George Colman the Younger:
George Colman the Younger was the most popular English dramatist at the turn of the nineteenth century. His father before him may well have been the better playwright, but the son became famous on his own as a gifted writer of comedy and farce. Clearly he knew, and catered to, the taste of his time, and his personal popularity was widely acknowledged. Thanks in part to his legendary sense of humor, people sought his company, invited him to dinner, and listened to his conversation just to enjoy the pleasure of his warm wit. They found him an extremely convivial and generous man, charming and kind. Neither his comedy nor his private sense of humor were cruel -- low, broad, even vulgar, but never cruel. His audiences could tell that he felt a benevolent affection even for his most pitiful comic characters. On the other hand, he was probably too vain, too fond of fine clothes and drink, too extravagant in satisfying his tastes. In some sense his best plays were a reflection of himself: solid, honest, a bit too busy or theatrical, and usually disorganized, but full of robust, good humor, and very funny indeed. He wrote his most successful plays exactly as his audiences wanted them: brisk, lighthearted, fast-moving pieces with just enough complication, confusion, and momentary anguish to make their impossibly happy endings all the more enjoyable. His was not an age that wanted realism. He was surely a romantic in the modern sense of that word, and perhaps his work should be considered a branch of the Romantic as his contemporaries were coming to understand this new aesthetic. In any event it is clear that when the taste of his time began to seek the melodramatic flavor that was to characterize the nineteenth-century English theater, Colman sensed the change and adjusted his plays accordingly. He aimed to please not the literary scholars but the public.
He seems to have been destined for the theater. His father wanted him to study law, but George Colman the Elder was hardly the man to compel anyone to follow a profession at the bar. His uncle and guardian, William Pulteney, Earl of Bath, intended to steer him into the legal profession, and was seriously dispelased that his ward chose the drama instead.. Not even Colman's considerable talent as a playwright could placate the Earl, and what was worse, Colman the Elder conducted an illicit relationship with a little-known actress whom Pulteney detested. The young man's double obstinacy cost him any chance at the earl's large fortune. Perhaps this guaranteed future hardship, but Colman was quite happy. The actress, Sarah Ford, remained his mistress for six or seven years, and in 1767 he married her. George the Younger was born in October of 1762, years before the marriage, and although no definitive record has survived, it is probably safe to assume that the boy was indeed the natural son and of George Colman and Sarah Ford. In any event the couple legitimized the boy's birth with their marriage, and young George considered Mrs. Sarah Ford Colman his only mother. The father went on to a successful career as a playwright and theatrical manager. Author of some thirty-five plays that saw production, Colman the Elder also helped manage the Drury Lane theater from 1763 to 1765, the Covent Garden theater from 1767 to 1774, and obtained the right to operate London's Haymarket theater beginning in 1776. He moved in theatrical and literary circles all his life, and considered David Garrick, Richard Sheridan, and Oliver Goldsmith among his closest friends. Other distinguished visitors to the Colman household included Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Thus the boy's early home life was imbued with a theatrical and literary spirit. For some reason, however, his father did not want drama to be the boy's career. When he was eight years old, young George entered London's Marylebone Seminary, where like all the other pupils he could expect to pass his time pleasantly until he was ready to go on to one of the finer public schools. He was not inclined to study industriously anyway, but this made no difference because a tragedy at home forced him to leave after only three months. His mother had accidentally poisoned herself with a dose of the wrong medicine, and she died on Good Friday, 29 March 1771. His grieving father took him from London to their home in Richmond. Young George never returned to Marylebone.
A year or so later, however, his father renewed his plan of having the boy educated for the bar. In June of 1772 the nine-year-old Colman entered Westminster, the public school his father had attended. There the boy befriended Frederick Reynolds, who later became a playwright himself and Colman's lifelong friend. But Colman's academic performance was no better here than at Marylebone. He was neither disciplined nor very interested, and so he worked just hard enough to avoid failure. And because he preferred the life at Richmond and the fascinating people who visited there, he returned to his father's villa at every opportunity. It is no wonder that he retained a greater affection for the theater than he ever developed for law; and in truth the law never really had much of a chance. Even when he was obliged to remain in London young George had ready access to the theaters, especially the one at Covent Garden, where his father worked as production manager from 1767 until 1774. More interesting still was the elder Colman's 1776 acquisition of the right to produce dramas in the Theatre Royal, Haymarket the so-called Summer Theatre. He rented this theater for about a year from Samuel Foote, whose right to produce plays there was guaranteed by royal patent. When Foote died unexpectedly 1777, the patent expired. Thereafter Colman was able to continue operating the Haymarket theater under a license renewed for him each year by the Lord Chamberlain.
At about this time young George got his first actual stage experience with some very small roles in a series of amateur productions sponsored by Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, a benefactor of Westminster. Otherwise he came no closer to theatrical life than he could get by visiting the Haymarket every time his academic obligations at Westminster would allow. Although in school the boy was just barely getting by, his father continued to plan for him a career at law, and thus enrolled him at Christ Church College at Oxford in 1780. But young Colman could not stay away from the Haymarket long enough to do creditable work at Oxford, and after a few futile terms his father realized that he would have to take stronger measures. Hoping that a greater distance from London might force his son to adopt a life that did not mirror his own, he transferred the boy in the autumn of 1781 to King's College at Old Aberdeen in Scotland. But as the son later wrote in his autobiography, Random Records (1830), "Alas! this happened too late; a dramatick fever, not to be subdued by the cool temperature of the Northern climes, was already lurking in my veins; it lay dormant for the first months of my exile, and then began to rage."
