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Samuel Foote

Samuel FooteBorn: 1720
Birthplace: Truro, Cornwall, England
Died: 21-Oct-1777
Location of death: Dover, Kent, England
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Actor, Playwright

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Diversions

English dramatist and actor, baptized at Truro on the 27th of January 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, Eleanor Goodere, whom he is said in person as well as in disposition to have strongly resembled, he liberally supported in the days of his prosperity, and after her death 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, he inherited his first fortune through the murder of his uncle, Sir John Dinely Goodere, Bart., by his brother, Captain Samuel Goodere. Foote was educated at the collegiate school at Worcester, and at Worcester College, Oxford, distinguishing himself in both places by mimicry and audacious pleasantries of all kinds, and, although he left Oxford without taking his degree, acquiring a classical training which afterwards enabled him neatly to turn a classical quotation or allusion, and helped to give to his prose style a certain fluency and elegance.

Foote was "designed" for the law, but certainly 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 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 almost as good of its kind as that in Bardell v. Pickwick. 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 center. After he had run through two fortunes (the second of which he appears to have inherited at his father's death), and had then passed through severe straits, he made his first appearance on the actual stage in 1744. It is said that be had married a young lady in Worcestershire; but the traces of his wife (he affirmed himself that he was married to his washer-woman) are mysterious, and probably apocryphal.

Foote's first appearance as an actor was made little more than two years after that of David 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 favorable reception at Dublin, enrolled as one of the regular company at Drury Lane in the winter of 1745-46, 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 "where the devil it did lie", when his successful performance of the part of Bayes in The Rehearsal at last suggested to him the true outlet for his extraordinary gift of mimicry. 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 "gag." Engaging a small company of actors, he now boldly announced for the 22nd of April 1747, at the theater in the Haymarket "gratis", "a new entertainment called the Diversions of the Morning", to which were to be added a farce adapted from William Congreve, and an epilogue "spoken by the B-d-d Coffee-house." Foote's success in these Diversions obtained for him the name of "the English Aristophanes", an absurd compliment, declined by Foote himself (see his letter in The Minor). The Diversions consisted of a series of imitations of actors and other well-known persons, 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 (probably the munificent Sir William Browne, whom he afterwards caricatured in The Devil on Two Sticks), 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 repetition, 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 endeavor 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 entertainer pretended to impart (typifying them under characters embodying their several chief peculiarities or defects -- the massive and sonorous James Quin as a watchman, the shrill-voiced Lacy Ryan as a razor-grinder, the charming Peg Woffington, whose tones had an occasional squeak in them, as an orange-woman crying her wares and the bill of the play); and Foote's Chocolate, which was afterwards converted into an evening Tea, became an established favorite with the town.

In spite of this success, he seems 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 Samuel Johnson. But he could now command a considerable income; and when money came he seems to have freely expended it in both hospitality and charity. During his engagements at Covent Garden and at Drury Lane, of which he was joint-manager, and in professional trips to Scotland, and more especially to Ireland, he appeared both in comedies of other authors and more especially in his own. He played Hartop in his Knights (1749, printed 1754). Taste (1752), in which parts of the Diversions were incorporated, was followed by some eighteen pieces, the majority of which were produced at the Haymarket, the favorite home of Foote's entertainments: In 1760 he succeeded in obtaining for this theater a license from the lord chamberlain, afterwards (in 1766) converted into a license for summer performances for life. The entertainments were a succession 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 representatives in England, and ends with a 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. The piece (unprinted) played in this by the puppets 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 literature how thoughts of the most commonplace might be concealed under cover of words the most high flown." In other words, it was an attack upon sentimental comedy, which was still not altogether extinguished. An attack upon Garrick in connection with the notorious Shakespeare jubilee was finally left out from the Puppet-show, and thus was avoided a recurrence of the quarrel which many years before had led to an interchange of epistolary thrusts, and an imitation by Woodward of the imitative Foote.

