Lillo, George (DNB00)
LILLO, GEORGE (1693–1739), dramatist, born on 4 Feb. 1693 in the neighbourhood of Moorfields, was the son of a Dutch jeweller and his English wife. He was brought up to the trade of his father, and was for several years in partnership with him in the city. He was bred as a dissenter, and this may account for the comparatively late date at which his taste for dramatic composition appears to have manifested itself. His first piece, ‘Silvia, or the Country Burial,’ which, though strictly moral, was otherwise no very favourable specimen of the ballad operas which had two years before come into fashion with the ‘Beggar's Opera,’ was brought out at Drury Lane on 10 Nov. 1730 and acted three times. In the following year Lillo produced at the same theatre, on 22 June, the tragedy of ‘The Merchant,’ soon afterwards renamed ‘The London Merchant, or the History of George Barnwell,’ which has made its author famous. The character of George Barnwell was represented by Theophilus Cibber, the manager of the summer company then performing at Drury Lane, his (first) wife taking the part of Maria, and Mrs. Butler that of Millwood. On the day before the production of the play many thousand copies had been sold of a specially printed edition of the old ballad on which it was based (it is to be found in Percy's ‘Reliques,’ 3rd ser. bk. iii. No. vi., and is there dated at least as early as the middle of the seventeenth century); and a clique of men about town brought a number of these with them to the playhouse with a view to mischief. But the success of the piece frustrated the cabal, and made those who had come to scoff ‘drop their ballads and pull out their handkerchiefs’ (‘Cibber,’ Life). Pope, who was present among other distinguished persons, warmly commended the piece, which achieved an extraordinary success. It was acted more than twenty times in the same summer to full houses, and, besides being produced at Goodman's Fields in the autumn, was frequently repeated at Drury Lane in the ensuing winter. It was patronised by the whole of the royal family, Queen Caroline being gratified in July 1731 with a sight of the manuscript at Hampton Court (Davies). But its warmest friends were the merchants of the city, several of whom bespoke it in turn. According to the author of ‘Cibber's Life of Lillo,’ it continued a stock play at Drury Lane till Theophilus Cibber left that house for Covent Garden, and was often acted in the Christmas and Easter holidays, being judged a proper entertainment for the apprentices. (This custom was probably of long endurance. At the Theatre Royal, Manchester, ‘George Barnwell’ used within a recent date to be annually performed on Shrove Tuesday.) ‘George Barnwell’ retained possession of the English stage for more than a century, and experienced some notable ‘revivals.’ Among these need only be mentioned that at Covent Garden on 28 Sept. 1796, when for the sake of her brother Charles Kemble, who appeared as the hero, Mrs. Siddons took the part of Millwood, and induced Miss Pope to act Lucy (Genest, vii. 287–8). Its popularity is further attested by various treatments of the same theme in novel and burlesque, Thackeray's ‘George de Barnwell’ being conspicuous among the latter.
In 1735 Lillo assigned the copyright of his play to his friend the bookseller, John Gray (who, after being a dissenting minister, became a clergyman), for the sum of 105l. (the deed is printed ap. Davies, i. 42–3). In the fifth edition of his play Lillo first inserted, before the last scene, the very powerful one at the place of execution, which, though generally omitted in representation by the London theatres, was revived at Bath in 1817 (Genest, iii. 295–6, viii. 631). From the date of the assignment it appears that Lillo was at the time a resident of Rotherhithe. In ‘Joseph Andrews’ (bk. iii. ch. x.) ‘the poet’ sneers at ‘a fellow in the City or Wapping, your Dillo or Lillo.’
Early in 1734, in reference to the approaching marriage of Anne, princess royal, to the Prince of Orange (William IV), Lillo, mindful perhaps of his own paternity, composed a patriotic but inane masque, printed in his works under the title of ‘Britannia and Batavia.’ It is probably identical with ‘Britannia, or the Royal Lovers,’ which was performed at Covent Garden on 11 Feb. 1734, and more than thirty times afterwards (cf. Genest, iii. 433). Like William Havard [q. v.] and Thomas Whincop [q. v.], Lillo based his next important dramatic venture on the story of Scanderbeg, the Albanian chieftain George Castriot. Havard's ‘Scanderbeg’ was produced in 1733 (ib. iii. 400). ‘The Christian Hero,’ by Lillo, was first acted at Drury Lane on 13 Jan. 1735, and was printed with a life of Scanderbeg, which there seems no sufficient reason for attributing to Lillo. It ran for four nights, but proved too ‘useful and solemn a representation’ for ‘the general taste of an English audience’ (T. Kirkman, Memoir of the Life of Charles Macklin, 1779, i. 184; cf. Biographia Dramatica, ii. 100). The piece by Whincop (who died in 1730) was posthumously published in 1747. Havard and Lillo were both accused of having ‘stolen the hint’ of their plays from Whincop's, which they had seen in manuscript (Davies; cf. Genest, iv. 227).