Predictably enough, Colman's dedication to his studies was no greater at King's than at Christ Church or anywhere else. He began to cause minor trouble in the town and to ride around the countryside for days at a time. One night, stopping at a country inn, Colman found the album in which travelers customarily recorded their thoughts and fancies, though generally without distinction or literary merit. Although we may assume that Colman's contribution on this occasion was most likely juvenile and tasteless, he remembered it as his first composition, his "virgin offering to the Muse." Soon after, he published a poetical satire upon the English statesman Charles Fox, entitled "The Man of the People," most copies of which were purchased by no one but himself, and all of which now appear to be lost. Nonetheless, a writing career had begun, and it was only natural and predictable that Colman would soon combine his literary talents with his greatest love, the drama. The very next spring saw the birth of his very first play, The Female Dramatist, a two-act musical farce. Colman sent it to his father at the Haymarket, where the manager allowed it to debut, anonymously, on 16 August 1782.
The Female Dramatist played only one night; it offered little to its audience, and less to posterity. The actress Sarah Gardner, in her performance as Mrs. Metaphor (an adaptation of Mrs. Melpomene from Tobias Smollett's novel Roderick Random, 1748), gave the farce its only vital moments. It is a tale of a hack writer hoping to trick Mrs. Metaphor, an admirer of the drama, into a marriage beneficial only to himself, until all is discovered and his hopes rightfully dashed. For her efforts Mrs. Gardner earned the dubious distinction of being supposed the author, an error perpetuated by bibliographic sources well into the twentieth century.
The failure of The Female Dramatist did not daunt Colman, who immediately began work on a full three-act play. Charged with energy and enthusiasm for the first time, he demonstrated a degree of industry his studies had never inspired. His father might have other ideas, but Colman knew what he wanted. Thus he left the university once and for all and moved to the town of Montrose, where he completed his second dramatic piece, Two to One, in the spring of 1783. After a few more months in Montrose, he moved back to New Aberdeen for the rest of the year, possibly to keep his father content. There the young man, now 21, seems to have spent his time studying history more or less on his own. Happily, early in 1784 he was recalled to England by his father, who may have begun to revising his hopes for his son's future in favor of the boy's own natural inclinations.
In London Colman waited eagerly for 19 June, the opening of Two to One at the Haymarket theater. Much more successful than its predecessor, this play continued for nineteen performances before enthusiastic audiences. Its theme of young love crossed by parents' intentions, perpetuated by trickery and disguise, finally to be blessed by everyone, is a venerable one; its author's undeveloped talent did not interfere too much with such a pleasing vehicle. Colman's confessed method of composition, haphazard scribbling with no plan or direction, leaves the play with a kind of incoherence more satisfying to audiences than to readers. But its commercial success gave the father a reason to be pleased with his son, and the play's reception among critics and audiences delighted young George. In the resulting warmth of spirit Colman's father sent him on a brief tour of Paris, just before one last attempt at preparing him for the bar surely a triumph of hope over experience. In Paris, of course, Colman visited the theaters as often as he could. Back home in London a month later, he dutifully entered the fall term as a law student at Lincoln's Inn. This time the experiment lasted less than a term; besides a secret marriage to the actress Catherine Morris, had played a significant role in The Female Dramatist, Colman resumed secret work on his true career, writing Turk and No Turk in December of 1784. Neither the clandestine marriage nor the dramatic writing could be revealed to his father immediately, of course. However, it is intriguing to note that the marriage was not disclosed for four years, while Colman waited only a couple of months to send his father a copy of the play. He probably made the right choice; Colman the Elder saw commercial promise in the play and scheduled it for production in July. Denial was no longer possible; like it or not, the son was following the father, and the father accepted the inevitable. Thus ended the formal education of George Colman the Younger.
Though it ran ten nights, which meant it probably broke even, Turk and No Turk was not the success Colman might have wished. It pleased its audiences, but only the songs ever saw print in book form; the reviewers refrained from condemning the play, but were more kind than enthusiastic in their praise. A musical comedy in three acts, Turk and No Turk is another tale of crossed love that uncrosses, miraculously, with parental dispproval converting to approval at the end.
It is tempting to speculate that this composition plays out Colman's yearning for his father's blessing upon his own clandestine marriage. However, since another three years passed before he even told his father about the marriage, the play cannot have had much helpful effect on that score. And in any event, such a motive must remain in the realm of pure speculation; there is not enough evidence to make even a good guess. This is because, in truth, the most significant feature of Colman's personal life is the extent to which he strove to keep it private. Not even his autobiography yields much personal information. Little is known of Mrs. Catherine Colman; after her marriage she acted no more. By the time Colman began an affair with the actress Maria Gibbs about ten years later, Mrs. Colman had been invisible to the public for years. The new liaison was no secret, and Colman was frequently criticized in the press on moral grounds, but so were nearly all theatrical people. Colman refused to reply to these attacks, perhaps because reply would have been fruitless, but more likely because he steadfastly refused to make his personal life a matter of public record. He and Catherine Colman separated in 1801, and he married Maria Gibbs in 1809, but whether his first wife's death or a divorce made the marriage possible is still unknown. So carefully did he guard his privacy that not even his remarriage was mentioned in the newspapers of the day.
