George Colman’s The Suicide, A Comedy (1778): A Tale of Two Manuscripts
George Colman’s The Suicide, A Comedy (1778) was one of the most popular new comedies of its day, and despite its controversial combination of subject and mode, it was widely received as a satiric antidote to what was perceived as a national (and fashionable) suicide epidemic. The play was never published, and serious critical assessment of the play remains scarce. This essay establishes a new history of the play from an examination of the play’s two known extant copies: the Larpent manuscript held at the Huntington Library and a prompter’s copy at McGill University, critically studied for the first time. Together, they enable the construction of an intimate history, providing new insights about the play’s licensing, its real-life satirical objects, casting, planning, and its status as an enduring Haymarket favorite.
Haymarket Theatre, Drury Lane, David Garrick, John Damer, Horace Walpole
to modern readers, George Colman the Elder’s The Suicide, A Comedy (1778) is a curious beast. Not many playwrights today, if any, would dare to present the subject of suicide as a source of humor. And indeed, it must be said, neither did many of Colman’s fellow dramatists.1 Consequently, Colman’s play has more often than not been treated cursorily as an anomalous experiment of the Georgian stage. While Ross Allen Grossman offers The Suicide sustained attention in a 1976 doctoral thesis, and Richard W. Bevis more recently cites the play as an example “of a new style. . . . Combining humanitarian and problem drama” that “presages the next decade’s comedy,” such assessment and praise tend to be exceptions to the rule.2 Published criticism, as brief and rare as examples have been, is instead [End Page 407] inclined to highlight the play’s seemingly problematic comedic subject. Ernest Bernbaum, for instance, highlighted the play as an example of a late eighteenth-century dramatist “determined to arouse laughter by any means, however extravagant . . . with subjects ill suited for humorous treatment.”3 Eugene R. Page, author of the only published monograph on Colman, suggested that his best days as an author were behind him by the time this play was written, and concluded that, “Despite the approval of the critics and the laughter which met this play . . . the bolder strokes of the satire seem to have caused a reaction which finally defeated its popularity.”4 Page and others alluded to the potential controversy sparked by Colman’s choice of subject but ultimately left many questions unanswered. Can we confirm that this portrayal of suicide was deemed controversial in the late eighteenth century, or is this an assumption founded upon modern sensibilities? What was it about the play that proved objectionable to commentators—the subject of suicide or the satirical mode being employed? Who protested, and how? And finally, how might this have influenced the play’s reception and longevity? Many of these questions can be answered, and many further considerations aided, by a thorough examination of the two extant manuscripts of the play: one, the 1778 manuscript submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for licensing, now held in the John Larpent Plays collection at the Huntington Library (LA 450); and two, an undated prompter’s copy held in Rare Books and Special Collections at McGill University (MSG 0129).5 The latter manuscript is being examined here for the first time in the play’s critical history; this and the Larpent manuscript, considered together, offer new insights into the entire eighteenth-century history of the play and its performance, which spans the period from the weeks before its premiere in 1778 to its revival at Drury Lane in 1795, a year after Colman’s death.
A Very Dangerous Comedy
The Suicide was first performed at the Haymarket on July 11, 1778, in Colman’s in augural summer season as theater manager. Henry Bate’s early prognosis, just days after the premiere, was that “ ‘The Suicide’ has done its do . . . for not a word is now spoke of it from one end of town to the other” and that it would not survive its first [End Page 408] season in its existing, unusual four-act format.6 Nonetheless, it was staged a further eighteen times that season, and overall, eighty-seven times in seventeen and a half years; by these numbers, it was tied for the tenth most popular new mainpiece of the last quarter of the century.7 All but one of these London performances were at the Haymarket Theatre, the exception being when George Colman the Younger loaned the play to John Kemble’s Drury Lane in 1795 for what proved to be its final revival of the century. But the play also appears to have been performed outside London; Frances Burney, for instance, reported attending a performance at the North Street Theatre in Brighton in 1779, although very little is known about its potential life in provincial theaters.8
Colman never published the play, which makes the extant manuscripts critical to any study of it and its history. As both Bevis and Grossman observe, the lack of publication may be an indicator that printed and stage drama were discrete markets governed by different tastes rather than a reflection of the play’s quality or popularity; to be precise, Grossman claims that “late eighteenth-century readers, unlike theater audiences, preferred tragedy and sentiment to comedy and laughter.”9 But, as Grossman also rightly acknowledges, it also seems plausible that Colman chose not to publish the play so as to protect his financial interests as theater manager: “Not only did the circulation of a play in print dissipate its freshness and impact, but the author who allowed his play to be published lost all control over it. Any theater manager who could afford the few shillings to buy a copy could then perform the play.”10 This would explain why Colman only published his less successful plays; it would also account for his stern warning against the piracy of The Suicide in the press, published in no less than five London newspapers on September 10, 1778:
Whereas Copies of the Comedy of the suicide have been offered for sale to various Printers and Booksellers, in town and country, notice is hereby given, That such copies have been offered without the privity of the Author; and that any persons publishing the same, without his consent, will be proceeded against as the law directs.11 [End Page 409]
The lack of publication, it appears, can be read as an inverse measure of its success on stage, and Colman’s vehement protection of his rights as author and theater manager sheds some light on why evidence of the play’s performance outside of London is scarce.
The play itself follows a young rake, Tobine, a mercer with a good heart who has inherited a respectable business from his father, the Hen and Chickens in Cheapside. But he is also an impressionable social climber with “a fatal turn for genteel pleasures” (1.1.106–7; fol. 5v). We join the action as Tobine has determined to spend the last of his fortune and rid the world of his presence.12 In his high jinks he is often accompanied by his equally spendthrift—but poorly paid—leisure-seeking companions, Catchpenny the writer and Ranter the actor. He has one true friend, a former and loyal love, Nancy Lovell—or “Lovewell,” as some reviewers suggest13—who recognizes Tobine’s worth as well as his self-destructive streak. In a breeches role originally played by Elizabeth Farren (later Countess of Derby), Nancy becomes Dick Rattle to infiltrate Tobine’s male circle of influence. Cognizant of his plans, Nancy convinces Tobine that poison is the most discreet method to dispose of himself, and, with the aid of his accomplice Dr. Truby, Dick promises to supply the tonic. But this elixir is not designed to kill, only to induce illness and purge him of his deadly affectation while supposedly on his deathbed. In the end, a reformed Tobine realizes that suicide is not the honorable exit he supposed it to be, nor a way to extricate himself from society without embroiling others in his affairs. He is also told that the two people he loves most dearly, Nancy and Dick, are indeed one and the same. All’s well that ends well, as Tobine and Nancy are set to marry in the not-too-distant future.
