George Colman by
That a life of this eminent and much regretted man
will be written by some competent author, there can be little doubt.
That he himself extended his "Random Records" no further
than two volumes, containing the history and anecdotes of the
early part of his career, is greatly to be lamented. What is
here collected is merely worthy of being called "Recollections,"
and does not assume to itself the character of a piece of biography.
Mr. Colman was the grandson of Francis Colman, Esq.
British Resident at the Court of Tuscany at Pisa, who married a sister
of the Countess of Bath. George Colman the elder, father of
him of whom we write, was born about the year 1733, at Florence,
and was placed at an early age at Westminster School,
where he very soon distinguished himself by the rapidity of his
attainments. In 1748 he went to Christchurch College, Oxford,
where he took his Master's degree; and shortly became the
friend and associate of Churchill, Bonnell Thornton, Lloyd,
and the other principal wits and writers of the day.
Lord Bath was greatly struck by his merit and
accomplishments, and induced him to adopt the law as his profession.
He accordingly entered at Lincoln's Inn, and was eventually called
to the bar. It appears—as it happened afterwards to his son—that
the drier pursuits of his vocation were neglected or abandoned
in favour of literature and the drama. His first poetical
performance was a copy of verses addressed to his cousin, Lord
Pulteney. But it was not till 1760 that he produced any dramatic
work: in that year he brought out "Polly Honeycombe,"
which met with considerable success.
It is remarkable that, previous to that season, no new
comedy had been produced at either theatre for nine years; and equally
remarkable that the year 1761 should have brought before the
public "The Jealous Wife," by Colman, "The way to Keep
Him," by Murphy, and "The Married Libertine," by Macklin.
In the following year Lord Bath died, and left Mr. Colman
a very comfortable annuity, but less in value than he had anticipated.
In 1767, General Pulteney, Lord Bath's successor, died,
and left him a second annuity, which secured him in independence
for life. And here it may be proper to notice a subject
which George Colman the younger has touched before in his
"Random Records," in which he corrects a hasty and incautious
error of the late Margravine of Anspach, committed by her, in
her "Memoirs." Speaking of George Colman the elder, she says,
"He was a natural son of Lord Bath, Sir James
Pulteney; and his father, perceiving in the son a passion for plays, asked
him fairly if he never intended to turn his thoughts to politics,
as it was his desire to see him a minister, which, with his natural
endowments, and the expense and pains he had bestowed on his
education, he had reason to imagine, with his interest, he might
become. His father desired to know if he would give up the
Muses for diplomacy, and plays for politics; as, in that case,
he meant to give him his whole fortune. Colman thanked Lord
Bath for his kind communication, but candidly said, that he
preferred Thalia and Melpomene to ambition of any kind, for
the height of his wishes was to become, at some future time, the
manager of a theatre. Lord Bath left him fifteen hundred
pounds a-year, instead of all his immense wealth."
Mr. Colman, after exposing the strange mistake of calling
the Sir William Pulteney, James, goes on to state, that, being
the son of his wife's sister, Lord Bath, on the death of Francis
Colman (his brother-in-law), which occurred when the elder
George was but one year old, took him entirely under his protection,
and placed him progressively at Westminster, Oxford,
and Lincoln's Inn. In corroboration of the else unquestioned
truth of this statement, he refers to the posthumous pamphlets
of his highly-gifted parent, and justly takes credit for
saving him from imputed illegitimacy, by explaining that his
grandmother was exempt from the conjugal frailty of Venus,
and his grandfather from the fate of Vulcan.
George Colman the elder suffered severely from the effects
of a paralytic affection, which, in the year 1790, produced mental
derangement; and, after living in seclusion for four years, he
died on the 14th of April 1794, having been during his life a
joint proprietor of Covent Garden Theatre, and sole proprietor
of the little theatre in the Haymarket.
George Colman the younger became, at Westminster,
the schoolfellow and associate of the present Archbishop of York,
the Marquess of Anglesea, the late Earl of Buckinghamshire,
Doctor Robert Willis, Mr. Reynolds, his brother dramatist, the
present Earl Somers, and many other persons, who have since,
like himself, become distinguished members of society.
The account which Mr. Colman gives of his introduction
by his father to Johnson, Goldsmith, and Foote, when a child, is so
highly graphic, and so strongly characteristic of the man, that
we give an abridgement of it here:
"On the day of my introduction," says Colman, "Dr.
Johnson was asked to dinner at my father's house in Soho-square, and
the erudite savage came a full hour before his time. My father,
having dressed himself hastily, took me with him into the drawing-room.