Not long after the Haymarket closed for the season in September of 1785, and just two months after the debut of Turk and No Turk, the elder Colman suffered a severe stroke. His son rushed to his side and arranged for competent care, and the elder Colman soon began to improve. But the illness changed young Colman's life forever: it marked the beginning of his participation in the management of the Haymarket theater. Even in illness his father jealously guarded the business, but details here and there required more attention than he could command. Colman helped his father, not obtrusively or publicly, but when and where he thought he must. This was young Colman's first opportunity to display the kind of sincere and unselfish devotion to his father for which he would earn public praise all his life. Within about a year, and thanks largely to Colman's attentions, his father's recovery was complete enough that Colman could leave; by the Haymarket's summer season, 1786, he returned to his rooms near Lincoln's Inn. There he started work on Inkle and Yarico, finishing it by the following summer. It opened at the Haymarket on 4 August 1787.
This play, another three-act musical comedy, is an adaptation of Richard Steele's Spectator no. 11, though it features some significant deviations from Steele's tale. It's an old-world-meets-new-world tale of interracial love and betrayal that ends with a central character strongly condemning the slave trade. Inkle and Yarico became an instant success. Audiences loved its blend of comedy and sentiment, wit and moral, and the music that accompanied each scene. It continued to play twenty nights that season, and many more nights in the succeeding years. Although it is by no means remembered as a masterpiece, the play was clearly superior to Colman's first three. More significantly, something in this mix of genres appealed to audiences of the day, and Colman was to make frequent use of the pattern in his future work.
For a while, however, farce reigned as young Colman's favorite kind of play, and he returned to this form for his next work the following season. Ways and Means; or A Trip to Dover is not at all sentimental but features plenty of spirited action and humor. Its opening audience at the Haymarket on 10 July 1788 enjoyed a lively if unoriginal story in which a baronet mistakes a couple of young gallants for rich tradesmen and invites them into the home he shares with his eligible daughters, whom they of course already know well. Naturally there is a bedchamber mix-up, and naturally all ends happily, and the right marriages ensue. Unfortunately Ways and Means did not do well on its opening night, and worse, Colman included an Epilogue that attacked theatrical critics for inflicting wanton damage on writers' reputations. Needless to say the farce did poorly with the reviewers as well. Despite the play's great popularity in years to come, this was not to be its year of success; it ran only nine nights. The most serious immediate consequence, however, was that Colman now had enemies among the critics.
In spite of the summer's disppointments, the next winter season brought Colman's work to a new venue and thus provided a new kind of success for the young playwright. His already successfulInkle and Yarico opened on 26 January 1789 in Covent Garden theater, one of the two great winter houses. This opening brought Colman new, more socially prestigious audiences and a new measure of respectability. The Haymarket had operated at a disadvantage since its inception as the third Theatre Royal in 1766. For many years before Colman's birth, all plays in London that aspired to the status of legitimate or significant drama could only be produced in the two theaters possessing Royal Patents, the winter theaters at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. No official sanction had been given to any summer productions. Thus when Foote received a patent making the Haymarket the third Theatre Royal in 1766, the news was both good and bad. Yes, he could officially operate a sacntioned theater; however, he was limited to operating it during the winter theaters' customary closed season, the summer months from 15 May to 15 September. For a variety of reasons the wealthier patrons were usually absent from London during the summer months. Also, the theater available to Foote was the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, which allowed a much smaller seating capacity than the winter houses. When Foote died in 1777 George's father was granted a continuing license with the same restrictions.
Even so, the restrictions only worked to restrain the upstart theater, not the more established theaters. An even greater disadvantage for the Haymarket arose from the jealousy the winter theaters felt over this new competitor, however small. No licensing restriction prevented either Covent Garden or Drury Lane from operating whenever their proprietors wished; only market considerations, and the force of custom, had perpetuated the summer closings. Thus the larger houses never felt obliged to stop a successful run on 15 May simply because that was the Haymarket's legal opening night. Such encroachments became common, and often ran into June, a ruinous circumstance for the Haymarket not only in the competition for receipts but also in the rivalry for actors. The Summer Theatre found itself constrained to wait until actors and audiences both were freed by the tyrannical winter houses. In effect this forcibly delayed the Haymarket's opening for a month or more.
The Haymarket also needed to earn respect, to get rid of a "summer-crowd" stigma. Its only summer competition came from the unlicensed houses, which had for years offered an unsanctioned, "illegitimate" drama year round. This kind of drama, generally anything without spoken dialogue, consisted of pantomimes, animal acts, and other spectacles performed with musical accompaniment. With the Royal Patent came permission for the Haymarket to offer real plays complete with dialogue. But simply providing speaking plays in midsummer was no road to riches. The prevailing wisdom considered summer audiences to be socially and aesthetically inferior. In order to counter the unlicensed houses' entertainments, as well as the summer heat, the Haymarket emphasized comedies, especially farces, and much greater use of music accompanying the spoken dialogue than ever before. Although this practice by the younger Colman's time was also becoming established at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, those theaters still played to more elite audiences than could be found in London in the summer; a Haymarket playwright might still feel inferior to his Covent Garden counterpart. But whatever stigma had attached to Colman's talents because of his plays' summer venues was removed by the Covent Garden production of Inkle and Yarico in front of a winter crowd. George Colman the Younger was now a significant dramatist.
He soon became a significant theater manager as well. Though content to operate quietly behind the scenes while his father had been recuperating, Colman found this unobtrusive assisting position at the Haymarket no longer feasible when, in June of 1789, his father's condition degenerated badly. The elder Colman had in fact become deranged. Stepping in quickly and smoothly, the younger Colman took control of operations in mid season and managed them so smoothly that none on the outside guessed what had happened. Thus Colman made his actual managerial debut with a couple of new plays, The Family Party on 11 July and The Battle of Hexham, or Days of Old a month later. The Family Party is a farce of uncertain authorship; Colman may have written it, or revised it, but in any event he offered it anonymously. It is not memorable, its stale plot poking fun both at an old, dull tradesman who, though quite wealthy, is not particularly eager to become a gentleman, and at a ridiculous, recently knighted fop. It saw only six performances, received moderate applause, and died quietly. The second play, however, was undoubtedly his own. Furthermore, The Battle of Hexham, an historical drama, was something quite new.