As a subject, suicide was remarkably ubiquitous at the time of Colman’s play. By the mid- to late eighteenth century, the frequency of suicide’s featuring in the popular press—in news reports, correspondence, essays, satirical pieces, and fictional vignettes—seemed to create the distinct perception that England was facing a sociological crisis of epidemic proportions. If this period marked a key transitional period in the history of self-destruction in Britain—as most notably indicated by the lexical shift from “self-murder” to “suicide” around midcentury—then the 1770s was the decade that brought the issue to the forefront of public consciousness. As one observer remarked in 1772, suicide was perceived “to be more frequent in England than in any other country,” and it was seen to be “a melancholy truth, that it has of late been more frequent here than at any former period.”14 Cults and scandals were instigated by the suicides of prominent figures such as Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770), [End Page 410] Charles Yorke, Lord Chancellor (1722–1770), Robert Clive, commander-in-chief of British India (1725–1774), and perhaps most infamously, Goethe’s fictional man of feeling, Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774, trans. 1779). David Hume’s controversial essay “Of Suicide,” printed posthumously for the first time in 1777, added fuel to heated public debate. But despite Hume’s enlightened defense of suicide as the ultimate expression of one’s individuality and autonomy, suicide was a paradoxically social phenomenon during this period: its proliferation in public discourse prevented this most individual of acts from remaining in a private dimension and from resisting social meaning.
Colman’s play taps into a deeper concern that the prevalence of suicide was an issue of class, gently satirizing the fashionable penchant for suicide among the bon ton—as one of what Donna T. Andrew has labeled the four “aristocratic vices” of the eighteenth century.15 Reports and correspondence abounded with complaints about “the too-fashionable Mode of Suicide”16 and the lapsed morality of higher ranks. In a fictional letter published in The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser in 1775, from “a Lady of Fashion, lately deceased, to her Daughter,” the mother speculates:
why do we find suicide so common among the rich? You seldom ever hear of shooting, hanging, or drowning among poor people, who work hard for their living. . . . Now, such spirited proceedings as these are chiefly to be met with in the fashionable world. Here and there indeed, we see some of their servile imitators, in the lower walk of life, follow them even in the mode of their death.
The deceased correspondent continues with her phantom tongue firmly planted in her cheek, ridiculing the beau monde: “Were I a man, and of course in the House, I would make a motion to prohibit self-murder among the middling-classes, and to confine it intirely to the people of fashion; who, alone, should have a right to be out of humour with society, and, consequently, be left at liberty to destroy themselves.”17 A comparable example can be found in St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post in 1778, where a pseudonymous correspondent, “Patricius,” satirically bemoans eroding class divisions upon hearing of a “Gardener’s aspiring to die like a Nobleman” by shooting himself: “My Lord’s Gardener now thinks he has as great a Right to blow out his Brains as his Master; and no doubt we shall soon see the desponding Plebeians emulate the greatest men of the Country, by letting out their Blood at the Jugular Vein. What other Privileges has the first Man in the Kingdom unclaimed by [End Page 411] the lowest Vulgar?”18 Indeed, some two decades earlier, both Horace Walpole and Colman himself mock suicide as a gentlemanly, clubbable vice. Walpole outrageously proposes a “receptacle for suicides,” a country club of sorts for those “tired of life,” where members are welcome to use the numerous facilities—tailored to one’s sex, station, or vice—to dispose of themselves in commodious and peaceful apartments before being entombed in “a handsome garden” on site. Writing as one “of the numerous fraternity of distressed gentlemen,” Walpole conjures what appears to be a guillotine to cater for “persons of quality, and those who would imitate them.”19 Walpole’s satire seems to be an elaboration upon Colman’s own invention, “the Last Guinea Club,” where “a few broken gamesters and desperate young rakes,” bound by the maxim of “A short life and a merry one,” ultimately define their membership with self-destruction.20
Colman evidently drew upon this earlier vignette in his play: Tobine declares that “my last guinea and my last moment will come pretty nearly together” and reprises the very same maxim, as if to pledge his allegiance to this mythical fraternity (2.1.475–77, 551–52; fols. 42r, 45r).21 Given this context, Tobine, then, can be read as the epitome of a particular suicidal type constructed and lampooned in the popular press of the period: he is young and has no intention of dying old; he is male and lives by hypermasculine (and perhaps outdated) codes of honor and chivalry; his wealth is inherited rather than self-made, resulting in profligacy and an unhealthy disregard for fiscal responsibility; and he belongs to the middle class but aspires to the bon ton and their fashionable vices, in life and death. As Paul Stanley Varner astutely observes, Tobine is caught between two worlds: the society of the Hen and Chickens, “which embodies middle-class values of benevolence, industry, self-discipline, and stability,” and the mercenary world outside the store, which privileges self-gratification, pride, and chaos.22 In essence, Tobine represents the worst aspects of social mobility, a process [End Page 412] that ideally serves to elevate and refine the middling classes, but here only serves to expose them to the pernicious influence of decaying upper-class morality.
If Tobine is the embodiment of a suicidal type fashioned in the popular press of the period, then it should also be noted that satire seems to be commonly employed as the most appropriate mode of portrayal. The correspondents from the examples above, Walpole and Colman—in The Connoisseur and in The Suicide—appear to invest in satire’s capacity to effect positive, moral reform. As Colman himself mandates, “All possible means . . . should be devised to extirpate such absurd bravery, and to make [suicide] appear every way horrible, odious, contemptible, and ridiculous.”23 Far from being controversial, the combination of suicide and satire appears to have been well established and justified by the time The Suicide premiered on the London stage.