On the whole, the relations between the two public favorites became very friendly, and on Foote's part unmistakably affectionate, and they have not been always generously represented by Garrick's biographers. 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 no authentic ground for the suggestion that his character was one of malicious heartlessness. Of Samuel Johnson's opinions of him many records remain in James Boswell's biography; 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, and, on hearing of Foote's death, he thought the career just closed 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 reflection that he would now be able to take off "old Faulkner" (a pompous Dublin alderman 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 theater in the Haymarket (1766); and Foote not only resumed his profession, 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 Sticks, while, with the true instinct of a public favorite, making constant reference to it in plays and prologues. Though 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 any visible restraint upon personal satire. The Author, in which, under the infinitely humorous character of Cadwallader, he had brought a Welsh gentleman of the name of Ap-Rice on the stage, had, indeed, been ultimately suppressed. But in general 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 Two Sticks), enthusiasts in religion, such as Dr. Dodd (in The Cozeners) and George Whitefield and his connection (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 which he was not to try to hold up to contempt with impunity. The rumor 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 there is no hint as to the charge of bigamy itself), but to hire agents to vilify Foote's character 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 characteristic of their respective writers, Foote took his revenge upon the chief of the duchess's instruments, a "Reverend 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 of assault 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 Edmund Burke and Joshua Reynolds, the very audiences of his own theater 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 theater 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 William Jewell) records that he had a hand "open as day for melting charity." His resting-place in Westminster Abbey is without any memorial.

Foote's chief power as an actor lay in his extraordinary gift of mimicry, which extended 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 assuming 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 was rather short and stout, and coarse-featured; but his over-flowing humor is said to have found full expression in the irresistible sparkle of his eyes.

As a dramatic author he can only be assigned a subordinate rank. He regarded comedy as "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 overlooked the indispensableness of the dulce 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; and the fact that he not only took them from real life, but closely modelled them on well-known living men and women, was not in himself an artistic sin. Nor indeed was the novelty of this process absolute, though probably no other comic dramatist has ever gone so far in this course, or has pursued it so persistently. The public delighted in his "damned 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 many of Foote's comic characters lies in the fact that, besides being incomparably ludicrous types of manners, they 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 what 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 weaknesses exposed by Foote's vigorous satire will remain the perennial subject of comic treatment so long as a stage exists. The real defect of his plays lies in the abnormal weakness of their construction, in the absolute contempt which the great majority of them show for the invention or conduct of a plot, and in the unwarrantable subordination of the interest of the action to the exhibition of particular characters. 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 Richard Steele's adaptation of Pierre Corneille's Le Menteur), and perhaps of The Bankrupt, 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 wanting, but these familiar ingredients are as incapable of exciting real interest as an ordinary farcical action is in itself unable to produce more than transitory amusement. In his earlier plays Foote constantly resorts to the most hackneyed device of farce -- a disguise. Of course Foote must have been well aware of the shortcomings of his rapidly manufactured productions; 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 theater where he held sway, was looked upon as "an eccentric, a mere summer fly."

At the same time, he was inexhaustible in the devising of comic scenes of genuine farce. 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 situations are brought before the mere reader with unfailing vividness. And everywhere the comic dialogue is instinct with spirit and vigor, 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 coloring; he was, however, too wide awake to the demands of his public not to treat France and Frenchmen as fair game, and coarsely to appeal to national 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; while at the same time he made fun of the fact that Englishmen 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. He made occasional mistakes; but he was on the right side in the warfare 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), in which part of the Diversions is incorporated; 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 (1762); The Orators (1762: Lecturer); Thee Mayor of Garratt (1763: Major Sturgeon and Matthew Mug); The Patron (1764: Sir Thomas Lofty and Sir Peter Peppercorn); The Commissary (1765: Mr. Zac. Fungus); The Devil upon Two Sticks (1768: Devil, alias Dr. Hercules Hellebore); The Lame Lover (1770: Sir Luke Limp); The Maid of Bath (1971: Mr. Flint); The Nabob (1772: Sir Matthew Mite); The Bankrupt (1773: Sir Robert Riscounter); The Cozeners (1774: Mr. Aircastle); The Capuchin, a second version of The Trip to Calais, forbidden by the censor (1776: O'Donovan). His dramatic works were collected in 1763-68. Foot's biography may be read in W. ("Conversation") Cooke's Memoirs of Samuel Foote (3 vols, 1805), which contain, amidst other matter, a large collection of his good things and of anecdotes concerning him, besides two of his previously unpublished occasional pieces (with the Tragedy la mode, part of the Diversions, in which Foote appeared as Fustian).

Mother: Eleanore Goodere

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