Samuel Foote – Eighteenth century Actor & Wit

These snippets come from accounts of the life of Samuel Foote, a celebrated humourist, ‘whose comic genius procured for him the appellation of the English Aristophanes.’

Foote was born in Cornwall in 1721. Having attended Oxford, he entered the Inner Temple to study law, but his career quickly failed. After attempting a life as an author, and then a beer seller, not to mention suffering a spell in debtor’s prison in 1742, Foote embarked on a career as an actor. In 1746-7, he rented the Haymarket theatre, assembled together a group of actors, and commenced his first theatrical venture, The Diversions of the Morning, or, A Dish of Chocolate. The advertisement ran as follows:

On Saturday noon, exactly at 12 o’clock, at the New Theatre, in the Haymarket, Mr Foote begs the favour of his friends to come and drink a dish of chocolate with him; and ’tis hoped there will be a great deal of comedy and some joyous spirits; he will endeavour to make the Morning as diverting as possible. Tickets for the entertainment to be had at George’s Coffee-House, Temple Bar, without which no person will be admitted.—N.B. Sir Dilbury Diddle will be there, and Lady Betty Frisk has absolutely promised.

His nineteenth century biographer contends that this announcement ‘attracted a considerable audience, many of whom, however, were rather befuddled in regard to the promise of chocolate, and seem to have expected that they would be served with that refreshment.’ Although the performance was a great success, lampooning many notable and popular performers of the day, including David Garrick, the confusion over the title led to Foote renaming the entertainment Tea several weeks later, and showing it at a more appropriate time of 6.30pm: ‘At the request of several persons who are desirous of spending an hour with Mr Foote, but find the time inconvenient, instead of chocolate in the morning, Mr Foote’s friends are desired to drink a dish of tea with him at half an hour past 6 in the evening.’

The show continued to be a great success, and Foote soon grew rich. He also inherited a large sum of money in 1748, which enabled him to live ‘the gay life of a gentleman at large, which he indulged for several years, residing principally, during that period, on the continent.’ In 1752, cash spent, Foote returned to the London stage, and resumed management of the Haymarket in 1760. In 1766 he was granted a royal patent to entertain the Duke of York. However ‘this boon was indirectly indebted to an unlucky horse-accident which had befallen him in the duke’s company, and cost him the loss of one of his limbs, instigating him to use a cork leg for the remainder of his life.’

On 8th July 1775, John Sangster, a servant of Foote, ‘charged the actor with an attempted homosexual attack, a capital offence. Foote’s sense of personal security collapsed under the repeated and vicious attacks. His case came to trial on 9 December 1776, and he was quickly acquitted, but his spirit was broken,’and when ‘Arthur Murphy, who acted as Foote’s attorney, visited the actor to tell him he had been acquitted, Foote collapsed on the floor in strong hysterics.’ Foote fell into a depression after this, and died in Dover in 1777.

Foote died a ‘controversial and celebrated public figure, an actor, playwright, wit, and brilliant conversationalist.’ Garrick commented that he ‘had much wit, no feeling, sacrific’d friends & foes to a joke, & so has dy’d very little regretted even by his nearest acquaintance.’

Dr Johnson related to Boswell: ‘The first time I was in company with Foote was at Fitzherbert’s. Having no good opinion of the fellow, I was resolved not to be pleased; and it is very difficult to please a man against his will. I went on eating my dinner pretty sullenly, affecting not to mind him; but the dog was so very comical, that I was obliged to lay down my knife and fork, throw myself back in my chair, and fairly laugh it out Sir, he was irresistible.

Foote’s nineteenth century biographer was good enough to assemble a few of the quips and retorts for which Foote developed his fame as a Wit:

While present one evening at the Lectures on the Ancients, adventured on by Charles Macklin, the lecturer hearing a buzz of laughter in a corner of the room, looked angrily in that direction, and perceiving Foote, said pompously: ‘You seem very merry, pray, do you know what I am going to say?’  ‘No,’ replied Foote, ‘do you?’

‘Why do you hum that air?’ he said one day to a friend. ‘It forever haunts me,’ was the reply. ‘No wonder,’ he rejoined, ‘you are for ever murdering it.’

One evening he was asked at a coffee-house if he had attended that day the funeral of a friend, for whom he cherished a great regard, and who happened to be the son of a baker. ‘О yes,’ he replied, ‘poor fellow, I have just seen him shoved into the family oven.’

Having once paid a professional visit to Scotland, where he was well received, he was one day dining at a gentleman’s house, when an old lady present was called on for a toast, and gave ‘Charles the Third. ‘Of Spain, madam?’ said Foote. ‘No, sir, she replied somewhat tartly, ‘of England.’ ‘Never mind her,’ said one of the company, ‘she is one of our old folks who have not got rid of their political prejudices.’ ‘Oh, dear sir, make no apology,’ cried Foote, ‘I was prepared for all this; as, from your living so far north, I suppose none of you have heard of the Revolution.’

Foote’s mother, ‘though she was heiress to a large fortune, was carelessness in pecuniary matters and became dependent on the bounty of Samuel, who allowed her a hundred a year. On one occasion she wrote him as follows:’Dear Sam, I am in prison for debt; come and assist your loving mother, E. Foote’. To this brief note he replied: ‘Dear Mother, So am I; which prevents his duty being paid to his loving mother by her affectionate son, Sam Foote.’

For more on Foote see: P.T Dircks, A.H.Scouten, W.Cooke, R Chambers

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