This is reflected in the rather positive reviews the play received in its first season. Indeed, the tone is set a week before the play’s premiere, when The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser (July 4, 1778) catches wind of a play in rehearsal by the name of The Suicide. While acknowledging that “The subject is certainly a ticklish one for comedy”—echoing David Garrick’s own reservations about the play’s “very dangerous Subject” just days before opening night24—the report also suggests the satire promises a great deal, both in terms of artistic innovation and social benefit, proposing a rather prescient metaphor that he who “serves up a pleasant antidote to a poisonous practice, merits our warmest tokens of approbation.”25 Such promise is fulfilled, according to the same newspaper’s opening night review: Colman’s “comedy on a subject the most difficult to handle pleasantly that ever author meddles with” is said to contain “much food for laughter, pointed satire, temporary allusion, and variety of character, as any piece produced for some seasons,” all of which rest upon the “laudable design” to ridicule a vice “so prevalent that even shoemakers have caught the infection!”26 The following day in The Morning Chronicle, “A philanthropist thanks Mr. Colman for his seasonable satire upon the horrid crime of Suicide,” suggesting that, while afflicted men can withstand “reason and religion,” they “are not steeled against the arrows of the dramatic satirist.”27 Such early reviews exemplify the critics’ approval of Colman’s ability to handle a potentially controversial subject in a genial manner and the timeliness of his satiric intervention.
Some reviewers are more pointed when discussing Colman’s satiric methods, praising in particular his artistic tact in avoiding individuals as objects of ridicule. “The Moral of the Play is excellent,” one critic declares, “But what distinguishes it from all Satires on prevailing Vices is the Delicacy with which it avoids [End Page 413] Personalities. . . . It is a general Lesson to Extravagance and Folly; but not dictated in any Degree by wanton Scurrility or personal Malice.”28 This is, perhaps, as much a declaration of prevailing standards of taste as it is an oblique denunciation of Samuel Foote’s recent legacy as an actor and playwright, as his excoriating mimicry and highly personal allusions regularly flouted such decorum.29 Other critics, however, disagree with this assessment of Colman’s play. “The Honest Ranger,” writing to The Morning Chronicle, suggests instead that Colman’s dialogue is “rather too personal” and “is a professed imitation of Foote’s manner.”30 This is likely a reference to Colman’s apparent mockery of Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, and the freethinking notions that inspire Tobine’s philosophical indifference to suicide in act 2; Colman is censured for this mockery elsewhere, as Priestley and Price hardly seem to deserve the sting of the satirist’s pen.31 However, when Hannah More relates a charge of in decency leveled at Colman in a letter to David Garrick, the basis of complaint is quite different and much more serious:
I hear a sad character of our little friend’s comedy; Lord Shelburne, and Lady Corke, and Mrs. Poyntz, told me the other day that it was a wretched thing, and dishonoured him both as an author and as a man; this paper would not hold all the severe things they said of it, especially Mrs. P. who spoke of it with an aversion that almost approached to abhorrence, as she said the most intimate family secrets were exposed and ridiculed.32
While the majority of the press lauded Colman for his delicacy and judgment, evidently not everyone found Colman’s comedic treatment of suicide commendable, and the Larpent manuscript reveals a great deal as to why this was so.
The Larpent Manuscript
The manuscript held in the Larpent Collection in the Huntington Library was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s office for approval on June 29, 1778. Dougald MacMillan’s annotations to the catalogue entry are surprisingly minimal: “some corrections; cast.” But the corrections, provided by another hand, are immensely insightful and expose much about the way the Lord Chamberlain’s office functioned [End Page 414] at this precise point in time and about the sensitive intimacies to which Lord Shelburne and company allude.
It appears that the examiner objected to some sections of Colman’s script because of personal allusions to John Damer, who scandalously committed suicide in 1776 after accruing crippling gambling debts. Particular lines are highlighted for deletion with marginal comments attached, which seem to imply that licensing would be subject to these recommended omissions.33 The first intervention occurs in the first scene of act 2 (lines 507–15; fol. 44r), where Nancy (in disguise) is discussing the merits of various methods of suicide with Tobine:
Initially, it might seem that dialogue has been marked for deletion by way of underlining—as Grossman claims—but closer inspection suggests the markings may well be a combination of underscores and overscores (see fig. 1).34 The first line starts at the beginning of a sentence below it, suggesting that the mark is intended as an overscore to highlight the dialogue beneath—a method also used in the examiner’s second intervention (below). The second and third marked lines, functioning as an overscore and underscore respectively, appear to highlight the same line of dialogue. Attached to this marked dialogue by a hash symbol, on the facing verso, is the examiner’s clarifying remark: “those lines ^seem to allude particularly to the circumstances related about Mr. John Damer’s death—such as a Blind Fidler [sic] coming into the Room the first after it had happen’d without discovering any way that such a catastrophe had taken place. &c&c.” Another objection on the same grounds is provoked by lines in the third scene of act 3 (111–14; fol. 68r), when Tobine’s seemingly final night at the tavern is interrupted by Juggins the proprietor (see fig. 2): [End Page 415]
Using a hash symbol on the facing verso again, the examiner explains his objection to this allusion: “it is said Mr. Damer dismissed his Wenches ordering them a Guinea each at the Bar.”
