1902 Encyclopedia > Samuel Foote

Samuel Foote
English comic dramatist and actor
(c. 1720 - 77)

SAMUEL FOOTE (c. 1720-1777), comic dramatist and actor, was born at Truro about the year 1720. Of his attachment to his native Cornwall he gives no better proofs as an author than by making the country-booby Timothy (in The Knights) sound the praises of that county and of its manly pastimes ; but towards his family he showed a loyal and enduring affection. His father was a man of good family and position ; his mother, the daughter of a baronet (Sir Edward Goodere), is said, in person as well as in dis-position, to have strongly resembled her famous son. Ac-cording to tradition, she afterwards fell into pecuniary em-barrassments closely analogous to his own ; but in the days of his prosperity he liberally supported both her and an unfortunate clerical brother. After her death he indignantly vindicated her character from the imputations recklessly cast upon it by the revengeful spite of the duchess of Kingston. About the time when Foote came of age, a family quarrel between his two maternal uncles ended in the brutal murder, under extraordinary circumstances, of the one by the other, who was, with his accomplices, hanged for the crime. By this event Foote came into his first fortune, through which he ran with great speed in the be-ginning of his London life. Before this he had completed his education in the collegiate school at Worcester, and at Worcester College, Oxford, distinguishing himself in both places by practical jokes, mimicry, and audacious pleasant-ries of all kinds, but also acquiring a classical training which afterwards enabled him neatly to turn a classical quotation or allusion, and helped to give to his prose style, when he chose to write seriously, a sufficient degree of fluency and elegance.

Foote was, it is stated, " designed " for the law, but cer-tainly not by nature. In his chambers at the Temple, and in the Grecian Coffee-house hard by, he learned to know something of lawyers if not of law, and picked up a smatter-ing of law-terms, and a knowledge of the forms and features of ordinary law-suits. Thus he was afterwards able to jest at the jargon and to mimic the mannerisms of the bar, and to satirize the Latitats of the other branch of the profession with particular success. The famous argument in Hobson v, Nobson (in The Lame Lovers) is as good of its kind as that in Bardell v. Pickwick itself; and doubtless Foote had duly studied some of the most ludicrous or contempt-ible types among the 1175 barristers ("if we reckon one barrister to twenty attorneys") and 23,518 attorneys (if we " only quarter one attorney upon fifty houses"), of whom, according to the lecturer in The Orators, the profes-sion was in his day composed. But a stronger attraction drew him to the Bedford Coffee-house in Covent Garden, and to the theatrical world of which it was the social centre. After he had got rid of a second fortune (which he appears to have inherited at his father's death), and had in the interval passed through severe straits of want, he gave up playing the part of a fine gentleman, and in 1744 made his first appearance on the actual stage. Whether before this time Foote had married remains a very doubtful question. It is said that about the time of the family catastrophe he had married a young lady in Worcestershire—actually, and not in imagination only, like young Wilding in The Liar; but the traces of his wife (he affirmed himself that he was married to his "washerwoman") are mysterious, and probably apocryphal; in after days no lady presided at his table, or controlled the libations of claret which flowed with equal abundance in his servants' hall, and his two sons were illegitimate.

