Thomas Harris, the principal proprietor and manager of Covent Garden theatre between 1774 and 1820, shaped the cultural landscape of Georgian London. Even more significant is the period covered by Harris's connection to the Garden, stretching back to his purchase of the theatre along with three other investors in the summer of 1767, giving him a longer involvement in the management of a patent theatre than anyone else in the long eighteenth century, including John Rich. For two decades, Harris had also possessed both of the royal patents that allowed the performance of scripted drama in the metropolis, one for the Garden and the other for Drury Lane theatre. As the monarch of performance, he controlled the Garden's hugely powerful space with its impact upon popular attitudes as the world was made and remade upon his stage. His shows influenced how Londoners understood and appreciated their nation and its military contests, political controversies, attitudes to sexuality, fashions, and obsessions. Moreover, he presided over one of the most turbulent periods in the history of the stage which included the audacious challenge to patent authority by 'Plausible Jack' Palmer and his Royalty theatre in 1787, the destruction and rebuilding of the Garden in 1808-09, and the infamous Old Price Riots that followed and frustrated attempts at performance for nearly three months. And yet, despite all of this, Harris has become a shadowy figure who is barely remembered. He is unheard-of outside of a small clique of specialist theatre historians.
Harris's short entry in the encyclopaedic Oxford Dictionary of National Biography provides startlingly little about his life, inside or outside of the [End Page 2] theatre. In other accounts dealing with the major events of his management, he has been written out of history and recognised only as a financial associate and silent partner of more familiar public talents such as John Philip Kemble and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. As examples of his erasure from history, Marc Baer's detailed account of the Old Price Riots in Theatre and Disorder (1992) and Gillian Russell's earlier article (1990) present the co-patentee Kemble as the driving force at the Garden at the expense of Harris who appears to make a negligible contribution to these tumultuous events. Recently, there have been some sympathetic and perceptive portrayals of Harris - most notably during his brief appearances in Annibel Jenkins's Life of Elizabeth Inchbald (2003), Andrew McConnell Stott's The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi (2009), and an article for Theatre Notebook (2009) by Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume - yet his life needs to be re-evaluated and rehabilitated.
When looking at the fragments of his life, some theatre historians have tended to create fictions that grossly misrepresent and abuse him. Insults have been inexplicably hurled at his memory. Harris has been called "testy, prickly, grasping" and "tight-fisted" (Price, Milhous, and Hume 56, 61); "implacable, irritable and violent" (Kahan 48); and, worst of all, intellectually "flatfooted" (Donkin 26). Ellen Donkin's assumption that Harris was an upstart who understood finance but little about the finer points of drama (87, 98, 122) as well as a sexual predator who attempted the rape of Elizabeth Inchbald (89-90, 112, 122, 136; repeated in O'Quinn 110-12) shows how his life needs to be retold. There is, after all, considerable evidence against these portrayals of Harris in the memoirs of friends and colleagues. One only has to look at the affectionate remembrance of Harris's warmth and generosity by Grimaldi (2:186), John O'Keeffe (2:18-20, 384-86), and Thomas Dibdin (1:312, 2.244) - as well as Dibdin's account of how the manager shaped his efforts as a young playwright (1:298) - to appreciate that the modern judgements are woefully simplistic and incomplete at the very least. As for the portrayal of Harris as a would-be rapist, the only account of it occurs in John Taylor's scurrilous Records of My Life (224) which appeared decades after the alleged incident.
However, Harris cannot be forgotten because he had never been known with any certainty...