"On our entrance, we found Johnson sitting in a fauteuil
of rose-coloured satin. He was dressed in a rusty suit of brown,
cloth dittos, with black worsted stockings; his old yellow wig
was of formidable dimensions; and the learned head which sustained
it rolled about in a seemingly paralytic motion; but, in
the performance of its orbit, it inclined chiefly to one shoulder.
"He deigned not to rise on our entrance; and we stood
before him while he and my father talked. There was soon a pause in
the colloquy; and my father, making his advantage of it, took
me by the hand, and said,—'Dr. Johnson, this is a little
Colman.' The doctor bestowed a slight ungracious glance upon
me, and, continuing the rotary motion of his head, renewed the
previous conversation. Again there was a pause;—again the
anxious father, who had failed in his first effort, seized the
opportunity for pushing his progeny, with—'This is my son,
Dr. Johnson.' The great man's contempt for me was now roused
to wrath; and, knitting his brows, he exclaimed in a voice of
thunder, 'I see him, sir!' He then fell back in his rose-coloured
satin fauteuil, as if giving himself up to meditation;
implying that he would not be further plagued, either with an
old fool or a young one.
"After this rude rebuff from the doctor, I had the
additional felicity to be placed next to him at dinner: he was silent
over his meal; but I observed that he was, as Shylock says of
Lancelot Gobbo, 'a huge feeder;' and during the display of
his voracity, (which was worthy of Bolt Court,) the perspiration
fell in copious drops from his visage upon the table-cloth."
"Oliver Goldsmith, several years before my luckless
presentation to Johnson, proved how 'doctors differ.' I was only
five years old when Goldsmith took me on his knee, while he
was drinking coffee, one evening, with my father, and began to
play with me; which amiable act I returned with the ingratitude
of a peevish brat, by giving him a very smart slap in the
face; it must have been a tingler, for it left the marks of my
little spiteful paw upon his cheek. This infantile outrage was
followed by summary justice; and I was locked up by my
indignant father in an adjoining room, to undergo solitary imprisonment
in the dark. Here I began to howl and scream
most abominably; which was no bad step towards liberation,
since those who were not inclined to pity me might be likely to
set me free, for the purpose of abating a nuisance.
"At length a generous friend appeared to extricate me
from jeopardy, and that generous friend was no other than the man
I had so wantonly molested by assault and battery; it was the
tender-hearted doctor himself, with a lighted candle in his hand,
and a smile upon his countenance, which was still partially red
from the effects of my petulance. I sulked and sobbed, and he
fondled and soothed; till I began to brighten. Goldsmith,
who, in regard to children, was like the village preacher he has
so beautifully described,—for
'Their welfare pleased him, and their cares distressed,'—
seized the propitious moment of returning good-humour; so he
put down the candle, and began to conjure. He placed three
hats, which happened to be in the room, upon the carpet, and a
shilling under each: the shillings he told me, were England,
France, and Spain. 'Hey, presto, cockolorum!' cried the
doctor,—and, lo! on uncovering the shillings which had been
dispersed, each beneath a separate hat, they were all found congregated
under one. I was no politician at five years old, and,
therefore, might not have wondered at the sudden revolution
which brought England, France, and Spain all under one
crown; but, as I was also no conjuror, it amazed me beyond
measure. Astonishment might have amounted to awe for one
who appeared to me gifted with the power of performing
miracles, if the good-nature of the man had not obviated my
dread of the magician; but, from that time, whenever the
doctor came to visit my father,
'I pluck'd his gown, to share the good man's smile;
a game at romps constantly ensued, and we were always cordial
friends, and merry play-fellows.
"Foote's earliest notices of me were far from flattering;
but, though they had none of Goldsmith's tenderness, they had none
of Johnson's ferocity; and when he accosted me with his usual
salutation of 'Blow your nose, child!' there was a whimsical
manner, and a broad grin upon his features, which always made me laugh.
"His own nose was generally begrimed with snuff; and,
if he had never been more facetious than upon the subject of my
emunctories, which, by the bye, did not went cleansing, I need
not tell the reader, that he would not have been distinguished as
a wit;—he afterwards condescended to pass better jokes upon me.
"The paradoxical celebrity which he maintained upon the
stage was very singular; his satirical sketches were scarcely dramas,
and he could not be called a good legitimate performer. Yet
there is no Shakspeare or Roscius upon record who, like Foote,
supported a theatre for a series of years by his own acting, in
his own writings, and, for ten years of the time, upon a wooden leg!"