The story of Edward the Fourth's defeat of Henry the Sixth and Queen Margaret, and their subsequent escape with the young Prince of Wales, an escape aided by the captain of a band of robbers, was a story well known to Colman's audience. What they did not expect was the addition of music throughout. Colman also embellished the story with a completely fictional subplot concerning domestic fidelity. The mixture of genres in this play provided a new experience for its audience. Though comic opera had long been a profitable commodity in the licensed theaters, and while nothing would have surprised audiences in the illegitimate ones, the addition of music to the near-tragic drama of The Battle of Hexham offered a new experience to audiences in a Theatre Royal. Indeed, together with the high drama of battle and flight, the use of spectacle and sentimentality, and the miraculously happy ending, the play's musical embellishments have caused scholars to consider it the first successful example of English melodrama, the form that was to dominate the stage over the next century. And successful it was. Audiences and critics alike praised the play; it ran for twenty nights in 1789, and was revived many times in the succeeding years. This reception, and the critics' sympathy on learning of his father's incapacity, helped close the breach opened when Colman had attacked the critics during the Ways and Means affair.
By the summer season of 1790, Colman himself had become the official licensee for the Haymarket, and he opened the season on 14 June with an address to the audience. In addition to the expected words of welcome and gratitude, Colman added a strategic complaint against the winter houses' habitual encroachment upon his nominal opening date of 15 May. The address earned him sympathy from the public and the critics, but made no change whatever in the practices of the other Theatres Royal. Instead it marked the beginning of a long and costly battle between the theaters that was to frustrate Colman's life as manager of the Haymarket. For the moment, however, the delayed season had finally begun. In fact it turned out to be a very successful season despite its accustomed loss of one month, and in the process Colman established himself as an adept manager. If there is a drawback here it is that his managerial duties must have kept him busy, for he did not bring out another piece of his own until the 30 July 1791 opening of The Surrender of Calais.
Another musical historical drama, The Surrender of Calais gets its central story from an old tale by Jean Le Bel in Vrayes Chroniques, in which six citizens of Calais, in response to an offer from the attacking English King Edward, volunteer to sacrifice themselves so that their fellow townspeople might be spared. To this framework Colman added the sentimental and romantic touches so popular in The Battle of Hexham. The play is not noble or grand, and in a sense may even be considered, like The Battle of Hexham, to exploit serious and tragic events for the sake of easy emotion and sentiment. But that judgment ignores the public's enthusiastic response. Although not quite melodrama, Colman's work was its immediate predecessor, and exactly what audiences wanted. Its enormous popularity was reflected in the fact thatThe Surrender of Calais played no fewer than 28 nights that season alone, and the critics celebrated Colman's genius.
Colman further developed this formula with The Mountaineers, which opened on 3 August 1793. Once again he freely adapted and embellished his source, a pair of stories in Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605), to yield the kind of sentimental, emotional, musical blend he knew could succeed. Set during the fifteenth-century Spanish siege of Granada, the play features two sets of crossed lovers, angry fathers, mountains, and lots of complications; in the end, of course, all is well again. Colman's addition of the wild mountain scenery to some of the endearing features of his earlier musical dramas nearly completes the formula for melodrama, and audiences of the era loved The Mountaineers. It played more than 25 performances its first season.
Colman's next major drama did not appear until 1796. He busied himself with theatrical management most of the time, and what little respite the winters normally offered was lost to him during the theatrical season of 1793-1794, when the Drury Lane company occupied his Little Theatre. The Drury Lane house had been closed for rebuilding, and its company temporarily relocated to the King's Theatre, Haymarket, in 1791. Two years later, displaced even from its temporary house, the company arranged for Colman to conduct its business from his Little Theatre. He did so in popular fashion, keeping prices well below what the public would have paid for admission to either winter house in a normal season. But again he could not open the summer season as early as the law allowed, waiting until July of 1794 for a reasonable chance at a profitable season. His father's long-expected death in August of that year made Colman the sole manager and proprietor of the Haymarket, a fact ratified by the Crown when he obtained the license in his own right. Both the critics and the town were compassionate, praising Colman's very genuine filial affections and attentions during his father's long decline.
During these years of little original composition he nonetheless found occasion to compose a pair of brief preludes satirizing the great winter houses. Poor Old Hay-Market, or Two Sides of the Gutter opened with the season on 15 June 1792. On the other side of the gutter was his chief target, Drury Lane and its temporary residence across the Haymarket from his own. The prelude contains only one scene; it was performed only seven times, and though well received, it may never have seen print, existing today only in manuscript. New Hay at the Old Market is more stable stuff. This two-scene piece mocks both the tremendous size and the pompous performances of the other two theaters and introduces the character of Sylvester Daggerwood, a fictitious actor who quotes Shakespeare in his sleep, and who was so popular that Colman later shortened the play to one act and named it after him. New Hay at the Old Market played thirty-two times that season, and its revised version, Sylvester Daggerwood, was frequently performed well into the next century.
In 1796, after a lapse of three years, Colman brought out another full-length drama, this time for one of his competitors. In evident recognition of Colman's abilities as a playwright, Sheridan asked him to convert William Godwin's political novel, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), into a tragedy to be performed at Drury Lane. The task was formidable; Caleb Williams is a lengthy and complex work, more a study of character, principle, and the abuse of power than the tale of murder and justice it may at first appear to be. A tragedy that would have challenged any playwright, it taxed Colman's talents severely. He himself preferred to write farces, though he composed musical comedies because they succeeded so well with the public. Why he agreed to adapt the novel is not clear, unless the allure of writing for one of the winter houses proved more temptation than his reputed vanity could withstand. But agree he did, and The Iron Chest opened on 12 March at Drury Lane.