Foote's first appearance as an actor was made little more than two years after that of Garrick, as to whose merits the critics, including Foote himself, were now fiercely at,war. His own first venture, as Othello, was a failure; and though he was fairly successful in genteel comedy parts, and was, after a favourable reception at Dublin, enrolled as one of the regular company at Drury Lane in the winter of 1745-6, he had not as yet made any palpable hit. Finding that his talent lay neither in tragedy nor in genteel comedy, he had begun to wonder (as he tersely expressed it) " where the devil it did lie," when his successful per-formance of the part of Bayes in The Rehearsal at last suggested to him the true outlet for his peculiar talent. Following the example of Garrick, he had introduced into this famous part imitations of actors, and had added a variety of other satirical comment in the way of what in stage parlance is called " gag." He lost no time in availing himself of the discovery that in his powers of mimicry lay his surest means of securing a hold over the public. After engaging a small company of actors, he boldly announced for April 22, 1747, at the theatre in the Haymarket ("gratis"), "a new entertainment called the Diversions of the Morning," to which were to be added a farce adapted from Congreve, and an epilogue " spoken by the B—d—d Coffee-house.' Though, of course, nine-tenths of the fun in all such entertainments would evaporate even in a short-hand report, and though of these Diversions it is only possible to form a notion from scattered recollections and from such parts as were afterwards incorporated in one of Foote's comedies (Taste, act i.), or adapted for later repro-duction at Drury Lane (act ii, printed in Cooke's Memoirs), yet there is no difficulty in understanding the secret of Foote's immediate success, which is said at once to have obtained for him the name of " the English Aristophanes." The absurdity of this compliment has often been remarked upon; but it may be worth observing that Foote was probably himself the first (in his letter on The Minor) to decline the comparison, while " leaving the task of pointing out the mistake to his enemies." The Diversions consisted of a series of imitations of actors and other well-known per-sons, whose various peculiarities of voice, gesture, manner, or dress were brought directly before the spectators ; while the epilogue introduced the wits of the Bedford engaged in ludicrous disputation, and specially "took off" an eminent physician and a notorious quack oculist of the day. The actors ridiculed in this entertainment having at once procured the aid of the constables for preventing its repeti-tion, Foote immediately advertised an invitation to his friends to drink a dish of tea with him at the Haymarket on the following day at noon—" and ' tis hoped there will be a great deal of comedy and some joyous spirits; he will endeavour to make the morning as diverting as possible. Tickets for this entertainment to be had at St George's Coffee-house, Temple-Bar, without which no person will be admitted. N.B.—Sir Dilbury Diddle will be there, and Lady Betty Frisk has absolutely promised." The device succeeded to perfection; further resistance was abandoned as futile by the actors, whom Foote mercilessly ridiculed in the " instructions to his pupils" which the enter-tainer pretended to impart (typifying them under char-acters embodying their several chief peculiarities or de-fects—the massive and sonorous Quin as a watchman, the shrill-voiced Byan as a razor-grinder, the charming Woffington, whose tones had an occasional squeak in them, as an orange-woman crying her wares and the bill of the play); and Mr Foote's Chocolate, which was afterwards con-verted into an evening Tea, became an established favourite with the town.

The way to fame and its fruits having now at last been found, the remainder of Foote's professional career was on the whole prosperous enough. He seems, indeed, after this to have contrived to spend a third fortune, and to have found it necessary to eke out his means by a speculation in small-beer, as is recorded in an amusing anecdote told of him by Johnson. But whatever abstract arguments he might find in favour of the life of a man in debt and against the practice of " muddling away money in trades-men's bills," he could now command a considerable in-come ; and when money came he seems (like a true actor) to have freely divided it between the pleasures of hospi-tality and the claims of charity. During his engagements at Co vent Garden and at Drury Lane (of which he was, in passing, joint-manager), and in professional trips to Scot-land, and more especially to Ireland, he appeared both in comedies of other authors and more especially in his own. Among the latter, of which something will be said below, Taste (1752) is the first of a series numbering (exclusively of the Diversions and one or two similar pieces) eighteen. The majority of them were produced at the Haymarket, which continued the favourite home of Foote's entertainments, and for which in 1760 he succeeded in obtaining a licence from the lord chamberlain, afterwards (in 1766) con-verted into a licence for summer performances for life. The entertainments in question may be briefly described as a suc-cession of variations on the original idea of the Diversions and the Tea. Now, it was an Auction of Pictures (1748), of part of which an idea may be formed from the second act of the comedy Taste ; now, a lecture on Orators (1754), suggested by some bombastic discourses given by Macklin in his old age at the Piazza Coffee-house in Covent Garden, where Foote had amused the audience and confounded the speaker by interposing his humorous comments. The Orators is preserved in the shape of a hybrid piece, which begins with a mock lecture on the art of oratory and its re-presentatives in England, and ends with a very diverting scene of a pot-house forum debate, to which Holberg's Politician-Tinman can hardly have been a stranger. At a later date (1773) a new device was introduced in a Puppet-show ; and it is a pity that the piece played in this by the puppets should not have been committed to print. It was called Piety in Pattens, and professed to show "by the moral how maidens of low degree might become rich from the mere effects of morality and virtue, and by the litera-ture how thoughts the most commonplace might be concealed under cover of words the most high flown." In other words, it was an attack upon sentimental comedy, to which more than one blow had been already dealt, but which was still not altogether extinguished. Indeed, though no one now reads Pamela, it may be doubted whether she and her cousinhood will ever be altogether suppressed on the modern stage. The Puppet-show was also to have contained a witty attack upon Garrick in connexion with the notorious Shakespeare jubilee; but this was withdrawn, and thus was avoided a recurrence of the quarrel which many years before had led to an interchange of epistolary thrusts, when the manager of Drury Lane had permitted Woodward to attempt an imitation of Foote. On the whole, the relations between the two public favourites were very friendly, and on Foote's part (notwithstanding a number of witticisms directed especially against Garrick's interest in Queen Anne's farthings and the like) unmistakably affectionate; and they have been by no means fairly, or at least gener-ously, represented by Garrick's most recent biographer. A comparison between the two as actors is of course out of the question; but, though Foote was a buffoon, and his tongue a scurrilous tongue, there is nothing in the well-authen-ticated records of his life to suggest that his character was one of malicious heartlessness. On the other hand, it was not altogether the fault of his position that he was unable to conciliate the respect of society, though, unlike Garrick, he could hardly have expected to form one of the chosen circle into which (though not without protest) the former gained admittance. It is at the same time charac-teristic of the difference between the London of that day and the London of our own, where club secrets are among the favourite morsels of public gossip, that the famous Club had been ten years in existence before Foote knew of it. Of Johnson's opinions of him many well-known records remain in Boswell; and if it is remembered that when Johnson had at last found his way into Foote's company (he afterwards found it to Foote's own table) he was unable to " resist" him, it should likewise not be forgotten that on hearing of Foote's death he recognized his career as worthy of a lasting biographical record.

