I think he should play once a year for the benefit of decayed actors, as it has been said he means to do.” JOHNSON. “Alas, Sir! he will soon be a decayed actor himself.”


But their fears were misplaced. Garrick would not live long enough to become a decayed actor, and in the two-and-a-half years left to him, he continued to be busy and productive, remaining intimately involved in Drury Lane as Sheridan’s adviser.
Garrick fell ill in 1778 and died early in the following year. The cause of death was announced as being that catchall eighteenth-century diagnosis, gout, but an autopsy revealed that he had only one kidney, and that one had shriveled to practically nothing. The funeral that was arranged would not have disappointed the great showman: the grand procession advanced the mile from Adelphi Terrace, where the Garricks had owned a house since 1772, to the service at Westminster Abbey. And on the stage at Drury Lane, Garrick’s successor Sheridan recited the several pages of verses he had written to the memory of the deceased—verses that made an enormous impression on the Londoners of the time.


The grace of action—the adapted mien,
Faithful as nature to the varied scene;
Th’ expressive glance—whose subtle comment draws
Entranced attention, and a mute applause;
Gesture that marks, with force and feeling fraught,
A sense in silence, and a will in thought;
Harmonious speech, whose pure and liquid tone
Gives verse a music, scarce confess’d its own . . .


Sheridan emphasized the ephemeral nature of the actor’s art—far more ephemeral, in those pre-film days, than acting performances would become in the twentieth century. The painter, the poet, the sculptor all leave the art behind for the enjoyment of future generations and for their own glory; but


The Actor, only, shrinks from Time’s award;
Feeble tradition is his memory’s guard;
By whose faint breath his merits must abide,
Unvouch’d by proof—to substance unallied!
E’en matchless Garrick’s art, to heav’n resign’d,
No fix’d effect, no model leaves behind!


In this, Sheridan was echoing thoughts Garrick himself had expressed in his prologue to The Clandestine Marriage thirteen years previously:


he, who struts his hour upon the stage,
Can scarce extend his fame for half an age;
Nor pen nor pencil can the actor save,
The art, and artist, share one common grave.


Horace Walpole regarded the entire spectacle with raised eyebrows. “I do think the pomp of Garrick’s funeral perfectly ridiculous,” he wrote a friend. “It is confounding the immense space between pleasing talents and national services. What distinctions remain for a patriot hero, when the most solemn have been showered on a player?”
Garrick was buried exactly where he would have wanted to be: in front of Shakespeare’s monument in Westminster Abbey. Poets’ Corner was perhaps not the most appropriate spot—he had never been a really good writer—but in those days there was no convention for where one should bury an actor; not so many years previously, actors had been considered too disreputable to lie inside churchyards and had been relegated to spaces outside the walls. Garrick had broken the glass ceiling, and in the next centuries his remains would be joined by those of Henry Irving and Laurence Olivier (both “Sirs,” as opposed to plain Mr. Garrick; no actor would receive a knighthood until the nineteenth century). His marble monument (sculpted by Henry Webber) showed him holding back a curtain, as though coming forward to take a bow, flanked on either side by seated figures of Comedy and Tragedy. Fittingly enough, a few years later Samuel Johnson would be interred by his side; despite their differences, the two men seemed fated to be together in life and in death.
There was a poignant coda to all this. Garrick’s younger brother George had been his invaluable right hand throughout his career, and the older man relied heavily on the younger, who managed much of the theater’s financial business; George was forever being summoned to Drury Lane, with the message that “David needed him.” Now, suddenly, he died—just two days after David’s funeral. The reason seemed clear to everyone: David needed him.