Opening night was a disaster-Colman had been late with the script, rehearsals had been scheduled too suddenly and were too rushed, principal actors fought illness both during rehearsals and the opening performance-and succeeding performances were scarcely better. An excellent play might have survived these and other setbacks, but The Iron Chest is not an excellent play. Sir Edward Mortimer (Falkland in the novel) is a reclusive, moody squire whose steward Wilford (Caleb Williams) learns of the squire's past acquittal for the murder of a man who had persecuted and tormented a young woman. Later Wilford innocently provokes Sir Edward by a casual reference to murder and is so startled by the squire's violent departure that he tries to open the man's locked iron chest, only to be caught in the act when Sir Edward returns. Sir Edward confesses that the crime was indeed his and warns Wilford not to leave the house or reveal the secret. Wilford escapes anyway and becomes a prisoner to a band of robbers, with whom he remains until Sir Edward's men find him and bring him back to face false charges of thievery. The squire has planted jewels in Wilford's trunk, but a search reveals that he has also quite stupidly left the original murder weapon, a bloody knife. As if this were not enough, he somehow left a detailed narration of his guilt, which he intended to destroy before his death. Confronted by such irrefutable evidence, he confesses, looking toward the next world.
This incredible ending alone did not destroy the play; the songs and musical interludes throughout must have poorly complemented its bleak story, and the mischances of the opening night simply ensured its destruction. The play lasted four performances at Drury Lane, none of them very well liked. Now Colman's vanity served him ill. This failure he could not accept, blaming everything but his own pen. Understandable as this reaction may seem, his recriminations were not confined to private conversations; he spelled them out in a peevish preface to the published version of the play later that same year. Chiefly he attacked the renowned actor John Philip Kemble, who played Sir Edward despite an illness that he was treating with opium. Colman was probably correct in thus ascribing some of the blame-Kemble had also set the rehearsal schedule and opening date-but he clearly breached decorum and taste with the manner of his complaint. If the critics disliked the play, they hated the preface and reviled its author.
Convinced of his own innocence, however, Colman bided his time until the summer season, when he opened the play again in his own theater. On 29 August a somewhat different cast (certainly without Kemble) presented The Iron Chest to a receptive Haymarket audience. It was a slightly shorter version, but most of its flaws remained; credit for its success on this occasion must go to the company, whose loyalty to Colman may have brought forth extra effort. Although it succeeded it did not thrive; its run this time was thirteen nights, and the play probably lost money. However, as a vehicle for great actors it kept its popularity for nearly a century. In any event The Iron Chest is as close as Colman's melodramatic method ever approached to the genre of tragedy.
The following summer Colman returned to comedy with The Heir at Law. It proved a hit and must have convinced him never to stray into tragedy again. The story had elements with which Colman and his audiences were quite familiar: social climbers, a foolish gallant, a virtuous country lass, a greedy eccentric, and a familiar theme of lovers crossed, this time by the young man's suddenly elevated social status. In this version when a wealthy but distant relation dies and his son is lost at sea, the inheritance and title fall to an unlikely husband and wife who suddenly become Lord and Lady Duberly though the lord loses none of his malapropist charm. Their sudden elevation prompts them to hire the eccentric scholar Dr. Pangloss as tutor to their son Dick. Dr. Pangloss seems unable to speak without quoting and giving attribution; Dick prefers yearning for his beloved Cicely, the country lass, to studying and pays Pangloss a bonus salary not to bother him with studies.
Soon, however, Dick convinces himself that to marry Cicely, common as she is, would demean him, and suggests that she become his mistress; naturally, their love is finished. But wait the true heir, Moreland, is not lost at all. He returns, unaware of his father's death, to locate his fianc,e, who has fallen on hard times and moved to a new address, and who also happens to be Cicely's employer. When at last Moreland finds her, there also is Dick, repentant, betrothed to Cicely. Dick's parents, the temporary lord and lady, have come along, and now everyone finds out who is who (the lord exclaims, "Eh? what? Henry Moreland! Why zounds! the late Lord Duberly's lost heir!"). The reunited couples are happy, Cicely has won a lottery, and the former lord and lady feel relieved to be common again. Only Dr. Pangloss loses out; he realizes, quoting Otway, "That I'm not worth a ducat."
Audiences were delighted. After its opening on 15 July 1797, it played twenty-seven more times, the first signs of a truly enduring popularity that was to last more than a hundred years. The scheming, alluding Pangloss; the general fun and humor; the sentiment; the perfect ending: all contributed to its appeal and secured the high esteem of its public. Today it must be regarded as one of his finest achievements. The critics' complaints about its low humor, sentimentality, and tendencies toward farce made no difference to Colman, whose eye was as always on the gross receipts, especially since his obsession with proving The Iron Chest a good play appears to have left him in poor financial shape.