Meanwhile most of poor Foote's friendships in high life were probably those that are sworn across the table, and require " t'other bottle" to keep them up. It is not a pleasant picture—of Lord Mexborough and his royal guest the duke of York, and their companions, bantering Foote on his ignorance of horsemanship, and after he had weakly protested his skill, taking him out to hounds on a dangerous animal. He was thrown and broke his leg, which had to be amputated, the " patientee " (in which character he said he was now making his first appearance) consoling himself with the reflexion that he would now be able to take off " old Faulkner " (a pompous Dublin alder-man with a wooden leg, whom he had brought on the stage as Peter Paragraph in The Orators) " to the life." The duke of York made him the best reparation in his power by promising him a life-patent for the theatre in the Haymarket (1766) ; and Foote not only resumed his pro-fession, as if, like Sir Luke Limp, he considered the leg he had lost " a redundancy, a mere nothing at all," but ingeniously turned his misfortune to account in two of his later pieces, The Lame Lover and The Devil on Two Sticlcs, while, with the true instinct of a public favourite, making constant reference to it in plays and prologues. He seemed to have lost none of his energy with his leg, though it may be observed that the characters played by him in several of his later plays are comparatively short and light. He continued to retain his hold over the public, and about the year 1774 was beginning to think of withdrawing, at least for a time, to the Continent, when he became involved in what proved a fatal personal quarrel. Neither in his entertainments nor in his comedies had he hitherto (except in Garrick's case, and it is said in Johnson's) put the slightest restraint upon the personal satire by which he terrified his victims and delighted their neighbours. One of his earlier experiments of this kind (The Author), in which, under the infinitely humorous character of Cadwallader, he had brought a Welsh gentlemen of the name of Ap-Eice on the stage, had, indeed, ultimately led to the suppression of the play. But, to an extent of which it is impossible fully to judge, he had pursued his hazardous course, mercilessly exposing to public ridicule and contempt not only fribbles and pedants, quacks or supposed quacks in medicine (as in The Devil on Tico Sticks), impostors or supposed impostors in religion, such as Dr Dodd (in The Cozeners) and Whitfield and his connexion (in The Minor). He had not only dared the wrath of the whole Society of Antiquaries (in The Nabob), and been rewarded by the withdrawal, from among the pundits who rationalized away Whittington's Cat, of Horace Walpole and other eminent members of the body, but had in the same play attacked a well-known representative of a very influential though detested element in English society, —the " Nabobs " themselves. But there was one species of cracked porcelain or blemished reputation which he was not to try to hold up to contempt with impunity. The rumour of his intention to bring upon the stage, in the character of Lady Kitty Crocodile in The Trip to Calais, the notorious duchess of Kingston, whose trial for bigamy was then (1775) impending, roused his intended victim to the utmost fury; and the means and influence she had at her disposal enabled her, not only to prevail upon the lord chamberlain to prohibit the performance of the piece (in which, it should be observed, there is no hint as to the charge of bigamy itself), but to hire agents to vilify Foote's char-acter in every way that hatred and malice could suggest. After he had withdrawn the piece, and letters had been exchanged between the duchess and him equally character-istic of their respective writers, Foote took his revenge upon the chief of the duchess's instruments, a " Keverend Doctor " Jackson, who belonged to the " reptile " society of the journalists of the day, so admirably satirized by Foote in his comedy of The Bankrupt. This man he gibbeted in the character of Viper in The Capuchin, under which name the altered Trip to Calais was performed in 1776. But the resources of his enemies were not yet at an end ; and a discharged servant of Foote's was suborned by Jackson to bring a charge and apply for a warrant against him. Though the attempt utterly broke down, and Foote's character was thus completely cleared, his health and spirits had given way in the struggle—as to which, though he seems to have had the firm support of the better part of the public, including such men as Burke and Beynolds, the very audiences of his own theatre had been, or had seemed to be, divided in opinion. He thus resolved to withdraw, at least for a time, from the effects of the storm, let his theatre to Colman, and after making his last appearance there in May 1777, set forth in October on a journey to France. But at Dover he fell sick on the day after his arrival there, and after a few hours died (October 21st). His epitaph in St Mary's Church at Dover (written by his faithful treasurer Jewel) records that he had a hand " open as day for melting charity." His resting-place in Westminster Abbey is without any memorial: nor indeed is it the actor's usual lot to receive from posterity any recognition which the con-temporaries whom he has delighted have denied to him.

