Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Miller, Joseph
MILLER, JOSEPH or JOSIAS, commonly called Joe Miller (1684–1738), actor and reputed humourist, may have been related to the proprietors of ‘Miller's Droll Booth,’ which occupied a prominent place in St. Bartholomew's Fair from 1699 to 1731 (Morley, Bartholomew's Fair, pp. 263, 280, 319). He first joined the Drury Lane company in the winter season of 1709. On 28 Nov., when Sir Robert Howard's ‘Committee’ was produced at Drury Lane, he appears to have filled the part of Teague, and was described as ‘one who never appeared on the stage before’ (Genest, Hist. Account, ii. 431). The part was subsequently a favourite one with Miller's admirers; ‘though the gentlemen of Ireland would never admit that he had the true brogue, yet he substituted something in the room of it that made his Teague very diverting to an English audience’ (Victor). On 3 Dec. 1709 he was Jeremy in Congreve's ‘Love for Love,’ and on 17 Dec. Clip in Vanbrugh's ‘Confederacy.’ He did not reappear at Drury Lane till the autumn of 1714, and was thenceforth a prominent member of the company. On 4 Feb. 1715 he was Sneak in Charles Johnson's new play ‘The County Lasses;’ on the 22nd Kate Matchlock in Sir Richard Steele's ‘Funeral;’ and next day Sir Roger in the initial representation of Gay's ‘What d'ye call it?’ On 30 April he first appeared in what soon became another of his most popular rôles—Young Clincher in Farquhar's ‘Constant Couple.’ On 7 May he and Mrs. Cox took a joint benefit, when he figured as Old Wilfull in Cibber's ‘Double Gallant,’ and he was Cokes in Jonson's ‘Bartholomew Fair’ on 28 June. During the season of 1715–16 he was Sir Jolly Jumble in Otway's ‘Soldier's Fortune’ (17 Jan. 1716), Trico in ‘Ignoramus’ (19 June), Sir Mannerly Shallow in Crowne's ‘Country Wit’ (12 July), besides filling many inferior parts. On 2 April Brome's ‘Jovial Crew’ was acted for his benefit, when he doubtless assumed the character of Tallboy, which was always reckoned among his successes. On 27 Oct. 1716 he acted Clodpole in Betterton's ‘Amorous Widow’ to Colley Cibber's Brittle; on the 30th was Squire Somebody in Farquhar's ‘Stage Coach;’ on 13 Nov. Lance in Beaumont and Fletcher's ‘Wit without Money;’ and on 27 Nov. Sir Harry Gubbin in Steele's ‘Tender Husband.’ On 25 April 1717 he took his benefit as Sir Joseph Wittoll in Congreve's ‘Old Bachelor.’ A theatre ticket engraved for the occasion, on which a scene from the third act of this play is depicted, has been doubtfully assigned to Hogarth, who was then only nineteen. A copy is in the print room at the British Museum. It is reproduced in ‘The Family Joe Miller’ in 1848, but is generally regarded as a forgery (Nichols, Anecdotes of Hogarth, p. 301).
Miller's chief triumphs in succeeding seasons (1717–1728) were in such parts as Marplot in Mrs. Centlivre's ‘Busybody’ (29 Oct. 1718), doubtless in succession to Pack; Trinculo in the ‘Tempest’ (11 Dec.); Foigard in Farquhar's ‘Beaux' Stratagem’ (16 Dec.); Osric in ‘Hamlet’ (2 Jan. 1720); Sir William Belfond, an original part, in Shadwell's ‘Squire of Alsatia’ (20 Sept. 1720); Kastril in Jonson's ‘Alchemist’ (27 Oct. 1721); Sir Philip Moneylove in Mrs. Centlivre's ‘Artifice,’ a new piece (2 Oct. 1722); Roderigo in ‘Othello’ (3 Sept. 1726); Abel Drugger in the ‘Alchemist’ (20 Oct.); John Moody in Vanbrugh's and Cibber's ‘Provoked Husband,’ an original part (10 Jan. 1728); and Sir Apish Simple in Fielding's ‘Love in Several Masques’ (10 Feb.) In 1729—on 7 Jan. and 6 Feb. respectively—he filled parts in two new pieces, Cimon in Cibber's ‘Love in a Riddle,’ and Brush in Charles Johnson's ‘Village Opera.’ He was in the same year Dashwell in Johnson's ‘Country Lasses,’ and Brush in Farquhar's ‘Constant Couple’ (10 Feb. 1730).