This kind of distress probably contributed to Colman's willingness to hire his talents out to the winter houses for his next three compositions. After all, the competitors paid better. Covent Garden commissioned a farce, Blue Devils, and Drury Lane ordered what must be called two melodramas, Blue-Beard, or Female Curiosity and Feudal Times, or The Banquet Gallery. Covent Garden opened Blue Devils on 24 April 1798 but did not do well with it. A translation of LAnglais (1781), a farce by the French playwright Joseph Patrat, Blue Devils is a tale of misunderstandings. A waiter with no money, James, has been fired for falling in love with Annette, his employer's daughter. James meets a suicidal but wealthy Englishman who thinks at first that James would like to join him in death. But when he learns that James is only broke, the Englishman, Megrim, gives him money. Megrim also misunderstands Annette, thinking she loves him, and her father mistakes Megrim's request for her hand as an offer to relieve him from bankruptcy. James then provides that relief with Megrim's gift. The lovers are happy, the father is out of debt, and Megrim has found, in acts of benevolence, the pleasure he has been seeking to make his life worthwhile. As a farce Blue Devils is nothing special, and Covent Garden performed it only twice. But Colman's Haymarket worked its magic again; using virtually the same cast as Covent Garden's he opened i on 12 June of that same year and eight more times that summer.
The Drury Lane dramas were a different matter altogether. The Drury Lane company wanted an attractive vehicle with which two of its members, a talented composer and an imaginative stage machinist, could take advantage of the public's growing appetite for grand spectacle. Blue-Beard, or Female Curiosity is that vehicle and little more. Its story is insignificant; sinking doors, sepulchers, skeletons, cracks in the earth, collapsing buildings, and constant musical numbers hold the audience fast. Once again it made no difference that critics objected to the mixture; Blue-Beard was performed no fewer than sixtythree times that winter season after its debut on 16 January 1798. Feudal Times, or The Banquet Gallery is similar if not quite as successful; it offers a ruthless baron, his forbidding castle, a kidnapped and imprisoned lady, a siege, and a lastminute escape before the castle's tower explodes. This entertainment opened during the following season, on 19 January 1799, and played thirtynine times. His audiences content, Colman ignored the critics and counted his money.
Colman did not write again for the Haymarket until the summer of the following year, and then he gave them a farce. Evidently summer audiences did not have quite the winter crowds' appetite for spectacular melodrama; furthermore, the winter houses could pay better for Colman's hard work. When next he wrote a five-act comedy, he sold it to Covent Garden. More suitable for the Haymarket, farces were also much easier for Colman to write. The Review, or the Wags of Windsor, a hastily made piece written to conform to songs that had already been composed, was
Image of engraving on title page from the play's score generously furnished by Simon Moss (UK dealer in memorabilia)
performed nine times after its opening on 1 September 1800. Its major contribution to the stage was the character Caleb Quotem, an eccentric jack-of-all-trades who has little to do with the story but whose constant chatter keeps the farce from moving forward too quickly.
The comedy for Covent Garden, The Poor Gentleman, contains little to surprise Colman's audiences, unless its large share of sentiment was unexpected. The gentleman of the title, Lieutenant Worthington, a poor, retired, wounded officer on half pay, refuses offers of assistance in his financial distress, which only increases as the play progresses. His daughter Emily, meanwhile, is the target of a young rake, whose assault on her is frustrated by Bramble, one of Worthington's would-be benefactors. The rake challenges Bramble, but the duel is interrupted by Worthington, arriving to fight his own battles of honor. The rake repents. Then Bramble's uncle, Sir Robert, reveals that he has paid Worthington's debt to forestall the poor gentleman's arrest; in return he demands Worthington's blessing on a marriage between Bramble and Emily, and the play ends happily. The emphasis throughout on expressions of virtue on the one hand and villainy on the other feels once again like melodrama; once again the audiences enjoyed what they saw. Its opening on 11 February 1801 was the first of twenty-five performances that season.
It must have been a curious time for Colman, finding himself in the position of writing plays for competitors who seemed determined to harm him. Though the great winter houses purchased his plays, they continued their injurious practice of allowing successful plays to run well beyond the Haymarket's 15 May opening. No law prevented them from playing as long as they liked, but the tradition was irksome to Colman as it cut out as much as a third of the Haymarket's entire season. His irritation was in some respects well justified. Even at full capacity the Little Theatre would seat some eighteen hundred patrons, compared to three thousand or so at each of the other Theatres Royal; Colman needed his four months more than either winter house needed its eight or nine. Furthermore, the extension of a successful run at either competitor deprived Colman each year of the actors he needed to form his summer company. He saw this as grossly unfair and decided to change things.
Because his earlier satirical complaints had made no difference, he took stronger measures. In an address to his audience after the final curtain had fallen on the 1802 summer season, Colman announced his plan to form a new company wholly independent of the other theaters; each actor in his new company must begin on 15 May. This seemed a gamble, because few established actors would trade a lucrative long season for a short one. But Colman found an abundance of fine talent. Although the established did indeed remain with the winter theaters, including his acting manager, Colman had his pick of all those who were new to town, new to acting, or for some other reason not attractive to Covent Garden and Drury Lane. He also traveled the countryside, recruiting attractive talent when he found it in the provincial theaters. With the apparent support of the King, and the enthusiastic backing of Haymarket audiences and most of the critics, Colman launched his new company before the public on 16 May 1803 and before the Royal Family in a command performance on 17 May. The first month was lean, as might be expected, and the company of newcomers had its expected share of difficulties, but the season was finally successful and encouraging.
In the end, however, the assault on the winter theaters caused a much more serious change in the management of the Haymarket than merely the formation of an independent acting company. Although the move added greatly to the Little Theatre's prestige, it added also to Colman's personal mound of debt. His creditors had been asked to wait while he spent his own money on the competition; after a while they grew impatient. He had always kept the business solvent, though his own financial affairs suffered from his excessive taste in clothing and entertainment, and now the business was his only asset. The creditors demanded a part of it. One of these, Colman's brother-in-law David Morris, may even have extended large sums to Colman in a calculated hope of gaining some managerial control over the theater. If that is so, he was correct; late in 1804 Morris and two others became Colman's partners,and the Colman dynasty at the Haymarket ended after twenty-eight years.
