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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Samuel Foote (1720–1777)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE NAME of Samuel Foote suggests a whimsical, plump little man, with a round face, twinkling eyes, and one of the readiest wits of the eighteenth century. This contemporary of the elder Colman, Cumberland, Mrs. Cowley, and the great Garrick, knew many famous men and women, and they admired as well as feared his talents.  1
  Samuel Foote was born at Truro in 1720. He was a young boy when he first exhibited his powers of mimicry at his father’s dinner-table. At that time he did not expect to earn his living by them, for he came of well-to-do people, and his mother, who was of aristocratic birth, inherited a comfortable fortune.  2
  Throughout his school days at Worcester and his college days at Worcester College, Oxford, where he did not remain long enough to take a degree, and the idle days when he was supposed to be studying law at the Temple and was in reality frequenting coffee-houses and drawing-rooms as a young man of fashion, he was establishing a reputation for repartee, bons mots, and satiric imitation. So, when the wasteful youth had squandered all his money, he naturally turned to the stage as offering him the best opportunity. Like many another amateur addicted to a mistaken ambition, Foote first tried tragedy, and made his début as Othello. But in this and in other tragedies he was a failure; so he soon took to writing comic plays with parts especially adapted to himself. ‘The Diversions of the Morning’ was the first of a long series, of which ‘The Mayor of Garratt,’ ‘The Lame Lover,’ ‘The Nabob,’ and ‘The Minor,’ are among the best known. As these were written from the actor’s rather than from the dramatist’s point of view, they often seem faulty in construction and crude in literary quality. They are farces rather than true comedies. But they abound in witty dialogue, and in a satire which illuminates contemporary vices and follies.  3
  Foote seems to have been curiously lacking in conscience. He lived his life with a gayety which no poverty, misfortune, or physical suffering could long dampen. When he had money he spent it lavishly, and when the supply ran short he racked his clever brains to make a new hit. To accomplish this he was utterly unscrupulous, and never spared his friends or those to whom he was indebted, if he saw good material in their foibles. His victims smarted, but his ready tongue and personal geniality usually extricated him from consequent unpleasantness. Garrick, who aided him repeatedly, and who dreaded ridicule above all things, was his favorite butt, yet remained his friend. The irate members of the East India Company, who called upon him armed with stout cudgels to administer a castigation for an offensive libel in ‘The Nabob,’ were so speedily mollified that they laid their cudgels aside with their hats, and accepted his invitation to dinner.  4
  To us, much of his charm has evaporated, for it lay in these very personalities which held well-known people up to ridicule with a precision which made it impossible for the originals to escape recognition. Even irascible Dr. Johnson, who wished to disapprove of him, admitted that there was no one like “that fellow Foote.” So this “Aristophanes of the English stage” was mourned when he died at the age of fifty-seven, and a company of his friends and fellow-actors buried him one evening by the dim light of torches in a cloister of Westminster Abbey.  5
  There is often a boisterous unreserve in the plays of Foote, as in other eighteenth-century drama, which revolts modern taste. As they consist of character study rather than incident, mere extracts are apt to appear incomplete and meaningless. Therefore it seems fairer to represent the famous wit not alone by formal citation, but also by some of his bons mots extracted from the collection of William Cooke in his ‘Memoirs of Samuel Foote’ (2 vols. 1806).  6
 
 
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