Gentleman, Francis (DNB00)

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GENTLEMAN, FRANCIS (1728–1784), actor and dramatist, born in York Street, Dublin, 13 Oct. 1728, was son of a captain in the army. With Mossop and Dexter, both subsequently actors, he was educated at a grammar school in Digges Street under a clergyman named Butler. He obtained at the age of fifteen a commission in the regiment of his father, who died two years later. He exchanged into a newly raised company intended for active service, and had to leave the army on the peace of 1748. He then engaged with Sheridan at Smock Alley Theatre, where he appeared as Aboan in ‘Oroonoko,’ and remained for a season and a half. Notwithstanding what he calls ‘an unconsequential figure and uncommon timidity,’ he succeeded ‘beyond his expectations.’ Having inherited from an uncle in India a sum of 800l., he came to London, and states that he saved only 200l. from the lawyers. On his way from Dublin he met Macklin with a company at Chester, and produced ‘Sejanus,’ an alteration from Ben Jonson, printed 1752, 8vo. He afterwards joined Simpson's company at Bath, where he wrote ‘The Sultan, or Love and Fame,’ a tragedy (8vo, 1770), and next season produced ‘Zaphna,’ a tragedy, and an alteration of ‘Richard II.’ The manuscripts of the last two were stolen, and the pieces were unprinted. After going to Edinburgh, appearing as Othello and giving lessons in English, he visited Glasgow (where he met Boswell), Carlisle, Scarborough, Manchester, and Liverpool, returning to Chester, in which city he played the ‘Modish Wife,’ his masterpiece, if such a term may be used, 8vo, 1774, and the ‘Fairy Court,’ never printed, which was acted by children, and ran for fifteen nights. He now retired to Malton in Yorkshire, stayed there five years, and married a wife, who died in 1773, leaving him two children. Here he wrote ‘a thing in two volumes,’ entitled ‘A Trip to the Moon.’ To this period belongs ‘A Set of Tables,’ composed for the Prince of Wales. Expectations from the Marquis of Granby brought him to London; but Granby died in 1770, and Foote then gave him a summer engagement. His ‘Sultan’ had been revived in April 1769, apparently by a scratch company. The ‘Tobacconist,’ 8vo, 1771, a wretched comedy founded upon the ‘Alchemist’ of Ben Jonson, was given 22 July 1771. In this Gentleman played Sir Epicure Mammon. The ‘Coxcomb,’ a farce taken by him from ‘Epicene,’ was also played, once for a benefit, this season. His ‘Cupid's Revenge,’ taken from Hoadly's ‘Love's Revenge,’ a pastoral, 8vo, 1772, was played at the Haymarket July 1772. The ‘Pantheonites,’ a dramatic entertainment by Gentleman, 8vo, 1773, was acted for Jewell's benefit at the Haymarket, 3 Sept. 1773, Gentleman playing Skinflint. After the season was over, 18 Sept. 1773, his ‘Modish Wife’ was given. In 1770 Gentleman had published anonymously the ‘Dramatic Censor,’ 2 vols. 8vo, by which he is best known. It consists of a series of tolerable criticisms upon various plays of the time. The opinions expressed are fairly judicious. Vol. i. was dedicated to Garrick, and vol. ii. to Foote. A year previously he had printed the ‘Stratford Jubilee,’ a comedy, 8vo, 1769, and attacked Garrick in some sentences which the bookseller excised. Garrick had at this time assisted Gentleman, who had fallen upon evil times, and, though disliking him, helped him again. Among Garrick's papers is a quatrain upon this ‘dirty dedicating knave,’ who is ‘Gentleman in name’ only (Percy Fitzgerald, Life of Garrick, ii. 379). In the ‘Garrick Correspondence’ are some pitiable appeals from Gentleman to which Garrick responded. One loan of five guineas is asked in August 1775 for the purpose of giving ‘dramatic lectures of a nature different from any yet attempted’ at ‘Eaton’ and Oxford (ii. 82). On 14 March of the same year, acknowledging a letter from Garrick with ‘its solid contents,’ Gentleman disavows the responsibility for his ‘promulged (sic) theatrical sentiments,’ and promises better behaviour for the future (Private Correspondence, ii. 48). Gentleman was now leading a shiftless life of expedients. He was indeed a poor creature, and writes despairingly: ‘I heartily wish I had been fated to use an awl and end sooner than the pen, for nothing but a pensioned defender of government, a sycophant to managers, or a slave to booksellers can do anything more than crawl.’ In addition to the pieces named, Gentleman wrote an alteration of ‘Oroonoko,’ Glasgow, 12mo, 1760, played at Edinburgh, and dedicated to Boswell, and the following unprinted pieces: 1. ‘Osman,’ a tragedy (every subscriber for a ticket for the performance at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket was to have a large or small paper copy according to his seat. It was subsequently acted at Bath). 2. ‘Mentalist,’ a dramatic satire acted at Manchester about 1759. 3. ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ (a serious opera acted at the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, 1783. A piece similarly described was played for two or three nights at Covent Garden in February 1792). He published also: 1. ‘Fortune,’ a rhapsody (in verse), London, 1751, 4to (translated from an ode of Rousseau). 2. ‘Characters,’ London, 1766, 4to (in verse; a not very brilliant satire). 3. ‘Royal Fables,’ London, 1766, 16mo (rhymed fables in the manner of Gay). ‘Narcissa and Eliza, a Dramatic Tale in Verse,’ London, 1754, 4to, is assigned to him in the British Museum Catalogue. In 1774 was published in 12mo the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ with an introduction and notes by the author of the ‘Dramatic Censor.’ He edited Bell's acting edition of Shakespeare. This edition, which only professes to present the dramas as they were then played, is harshly characterised by Reed in the ‘Biographia Dramatica’ as the worst that ever appeared of any English author. His ‘Tobacconist’ is included in the ‘London Stage,’ vol. ii., and in the collections of Dibdin and Oxberry. His late years were spent in Ireland. He died in George Lane, Dublin, on 21 Dec. 1784 (Biographia Dramatica, 18 Dec. 1784; Reed, MS. Notitia Dramatica), having during the last seven years of his life undergone extreme sickness and want.

[The chief authorities for his life are found in a long preface to the Modish Wife. The particulars there given are copied, with more or less abridgment and alteration, in the Biographia Dramatica and other works of theatrical reference. The Garrick Correspondence, Genest's Account of the English Stage, Boswell's Life of Johnson (ed. Hill), Gent. Mag. (1784), and his own printed works supply further particulars. The authority on which some of the works cited are ascribed to Gentleman is not always evident.]

J. K.