Damer’s death gained notoriety in the press as details slowly emerged in London newspapers, and the examiner was probably justified in thinking that such allusions would be recognized by the audience. Described as “wicked company” by Edward Gibbon, Damer was the profligate eldest son of Lord Milton, who at the time was one of the richest men in England; Damer was set to inherit his father’s income of £30,000 a year.35 In 1767 he married Anne Conway—who under her married name of Damer would later become a famed sculptor and socialite—but in the ensuing years it would become abundantly clear to high society that they had become “emotionally estranged.”36 With many of the obstacles of marriage removed, John Damer lived large, spending a fortune on clothing—accumulating a wardrobe that sold for £15,000 after his death—and gambling. On August 14, 1776, it is said Damer lost a particularly large amount of money while gambling at Almack’s Club, on top of the £70,000 debt that his father had already refused to pay. Knowing himself to be ruined, he had planned to flee to the Continent with Anne, but on August 15, the night before their departure, he effected a more immediate form of escape: he shot himself in the head at the Bedford Arms, Covent Garden. The earliest newspaper reports were typically polite, in keeping with the decorous expectations of the time. When The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser first announced the death of Damer on the day after his suicide, it reported that he had died at his house in Tilney Street, Mayfair, and gave no further information.37 But as the days progressed, further details about Damer’s death emerged in the popular press. Where the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser suppressed the “particulars” that emerged from the coroner’s inquiry, as they “might aggravate the distress of the noble family,” elsewhere details of his bacchanal farewell emerged:
before he committed the rash act, he was in company with four women of the town, and Burnet the blind musician, drank hard, but did not express, either by words or actions, the least degree of despondency. [End Page 416]
[End Page 417]
He held the pistol close to his temple, as is conjectured, in order to prevent a loud explosion; and in case the first attempt should fail, had secured another ready charged, and laid it within his reach. After the women were dismissed, he ordered Burnet to go down for about twenty-five minutes, who returning at the expiration of that time to the apartment, was the first who discovered, by the strong smell of gunpowder, the dreadful event.38
This report from the London Evening Post continues, including a further significant detail: “The ball lodging in Mr. D—’s brain, proves clearly that he must have loaded the pistol but with a very small quantity of powder, as the surest means of producing a certain, and speedy dissolution.” The London newspapers abounded with syndicated and similar reports, including the St. James’s Chronicle, of which Colman and Garrick were chief stockholders.39 Days later, Horace Walpole corroborates this sequence of events in a letter to Sir Horace Mann, adding significant details verified by the coroner’s report: Burnet the musician was a “blind fiddler”; Damer “dismissed his seraglio, bidding each receive her guinea at the bar”; “the ball had not gone through his head, nor made any report”; and “On the table lay a scrap of paper with these words, ‘The people of the house are not to blame for what has happened, which was my own act.’ ”40
By identifying similar details in Colman’s script, the examiner’s markings paradoxically attempt to eradicate yet simultaneously preserve a crucial context for The Suicide. While the redacted text still appears to present a generic suicidal stereotype in its likeable protagonist, Tobine, the marked manuscript makes clear that Colman held Damer as the archetypal example of decadent self-destruction to which middle-class men might dangerously aspire, revealing Damer as the real, barely visible, object of ridicule. The examiner’s interventions also help to correct a potential misconception perpetrated by the contemporary press by revealing that Colman’s seemingly impersonal, genial satirical method was not only the result of his artistic delicacy but also the consequence of selective censorship at the hand of the Lord Chamberlain’s office. Most significantly, however, in removing these allusions to Damer, the examiner reinforces a distinct ethical boundary in artistic practice: personalities and intimate details are to be avoided in satire, perhaps particularly when [End Page 418] coupled with a risky subject such as suicide, and most especially when pertaining to the lives of the socially prominent. One also wonders whether the examiner’s displeasure was exacerbated by the fact that Colman’s satirical object was dead; if the play were performed as written, not only might the memory of Damer be unnecessarily (further) tarnished, but Colman would escape personal recrimination. Mortui non mordent: the dead do not bite.
The examiner’s marginal comments also beg a related question: Who was responsible for them? Pursuing this line of inquiry yields some very interesting connections to Damer. Despite L. W. Conolly’s sensible reminder that we cannot always assume that markings in the Larpent manuscripts are those of the examiners, as they “could by no means always expect to receive scripts free from other people’s alterations,” the explanatory nature of the marginal comments makes it patently clear that they were directions from the examiner and not part of the author’s drafting process.41 While it also is conceivable that a theater manager might recommend changes to an author’s script before applying for a license, Colman was both author and theater manager in this application, so it is highly unlikely that anyone barring the Lord Chamberlain’s office would intercede. At the time of application, the Lord Chamberlain’s office comprised three men: Francis Seymour-Conway, Lord Hertford (1718–1794), the presiding Lord Chamberlain; William Chetwynd (d. 1778), the office’s examiner of plays; and Edward Capell (1713–1781), the deputy examiner. Lord Hertford was appointed Lord Chamberlain in November 1766 and presided over the office in two stints, the first of which ended in 1782; Conolly claims that he “was probably more involved in the job of censoring plays than any other Lord Chamberlain who held office between 1737 and 1824.”42 His examiner was the long-serving William Chetwynd, the first examiner of plays to be appointed under the 1737 Stage Licensing Act; both MacMillan and Conolly assert that Chetwynd, in contrast to Hertford, rarely, if ever, took an active role in the reading or censoring of submitted plays. This duty was often left to Edward Capell after his appointment as deputy examiner in 1749, and the majority of corrections from this point until John Larpent’s appointment as examiner of plays in November 1778 “are unmistakably in Capell’s hand.”43 But the marginal script in the manuscript of The Suicide is equally un mistakably not in Capell’s hand; a useful point of reference is Capell’s signed note in the Larpent manuscript of Henry Bate’s The Rival Candidates (LA 384), which—beyond doubt—does not match the clarifying comments in The Suicide. That Hertford felt Capell to be an “overzealous censor” might explain why Capell was overlooked to examine a play on such delicate subject matter (and likewise, discounted for the position of examiner [End Page 419] upon Chetwynd’s death later in the year).44 If neither Chetwynd nor Capell was likely responsible for examining Colman’s play, then Lord Hertford might have been directly involved as censor, although judging by handwriting samples, he may not have actually marked the play.45 This was, perhaps, left to another deputy, possibly Larpent, who had been Hertford’s secretary since 1765, and was to assume the role of examiner of plays only months afterward—although, once again, handwriting comparisons suggest otherwise.46
Lord Hertford had a strong personal connection that would be known to many in his circle: he was Anne Damer’s paternal uncle. The office of the Lord Chamberlain was not immune to external influence by those concerned about a particular play, but on this highly unusual occasion, the presiding Lord Chamberlain himself appears to have had a vested interest in ensuring impolite references to John Damer were suppressed. Lord Hertford’s telling note to Horace Walpole—his cousin and Anne Damer’s godfather—upon learning of Damer’s death two years earlier is particularly illuminating, one that exposes how his duty of care toward his family may have resonated upon his later duty as censor:
I have just sent a letter to my son Henry at Park Place, desiring him, as he may do it less abruptly, to acquaint my brother and Lady Ailesbury that their son-in-law Mr John Damer shot himself this morning at three o’clock. He did it in a most profligate and abandoned way at a tavern in Covent Garden, the particulars of which I can tell you when we meet; they are not fit for the public ear, and if possible still less for that of his relations.47 [End Page 420]
Hertford was ultimately unable to prevent these “particulars” from becoming public in 1776, but on this occasion, he or his deputy could exercise direct control over Colman’s play and thwart its attempt to refresh public memory, and moreover, a widow’s anguish. The timing of the play also seems crucial. Anne Damer’s reputation suffered as much her late husband’s after his death. She was ridiculed firstly as a cold, unfeeling wife whose “loud lament, and bitter moan” was “Not for a Husband, but a Title gone” and secondly as a liberated Sapphic lover about town.48 Anne came under particular scrutiny in the year 1778 and was evidently flailing under the pressure of public attention. By the summer, Walpole expressed his concern over her diminishing health in a letter to her mother, Lady Ailesbury, dated June 25, 1778: “I long to hear that my dear Mrs. Damer is well again,” Walpole writes, “I hope it was nothing too serious.”49 Colman’s play, submitted for licensing just days after Walpole’s letter, could not have been more ill-timed as far as Anne’s health was concerned, and there is every possibility that Hertford, or a deputy acting on Hertford’s behalf, felt compelled to prevent further injury to his suffering niece, very much in the same paternalistic spirit that General Gunning urged Hertford to intercede on behalf of his daughter, the Duchess of Kingston, to suppress Samuel Foote’s A Trip to Calais.50
The final question prompted by the Larpent manuscript is whether Colman abided by Hertford’s requested deletions. A printed version of the play might confirm that recommended amendments had been adhered to, although they cannot be assumed to be reliable guides to what was said or performed on stage, nor did the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain extend to govern what was printed. Colman’s Suicide, however, remained unpublished. In truth, barring attending performances, there was little the Lord Chamberlain’s office could do to ensure their instructions were obeyed.51 But Colman had every reason to do so; after the expiration of Foote’s lifelong patent upon his death in 1777, the Haymarket’s license was issued annually by the Lord Chamberlain, and thus, Colman’s livelihood as a theater manager depended upon an ongoing, amicable relationship with Lord Hertford.52 However, a shadow of doubt is cast by Lord Shelburne and company’s misgivings about Colman’s betrayal of intimate knowledge; if Hertford’s directives had been observed by Colman, to what [End Page 421] details might Shelburne and friends object? The prompter’s copy held at McGill University provides important insights.
The McGill Manuscript
Pasted on a blank leaf near the front of the undated manuscript held at McGill University is—so the catalogue entry suggests—a clipping of the bookseller’s listing, which reads in part: “The present manuscript was a prompter’s copy, having all the stage directions.”53 This is easily verified upon inspection, and a quick comparison with the Larpent manuscript confirms that Colman deleted the objectionable dialogue:
Colman actually deleted more than had been marked, but these deletions seem necessary to observe the objections detailed in the marginal comments, and arguably, to maintain continuity. One might also suggest that the implied image of a bloodied corpse is judiciously removed on ethical grounds, to avoid further distress to Damer’s family. Deletions have also been made in accordance with the instructions for act 3:
The amendments here appear much more straightforward; the offending lines and some superfluous dialogue are neatly excised with little overall effect, except to remove references to Damer.
Consequently, one can only speculate as to what Shelburne’s party found improper in Colman’s play. A reference to Almack’s (3.1.26; fol. 50r) might have been interpreted as an allusion to Damer’s penultimate night, but it was also a common site for many a rake’s progress during this period. On the other hand, the phrasing of Tobine’s deathbed testimony to Dr. Truby—“I charge you to take notice of my declaration of my friend’s innocence. It was my own act entirely” (4.3.56–57; fol. 80v)— admittedly does bear resemblance to Damer’s suicide note: “The people of the house [End Page 423] are not to blame for what has happened, which was my own act.” It is also quite possible that rumors of Colman’s attempts to insinuate Damer into the play might have reached some well-connected members of the audience before opening night, tainting their view. Whether one or a combination of all these contributed to their disdain for The Suicide is anybody’s guess, but the doubts their censure cast over Colman’s compliance seem unfounded. Yet, in truth, we cannot be certain about Colman’s immediate compliance unless we are able to date this prompter’s copy to the play’s first season in 1778.
The prompter’s copy fortunately contains a cast listing that can be compared with the Larpent manuscript and existing information to determine the manuscript’s date. (The list is written in ink, in one hand, but another hand has made amendments in pencil; the pencil markings will be considered separately later.) A comparison of the manuscripts reveals some differences in casting, which suggests from the outset that the prompter’s copy is unlikely to be for the play’s debut season. The key difference is the changed casting of Nancy, initially played by Elizabeth Farren, as recorded in the Larpent manuscript, and later performed by Mrs. (Elizabeth) Lloyd, as written in the McGill manuscript. Farren’s star was on the rise after her first season at Colman’s Haymarket in 1778. Charles Fox was said to be smitten with Farren at the time and was rumored to have had proposed to and been rejected by her twice, but his ardor cooled after her breeches role in The Suicide; rather chauvinistically, he bemoaned to Colman her inability to physically fill the role: “Damn it Sir, she has no prominence before or behind, all is in a straight line from head to foot and her legs are like a sugar-loaf!”54 Nonetheless, it was not long before the winter theaters began competing for her services. She first trod the boards at Drury Lane in October 1778, and thenceforth mostly based her career there.55 Farren’s last performance as Nancy Lovell was on June 6, 1780, after commencing the season in the role a week earlier. She was replaced by Lloyd, who played the role from June 23 for the remainder of the season and into 1781; Lloyd was in turn replaced by Mrs. (Mary) Bulkely in 1782.56 One can deduce, then, that the manuscript was produced during Lloyd’s run as Nancy in 1780–81. Further clues suggest that the copy was prepared for the new 1781 season. The manuscript lists Francis Blissett continuing in the role of Dr. Truby; however, he was gradually replaced by Howard Usher during the 1781 season, and Usher continued into 1782. Consequently, the only season that commenced with the combination of Lloyd as Nancy and Blissett as Truby—as it is listed in the manuscript—is the 1781 season. Comparing the manuscript’s cast list with the playbill for the 1781 season premiere (June 8) produces a match, even replicating its gaps: the playbill appears to be one actor short when compared with other playbills of the same season, and a process of [End Page 424] elimination reveals that no actor is listed in the part of Wingrave; this coincides with the manuscript, where no actor is specified to play the role. One might conjecture that this reflects some uncertainty as to whether John Edwin (the Elder), the original Wingrave, was continuing in the role for the coming season. (He is, however, listed in the playbill for June 19 and did continue for the remainder of the season.)