It is easy to see why Garrick saw Sheridan as the natural choice to take over the Drury Lane. But as the theatrical scholar Katharine Worth points out, “it is harder to understand why Sheridan accepted. He had a deeply equivocal attitude to theatres and actors and was incorrigibly unbusinesslike.” All true: but in what other field could this driven young man make his mark, so swiftly and spectacularly? Sheridan’s first couple of years as manager of the Drury Lane were truly dazzling. In his first season he revised and produced a trio of plays by William Congreve, one of the Restoration playwrights whose works had been deemed too racy for modern sensibilities. Sheridan’s personal aesthetic and style were very close to Congreve’s; indeed, his work was a major factor in the theater’s shift away from the self-conscious decency of the age of Garrick toward the sexual license of the coming Regency era. Sheridan by now knew his audience and could gauge just how much raciness they would be willing to accept on the stage; he had to contend, too, with the Lord Chamberlain as censor. He edited Congreve’s texts but did not maul them to conform with public taste as Garrick had done with Wycherley’s The Country Wife a decade previously; in fact one reviewer described Sheridan’s changes as “very trifling.”
Within the short space of six weeks, Sheridan staged three Congreve masterpieces: The Old Bachelor, Love for Love, and The Way of the World. While a few reviewers complained about the plays’ perceived libertinism, most were delighted with the creative renewal of a lost dramatic style. The Congreve revival was also seen by those in the Goldsmith/Sheridan camp as a vigorous blow against comédie larmoyante. The influential London Magazine warmly praised “the revival of Congreve’s plays, the strength with which they were brought out, and the judicious, nay, masterly manner the parts were cast.”
The results of Sheridan’s immersion in Congreve are evident in his next and most enduring play, The School for Scandal. This project had been percolating in his head since 1775 when he had begun working on drafts of two plays, one called The Slanderers and the other The Teazles. Throughout the following year, the plots converged, with elements of The Slanderers, a satire on scandalmongering in London’s polite society, mixing with The Teazles, a new take on the old story of an elderly husband’s difficulties with a spirited young bride. The School for Scandal, which emerged in its final form in the early months of 1777, combined all this seamlessly—though as was usual with him, Sheridan was still scribbling away right up to opening night.
The plot centers around the two Surface brothers: Charles, a roistering young fellow believed by his acquaintances to be “the most dissipated and extravagant young fellow in the kingdom, without friends or character,” but in reality possessed of a generous heart; and Joseph, “universally well spoken of,” but in fact an arch hypocrite. With the character of Joseph, Sheridan continued to mock sentimental conventions, showing audiences how easy it is to assume the posture of a man of sentiment without meaning a word of it:


SNAKE: . . . how came you and Mr. Surface so confidential?
LADY SNEERWELL: For our mutual interest. I have found him out a long time since. I know him to be artful, selfish and malicious—in short, a sentimental knave.
SNAKE: Yet Sir Peter vows he has not his equal in England; and, above all, he praises him as a man of sentiment.
LADY SNEERWELL: True, and with the assistance of his sentiments and hypocrisy he has brought him entirely into his interest . . .


Charles and Joseph will soon be put to the test when their rich uncle returns from India after twenty years, incognito, in order secretly to observe their behavior and decide which most deserves to be his heir. He first gets in touch with his old friend, Sir Peter Teazle, who has ill-advisedly taken a young wife. When they first wed, she had been a simple country girl, but after just a few months in London, she has turned into the complete worldling, wheedling money, jewels, and gowns out of her husband and displaying quite a temper when she is crossed. Sir Peter admits to his servant, Rowley, that he loves her, but vows he will never be weak enough to own it. And we quickly gather that he, too, might not be the easiest person to live with: “I am myself the sweetest-tempered man alive and hate a teasing temper, and so I tell her a hundred times a day. . . . [A]nd what is very extraordinary, in all our disputes she is always in the wrong!”
Since her arrival in London, Lady Teazle has been taken up by the very worst set, the “school for scandal” of the title: the aforementioned Lady Sneerwell and Snake; Joseph Surface; Crabtree; Sir Benjamin Backbite; and Mrs. Candour, the worst of them all—“with a very gross affectation of good nature and benevolence she does more mischief than the direct malice of old Crabtree.” Also, young Lady Teazle has begun a little romance, and with none other than Joseph Surface. But we are no longer in the age of Congreve, and if Sheridan wanted a happy ending, this liaison could not develop into anything more than a titillating flirtation. “[Y]ou know,” Lady Teazle tells Joseph, “I admit you as a lover no further than fashion requires.”
The plot takes a number of farcical turns and twists culmi­nating in the fourth act with one of the most famous scenes ever staged: the “screen scene,” in which Joseph, entertaining Lady Teazle in his rooms, is obliged to hide her behind a screen when he is visited by her husband and then to stash Sir Peter in a closet when Charles Surface enters. The ensuing antics, in which the screen finally, inevitably, falls to the ground, still raise shouts of laughter in modern productions, but on May 8, 1777—opening night—the reaction was almost unprecedented: passersby in the street outside of Drury Lane, hearing the commotion inside the theater, thought perhaps a fire had broken out.
Fifty years later, elderly people still recalled it as one of the happiest moments of their lives. “Why can we not always be young, and seeing The School for Scandal?” complained William Hazlitt. “What would we not give to see it once more, as it was then acted, and with the same feelings with which we saw it then?” Charles Lamb agreed, writing in 1822, “Amidst the mortifying circumstances attendant upon growing old, it is something to have seen The School for Scandal in its glory.”
In his interesting essay, “On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century,” Lamb anatomized the difficulties of staging a perfor­mance in a cultural climate so very opposed in character to that in which the play was created. Lamb recognized that the true hero of the play is not the good-natured Charles or the kind-hearted if cranky Sir Peter but the arch-hypocrite Joseph and recalls with wistfulness the brilliant performance of John Palmer, the originator of the role:


 . . . the gay boldness, the graceful solemn plausibility, the measured step, the insinuating voice—to express it in a word—the downright acted villany [sic] of the part, so different from the pressure of conscious actual wickedness,—the hypocritical assumption of hypocrisy. . . . The highly artificial manner of Palmer in this character counteracted every disagreeable impression which you might have received from the contrast, supposing them real, between the two brothers.


Lamb went on to say that at the time he was writing, well into the nineteenth century, people preferred things to be black and white and expected bad men and good men, at least on the stage or in the pages of a novel, to be “rigidly opposed to each other.”


Poor Jack has passed from the stage in good time, that he did not live to this our age of seriousness. The pleasant old Teazle [Tom] King, too, is gone in good time. His manner would scarce have past current in our day. We must love or hate—acquit or condemn—censure or pity—exert our detestable coxcombry of moral judgment upon everything.


The same might be said of our own era, in which sexual licentiousness and moral puritanism make strange bedfellows. By all accounts, the best Joseph Surface of the last century was John Gielgud in 1937—a long time ago. Could it be played as well now?
Sheridan was admitted to the Club in March of 1777, two months before the premiere of School for Scandal. He was only twenty-five, but his confidence and wit had already attracted its members, even those who had found his father dull, well before he proved his mettle as a writer. Later in life he related this anecdote to George Colman the Younger:


When [Sheridan] was beginning to be known in the world, a little before his first dramatick productions, he dined in company with Johnson, and several of the Club; when the Doctor advanced one of his dogmas, which was tantamount to saying that black is white;—Sheridan, knowing that black is black, and not white, gave a plump negatur to the Doctor’s affirmation:—in short, whatever Johnson’s hypothesis might have been, Sheridan argued against it manfully, with all the eagerness of youth, unconscious of his peril in attacking so formidable an antagonist;—he felt too, no doubt, those powers within him which, soon afterwards, charm’d the stage, and ultimately surprised the senate. The party, and particularly those individuals of it who belong’d to the Club, trembled for him, at the onset;—they shrugg’d up their shoulders, and seem’d to say,—“Poor young man! clever, but ruin’d!—he is rousing the Lion, and it will soon be all over with him!” The Lion, however, was in one of his generous moods;—though growling, he did not grow ferocious; though gall’d, he was not revengeful;—he took his defeat (for defeated he was) in good part,—and SHERIDAN, through Johnson’s forbearance to proclaim him a blockhead, escaped annihilation.


Clever he was indeed and remarkably quick on the uptake. (An example: when a creditor demanded instant payment from him of a long-standing debt, with interest, he replied, “My dear sir, you know it is not my interest to pay the principal, nor is it my principle to pay the interest.”) His wit was on full display in 1779 when he wrote The Critic, a backstage farce about the rehearsal of a tragedy, something along the lines of Noises Off. Although The Critic is chockablock with theatrical and political in-jokes of the period, it still works surprisingly well for modern audiences. The conventions and techniques of painting, of music, of poetry have changed almost beyond recognition since 1779; but theatrical conventions and techniques have changed very little, it turns out, so the sort of difficulties that the playwright/director Puff encounters as he rehearses his unwieldy tragedy, The Spanish Armada, will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has worked back- or onstage in our own era.
For example: how is the author to weave an invented plot into actual historical happenings? Puff avers that “it is a received point among poets, that where history gives you a good heroic outline for a play, you may fill up with a little love at your own discretion.” Sneer, the rather cynical friend to whom Puff is expiating on his art, points out that the central situation—in which the ingénue, whose father is the governor of an English fort, happens to be in love with the son of the Spanish admiral—is a little improbable. Puff disagrees: “Don Ferolo Whiskerandos, for that’s the lover’s name, might have been over here in the train of the Spanish ambassador; or Tilburina, for that is the lady’s name, might have been in love with him, from having heard his character or seen his picture, or from knowing that he was the last man in the world she ought to be in love with, or for any other good female reason.” With this Sheridan tacitly and smilingly admits to the ludicrousness of many dramatic plots—including a couple that he himself had concocted, such as The Rivals and The Duenna.
Then there is the perennial problem of exposition. How, at the opening of a play, is the audience to know the background to the action? Playwrights through the ages have tackled this question in sometimes laughingly obvious ways. Here Mr. Dangle, a critic visiting the rehearsal, listens to the actor playing Sir Walter Raleigh expiate at length to Sir Christopher Hatton on the state of the battle:


DANGLE: Mr. Puff, as he knows all this, why does Sir Walter go on telling him?
PUFF: But the audience are not supposed to know anything of the matter, are they?
SNEER: True, but I think you manage ill; for there certainly appears no reason why Sir Walter should be so communicative.
PUFF: ’Fore Gad now, that is one of the most ungrateful observations I ever heard, for the less inducement he has to tell all this, the more I think you ought to be obliged to him; for I am sure you’d know nothing of the matter without it.


Sheridan achieves exactly the right tone in parodying the poetic conventions of his time. There is the heroic:


SIR CHRISTOPHER: Alas, my noble friend, when I behold
Yon tented plains in martial symmetry
Arrayed; when I count o’er yon glittering lines
Of crested warriors, where the proud steed’s neigh
And valour-breathing trumpet’s shrill appeal
Responsive vibrate on my listening ear
 . . .


And the girlish:


TILBURINA: . . . Darkness is fled.
Now flowers unfold their beauties to the sun,
And, blushing, kiss the beam he sends to wake them—
The striped carnation, and the guarded rose,
The vulgar wallflower, and smart gillyflower,
The polyanthus mean, the dapper daisy,
Sweet William, and sweet marjoram, and all
The tribe of single and of double pinks!
Now, too, the feathered warblers tune their notes
Around, and charm the listening grove. The lark!
The linnet! chaffinch! bullfinch! goldfinch! greenfinch!


Puff is vain of his poetic talents and has overwritten the play to the point where even the star knows her speeches are too long and has taken to cutting them as she sees fit:


PUFF: Hey, what the plague! What a cut is here! Why, what is become of the description of her first meeting with Don Whiskerandos, his gallant behaviour in the sea-fight, and the simile of the canary bird?
TILBURINA: Indeed, sir, you’ll find they will not be missed.


The actor playing Whiskerandos also gets into the spirit of excision:


WHISKERANDOS: O matchless excellence! And must we part?
Well, if—we must—we must; and in that case
The less is said the better.


A mad scene for the heroine was one of the hoariest theatrical stereotypes there was, dating at least back to Shakespeare, and Sheridan has effective fun with it—also with the theatrical gimmick of giving the heroine a confidante (a useful trick for eliciting exposition, and the heroine’s inner feelings).


PUFF: Now she comes in stark mad in white satin.
SNEER: Why in white satin?
PUFF: O lord, sir, when a heroine goes mad, she always goes into white satin. Don’t she, Dangle?
DANGLE: Always; it’s a rule.
PUFF (looking at the book): Yes, here it is. “Enter Tilburina, stark mad in white satin, and her confidante, stark mad in white linen.”
Enter Tilburina and Confidante mad, according to custom
SNEER: But, what the deuce, is the confidante to be mad too?
PUFF: To be sure she is. The confidante is always to do whatever her mistress does—weep when she weeps, smile when she smiles, go mad when she goes mad.—Now, Madam Confidante! But keep your madness in the background, if you please.
TILBURINA: The wind whistles, the moon rises. See
They have killed my squirrel in his cage!
Is this a grasshopper! Ha! No, it is my
Whiskerandos. You shall not keep him.
I know you have him in your pocket.
An oyster may be crossed in love! Who says
A whale’s a bird? Ha! Did you call, my love?
He’s here! He’s there! He’s everywhere!
Ah me! He’s nowhere!

Exeunt Tilburina and Confidante
PUFF: There, do you ever desire to see anybody madder than that?