The reader, if he have not seen these passages before,
will, we are sure, sympathise with us in our regrets that the work from
which we extract them, carries us only in its two volumes to the
year 1785,—a period at which Colman's fame and reputation
had yet to be made.
His first decidedly successful drama was "Inkle and
Yarico:" this at once established his character as an author. "Ways
and Means," "The Mountaineers," and "The Iron Chest" followed;
and in 1798 he published those admirable poems known
as "My Night-gown and Slippers." His greatest literary triumphs
were, however, yet to come. "The Heir at Law" was
his first regular comedy; and we doubt very much whether he
ever excelled it, or, indeed, if it has been excelled by more than
a very few plays in the English language. We know that the
theatrical world, and we believe the author himself, gave a decided
preference to "John Bull;" but we admit that as we are
unfashionable enough to prefer Sheridan's "Rivals" to his
"School for Scandal," so are we prepared unhesitatingly to declare
our opinion that "The Heir at Law" is Colman's chef d'œuvre.
"The Poor Gentleman" is an excellent play; and "Who
wants a Guinea?" although not so decidedly successful as its
predecessors, teems with that rich humour and quaintness of
thought which so strongly characterise the writing of its author.
His farces of "The Review," "Love laughs at Locksmiths,"
"We fly by Night," and several others, are all admirable
in their way. These were given to the town as the reductions
of Arthur Griffinhoofe, a nom de guerre, however, which proved
quite inefficient in making the public mistake the source whence
their amusement was derived.
In 1819, Mr. Colman finally retired from the
proprietorship and management of the Haymarket Theatre. Upon the escape
and flight from England of Captain Davis, the lieutenant of the
Yeoman Guard, his Majesty George the Fourth appointed Mr.
Colman to succeed him; and on the death of Mr. Larpent he
also received the appointment of Examiner of Plays. The former
office he relinquished in favour of Sir John Gete, some
three or four years since; and in the latter he has, as our readers
know, been succeeded by Mr. Charles Kemble.
It would be unjust and unfair to the memory of Mr.
Colman were we to let slip this opportunity of saying a few words upon
the subject of his conduct in the execution of the duties of this
situation; because it has been made the object of attack even
by men of the highest talent and reputation, as well as the low
ribald abuse of their literary inferiors,—which, however, considering
the source whence it came, is not worth noticing.
It has been alleged that Mr. Colman was unnecessarily
rigid in his exclusion of oaths and profane sayings from the dramatic
works submitted to his inspection; and the gist of the arguments
against him touching this rigour went to show that he ought
not to expunge such expressions as examiner, because he had
used such expressions himself as an author. This reasoning
is absurd, the conclusion inconsequential. When Mr. Colman
wrote plays, he was not bound by oath to regulate their language
by any fixed standard; and, as all other dramatists of
the day had done, in a dialogue or depicting a character
he used in some—perhaps all his dramas—occasional
expletives. But Mr. Colman's plays then had to be submitted
to an examiner, who, conscientiously, did his duty; and, from
the high moral character of the late licenser, there can be little
lesson for doubting that he, like his successor, drew his pen
across any expression which he might have considered objectionable;
but no one ever complained of this, because Mr. Larpent had
never written a play, or used an oath in its dialogues.
When Mr. Colman assumed the legal and necessary power
of correction, he had but one course to pursue: he was sworn to
perform a certain duty assigned to him to the best of his judgment,
and to correct any expressions which he might consider
injurious to the state or to morality. What had he to do, as
licenser, with what he had himself done as author? The tu
quoque principle in this use is even more than usually absurd;
it is as if a schoolmaster were to be prevented from flogging a
boy for breaking windows, because, when he was a boy, he had
broken windows himself.
As we have already stated that it is not our
intention to make these few pages a piece of biography, we shall leave to
some better qualified person to give the more minute details of Mr.
Colman's life. The following lines, written by himself, now
many years since, and when he himself was under fifty, give as
good an epitome of his career up to that period as fifty pages of
matter-of-fact; and from that time until the occurrence of the sad
event to which the last stanza, so pathetically—as it
now reads—refers, he lived on in happiness and comfort.
A RECKONING WITH TIME.
Come on, old Time!—Nay, that is stuff;
Gaffer! thou comest fast enough;
Wing'd foe to feather'd Cupid!—
But tell me, Sand-man, ere thy grains
Have multiplied upon my brains,
So thick to make me stupid;—
Tell me, Death's journeyman!—But no!