With the manuscript likely to be a prompter’s copy for the 1781 summer season, we have no hard proof that Colman observed the censor’s demands from the outset, but there is every likelihood that this prompter’s copy was transcribed from a copy used for performances from 1778 to 1780; hence, the McGill manuscript provides compelling evidence. What is more, pencil inscriptions on the cast list written later in another hand suggest that this manuscript was preserved as the theater’s prompter’s copy, at least until its Drury Lane revival, thus maintaining Damer’s ghostly, satiric absence for the remainder of the century.
There are four distinguishable pencil marks—two inscriptions, and two lines crossing out previously written names—on the page listing the cast. The most obvious is a note writ large at the bottom of the page: “Mrs. Grogram, to be written.” What this might mean is unclear, as Mrs. Grogram’s dialogue is incorporated into this copy, and her role had been part of the play from its inception. Perhaps Mrs. (Elizabeth) Hopkins, the actress who played Mrs. Grogram in the play’s final performance at the Haymarket (July 9, 1794) and in its final eighteenth-century staging at Drury Lane (December 30, 1795), had requested a written script. The other inscription, in a different hand, names “Wathen” in the gap left alongside the character Wingrave in the cast list. Captain George Wathen was the licensee for the summer theater at Richmond in 1792 before forging an acting career in London. He made his first appearance at the Haymarket on August 20, 1793, by then under George Colman the Younger’s management, and coincidentally, during only the second summer season in which The Suicide was not performed since its 1778 debut. Wathen returned as licensee to Richmond in the summer of 1794, where he performed exclusively, after which followed a debut at Drury Lane on January 26, 1795, playing a minor role in Colman the Younger’s own comedy The Mountaineers (1793). In the following summer he began performing regularly at Colman the Younger’s Haymarket, continuing to alternate between the two theaters until 1806.57 The Suicide’s run in eighteenth-century London and Wathen’s intermittent early career in town coincide just once, his only appearance in the play occurring when Colman the Younger granted John Kemble permission to stage the play at Drury Lane for the first and only time. It would then appear that Wathen’s name is inscribed in the prompter’s copy in preparation for this special performance. Worth noting, though, is that The London Stage records that Wathen performed as Catchpenny rather than as Wingrave, as the manuscript [End Page 425] suggests; the other markings may shed some light on this discrepancy. Two actors’ names are crossed out in pencil, “Blissett” (who last played Dr. Truby in 1781) and “Baddeley,” referring to Robert Baddeley, who played the role of Catchpenny originally and throughout his career. Baddeley’s last performance in The Suicide occurred on July 15, 1794, before he passed away from illness on November 20 later that year— crucially for our purposes, just over a year before the play’s Drury Lane final performance.58 Aside from explaining the necessity of Wathen’s switch from an anticipated role of Wingrave to fill the loss of Baddeley as Catchpenny, the coincidence of Wathen’s appearance on the cast list and Baddeley’s erasure from it suggests that the pencil markings can be dated to 1795. This shows that the McGill manuscript was preserved and functioned as the Haymarket’s prompter’s copy for the remainder of the century (and possibly beyond, as Colman the Younger revived the play once more in his final summer at the Haymarket in 1820).59
It also appears that these pencil markings were early notations in preparation for the play’s final staging of the century, but what is less clear is who wrote them, and why the play was transferred to Drury Lane for a one-off winter performance. It is possible that this was a collaborative venture between Kemble and Colman the Younger. With the increased seating capacity of the new Drury Lane comparatively dwarfing the Haymarket’s (3,611 cf. 1,100–1,550), a share in the proceeds might have enticed Colman the Younger to grant permission for this performance; if so, the modest return from receipts, totaling £198 7s., would have proved particularly dis appointing.60
The McGill manuscript helps to construct a new history of The Suicide, one of the most popular new comedies of the period. Dated at 1781, preserved at the Haymarket at least until the play’s final performance of the century in 1795, and bequeathed from father to son, it is a significant document that has not, until now, received any critical attention. It yields important revelations about censorship and casting, and it includes a significant number of stage directions that are not present in the Larpent manu script and that, while not considered here, present further opportunities for study. But above all, its preservation for the remainder of the play’s eighteenth-century life, and indeed until today, speaks volumes about the value placed upon prompter’s copies by both Colman Senior and Junior as theater managers, and their central role in perpetuating the Haymarket’s dramatic repertoire.
