George Colman by Anonymous

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.


I. 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;—
II. 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.
III. 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;
IV. 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. 
V. 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.
VI. 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.
VII. 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.
VIII. 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!
IX. 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!
X. 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.
XI. 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.
XII. 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.


 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.