Meanwhile, he continued to write for the winter houses-a practice destined to cause him trouble with his new partner Morris. On 5 March 1803 Covent Garden staged his latest comedy, John Bull, or The Englishman's Fireside. For this grand hymn to the English national spirit Colman pulled out all the stops. Mary Thornberry, seduced and abandoned by Frank Rochdale, has fled home lest her father learn of her sin. Near a public house, she is saved from a ruffian by Peregrine, recently shipwrecked off the coast. Peregrine brings her into the pub, hears her story, and registers special interest when he learns that Frank has abandoned her upon orders from his father, Sir Simon Rochdale, who has already chosen a wealthy bride for Frank. Determined to intervene, Peregrine leaves Mary with the landlord and sets off. While he is away, Tom Shuffleton arrives, sent by his friend Frank to help Mary if he can. Frank truly loves her but cannot disappoint Sir Simon. Far from aiding her, as soon as he sees her, Tom wants her for his own mistress and gives her the name of a woman in London, an old friend.
Just then Peregrine arrives and, after a brief dispute, Tom leaves. Behind Peregrine comes Mary's father, job Thornberry, whom Peregrine has met in town and whom a trusted friend has just bankrupted; Peregrine then gives job the money he needed, revealing that thirty years earlier job had given Peregrine, then a boy, a gift of money himself. Now job and his daughter are reunited, and job goes to Sir Simon to insist upon justice for Mary. Sir Simon refuses, whereupon Peregrine reveals that Sir Simon is his younger brother. As a boy Peregrine had run away to sea; he has returned as the rightful Rochdale heir. Sir Simon gives his assent, which pleases Mary and Frank, and Peregrine's ship is suddenly discovered and his great wealth restored. And as for John Bull, according to the prologue,
John Bull is-British Character at large;
'Tis he, or he,-where'er you mark a wight
Revering law, yet resolute for right;
Plain, blunt, his heart with feeling, justice full,
That is a Briton, that's (thank heaven!) John Bull.
Audiences found much to love in this play. They identified with the honest job, despised Tom the cad, sympathized with the ruined maiden, and rejoiced at her redemption. They laughed heartily at the minor comic characters always sprinkled throughout Colman's plays. Moralists objected that Mary's vice was rewarded, but they missed the point; Colman portrayed her as a victim. Critics, on the other hand, thought very well of the play, recognizing it as the best comedy in many years. John Bull played forty-eight times that season, enough to make it a tremendous success. It must also be considered his finest work. Colman wrote more dramas in the next twenty years, but he never again wrote one so good.
The next two summer seasons at the Haymarket each featured a new farce by Colman, Love Laughs at Locksmiths in 1803, and Gay Deceivers, or More Laugh than Love in 1804. The first was very successful, playing thirty-one nights that season, but the next was only moderately so; it saw only fifteen performances its first year. The following winter season he wrote another five-act comedy for Covent Garden, but Who Wants a Guinea? was no John Bull. Colman wrote it in haste, and most critics agreed that it seemed too much a reworking of all his old tricks. After its opening night on 18 April 1805, it was performed only nine times. When next he sold a play to Covent Garden it was a farce, We Fly by Night, or Long Stories. Typical of his farces, it became quite popular, playing thirty-one times in the 1806 winter season.
In addition to writing plays Colman had his theater business and personal finances to worry about. Despite resorting to a partnership at the Haymarket, Colman never did get quite ahead of his creditors. One of them finally caught him with the force of law in 1807, and he was arrested and confined to a debtors' house. There he lived for more than three years, until he was moved to a similar but more pleasant residence; he was not entirely freed from custody until 1817. But this custody was not unbearable to him, for he could receive visitors and occasionally leave the house. It is testimony to his unfailing charm and wit that even as a prisoner he frequently received and accepted invitations to dine out, to spend evenings in drink and conversation. And because he could still manage the theater from where he was detained, his existence there was tolerable, even comfortable.
The partnership, on the other hand, was never a comfortable one for the partners and least of all for Colman. Morris proved to be a difficult person in his manner and business dealings, and sought greater and greater control over the minute operations of the theater. Much to Colman's dismay this led to arbitration and legal battles that threatened to ruin his beloved Haymarket. Morris further antagonized Colman by bringing suit against him for breach of contract when the playwright sold a new farce to Covent Garden in 1806, and again with a second farce in 1810. Both times Colman was acquitted; he had never agreed to write exclusively for the Haymarket. The suits appear to have been brought as a nuisance-or even an attempted intimidation of a man already in distressed circumstances. Although Morris conducted his part of the dispute in public, Colman characteristically tried to come to terms with him behind the scenes.
Meanwhile he kept writing. The Haymarket did well with The Afticans, or War, Love, and Duty, a three-act musical comedy that played thirty-one times in the summer of 1808. But Covent Garden's 1810 purchase, the farce X.Y.Z., was halted by one of Morris's suits after only two performances. Even selling his plays was becoming more difficult for Colman.
During one of the partners' rare truces they decided once again to take on the winter houses this time by requesting and receiving from the lord chamberlain a license to remain open a month later, until 15 October. The longer season took effect in 1811, opening 15 May, and not with an entirely independent company. Colman had carefully arranged the schedule of plays to take advantage of gaps in the winter theaters' use of certain star players. Despite another suit by Morris over whether he had been sufficiently consulted in the management of the theater and despite his attempts to remove Colman as manager, the season was successful, and ended on the last legal day. The following season was nearly as long and successful as well, hampered though it was by yet more legal action from Morris; but the next summer, 1813, thanks to more dissension and litigation, the Little Theatre at the Haymarket did not open at all.
