Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography/Chapter XXXVII

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Chapter XXXVII[edit]


The gay life depicted in the two last chapters, while it kept Goldsmith in a state of continual excitement, aggravated the malady which was impairing his constitution; yet his increasing perplexities in money matters drove him to the dissipation of society as a relief from solitary care. The delays of the theater added to those perplexities. He had long since finished his new comedy, yet the year 1772 passed away without his being able to get it on the stage. No one, uninitiated in the interior of a theater, that little world of traps and trickery, can have any idea of the obstacles and perplexities multiplied in the way of the most eminent and successful author by the mismanagement of managers, the jealousies and intrigues of rival authors, and the fantastic and impertinent caprices of actors. A long and baffling negotiation was carried on between Goldsmith and Colman, the manager of Covent Garden; who retained the play in his hands until the middle of January (1773), without coming to a decision. The theatrical season was rapidly passing away, and Goldsmith's pecuniary difficulties were augmenting and pressing on him. We may judge of his anxiety by the following letter:

"To George Colman, Esq.

"DEAR SIR--I entreat you'll relieve me from that state of suspense in which I have been kept for a long time. Whatever objections you have made or shall make to my play, I will endeavor to remove and not argue about them. To bring in any new judges, either of its merits or faults, I can never submit to. Upon a former occasion, when my other play was before Mr. Garrick, he offered to bring me before Mr. Whitehead's tribunal, but I refused the proposal with indignation: I hope I shall not experience as harsh treatment from you as from him. I have, as you know, a large sum of money to make up shortly; by accepting my play, I can readily satisfy my creditor that way; at any rate, I must look about to some certainty to be prepared. For God's sake take the play, and let us make the best of it, and let me have the same measure, at least, which you have given as bad plays as mine. I am your friend and servant,


Colman returned the manuscript with the blank sides of the leaves scored with disparaging comments and suggested alterations, but with the intimation that the faith of the theater should be kept, and the play acted notwithstanding. Goldsmith submitted the criticisms to some of his friends, who pronounced them trivial, unfair, and contemptible, and intimated that Colman, being a dramatic writer himself, might be actuated by jealousy. The play was then sent, with Colman's comments written on it, to Garrick; but he had scarce sent it when Johnson interfered, represented the evil that might result from an apparent rejection of it by Covent Garden, and undertook to go forthwith to Colman, and have a talk with him on the subject. Goldsmith, therefore, penned the following note to Garrick:

"DEAR SIR--I ask many pardons for the trouble I gave you yesterday. Upon more mature deliberation, and the advice of a sensible friend, I began to think it indelicate in me to throw upon you the odium of confirming Mr. Colman's sentence. I therefore request you will send my play back by my servant; for, having been assured of having it acted at the other house, though I confess yours in every respect more to my wish, yet it would be folly in me to forego an advantage which lies in my power of appealing from Mr. Colman's opinion to the judgment of the town. I entreat, if not too late, you will keep this affair a secret for some time.

"I am, dear sir, your very humble servant,


The negotiation of Johnson with the manager of Covent Garden was effective. "Colman," he says, "was prevailed on at last, by much solicitation, nay, a kind of force," to bring forward the comedy. Still the manager was ungenerous; or, at least, indiscreet enough to express his opinion, that it would not reach a second representation. The plot, he said, was bad, and the interest not sustained; "it dwindled, and dwindled, and at last went out like the snuff of a candle." The effect of his croaking was soon apparent within the walls of the theater. Two of the most popular actors, Woodward and Gentleman Smith, to whom the parts of Tony Lumpkin and Young Marlow were assigned, refused to act them; one of them alleging, in excuse, the evil predictions of the manager. Goldsmith was advised to postpone the performance of his play until he could get these important parts well supplied. "No," said he, "I would sooner that my play were damned by bad players than merely saved by good acting."

Quick was substituted for Woodward in Tony Lumpkin, and Lee Lewis, the harlequin of the theater, for Gentleman Smith in Young Marlow; and both did justice to their parts.

Great interest was taken by Goldsmith's friends in the success of his piece. The rehearsals were attended by Johnson, Cradock, Murphy, Reynolds and his sister, and the whole Horneck connection, including, of course, the "Jessamy Bride," whose presence may have contributed to flutter the anxious heart of the author. The rehearsals went off with great applause, but that Colman attributed to the partiality of friends. He continued to croak, and refused to risk any expense in new scenery or dresses on a play which he was sure would prove a failure.

The time was at hand for the first representation, and as yet the comedy was without a title. "We are all in labor for a name for Goldy's play," said Johnson, who, as usual, took a kind of fatherly protecting interest in poor Goldsmith's affairs. The Old House a New Inn was thought of for a time, but still did not please. Sir Joshua Reynolds proposed The Belle's Stratagem, an elegant title, but not considered applicable, the perplexities of the comedy being produced by the mistake of the hero, not the stratagem of the heroine. The name was afterward adopted by Mrs. Cowley for one of her comedies. The Mistakes of a Night was the title at length fixed upon, to which Goldsmith prefixed the words She Stoops to Conquer.