In the autumn of 1731 Miller temporarily left Drury Lane owing to ‘some mean economy of the managers’ (Davies), and was engaged at Goodman's Fields, where he made a first appearance as Teague in the ‘Committee’ (3 Jan. 1732). All his favourite rôles followed, including Foigard, in which he took his benefit on 23 March. He was also the First Gravedigger in ‘Hamlet’ (26 Feb.), Robin in Carey's ‘Contrivances’ (23 May), and on 10 May he was announced to appear ‘for the last time that season’ as Ben in ‘Love for Love’—a part in which he was an acknowledged ‘favourite of the town’ (Davies). He returned to Drury Lane in the winter of 1732, and acted Jack Straw in the ‘Alchemist’ on 19 Jan. 1733. On 23 Sept. 1734 he reappeared as Sir William Belfond in Shadwell's ‘Squire of Alsatia.’ On 1 Feb. 1737 he created the part of John Cockle the Miller in Dodsley's ‘Miller of Mansfield.’ Next season he appeared as Pompey in a revival of ‘Measure for Measure’ (26 Jan. 1738), and was the First Witch in ‘Macbeth’ five days later. On 23 Feb. 1738 he assumed the rôle of Sir John Cockle at the first performance of Dodsley's ‘Sir John Cockle at Court.’ On 13 April he took his benefit both as Ben in ‘Love for Love’ and the ‘Miller of Mansfield.’ There followed his renderings of Dr. Caius in the ‘Merry Wives’ (3 May), Lord Sands in ‘Henry VIII’ (6 May), Colonel Cocade in James Miller's ‘Man of Taste’ (13 June), Wittol (16 June), and Teague (19 June). His final appearance was as Abel Drugger (27 June 1738) in the ‘Alchemist.’ Genest enumerates fifty-nine different characters in a selected list of his parts.
Miller secured a good position at Drury Lane, and was a member of the committee of actors which proposed to rent the theatre of Fleetwood, the lessee, in 1735 (Cibber, Apology, ed. Lowe, ii. 262). Victor describes him as ‘a natural spirited comedian,’ and adds that he long enjoyed a good salary, ‘a full proof of the force of his abilities.’ Davies calls him a ‘lively comic actor.’ He was unable to read, and ‘his principal object in marrying was to have a wife who was able to read his parts to him.’ He is vaguely reported to have been of convivial disposition, and to have spent much time at the Bull's Head in Spring Gardens, Charing Cross, or at the Black Jack in Portsmouth Street, Clare-market. He resided in Clare-market, and, according to very doubtful evidence, at one time himself kept a tavern in the neighbourhood. His boon companions are reported to have included James Spiller, the actor, and Hogarth. Miller died on 16 Aug. 1738, aged 54. The ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ 1738, p. 436, describes him as ‘Mr. Joseph Miller, a celebrated comedian.’ Genest asserts, on the other hand, that his christian name was Josias. He was buried in St. Clement's burial-ground, Portugal Street, Clare-market. The inscription on his grave, written by Stephen Duck, described him as ‘a tender husband, a sincere friend, a facetious companion, and an excellent comedian,’ and emphasised his ‘honesty and wit and humour.’ The monument, which only gives his christian name as ‘Joe,’ was restored in 1816 by ‘Jarvis Buck, churchwarden,’ and was finally destroyed in 1852, when an extension of King's College Hospital was erected on the site of the burial-ground (cf. Notes and Queries, 1st ser. v. 485).
His widow, Henrietta Maria, was accorded a benefit at Drury Lane on 14 Dec. 1738, when ‘Hamlet’ was performed with satisfactory results (cf. Genest, iii. 573).
Miller's chief reputation was made for him, after his death, by John Mottley [q. v.], who was commissioned by a publisher, T. Read, in 1739 to compile a collection of jests, and unwarrantably entitled his work ‘Joe Miller's Jests.’ Whincop writes in his account of Mottley that ‘the book that bears the title of “Joe Miller's Jests” was a collection made by him [i.e. Mottley] from other books, and great part of it supplied by his memory from among stories recollected in his former conversations.’ Miller is mentioned as the hero of three of the recorded anecdotes, but the name is introduced without historic justification. The jests are of a homely tone, often lack point, and rarely excite merriment in the modern reader. Most of them are borrowed from earlier collections, none of which were very exhilarating. The full title of the rare first edition ran: ‘Joe Miller's Jests; or the Wits Vade-Mecum. Being a Collection of the most Brilliant Jests; the Politest Repartees; the most Elegant Bon-Mots, and most pleasant short Stories in the English Language. First carefully collected in the company, and many of them transcribed from the mouth of the Facetious Gentleman whose name they bear; and now set forth and published by his lamentable friend and former companion, Elijah Jenkins, Esq. Most Humbly Inscribed to those Choice Spirits of the Age, Captain Bodens, Mr. Alexander Pope, Mr. Professor Lacy, Mr. Orator Henley, and Job Baker, the Kettle-Drummer. London: Printed and sold by T. Read in Dogwell Court, White Fryars, Fleet Street. mdccxxxix. (Price One Shilling.)’ The work in this form contained 247 witticisms. A lithographed facsimile was prepared in 1861 by M. J. Bellars. The number of jests had risen in the third edition, issued in the same year as the first, to 273. A fourth edition appeared in 1740, a fifth in 1742, a sixth in 1743, and a seventh in 1744. The eighth of 1745 supplied large additions, bringing the total of ‘The Jests’ to 587, and appending for the first time ‘a choice collection of moral sentences and of the most pointed and truly valuable epigrams in the British tongue, with the names of the authors to such as are known.’ A ninth edition of the work in this enlarged form appeared in 1747, and a tenth in 1751. Others are dated 1762 and 1771, and reissues, perfect and imperfect, often in chapbook form, have repeatedly come from the press both in this country and America until the present time, while Joe Miller's name has long been a synonym for a jest or witty anecdote of ancient flavour. An edition published at New York in 1865 supplies as many as 1,286 jests.
Several engraved portraits are known. One after C. Stoppelaer, dated 1738, as Teague, by Andrew Miller [q. v.]; another by Charles Mosley as Sir Joseph Wittoll (in ‘The Jests,’ 8th edit. 1745).