Interestingly, at its first performance The Critic appeared as an afterpiece to Hamlet.
Sheridan winds up this comedy with a grand finale making fun of the sort of grand spectacle that was popular at the time. Just as twentieth-century West End and Broadway audiences enjoyed their falling chandeliers and revolving barricades, so Drury Lane’s patrons dearly loved a sea battle, and Sheridan employed Philip James de Loutherbourg, the great French scenic designer, whom Garrick had brought to England in 1771, to come up with outrageous sets for The Critic’s ending. This was slyly self-referential, because de Loutherbourg specialized in such extravaganzas, though usually presented in earnest. De Loutherbourg here displayed all his brilliance in stage effects while simultaneously mocking, along with Sheridan, the use to which they were generally put, with a spectacular naval engagement and a display of “all the English rivers and their tributaries” in allegorical human form, with one hapless player awkwardly costumed as the Thames and two others clad in green to represent his banks. Thus the play ends, in an orgy of overkill:


Exit Thames between his banks. Flourish of drums, trumpets, cannon, etc., etc. Scene changes to the sea. The fleets engage. The music plays “Britons, strike home.” Spanish fleet destroyed by fireships, etc. English fleet advances. Music plays “Rule, Britannia.” The procession of all the English rivers and their tributaries with their emblems, etc., begins with Handel’s “Water Music”; ends with a chorus to the march in “Judas Maccabaeus.” During this scene Puff directs and applauds everything.


Puff is another plum comic role, originated by the reliable Tom King. The most successful Puff of modern times was Laurence Olivier, who in 1945 famously mounted a double bill of Oedipus Rex and The Critic at London’s Old Vic. His exit as Oedipus, eyes still dripping blood, and his reappearance after only the briefest of intermissions as the bewigged and powdered Mr. Puff was considered one of the great acting tours de force in theatrical history.
With yet another hit under his belt, Sheridan was still only twenty-eight years old. He had written seven plays, three of which have remained in the standard repertory throughout the English-speaking world ever since. He had taken over the management of London’s premiere theater, stepping into the shoes of the great Garrick. And he had done all this in less than five years. Now, his restless attentions were turning to politics. In 1780 he successfully ran for a seat in Parliament and entered its ranks that year as a member of the Whig opposition, alongside his comrades-in-arms and fellow Club members Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox. He would only write one more full-length play, and that would be two decades in the future: Pizarro (1799), a big, overblown romantic melodrama, full of special effects, precisely the sort of thing he had so effectively ridiculed in The Critic. But once again he had measured the mood of the time, and the play was yet another hit. By then it was, after all, a new world: the age of Victor Hugo, of Beethoven, of Goethe. Historical drama laced with high passion and politics, freedom fighters resisting oppression: this was what audiences wanted, and he gave it to them in spades.
Everyone who knew Sheridan well was aware that he had written himself into the roles of both the brothers in School for Scandal. “Talk of the merit of Dick’s comedy—there’s nothing in it!” laughed his father, Thomas. “He had but to dip the pencil in his own heart, and he’d find there the characters of both Joseph and Charles Surface.” Like Charles, he was generous to the point of profligacy, reckless, affectionate, charming. But like Joseph he could be calculating and secretive—sometimes too clever by half. He used both sides of his character, triumphantly, in his career as a playwright. But as a manager, there was too much Charles and not enough Joseph. He had none of the business sense of his predecessor, Garrick, nor any of Garrick’s solid bourgeois virtues. Still, he hung onto Drury Lane for decades, running it mostly through middlemen, convinced that it would provide a financial foundation for his political career. In this he was sadly mistaken, and in 1809 it burnt to the ground, illuminating the entire neighborhood as it did so. Byron described the sight:


As flashing far the new Volcano shone
And swept the skies with {Lightnings not their own,
While thousands thronged around the burning dome
&c. &c.


Sheridan, by then a prematurely aged, dissolute, shaky figure, proved stoic, watching quietly from a seat at his favorite Piazza Coffee House. When someone remarked on his demeanor, he answered that “A man may surely take a glass of wine by his own fireside.”
The theater had been horribly uninsured, with Sheridan recouping only 35,000 of the 300,000 pounds he suffered in damages. He never recovered from this setback and died a few years later in penury: a sad relic of the great days of the Club.


[1] This essay is a companion piece to an earlier one, “The Shakespeareans,” which appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of The Hudson Review. Like “The Shakespeareans,” “The Thespians” is concerned with the activities of Samuel Johnson’s so-called Literary Club—generally referred to simply as “The Club”—which was founded in 1764 and whose charter members included Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, and Oliver Goldsmith, along with several others. Later members would include Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, Charles James Fox, Sir Joseph Banks, and other luminaries.