Although the partners were able to agree sufficiently to offer a season in 1814 and thereafter, their financial circumstances convinced them to stop trying to compete head-on with the larger theaters. They returned to their original summer venue, opening in June or July, closing in mid September. During these litigious years Colman had written another pair of comic pieces, The Quadrupeds of Quedlinburgh, or the Rovers of Weimar, in 1811, and Doctor Hocus Pocus, or Harlequin Washed White, in 1814. Both were very well received by their Haymarket audiences, as was The Actor of All Work, or First and Second Floor three years later. His light comic touch had not deserted him. But he gradually tired of managing, especially of managing with Morris as a partner. The season of 1818 was Colman's last one as the man in charge of productions at the Little Theatre, Haymarket.
Colman wrote at least three more pieces for the stage: The Gnome-King, or The Giant-Mountains, a "Dramatick Legend" in two acts for Covent Garden's 1819-1820 season; The Law of Java, a three-act musical comedy, performed at Covent Garden in 1822; and Stella and Leatherlungs, or A Star and a Stroller, an afterpiece for Drury Lane in 1823. None of these proved very popular, and Colman wrote no more dramas by himself He probably assisted in the revision of many others, for he was often called upon by friends and associates for just such work. But in any real sense he was more or less done with writing. Furthermore he no longer needed the income; in 1824 George IV appointed Colman Examiner of Plays, more commonly called Licenser, a post made vacant by the death of John Larpent. In effect this gave him complete authority to censor any plays or parts of plays that he deemed immoral, overly political blasphemous, or otherwise dangerous.
This office provided steady income but nothing else beneficial to George Colman. He could hardly have ended his career with a less fortunate appointment. He became extremely unpopular with critics and playwrights by performing his duties with excessive zeal and moralistic fastidiousness. Any reference in a play that even hinted of a political subject was ruled out, as were all references to the Deity or to biblical figures or verses. Calling a woman on stage "an angel" was not to be tolerated under Licenser Colman; the word "damn" was condemned. Even more puzzling were his consistent objections to hints of sexual matters, even such mild transgressions as the use of the word "thigh." Under such strictures, of course, references to immoral sexual conduct, however tastefully made, were automatically forbidden if that conduct were not punished in the manner deserved by such a vice.
Colman's friends puzzled over such an approach to an office that could have brought England's foremost living dramatist the kind of revered status his declining years so richly deserved. They looked to his own work and saw countless examples of the very abuses he now corrected in others. Indeed, much of the life and humor of his best work would have been prohibited had Larpent wielded the censor's pen the way Colman did. His behavior as Licenser thus appears hypocritical. Although some excuse can be made for him on the grounds that the audiences in general were beginning to speak out against the excesses of the stage and that theater owners were not so upset with him as the critics and playwrights were, nonetheless his behavior still defies explanation. His biographer Jeremy Bagster-Collins provides the most plausible explanation when he suggests that Colman had lost his sense of humor, and was "overzealous in the performance of duties for which he was by nature unfitted." On the other hand, some evidence suggests that Colman performed his duty as strictly as he could in the full knowledge that, at performance, his erasures would be ignored. His position as manager for so many years should have left him in the position of knowing pretty well what other managers would do with his emendations. If this is what happened, then Colman has been misunderstood for a century and a half. Whatever the explanation, the result was that Colman was much reviled-in his official capacity-by the theatrical community he had loved and helped build for more than forty years.
Regardless of their reaction to him as an official, however, few if any old associates maintained their hostility in social surroundings. Colman was universally reputed to be as charming in his old age as he had been all his life. Actors recalled his generosity and humanity, friends remembered his readiness to help them, and proprietors his straightforward business manner. He was as always a frequent guest at the tables of the great, the one person everyone found agreeable. He probably drank too much and certainly kept late hours, but he did so to the delight of his hosts and companions. Because he had observed such excesses all his life they are unlikely to have contributed greatly to the gradual decline he suffered during his twelve years as Licenser. He was quite simply wearing down. Frequent bouts of ill health accompanied by severe pain gradually kept him more often at home, where his second wife was his constant companion. He concealed his discomforts from the public, however, and most were surprised to learn of his poor condition or, later, of his death. Indeed, despite the suffering of which they remained ignorant, friends found him wittier than ever in his last months. He pursued his duties as Licenser nearly to his end, which came at home, quietly, in late October of 1836. He was seventy-four.
George Colman the Younger was not a great dramatist, though he was the funniest, the most enjoyed, indeed the best of his day. Instead of greatness he sought popularity. Critics complained that, writing what the public liked, he never wrote as well as he was able, never dared to try new forms; yet he can be credited-or blamed-for starting melodrama on its first tentative steps. He was criticized for not upholding the great literary traditions of his country; yet Colman knew that the drama, a performing art, is the most immediate of the literary genres. Any standard of greatness that loses sight of the drama's popular appeal risks irrelevance. Scholars argued that he was simply vulgar or sentimental, preferring farce and low comedy, mixing different dramatic forms. If they were right about this, he did not care; he had made his point. Colman is best remembered, and should be remembered, for The Heir at Law, John Bull, and The Poor Gentleman. But equally important in some sense are his other thirty dramas, more or less, that shaped and reflected the taste of his time, and the hundreds of his contemporaries' plays he produced on the Haymarket stage. He made people laugh, year after year, and he had great fun doing so.
Last Updated: 9/22/2004