The evil bodings of Colman still continued; they were even communicated in the box office to the servant of the Duke of Gloucester, who was sent to engage a box. Never did the play of a popular writer struggle into existence through more difficulties.

In the meantime Foote's Primitive Puppet-show, entitled the Handsome Housemaid, or Piety on Pattens, had been brought out at the Haymarket on the 15th of February. All the world, fashionable and unfashionable, had crowded to the theater. The street was thronged with equipages--the doors were stormed by the mob. The burlesque was completely successful, and sentimental comedy received its quietus. Even Garrick, who had recently befriended it, now gave it a kick, as he saw it going down hill, and sent Goldsmith a humorous prologue to help his comedy of the opposite school. Garrick and Goldsmith, however, were now on very cordial terms, to which the social meetings in the circle of the Hornecks and Bunburys may have contributed.

On the 15th of March the new comedy was to be performed. Those who had stood up for its merits, and been irritated and disgusted by the treatment it had received from the manager, determined to muster their forces, and aid in giving it a good launch upon the town. The particulars of this confederation, and of its triumphant success, are amusingly told by Cumberland in his memoirs.

"We were not over-sanguine of success, but perfectly determined to struggle hard for our author. We accordingly assembled our strength at the Shakespeare Tavern, in a considerable body, for an early dinner, where Samuel Johnson took the chair at the head of a long table, and was the life and soul of the corps: the poet took post silently by his side, with the Burkes, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Fitzherbert, Caleb Whitefoord, and a phalanx of North British, predetermined applauders, under the banner of Major Mills, all good men and true. Our illustrious president was in inimitable glee; and poor Goldsmith that day took all his raillery as patiently and complacently as my friend Boswell would have done any day or every day of his life. In the meantime, we did not forget our duty; and though we had a better comedy going, in which Johnson was chief actor, we betook ourselves in good time to our separate and allotted posts, and waited the awful drawing up of the curtain. As our stations were preconcerted, so were our signals for plaudits arranged and determined upon in a manner that gave every one his cue where to look for them, and how to follow them up.

"We had among us a very worthy and efficient member, long since lost to his friends and the world at large, Adam Drummond, of amiable memory, who was gifted by nature with the most sonorous, and, at the same time, the most contagious laugh that ever echoed from the human lungs. The neighing of the horse of the son of Hystaspes was a whisper to it; the whole thunder of the theater could not drown it. This kind and ingenious friend fairly forewarned us that he knew no more when to give his fire than the cannon did that was planted on a battery. He desired, therefore, to have a flapper at his elbow, and I had the honor to be deputed to that office. I planted him in an upper box, pretty nearly over the stage, in full view of the pit and galleries, and perfectly well situated to give the echo all its play through the hollows and recesses of the theater. The success of our maneuver was complete. All eyes were upon Johnson, who sat in a front row of a side box; and when he laughed, everybody thought themselves warranted to roar. In the meantime, my friend followed signals with a rattle so irresistibly comic that, when he had repeated it several times, the attention of the spectators was so engrossed by his person and performances that the progress of the play seemed likely to become a secondary object, and I found it prudent to insinuate to him that he might halt his music without any prejudice to the author; but alas! it was now too late to rein him in; he had laughed upon my signal where he found no joke, and now, unluckily, he fancied that he found a joke in almost everything that was said; so that nothing in nature could be more malapropos than some of his bursts every now and then were. These were dangerous moments, for the pit began to take umbrage; but we carried our point through, and triumphed not only over Colman's judgment, but our own."

Much of this statement has been condemned as exaggerated or discolored. Cumberland's memoirs have generally been characterized as partaking of romance, and in the present instance he had particular motives for tampering with the truth. He was a dramatic writer himself, jealous of the success of a rival, and anxious to have it attributed to the private management of friends. According to various accounts, public and private, such management was unnecessary, for the piece was "received throughout with the greatest acclamations."

Goldsmith, in the present instance, had not dared, as on a former occasion, to be present at the first performance. He had been so overcome by his apprehensions that, at the preparatory dinner he could hardly utter a word, and was so choked that he could not swallow a mouthful. When his friends trooped to the theater, he stole away to St. James' Park: there he was found by a friend between seven and eight o'clock, wandering up and down the Mall like a troubled spirit. With difficulty he was persuaded to go to the theater, where his presence might be important should any alteration be necessary. He arrived at the opening of the fifth act, and made his way behind the scenes. Just as he entered there was a slight hiss at the improbability of Tony Lumpkin's trick on his mother, in persuading her she was forty miles off, on Crackskull Common, though she had been trundled about on her own grounds. "What's that? what's that!" cried Goldsmith to the manager, in great agitation. "Pshaw! doctor," replied Colman, sarcastically, "don't be frightened at a squib, when we've been sitting these two hours on a barrel of gunpowder!" Though of a most forgiving nature Goldsmith did not easily forget this ungracious and ill-timed sally.