Hear thou my speech: I will not grow
Irreverent while I try it;
For, though I mock thy flight, 'tis said
The forelock fills me with such dread,
I never take thee by it.
List, then, old Is, Was, and To-be;
I'll state accounts 'twixt thee and me.
Thou gav'st me, first, the measles;
With teething would'st have ta'en me off;
Then mad'st me, with the hooping-cough,
Thinner than fifty weasels;
Thou gav'st small-pox, (the dragon now
That Jenner combats on a cow,)
And then some seeds of knowledge,—
Grains of Grammar, which the flails
Of pedants thresh upon our tails,
To fit us for a college.
And, when at Christ-Church, 'twas thy sport
To rack my brains with sloe-juice port,
And lectures out of number!
There Freshman Folly quaffs and sings,
While Graduate Dullness clogs thy wings
With mathematic lumber.
Thy pinions next,—which, while they wave,
Fan all our birth-days to the grave,—
I think, ere it was prudent,
Balloon'd me from the schools to town,
Where I was parachuted down,
A dapper Temple student.
Then, much in dramas did I look,—
Much slighted thee and great Lord Coke:
Congreve beat Blackstone hollow;
Shakspeare made all the statues stale,
And in my crown no pleas had Hale
To supersede Apollo.
Ah! Time, those raging heats, I find,
Were the mere dog-star of my mind;
How cool is retrospection!
Youth's gaudy summer solstice o'er,
Experience yields a mellow store,—
An autumn of reflection!
Why did I let the God of song
Lure me from law to join his throng,
Gull'd by some slight applauses?
What's verse to A. when versus B.?
Or what John Bull, a comedy,
To pleading John Bull's causes!
Yet, though my childhood felt disease,—
Though my lank purse, unswoll'n by fees,
Some ragged Muse has netted,—
Still, honest Chronos! 'tis most true,
To thee (and, 'faith! to others too,)
I'm very much indebted.
For thou hast made me gaily tough,
Inured me to each day that's rough,
In hopes of calm to-morrow.
And when, old mower of us all,
Beneath thy sweeping scythe I fall,
Some few dear friends will sorrow.
Then, though my idle prose or rhyme
Should, half an hour, outlive me, Time,
Pray bid the stone-engravers,
Where'er my bones find church-yard room,
Simply to chisel on my tomb,—
"Thank Time for all his favours!"
It is a curious coincidence—although considering the
proximity of their ages there may be nothing really strange in it—that
Mr. Colman and his intimate friend Bannister should have quitted
this mortal world so nearly at the same time. The circumstance,
however, gives us an opportunity of bringing their names
together in a manner honourable to both. We derive the anecdote
from the "Random Records;" and we think it will be at
this juncture favourably received by those who admire dramatic
authors and actors, and who rejoice to see traits of private
worth the concomitants of public excellence.
After recounting the circumstances of his first
acquaintance with Bannister, Mr. Colman says,
"In the year of my return from Aberdeen, 1784, unconscious
of fear through ignorance of danger, I rushed into early publicity
as an avowed dramatist. My father's illness in 1789 obliged
me to undertake the management of his theatre; which, having
purchased at his demise, I continued to manage as my own. During
such progression, up to the year 1796 inclusive, I scribbled
many dramas for the Haymarket, and one for Drury-lane; in
almost all of which the younger Bannister (being engaged at
both theatres) performed a prominent character; so that, for most
of the thirteen years I have enumerated, he was of the greatest
importance to my theatrical prosperity in my double capacity
of author and manager; while I was of some service to him by
supplying him with new characters. These reciprocal interests
made us, of course, such close colleagues, that our almost daily
consultations promoted amity, while they forwarded business.
"From this last-mentioned period, (1796,) we were led
by our speculations, one after the other, into different tracks. He had
arrived at that height of London popularity when his visits to
various provincial theatres in the summer were productive of
much more money than my scale of expense in the Haymarket
could afford to give him. As he wintered it, however, in
Drury-lane, I profited for two years more by his acting in the
pieces which I produced there. I then began to write for the
rival house in Covent Garden, and this parted us as author and
actor: but separating, as we did, through accident, and with the
kindest sentiments for each other, it was not likely that we should
forget or neglect further to cultivate our mutual regard: that
regard is now so mellowed by time that it will never cease till
Time himself,—who, in ripening our friendship, has been all the
while whetting his scythe for the friends,—shall have mowed
down the men, and gathered in his harvest.
"One trait of Bannister, in our worldly dealings with
each other, will nearly bring me to the close of this chapter.