Foote's chief power as an actor must clearly have lain in his extraordinary gift of mimicry, which extended, as the best kind of mimicry always does, to the mental and moral, as well as the mere outward and physical peculiarities of the personages whose likeness he assumed. He must have possessed a wonderful flexibility of voice, though his tones are said to have been harsh when his voice was not disguised, and an incomparable readiness for rapidly assum-ing characters, both in his entertainments and in his comedies, where he occasionally "doubled" parts. The excellent "patter" of some of his plays, such as The Liar and The Cozeners, must have greatly depended for its effect upon rapidity of delivery. In person he seems to have been by nature ill-qualified for light comedy parts, being rather short and stout, and coarse-featured ; but the humour with which he overflowed is said to have found full expression in the irresistible sparkle of his eyes.

As a dramatic author, although he displays certain distinctive characteristics of indisputable brilliancy, he can only be assigned a subordinate rank. He was himself anxious to limit the definition of comedy to "an exact representation of the peculiar manners of that people among whom it happens to be performed; a faithful imitation of singular absurdities, particular follies, which are openly produced, as criminals are publicly punished, for the correction of individuals and as an example to the whole community." This he regarded as the utile, or useful purpose, of comedy ; the dulce he conceived to be " the fable, the construction, machinery, conduct, plot, and incidents of the piece." For part at least of this view (advanced by him in the spirited and scholarly "Letter " in which he replied " to the Reverend Author of the ' Remarks, Critical and Christian,' on The Minor''), he rather loftily appealed to classical authority. But he failed to point out the relation between the utile and the dulce, and to remember the indispensableness of the latter to the comic drama under its primary aspect as a species of art. His comic genius was particularly happy in discovering and reproducing characters deserving of ridicule ; for "affectation," he says (in the introduction to The Minor, where he appears in person), " I take to be the true comic object;" but he failed in putting them to true artistic use. That he not only took his chief charactersfrom real life, but closely modelled them on well-known living men and women, was not in himself an artistic sin, though it may have been a practice of doubtful social expediency, as it certainly involved considerable per-sonal risk. Nor was the novelty of this absolute, but rather one of degree and quantity ; other comic dramatists before and after him have done the same thing, though probably no other has ever gone so far in this course, or has pursued it so persistently. The public delighted in his '' d d fine originals," because it recognized them as copies ; and he was himself proud that he had taken them from real persons, instead of their being '' vamped from antiquated plays, pilfered from the French farces, or the baseless beings of the poet's brain." But the real excellence of Foote's comic characters lies in the fact that, besides being incomparably ludicrous types of manners, many of them remain admirable comic types of general human nature. Sir Gregory Gazette, and his imbecile appetite for news ; Lady Pentweazel, and her preposterous vanity in her superannuated charms ; Mr Cadwallader, and his view of the advantages of public schools (where children may "make acquaintances that may hereafter be useful to them ; for between you and I, as to wdiat they learn there, does not signify twopence ") ; Major Sturgeon and Jerry Sneak ; Sir Thomas Lofty, Sir Luke Limp, Mrs Mechlin, and a score or two of other characters, are excellent comic figures in themselves, whatever their origin ; and many of the vices and weak-nesses exposed by Foote's vigorous satire will remain the perennial subjects of comic treatment so long as a stage exists. The real defect of his plays lies in the abnormal weakness of their construc-tion, in the absolute contempt which the great majority of them show for the invention or conduct of a plot, and in the unwarrant-able subordination of the interest of the action to the exhibition of particular characters. In a good play, whether it be tragedy or comedy, the characters are developed out of and by means of the action ; but of this there is little trace in Foote. His characters are ready-made, and the action is only incidental to them. "With the exception of The Liar (which Foote pretended to have taken from Lope de Vega, but which was really founded on Steele's adap-tation of Corneille'sLe Mentcur), and perhaps of TheBankrupt, there is hardly one of Foote's " comedies " in which the conception and conduct of the action rise above the exigencies of the merest farce. Not that sentimental scenes and even sentimental characters are want-ing, that virtue is not occasionally in distress, or fails to vindicate itself triumphantly from the semblance of vice ; but these familiar procedures are as incapable of exciting real interest as the ordinary course of a farcical action is in itself calculated to produce more than the most transitory amusement. In his earlier plays Foote constantly resorts to the most hackneyed device of farce—a disguise —which helps on the progress of a slender fable for which nobody cares to a close which everybody foresees. Of course Foote must have been well aware of the defect under which his rapidly manu-factured productions laboured ; he knew that if he might sneer at "genteel comedy " as suited to the dramatists of the servants' hall, and pronounce the arts of the drama at the great houses to be "directed by the genius of insipidity," he, like the little theatre where he held sway, was looked upon as "an eccentric, a mere summer fly."His merits as a comic dramatist are not, however, obscured by his incontestable defects. He was inexhaustible in the devising of comic scenes of genuine farce, in which the humour and wit of the dialogue are on a level with the general excellence of the conception. An oration of '' old masters," an election of a suburban mayor, an examination at the College of Physicians, a newspaper conclave where paragraphs are concocted and reputations massacred—all these and other equally happy scenes are brought before the mere reader with unfailing vividness. And everywhere the comic dialogue is instinct with spirit and vigour, and the comic characters are true to themselves with a buoyancy which at once raises them above the level of mere theatrical conventionalism. Foote professed to despise the mere caricaturing of national peculiarities as such, and generally used dialect as a mere additional colouring ; he was, however, too wide awake to the demands of his public not to treat France and Frenchmen as fair game, and perhaps there is nothing coarser in his plays than this constant appeal to national patriotic prejudice. His satire against those everlasting victims of English comedy and farce, the Englishman in Paris and the Englishman returned from Paris, was doubtless well warranted ; and he was not slow to point out the fact—which Englishmen are wont to conceal when they come home from their travels—that they are nowhere more addicted to the society of their countrymen than abroad. In general, the purposes of Foote's social satire are excellent, and the abuses against which it is directed are those which it required courage to attack. The tone of his morality is healthy, and his language, though not aiming at refinement, is remarkably free from intentional grossness. Like all professed humorists, he made occasional mistakes ; but he, too, was on the right side in the war-fare against the pretentiousness of Cant and the effrontery of Vice, the two master evils of the age and the society in which he lived.