If Colman was indeed actuated by the paltry motives ascribed to him in his treatment of this play, he was most amply punished by its success, and by the taunts, epigrams, and censures leveled at him through the press, in which his false prophecies were jeered at; his critical judgment called in question; and he was openly taxed with literary jealousy. So galling and unremitting was the fire, that he at length wrote to Goldsmith, entreating him "to take him off the rack of the newspapers"; in the meantime, to escape the laugh that was raised about him in the theatrical world of London, he took refuge in Bath during the triumphant career of the comedy.

The following is one of the many squibs which assailed the ears of the manager:



 "Come, Coley, doff those mourning weeds,
    Nor thus with jokes be flamm'd;
  Tho' Goldsmith's present play succeeds,
    His next may still be damn'd.

 "As this has 'scaped without a fall,
    To sink his next prepare;
  New actors hire from Wapping Wall,
    And dresses from Rag Fair.

 "For scenes let tatter'd blankets fly,
    The prologue Kelly write;
  Then swear again the piece must die
    Before the author's night.

 "Should these tricks fail, the lucky elf,
    To bring to lasting shame,
  E'en write the best you can yourself,
    And print it in his name."

The solitary hiss, which had startled Goldsmith, was ascribed by some of the newspaper scribblers to Cumberland himself, who was "manifestly miserable" at the delight of the audience, or to Ossian Macpherson, who was hostile to the whole Johnson clique, or to Goldsmith's dramatic rival, Kelly. The following is one of the epigrams which appeared:

   "At Dr. Goldsmith's merry play,
    All the spectators laugh, they say;
    The assertion, sir, I must deny,
    For Cumberland and Kelly cry.

  "Ride, si sapis."

Another, addressed to Goldsmith, alludes to Kelly's early apprenticeship to stay-making:

  "If Kelly finds fault with the shape of your muse,
    And thinks that too loosely it plays,
  He surely, dear doctor, will never refuse
    To make it a new Pair of Stays!"

Cradock had returned to the country before the production of the play; the following letter, written just after the performance, gives an additional picture of the thorns which beset an author in the path of theatrical literature:

"MY DEAR SIR--The play has met with a success much beyond your expectations or mine. I thank you sincerely for your epilogue, which, however, could not be used, but with your permission shall be printed. The story in short is this. Murphy sent me rather the outline of an epilogue than an epilogue, which was to be sung by Miss Catley, and which she approved; Mrs. Bulkley hearing this, insisted on throwing up her part" (Miss Hardcastle) "unless, according to the custom of the theater, she were permitted to speak the epilogue. In this embarrassment I thought of making a quarreling epilogue between Catley and her, debating who should speak the epilogue; but then Mrs. Catley refused after I had taken the trouble of drawing it out. I was then at a loss indeed; an epilogue was to be made, and for none but Mrs. Bulkley. I made one, and Colman thought it too bad to be spoken; I was obliged, therefore, to try a fourth time, and I made a very mawkish thing, as you'll shortly see. Such is the history of my stage adventures, and which I have at last done with. I cannot help saying that I am very sick of the stage; and though I believe I shall get three tolerable benefits, yet I shall, on the whole, be a loser, even in a pecuniary light; my ease and comfort I certainly lost while it was in agitation.

"I am, my dear Cradock, your obliged and obedient servant, OLIVER GOLDSMITH.

"P.S.--Present my most humble respects to Mrs. Cradock."

Johnson, who had taken such a conspicuous part in promoting the interests of poor "Goldy," was triumphant at the success of the piece. "I know of no comedy for many years," said he, "that has so much exhilarated an audience; that has answered so much the great end of comedy--making an audience merry."

Goldsmith was happy, also, in gleaning applause from less authoritative sources. Northcote, the painter, then a youthful pupil of Sir Joshua Reynolds; and Ralph, Sir Joshua's confidential man, had taken their stations in the gallery to lead the applause in that quarter. Goldsmith asked Northcote's opinion of the play. The youth modestly declared he could not presume to judge in such matters. "Did it make you laugh?" "Oh. exceedingly!" "That is all I require," replied Goldsmith; and rewarded him for his criticism by box-tickets for his first benefit night.

The comedy was immediately put to press, and dedicated to Johnson in the following grateful and affectionate terms:

"In inscribing this slight performance to you, I do not mean so much to compliment you as myself. It may do me some honor to inform the public that I have lived many years in intimacy with you. It may serve the interests of mankind also to inform them that the greatest wit may be found in a character, without impairing the most unaffected piety."

The copyright was transferred to Mr. Newbery, according to agreement, whose profits on the sale of the work far exceeded the debts for which the author in his perplexities had pre-engaged it. The sum which accrued to Goldsmith from his benefit nights afforded but a slight palliation of his pecuniary difficulties. His friends, while they exulted in his success, little knew of his continually increasing embarrassments, and of the anxiety of mind which kept tasking his pen while it impaired the ease and freedom of spirit necessary to felicitous composition.