Johnson, Samuel (1691-1773) (DNB00)

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JOHNSON, SAMUEL (1691–1773), dancing-master and dramatist, born in 1691, was a native of Cheshire. In 1722 he gave a ball at Manchester (Byrom, Remains, i. 47). In 1724 he was in London with his fiddle (ib. p. 188). He seems to have been chiefly intent upon bringing out the opera ‘Hurlothrumbo,’ which he had repeated to Byrom and other friends in Manchester in the previous year (ib. p. 73 et al.). ‘Hurlothrumbo’ was produced at the ‘little theatre in the Haymarket’ early in April 1729, an epilogue by Byrom being added on the second night, while a prologue was contributed by Amos Meredith, another of the north-country wits in town. The whole circle attended and pledged themselves to applaud it from beginning to end (ib. p. 349). The piece ran for above thirty nights, attracting crowded and fashionable audiences, which included the Duke of Montagu, who was credited with ‘the idea’ of the piece. The most striking figure in the performance was the author himself, who played the part of Lord Flame, ‘sometimes in one key, sometimes in another, sometimes fiddling, sometimes dancing, and sometimes walking on high stilts’ (Biographia Dramatica, ii. 315). ‘Hurlothrumbo’ is a farrago of nonsense, hardly relieved by one or two good burlesque touches and by approaches to wit, probably due to Byrom, who desired both to help his fellow-townsman and to show his aversion for all stage plays (Remains, i. 350). The absurdity and the imperturbable conceit of the author (cf. ib. p. 377) tickled the fancy of the town; the hero was commemorated at Westminster School; the piece was satirised with some bitterness in Fielding's ‘Author's Farce,’ 1729 (act i. sc. 5, cf. act iii. sc. 1); a Hurlothrumbo society was formed, and the words ‘mere Hurlothrumbo’ bade fair to establish themselves as a proverbial phrase (Dedication to Lady Delves; Earwaker, ii. 570; cf. Bailey, Dictionary, 1755). A subscribers' list having been formed, largely among Cheshire people, ‘Hurlothrumbo, or the Supernatural,’ was published with a dedication to Lady Delves, signed Lord Flame; a second edition, with a dedication to Lord Walpole (who had subscribed for thirty copies), signed with the author's name, followed in the same year (1729). This cannot possibly have been ‘the foolish piece said to be written by S. Johnson,’ which the great owner of that name refused to repudiate (Boswell, Tour to the Hebrides in G. B. Hill's edition of the Life, 1887, v. 295). He was at the time an undergraduate at Oxford (cf. Notes and Queries, 6th ser. xi. 289–90, 377–8).

In 1730 Johnson, who had prudently declined to produce ‘Hurlothrumbo’ at Manchester (Byrom, Remains, i. 377), brought out, at Sir John Vanbrugh's opera-house in the Haymarket, a ‘comedy’ called ‘The Chester Comics,’ apparently with certain alterations by Cibber (Byrom, Journal, &c., 1730–1, ed. J. E. Bailey, Manchester, 1882, p. 3). It was never printed. There followed a production called ‘The Mad Lovers, or the Beauties of the Poets,’ acted at the Haymarket, and printed in 1732 with a frontispiece representing the author in the part of Lord Wildfire, evidently a replica of Lord Flame (Earwaker, ii. 570, note; this piece is not mentioned by Genest). The name of a play by him performed—not to his satisfaction—in April 1735 (Byrom, Remains, i. 442) is unknown. In 1737 was acted his comedy ‘All Alive and Merry,’ not known to exist either in print or in manuscript; according to a report which reached Manchester, Johnson on the first night of this play ‘was for fighting with somebody in the pit;’ it was received with applause on the second night, and ran five or six more (ib. ii. 88; cf. Genest, iii. 511). There are also attributed to him a comic opera, ‘A Fool made Wise,’ and a farce, ‘Sir John Falstaff in Masquerade,’ both acted in 1741 and never printed (Biographia Dramatica), as well as a tragedy, ‘Pompey the Great,’ likewise unprinted (Notes and Queries, 6th ser. i. 338–9). Besides these plays Johnson composed ‘A Vision of Heaven,’ published in 1738, which is introduced by divers ‘essays’ and ‘characters,’ and consists of second-hand rubbish and rodomontade. In the preface the author professes to have ‘acted’ part of what follows before the Duke of Wharton and Bishop Gastrell (of Chester). The subscription list is less ample than that of ‘Hurlothrumbo.’ He is also said to have written ‘Harmony in Uproar,’ and a dialogue (published) entitled ‘Court and Country’ (Earwaker).

For some years after the production of ‘Hurlothrumbo’ Johnson hung more or less about London, apparently in fair circumstances and spirits, though in 1737 Byrom thought he would ruin himself by his plays (Remains, ii. 127). He seems, however, to have carried on his profession as dancing-master at Manchester, where he was said to have vindictively resented a refusal to take lessons from him (ib. pp. 174–5). During the last thirty years of his life, or thereabouts, he lived in retirement at the village of Gawsworth, near Macclesfield, known under the names of Maggoty or Fiddler Johnson, and of Lord Flame, and himself not unconscious of his former distinction (Earwaker, ii. 571). Here he died in 1773 at a house called the New Hall, and was buried by his own desire in a small wood in the neighbourhood (ib.) Over his grave was placed a stone with a florid but harmless inscription (cited ib. and in Notes and Queries, 6th ser. v. 157–8), commemorating him under both his own name and that of Lord Flame. By its side another stone was afterwards erected with an inscription of a reproachfully pious cast (cited by Earwaker and in Notes and Queries, 6th ser. vi. 257). The ghost of the buried man was said to have long haunted the spot (ib. v. 238).

[The Private Journal and Literary Remains of John Byrom, ed. for Chetham Soc. by Canon Parkinson, 2 vols., 1854–7; J. P. Earwaker's East Cheshire Past and Present, vol. ii. 1880; Biographia Dramatica, edit. 1812, vol. i. pt. ii. and vol. ii.; Notes and Queries.]

A. W. W.