Beyond the Print Record
Since there is no printed version of The Suicide, the Larpent and McGill manuscripts have proven especially significant in shaping a new understanding of the play’s [End Page 426] eighteenth-century history. Indeed, they also shed light on several key issues pertaining to the theatrical history of the period. For one, without the manuscripts, the crucial satirical context of John Damer’s suicide would likely have been lost, and with it, an awareness of Lord Hertford’s possible intervention—whether directly or by proxy—and the familial connections that motivated his personal interest. Notwithstanding the singular set of circumstances surrounding the licensing of the play, the Larpent manuscript offers further insight into the prevailing ethics of personal satire at the time, as well as the ways in which it was policed. Personal allusions were sought, detected, and deleted, further substantiating our existing knowledge of this practice.61
The McGill manuscript, although now established as a later copy, also contributes to our understanding of this process by confirming Colman’s continuing compliance with the censor’s recommendations. In addition, it proves invaluable to an appreciation of the play’s history beyond its licensing and debut, especially of an important transitional period around the 1781 summer season and the circumstances surrounding its unique staging at Drury Lane in 1795. The great care with which this prompter’s copy has evidently been preserved says much about its value to the theater and its managers of the period, George Colman and his son. This was a successful comedy, a crowd favorite written for and performed exclusively at the Haymarket for seventeen years, and such plays were essential to developing the Haymarket’s singular identity in contrast to the winter patent theaters (not to mention maintaining its financial viability). Together, the Larpent and McGill manuscripts of Colman’s The Suicide, A Comedy enable a new history of a very popular, although rather neglected, late eighteenth-century play—both facilitated in a way by the play’s very absence from the print record. It is another reminder of the limitations of print in eighteenth-century theater history and, more importantly, of just how much historical detail the minutiae of such manuscripts can yield to the curious observer.
eric parisot is a Senior Lecturer in English at Flinders University, currently examining representations of suicide in the fiction, drama, and press of the British eighteenth century, and the public emotions they elicit. His research in this area has been published in Eighteenth Century Studies, Literature Compass, and Palgrave Macmillan’s Passions, Sympathy and Print Culture (2016, ed. Heather Kerr, David Lemmings, and Robert Phiddian).
This research was generously supported by funding from the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, the American Philosophical Society, and the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100–1800). My sincere thanks also to Meegan Hasted, for her meticulous assistance with research, and Elaine McGirr, for her astute advice on how to best present these findings.
1. Elizabeth Inchbald might be considered an exception, with her 1793 comedy Every One Has His Fault.
2. Ross Allen Grossman, “Two Unpublished Comedies by George Colman the Elder” (PhD diss., Claremont Graduate School, 1976); Richard W. Bevis, English Drama: Restoration and Eighteenth Century 1660–1789 (London, 2013), 232. For other unpublished doctoral theses on the subject, see Paul Stanley Varner, “The Comic Techniques of George Colman the Elder” (PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 1981); and Joseph James Keenan Jr., “The Poetic of High Georgian Comedy: A Study of the Comic Theory and Practice of Murphy, Colman, and Cumberland” (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin, 1969).
3. Ernest Bernbaum, The Drama of Sensibility: A Sketch of the History of English Sentimental Comedy and Domestic Tragedy 1696–1780 (Gloucester, Mass., 1958), 258.
4. Eugene R. Page, George Colman the Elder: Essayist, Dramatist, and Theatrical Manager 1732–94 (New York, 1935), 255.
5. Both manuscripts are now digitized: the Larpent manuscript within Adam Matthew’s database Eighteenth Century Drama: Censorship, Society and the Stage, http://www.eighteenthcenturydrama.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Details/HL_LA_mssLA450, and the McGill manuscript at the Internet Archive, last modified February 2016, https://archive.org/details/McGillLibrary-rbsc_man_the-suicide-a-comedy_MSG0129-2641/page/n5.
6. Bate to Garrick, July 16, 1778, The Private Correspondence of David Garrick, vol. 2, ed. James Boarden (London, 1832), 309.
7. The London Stage 1660–1800, Part 5: 1776–1800, 3 vols., ed. Charles Beecher Hogan (Carbondale, Ill., 1968), 1:clxxi–clxxiii.
8. Frances Burney to Susanna Elizabeth Burney, Brighton, October [12–]25, , in The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, vol. 3, The Streatham Years, Part I, 1778–79, ed. Lars E. Troide and Stewart J. Cooke (Oxford, 1994), 389.
9. Grossman, “Two Unpublished Comedies,” 18; for a fuller discussion, see Richard Bevis, The Laughing Tradition (London, 1980), 26–39.
10. Grossman, “Two Unpublished Comedies,” 19.
11. The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, September 10, 1778, col. 1a; see also General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, September 10, 1778, col. 1b; London Evening Post, September 10, 1778, col. 2b; Public Advertiser, September 10, 1778, col. 2b; and St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post, September 10, 1778, col. 2c.
12. Parenthetical citations of the play refer to Grossman’s transcript of the Larpent manuscript, which remains the only printed version of the play (67–179), and the Larpent manuscript itself.
13. For example, see St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post, July 11–14, 1778, col. 4a.
14. The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, January 6, 1772, col. 4b.
15. Donna T. Andrew, Aristocratic Vice: The Attack on Duelling, Suicide, Adultery, and Gambling in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, Conn., 2013), 83–125.
16. St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post, September 24–26, 1776, col. 1c.
17. The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, February 18, 1775, cols. 5c–6a at 5c–d.
18. St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post, November 17–19, 1778, col. 4a, quoted in The History of Suicide in England, 1650–1850, vol. 6, 1750–1799: Legal, Medical, Literary and Miscellaneous Texts, and Newspapers and Magazines, ed. Jeffrey Merrick (London, 2013), 295. The method of suicide was an important indicator of social rank; see Colman’s own explanation in The Connoisseur, January 9, 1755, 297; also reprinted in The History of Suicide in England, 6:198.
19. The World, September 9, 1756, 1157–62; also reprinted in The History of Suicide in England, 6:206–9. The “letter” is signed by “John Anthony Tristman,” but Walpole’s own annotated copy, held at the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University (Quarto 49 911), confirms his authorship.
20. The Connoisseur, January 9, 1755, 295; also reprinted in The History of Suicide in England, 6:197. For a discussion of the authorship of various issues of The Connoisseur, see Page, George Colman the Elder, 26–33.
21. Keenan observes a similar methodology in Colman’s development of a comic essay on a jealous wife in The Connoisseur, July 1, 1756, into the stage comedy The Jealous Wife (1761); see “The Poetic of High Georgian Comedy,” 166–67.
22. Varner, “The Comic Techniques of George Colman the Elder,” 187–88; also, Grossman, “Two Unpublished Comedies,” 57–58.
23. The Connoisseur, January 9, 1755, 297; also reprinted in The History of Suicide in England, 6:198.
24. Garrick to Hannah More, July 9, 1778, in The Letters of David Garrick, vol. 3, ed. David M. Little and George M. Kahrl (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), 1233.