"In the year 1807, after having slaved at some dramatic
composition,—I forget what,—I had resolved to pass one entire
week in luxurious sloth.
"At this crisis,—just as I was beginning the first morning's
sacrifice upon the altar of my darling goddess, Indolence,—enter
Jack Bannister, with a huge manuscript under his left arm!—This,
he told me, consisted of loose materials for an entertainment,
with which he meant to "skirr the country," under the
title of Bannister's Budget;
but, unless I reduced the chaos into some order for him,
and that instantly,—he should lose his
tide, and with it his emoluments for the season. In such a case
there was no balancing between two alternatives, so I deserted
my darling goddess to drudge through the week for my old companion.
"To concoct the crudities he had brought me, by polishing,
expunging, adding,—in short, almost re-writing them,—was, it
must be confessed, labouring under the "horrors of digestion;"
but the toil was completed at the week's end, and away went
Jack Bannister into the country with his Budget.
"Several months afterwards he returned to town; and I
inquired, of course, what success?—So great, he answered, that
in consequence of the gain which had accrued to him through
my means, and which he was certain would still accrue, (as he
now considered the Budget to be an annual income for some
years to come,) he must insist upon cancelling a bond which
I had given him, for money he had lent to me. I was astounded;
for I had never dreamt of fee or reward.
"To prove that he was in earnest, I extract a paragraph
from a latter which he wrote to me from Shrewsbury.
"'For fear of accidents, I think it necessary to inform
you that Fladgate, your attorney, is in possession of your bond to
me of £700; as I consider it fully discharged, it is but proper
you should have this acknowledgment under my hand. J.B.'
"Should my unostentatious friend think me indelicate in
publishing this anecdote, I can only say, that it naturally appertains
to the sketch I have given of our co-operations in life; and that
the insertion of it here seems almost indispensable, in order to
elucidate my previous statement of our having blended so much
sentiment with so much traffic. I feel, too, that it would
be downright injustice to him if I suppressed it; and would betoken
in myself the pride of those narrow-minded persons who
are ashamed of acknowledging how greatly they have profited
by the liberal spirit of others.
"The bond above mentioned was given, be it observed, on
a private account; not for money due to an actor for his professional
assistance. Gilliland, in his 'Dramatic Mirror,' says that
my admission of partners 'enabled the proprietors to completely
liquidate all the demands which had for some time past involved
the house in temporary embarrassments.' This is a gross mistake;
the Haymarket Theatre was never embarrassed (on the
contrary, it was a prosperous speculation) while under my direction.
My own difficulties during part of this time are another
matter: I may touch slightly on this hereafter; but shall
not bore my readers by dwelling long on matters which (however
they may have annoyed me) cannot entertain or interest them.
"I regret following up one instance of Mr. Gilliland's
inaccuracy immediately with another; but he asserts, in his 'Dramatic
Mirror,' that J. Bannister, 'in the season 1778, made his appearance
for the benefit of his father, on the boards of Old Drury.'
In contradiction to the foregoing statement a document
now lies before me,—I transcribe it verbatim:
"'First appearance, at the Haymarket, for my
father's benefit, 1778, in The Apprentice. First appearance at Drury-lane,
1779, in Zaphna, in Mahomet. Took leave of the stage at
Drury-lane, Thursday, June 1st, 1815. Garrick instructed me
in the four first parts I played,—the Apprentice; Zaphna
(Mahomet); Dorilas (Merope); and Achmet (Barbarossa).—Jack
Bannister, to his dear friend George Colman. June 30th, 1828.'"
These memoranda, under the circumstances, are curious and
affecting.—Death has gathered in his harvest, and both the
men are gone.
Of Mr. Colman's delightful manners and conversational
powers no words can give any adequate idea: with all the advantages
of extensive reading, a general knowledge of mankind, and an
inexhaustible fund of wit and humour, he blended a joyousness
of expression, a kindness of feeling, and a warmth of manner,
which rendered him the much-sought companion of every
circle of society in which he chose to mix. Of his literary
talents all the world can judge; but it is only those who have
known him in private life who can appreciate the qualities which
we despair of being able justly to describe.
IMPROMPTU BY THE LATE GEORGE COLMAN.
About a year since, a young lady begged this celebrated wit to
write some verses in her album: he shook his head; but, good-naturedly
promising to try, at once extemporised the following,—most
probably his last written and poetical jest.
My muse and I, ere youth and spirits fled,
Sat up together many a night, no doubt;
But now, I've sent the poor old lass to bed,
Simply because my fire is going out.