Towards the middle or end of 1736 (Genest, iii. 488–9, furnishes no precise date; in the ‘Life’ by ‘Cibber’ the play is said to have been ‘acted with success in 1737’) Lillo's ‘Fatal Curiosity’ was produced at the Haymarket. In full sympathy with the realistic element in Lillo's dramatic genius, Fielding, who was then managing the Haymarket, took upon himself the instruction of the actors, showed much civility to the author, warmly commended the play to his friends, wrote a prologue, and henceforth in his writings repeatedly testified to his appreciation of merits which the superfine thought it easy to sneer down. The story of the piece is taken from the contemporary narrative, first put forth in a pamphlet entitled ‘Newes from Perin in Cornwall,’ and afterwards retold in Frankland's ‘Annals,’ 1681, but more probably first known to Lillo through the medium of an old ballad, of a murder which had actually taken place at Bohelland Farm, near Penryn, in September 1618 (see Boase and Courtney, Bibl. Cornub. i. 319). (As to Italian and Norman analogues, see Dunlop, History of Fiction, ed. 1845, p. 277; as to other, especially German, traditions of the same kind, see Erich Schmidt's note in Vierteljahrschrift für Litteraturgeschichte, Weimar, 1888, i. 503.) Lillo's play, which at first found little favour, proved more successful in the following season, having been ‘tacked’ by Fielding to his popular ‘Historical Register for 1736,’ and was often repeated (Genest, iii. 489). It was occasionally revived at later dates: on 29 June 1782 at the Haymarket by the elder Colman, whose attention had doubtless been attracted by an appreciative analysis of the play in the ‘Philological Inquiries’ of James Harris (1781), and whose version, slightly altered from the original, was afterwards printed (1783) (Biographia Dramatica). In the following year (10 Feb. 1784) another version of the play, expanded into five acts by Henry Mackenzie, the ‘Man of Feeling,’ was performed at Covent Garden under the title of ‘The Shipwreck’ (Genest, vi. 310). On 1 May 1797 ‘Fatal Curiosity’ was played at Drury Lane for the benefit of Mrs. Siddons, she and John Kemble taking the parts of Agnes and Old Wilmot, and Charles Kemble that of Randal. Finally, Genest (viii. 388) notes a performance of the play at Bath on 13 July 1808, under the title of ‘The Cornish Shipwreck, or Fatal Curiosity,’ in which there was an additional scene, said to be by Lillo, but not printed in any of the extant editions of the play—bringing on the stage Young Wilmot after he has been stabbed by his father—with the result of the performance being stopped by the audience. It should be added that the story of ‘Fatal Curiosity,’ after first suggesting to Karl Philipp Moritz his one-act play, ‘Blunt, oder der Gast,’ Berlin, 1781, and to W. H. Brömet his ‘Stolz und Verzweiflung, Schauspiel in drey Acten,’ Leipzig, 1785, was treated by Zacharias Werner in the far more celebrated tragedy, also in one act, ‘Der vierundzwanzigste Februar,’ acted at Weimar in 1810, and first printed in the journal ‘Urania,’ 1815 (see J. Minor, Introduction to Das Schicksalsdrama, Berlin and Stuttgart, n.d. Some curious particulars about the play are given in Notes and Queries, 6th ser. v. 21–3). It was at the rehearsals for the original production of ‘Fatal Curiosity’ at the Haymarket that Lillo's future editor and biographer, ‘Tom Davies’ [q. v.], who was cast for the part of Young Wilmot, made the acquaintance of the author. He describes Lillo as plain and simple in his address, and at the same time modest, affable, and engaging in conversation. Elsewhere he states him to have been in person lusty, but not tall, and of a pleasing aspect, though deprived of the sight of one eye.
