Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bickerstaffe, Isaac

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BICKERSTAFFE, ISAAC (d. 1812?), dramatic writer, was born in Ireland about 1735. At the age of eleven he was appointed one of the pages to Lord Chesterfield, then lord-lieutenant of Ireland. His earliest production was 'Leucothoe,' a tragic opera, printed in 1756, but never acted. In 1762 his comic opera, 'Love in a Village,' was acted with great applause at Covent Garden. For the plot the author was indebted to Charles Johnson's 'Village Opera,' Wycherley's 'Gentleman Dancing-Master,' and Marivaux's 'Jeu de l'Amour et du Hazard.' The piece was printed in 1763, and has been included in Bell's British Theatre and other collections. In 1765 was published the 'Maid of the Mill,' founded on Richardson's 'Pamela.' It met with much success, and as an after-piece continued to be acted with applause for many years. Between 1760 and 1771 Bickerstaffe produced a score of pieces for the stage. Mrs. Inchbald considered him second only to Gay as a farce writer. His songs are written with some gusto, and the dialogue is often sparkling. While he was engaged in writing for the stage, Bickerstaffe enjoyed the society of the most famous men of his time. On 16 Oct. 1769, as recorded by Boswell, he was one of a company that dinftd in Boswell's rooms in Old Bond Street. The others were Dr. Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Goldsmith, Garrick, and Murphy. From an honourable position he afterwards sank into the deepest ignominy. He had been an officer in the marines, but was dismissed from the service under discreditable circumstances. In 1772, being suspected of a capital crime, he fled abroad. For a time he was living at St. Malo under an assumed name; and from that place he wrote in French a piteous letter to Garrick, dated 24 June 1772, in which he says: 'Ayant perdu mes amis, mes espérances, tombé, exilé et livré au désespoir comme je suis, la vie est un fardeau presque insupportable; j'étois loin de soupçonner que la dernière fois que j'entrais dans votre librairie, serait la derniére fois que j'y entrerais de ma vie, et que je ne reverrais plus le maitre.' The letter is endorsed by Garrick, 'From that poor wretch Bickerstaffe. I could not answer it.' In 1805 the author of the 'Thespian Dictionary' speaks of Bickerstaffe as then living abroad; and in 1812, if the statement of Stephen Jones in the 'Biographia Dramatica' is to be trusted, he was still dragging out his life (after forty years' exile), 'poor and despised of all orders of people.' What became of him afterwards is unknown. In 1812 he was an old man of seventy-seven years. Shortly after his flight in 1772 the malignant Dr. Kenrick published anonymously a venomous satire, 'Love in the Suds, a Town Eclogue; being the lamentation of Roscius for the loss of his Nyky,' fol., in which he did not scruple to make the grossest charges against Garrick. Doubtless Garrick had rejected some play offered by Kenrick, and the latter avenged himself by penning his abominable libel. A full account of Bickerstaffe's dramatic productions is given in 'Biographia Dramatica,' 1812. A copy, preserved in the British Museum, of a tract entitled 'The Life and Strange Unparaller'd And Unheard-of Voyages and Adventures of Ambrose Gwinet. . . . Written by Himself 8vo, 1770, has the following manuscript note by a former owner: 'Dr. Percy told me that he had heard that this pamphlet was a mere fiction, written by Mr. Bickerstaffe, the dramatic poet.'

[Thespian Dictionary, 1805; Biographia Dramatica, ed. Stephen Jones, 1812; Private Correspondence of David Garrick, 1831, i. 266-7, 273-5, 277, 417-18; Preface to the Maid of the Mill, in vol. viii. of Bell's British Theatre, 1797.]

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