The following is a list of Foote's farces or '' comedies " as he calls them, mostly in three, some in two acts, which remain in print. The date of production, and the character originally performed by Foote, are added to the title of each :—

The Knights (1748—Hartop, who assumes the character of Sir Penurious Trifle) ; Taste (1752) ; The Englishman in Paris (1753— Young Buck); The Englishman Returned from Paris (1756—Sir Charles Buck); The Author (1757— Cadwallader); The Minor (1760—Smirk and Mrs Cole) ; The Liar (1760); The Orators (1762—Lecturer) ; The Mayor of Garratt (1763—Major Sturgeon) ; Tke Patron (1764—Sir Thomas Lofty and Sir Peter Peppercorn) ; The Commissary (1765—Mr Zac. Fungus); The Devil upon two Sticks (1768—Devil) ; The Lame Lover (1770—Sir Luke Limp); Tlw Maid of Bath (1771—Mr Flint) ; The Nabob (1772—Sir Matthew Mite); The Bankrupt (1773—Sir Robert 11 iscounter); The Cozeners (1774—Mr Aircastle) ; A Trip to Calais; The Capuchin (1776—O'Donnovan).

Foote's biography may be read in W. (" Conversation") Cooke's Memoirs of Samuel Foote (3 vols., 1805), which contain a large col-lection of his good things and of anecdotes concerning him, besides two of his previously unpublished occasional pieces (with the act of the Diversions in a later form already mentioned), and an admixture of extraneous matter. From this source seems to have been mainly taken the biographical information in the rather grandiloquent essay on Foote prefixed to "Jon Bee's," useful edition of Foote's Works (3 vols. 1830). But few readers will care to go further than to the essay on Foote, reprinted with additions, from the Quarterly Review, in the late Mr Forster's Biographical Essays ; and none can fare better than those who turn to this delightful and discrimi-nating study of a man of real though peculiar genius. (A. W. W.)

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