25. The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, July 4, 1778, col. 3a.
26. The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, July 13, 1778, cols. 2a–c.
27. The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, July 14, 1778, col. 2b.
28. St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post, July 11–14, 1778, col. 4a.
29. See L. W. Conolly, The Censorship of English Drama 1737–1824 (San Marino, Calif., 1976), 113–25.
30. The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, July 25, 1778, cols. 5b–c.
31. The General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, July 16, 1778, cols. 2a–b. For the offending section, see 2.1.585–601 and annotations, in Grossman, “Two Unpublished Comedies,” 125–27.
32. More to Garrick, September 22, 1778, The Private Correspondence of David Garrick with the Most Celebrated Persons of His Time, vol. 2 (London, 1831), 312–13.
33. Matthew Kinservik draws the same conclusion when discussing lines marked for deletion in Samuel Foote’s suppressed satire A Trip to Calais; see Sex, Scandal and Celebrity in Late Eighteenth-Century England (Basingstoke, U.K., 2007), 125.
34. Grossman, “Two Unpublished Comedies,” 122, 148.
35. Edward Gibbon to John Baker Holyroyd, 1772, in The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, vol. 2 (London, 1814), 71–72; Jonathan David Gross, The Life of Anne Damer: Portrait of a Regency Artist (Lanham, Md., 2014), 54.
36. Gross, Life of Anne Damer, 29.
37. The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, August 16, 1776, col. 2c; Andrew, Aristocratic Vice, 94.
38. Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, August 16, 1776, col. 2d; London Evening Post, August 15–17, 1776, col. 3a.
39. Page, George Colman the Elder, 71.
40. Horace Walpole to Sir Horace Mann, August 20, 1776, in The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, 48 vols., ed. W. S. Lewis (New Haven, Conn., 1937–83), 24:234–36; see also the coroner’s report: City of Westminster Coroners: Coroners’ Inquests into Suspicious Deaths, 11th January 1776–30th December 1776, London Lives, 1690–1800, ref: Private Correspondence of David Garrick WACWIC652160334, last modified March 2018, https://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=WACWIC652160334.
41. Conolly, The Censorship of English Drama 1737–1824, 4–5.
42. Conolly, The Censorship of English Drama 1737–1824, 26.
43. Conolly, The Censorship of English Drama 1737–1824, 31. It is also worth noting that Chetwynd died on October 6, 1778, only months after The Suicide was submitted; although I cannot trace Chetwynd’s cause of death, or find any evidence of incapacity before he died, the possibility that he was no longer fit to examine plays remains open.
44. Conolly, The Censorship of English Drama 1737–1824, 33.
45. Comparisons of the annotations in Colman’s manuscript with samples of Hertford’s letters to Horace Walpole (dated January 23, 1781, and August 7, 1762) would suggest a different hand; see the online version of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, http://images.library.yale.edu/hwcorrespondence, s.v. “Hertford, Francis Seymour Conway, 1st Earl of.”
46. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Larpent, John (1741–1824),” by W. A. J. Archbold and Matthew Kilburn, last modified January 3, 2008, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/16077. Confirmed samples of John Larpent’s handwriting seem scarce, but a comparison between his letters to James Winston (December 29, 1819, and April 11, 1820 [HM 36695 and HM 36696, Huntington Library]), and the note at the top right-hand corner of the cover letter to Charles Dibdin’s 1778 manuscript for Rose and Colin (John Larpent Plays, LA 454) would suggest a match. Comparing the term Chamberlain, found in all three documents, is particularly instructive. Using the 1778 sample of Larpent’s handwriting as a point of comparison, it would appear less than likely that Larpent was responsible for the annotations in Colman’s manuscript for The Suicide.
47. Lord Hertford to Horace Walpole, August 5, 1776, in Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, ed. Lewis, 39:281–82, my emphasis. Hertford sometimes sought Walpole’s advice on plays received, and given their familial connection to Damer, it seems plausible that Hertford would have sought Walpole’s advice over The Suicide. However, the correspondence between them in early July 1778—shortly after Colman’s application—is missing. For more on Walpole’s role in licensing, see L. W. Conolly, “Horace Walpole, Unofficial Play Censor,” English Language Notes 9 (1971): 42–46.
48. William Combe, The First of April; Or, the Triumphs of Folly (London, 1777), 26; see also Gross, The Life of Anne Damer, 65–74.
49. Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, ed. Lewis, 39:299. Lady Mary Coke also remarks on July 25, 1778, that “I saw [Anne] . . . & she told me she was advised to drink the Tunbridge waters”; “The Unpublished Journals of Lady Mary Coke,” Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University, 54, quoted in Gross, The Life of Anne Damer, 70.
50. For a full account of this affair, see Kinservik, Sex, Scandal and Celebrity in Late Eighteenth-Century England, 119–33.
51. Attending performances is precisely what Thomas Odell, deputy examiner from 1739 to 1749, did to ensure adherence; Conolly, The Censorship of English Drama 1737–1824, 23.
52. William J. Burling, Summer Theatre in London, 1661–1820, and the Rise of the Hay-market Theatre (Madison, N.J., 2000), 139.
53. The Rare Books and Special Collections Department at McGill University Library holds no further details of the manuscript’s provenance.
54. Suzanne Bloxam, Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby (Kent, U.K., 1988), 35–36.
55. Bloxam, Walpole’s Queen of Comedy, 46.
56. The London Stage 1660–1800, Part 5, ed. Hogan, 1:347–50.
57. Philip H. Highfill Jr., Kalman A. Burnim, and Edward A. Langhans, A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660–1800, 16 vols. (Carbondale, Ill., 1973–93), 15:292–96.
58. Highfill, Burnim, and Langhans, A Biographical Dictionary, 1:198.
59. Burling, Summer Theatre in London, 271.
60. London Stage 1660–1800, Part 5, ed. Hogan, 1:1818. Compare this figure with £263, the average nightly take at Drury Lane for 1795–96 (which can be calculated using the interactive tallies contained in Eighteenth-Century Drama and dividing the total season tally by the number of nights performed).
61. Cf. Kinservik, Sex, Scandal and Celebrity in Late Eighteenth-Century England, 123.