Today I want to tell you about Samuel Foote. I don’t know when he was born exactly but he was baptised on this day in 1720 in Truro, Cornwall. He was an actor, dramatist and theatre manager. He was also an eccentric character with a talent for mimicry. He was good at turning situations to his advantage, even his own misfortune. In 1766, he had to have one of his legs amputated and he even managed to turn that into a joke. Samuel’s father was variously mayor of Truro and Member of Parliament for Tiverton. His mother was the daughter of a baronet, and it is probably from her side of the family that he inherited his oddness. It seems their peculiarities ranged from ‘harmless’ to ‘malevolent’. It was because of two of her brothers that Samuel first came to public prominence. His uncle John was murdered by his uncle Samuel on board the HMS Ruby in 1741 and Samuel Foote published a pamphlet about it. He claimed that his uncle John had strangled himself.
He attended Worcester College, Oxford for a while but they dis-enrolled him in 1740 and he left without finishing his degree. He seems to have been skipping classes, developing his talent for mimicry and playing pranks, such as making some cows ring the college alarm bells by tying hay to the bell ropes. After leaving university, he was meant to be studying law, but spent most of his time hanging out in coffee shops doing impressions of lawyers. He married for money, which didn’t go well. Plus his wife wasn’t as wealthy as he had hoped and he wound up in the Fleet Prison for debt.
After that, he took up acting, on the advice of his friends. He was often to be seen swanning around Covent Garden in an orange suit lined with pea-green velvet. Samuel learned acting under the tutelage of Charles Macklin, who was at the time, only slightly less famous than David Garrick. The two acted together in Shakespeare’s Othello in 1744 at the Haymarket Theatre. Samuel in the title role, Macklin as Iago. It wasn’t a great production, but the most interesting thing is that they were doing it illegally. They weren’t really allowed to perform plays there at all. They got round this by also staging a musical performance as part of the programme. They claimed that people were paying for a concert. The play came for free.
Samuel played several comic roles after that, but often using his part to do impersonations of other actors and poke fun at them. But he was still not making enough money to support his lifestyle. In 1746, he became a theatre manager, taking a lease on the Haymarket Theatre. There he continued to dance a fine line between what is legal and what is not by presenting his own play: ‘The Diversions of the Morning or, A Dish of Chocolate’, which was a satire on contemporary actors and public figures, performed by himself. The ‘Dish of Chocolate’ refers to the refreshments he served to his audience. The conceit being, that they had all come for the dish of chocolate and he just happened to be performing a play while they drank it. The authorities didn’t like it. The people he was satirizing didn’t like it. He was closed down after one performance. Fortunately though, he had some influential friends and his theatre was re-opened. He was soon offering a revised version of his play. He called it ‘A Cup of Tea’. Samuel Foote had inadvertently invented the matinee.
The reactions of the various targets of his satire, seem to have caused him either a lot of trouble, or an immense amount of joy and I suspect it was the second one, because he did not stop doing it. He had a quarrel with fellow satirist, Henry Fielding, which went on for ages, both on stage and in written form. Here is what Henry Fielding had to say: “…you Samuel Fut be pissed upon, with Scorn and Contempt, as a low Buffoon; and I do, with the utmost Scorn and Contempt, piss on you accordingly.” It was all very funny unless you were the one favoured by his attentions. Dr Johnson thought he was hilarious until he caught wind of the fact that Samuel was planning to do an impression of him. Then he let it be known that he had ordered a heavy oak cudgel, and that he would not hesitate in stepping onto the stage, and using it. Samuel did not do Dr Johnson.
When his mentor, Macklin, boasted the he could memorise any text at a single reading, Samuel wrote this nonsense for him:
So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. “What! No soap?” So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top, and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.
Panjandrum, by the way, was the name given to a ridiculous, and fortunately never deployed, British secret weapon of World War II. It was a ten foot high rocket propelled drum packed with 400 lb of explosive. If you wanted to, you could probably find a film of it’s disastrous test run on You Tube. Also, If you’re reading this quite close to the time I’m writing it, and happen to be in London on the 4th, 5th, or 6th February, I’d like you to know that Panjandrum is also the name of a show by Pat Cahill, which you can see at the Soho Theatre. You can read about it here.
But, back to Samuel Foote. In 1752, he wrote a play called ‘Taste’ ridiculing a fashion amongst aristocrats for collecting art and antiquities, without really knowing what they were looking for. In it, there is a Lord Dupe, who claims that he can tell the age of a coin by tasting it. Another character, Sir Positive Bubble, is persuaded by an unscrupulous auctioneer that broken china is worth more than perfect pieces. The same auctioneer talks Dupe into buying a canvas with all the paint scraped off. Samuel played the part of Lady Pentweazel, a woman who thought that the Venus de Medici and the Mary de Medici were sisters in the Medici family. You can see him in this role in the picture below. He was actually extremely fond of playing women’s parts, and not just in the theatre. He had an alter-ego called Miss Dorothy Midnight, who used to perform, along with his friend Christopher Smart, in taverns and Molly-Houses. Here, I need to explain that, in the eighteenth century, a Molly-House was a term for a place where homosexual men met and, whether they were or not, were often regarded as brothels.
In 1766, whilst staying at a country house in Yorkshire, Samuel recklessly boasted about what a great rider he was. He wasn’t, he was terrible and all his friends knew it. Like a lot of eighteenth century men with too much money, they loved a bet. So they took wagers on whether or not he would be able to ride the horse they gave him. The animal they gave him was a fierce stallion belonging to the Duke of York. A touch of the spur was all it took for the horse to immediately throw him off onto the cobbles of the stable yard. His leg was so badly broken that the bone stuck out through the leather of his boot. His leg had to be amputated. Not a pleasant procedure before the invention of general anaesthesia. The Duke felt terrible about the whole thing and wanted to know if there was anything he could do by way of reparation. And it turned out there was something the Duke could do. All Samuel really wanted was a Royal Warrant and Patent for his ‘Little Theatre in the Hay. This is how the theatre became ‘The Theatre Royal, Haymarket’. So, although he lost a leg, his future was secure.
Samuel Foote continued to act and even wrote himself a couple of plays which incorporated his new disability: ‘The Devil on Two Sticks’ and ‘The Lame Lover’. Although he admitted that he was no longer able to run he would ‘hop with any man in England’ He is also the originator of the joke: ‘Heard the one about the one-legged comedian called Foote? What’s his other leg called?
Samuel rather fell from grace after he wrote a play which was clearly about Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston, who was accused, and later convicted of bigamy. One of her supporters, William Jackson succeeded in having the play suppressed and it was never performed. He also published articles accusing Samuel of homosexuality. Later his coachman accused him of sexual assault, for which he was tried and acquitted. Jackson then published a pamphlet called ‘Sodom and Onan’ which was obviously about Foote. Samuel Foote responded by rewriting the play with a new character in it based on Jackson. It was his last play. He died the following year.