With this second signal effort Lillo's creative vein appears to have exhausted itself. His next play, ‘Marina,’ produced at Covent Garden on 1 Aug. 1738, and acted three times, is an adaptation of ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyre,’ of which, however, the first three acts are omitted (cf. Genest, iii. 561–7). Lillo lived to finish a worthier piece of work, the tragedy of ‘Elmerick, or Justice Triumphant,’ founded on a perversion of an episode of the reign of King Andrew II of Hungary, which he left to the care of his friend John Gray, with a dying request that on publication it should be dedicated to Frederick, prince of Wales. Whether or not through the influence of the prince, whose friend James Hammond [q. v.] interested himself in the play and furnished a prologue and an epilogue, ‘Elmerick’ was produced at Drury Lane on 23 Feb. 1740; on the 26th it was acted for the third time, ‘for the benefit of the author's poor relations, and by command of the Prince and Princess of Wales’ (ib. iii. 607–8). It is, as Genest truly remarks, a good play of its kind—the frigid declamatory—though erring by its vindication of justice through violence. The influence of Hughes's ‘Siege of Damascus’ (1720) is unmistakable. The part of the hero is said to have admirably suited Quin.
If a passage in the prologue to ‘Elmerick’ is to be taken literally, Lillo was at the time of his writing this play
Deprest by want, afflicted by disease;
but in addition to the improbability of the statement, which was doubtless only intended ad captandum, Davies had it on the authority of a former partner in Lillo's business that he died in very easy circumstances, and left the bulk of his fortune, which included an estate of 60l. per annum, to his nephew, John Underwood. This was confirmed by Lillo's will, which was shown to his biographer by the son of his nephew, likewise a city jeweller. Davies had moreover heard that by his plays Lillo had in the course of seven years accumulated not much less than 800l. He died on 3 Sept. 1739, and was buried in the vault of St. Leonard's, Shoreditch (Gent. Mag. 1739, p. 496; ‘Cibber,’ Life).
Lillo left behind him an unfinished adaptation of the powerful Elizabethan ‘domestic tragedy,’ ‘Arden of Feversham,’ which, according to Roberts, an actor well acquainted with him, was put together as early as 1736 (Davies, i. 36), and was revised or completed after Lillo's death by Dr. John Hoadly, afterwards chaplain to Frederick, prince of Wales. It did not, however, see the footlights till 19 July 1759, when it was acted at Drury Lane (Genest, iv. 555). It reappeared, in a reduced form, at Covent Garden on 14 April 1790 (ib. vi. 602). Lillo's softening of the character of Alicia, the sinning wife, shows theatrical instinct. He is also said to have left behind him a comedy called ‘The Regulators,’ of which no trace has been discovered (cf. Davies, ii. 239–40).
Fielding, in a generous tribute paid to Lillo soon after his death, in the ‘Champion’ (cited ib. i. 32; and Chalmers, xx. 264), declares that ‘he had the spirit of an old Roman, joined to the innocence of a primitive Christian.’ The author of the ‘Life’ published in the name of Theophilus Cibber less grandiloquently describes him as ‘a man of strict morals, great good-nature, and sound sense, with an uncommon share of modesty.’ ‘George Barnwell,’ which owed little or nothing to any literary predecessor, contributed more effectively than any other English eighteenth-century drama—more effectively even than its lineal successors, Edward Moore's ‘Gamester’ (1753) and the plays of Richard Cumberland—to popularise the species known as the ‘domestic drama.’ In England the new style was not very long-lived on the stage, but it bore enduring fruits in the novel, more especially in the hands of Lillo's friend, Fielding. In France, Diderot and others followed in the footsteps of Lillo; in Germany, Lessing, in his ‘Miss Sara Sampson’ (1755), distinctly introduced the new species into the German drama, and found in it for a time a valuable ally in his campaign against the French ‘classical’ theatre (cf. W. Cosack, Materialien zu Lessing's Hamburgischer Dramaturgie, Paderborn, 1876, pp. 83–5, and among the authorities cited by him, especially H. Hettner, Litteraturgeschichte des 18ten Jahrhunderts, i. 514 sqq.) Nevertheless Lillo, like many other reformers, cast a lingering look upon what he was leaving behind him, viz. the heroic drama. Pope gently hinted at the chief defect in ‘George Barnwell,’ its occasionally stilted diction, much of which is in bastard blank-verse. Lillo's ‘Fatal Curiosity,’ where his natural capacity gets the better of his ambition, is indisputably thrilling, and he cannot be held responsible for his tour de force having, directly or indirectly, been made the starting-point of a new and not very praiseworthy series of ‘fatality’ plays.
[Lillo's Dramatic Works, with Memoir of the Author by Thomas Davies, 2 vols. 2nd edit. 1810; Life of Lillo in vol. v. of ‘Cibber's’ Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, 1753; Genest's Account of the English Stage; Biographia Dramatica, ed. 1812; Brayley and Mantell's Surrey, iii. p. 274; A. Brandl's Zu Lillo's Kaufmann von London, in Vierteljahrschrift für Litteraturgeschichte, iii. 47 sqq.]