1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Colman, George

COLMAN, GEORGE (1732–1794), English dramatist and essayist, usually called “the Elder,” and sometimes “George the First,” to distinguish him from his son, was born in 1732 at Florence, where his father was stationed as resident at the court of the grand duke of Tuscany. Colman’s father died within a year of his son’s birth, and the boy’s education was undertaken by William Pulteney, afterwards Lord Bath, whose wife was Mrs Colman’s sister. After attending a private school in Marylebone, he was sent to Westminster School, which he left in due course for Christ Church, Oxford. Here he made the acquaintance of Bonnell Thornton, the parodist, and together they founded The Connoisseur (1754–1756), a periodical which, although it reached its 140th number, “wanted weight,” as Johnson said. He left Oxford after taking his degree in 1755, and, having been entered at Lincoln’s Inn before his return to London, he was called to the bar in 1757. A friendship formed with David Garrick did not help his career as a barrister, but he continued to practise until the death of Lord Bath, out of respect for his wishes.

In 1760 he produced his first play, Polly Honeycomb, which met with great success. In 1761 The Jealous Wife, a comedy partly founded on Tom Jones, made Colman famous. The death of Lord Bath in 1764 placed him in possession of independent means. In 1765 appeared his metrical translation of the plays of Terence; and in 1766 he produced The Clandestine Marriage, jointly with Garrick, whose refusal to take the part of Lord Ogleby led to a quarrel between the two authors. In the next year he purchased a fourth share in the Covent Garden Theatre, a step which is said to have induced General Pulteney to revoke a will by which he had left Colman large estates. The general, who died in that year, did, however, leave him a considerable annuity. Colman was acting manager of Covent Garden for seven years, and during that period he produced several “adapted” plays of Shakespeare. In 1768 he was elected to the Literary Club, then nominally consisting of twelve members. In 1774 he sold his share in the great playhouse, which had involved him in much litigation with his partners, to Leake; and three years later he purchased of Samuel Foote, then broken in health and spirits, the little theatre in the Haymarket. He was attacked with paralysis in 1785; in 1789 his brain became affected, and he died on the 14th of August 1794. Besides the works already cited, Colman was author of adaptations of Beaumont and Fletcher’s Bonduca, Ben Jonson’s Epicoene, Milton’s Comus, and of other plays. He also produced an edition of the works of Beaumont and Fletcher (1778), a version of the Ars Poëtica of Horace, an excellent translation from the Mercator of Plautus for Bonnell Thornton’s edition (1769–1772), some thirty plays, many parodies and occasional pieces. An incomplete edition of his dramatic works was published in 1777 in four volumes.

His son, George Colman (1762–1836), known as “the Younger,” English dramatist and miscellaneous writer, was born on the 21st of October 1762. He passed from Westminster school to Christ Church, Oxford, and King’s College, Aberdeen, and was finally entered as a student of law at Lincoln’s Inn, London. While in Aberdeen he published a poem satirizing Charles James Fox, called The Man of the People; and in 1782 he produced, at his father’s playhouse in the Haymarket, his first play, The Female Dramatist, for which Smollett’s Roderick Random supplied the materials. It was unanimously condemned, but Two to One (1784) was entirely successful. It was followed by Turk and no Turk (1785), a musical comedy; Inkle and Yarico (1787), an opera; Ways and Means (1788); The Iron Chest (1796), taken from William Godwin’s Adventures of Caleb Williams; The Poor Gentleman (1802); John Bull, or an Englishman’s Fireside (1803), his most successful piece; The Heir at Law (1808), which enriched the stage with one immortal character, “Dr Pangloss,” and numerous other pieces, many of them adapted from the French.

The failing health of the elder Colman obliged him to relinquish the management of the Haymarket theatre in 1789, when the younger George succeeded him, at a yearly salary of £600. On the death of the father the patent was continued to the son; but difficulties arose in his way, he was involved in litigation with Thomas Harris, and was unable to pay the expenses of the performances at the Haymarket. He was forced to take sanctuary within the Rules of the King’s Bench. Here he resided for many years continuing to direct the affairs of his theatre. Released at last through the kindness of George IV., who had appointed him exon of the Yeomen of the Guard, a dignity disposed of by Colman to the highest bidder, he was made examiner of plays by the duke of Montrose, then lord chamberlain. This office, to the disgust of all contemporary dramatists, to whose MSS. he was as illiberal as he was severe, he held till his death. Although his own productions were open to charges of indecency and profanity, he was so severe a censor of others that he would not pass even such words as “heaven,” “providence” or “angel.” His comedies are a curious mixture of genuine comic force and sentimentality. A collection of them was published (1827) in Paris, with a life of the author, by J. W. Lake.

Colman, whose witty conversation made him a favourite, was also the author of a great deal of so-called humorous poetry (mostly coarse, though much of it was popular)—My Night Gown and Slippers (1797), reprinted under the name of Broad Grins, in 1802; and Poetical Vagaries (1812). Some of his writings were published under the assumed name of Arthur Griffinhood of Turnham Green. He died in Brompton, London, on the 17th of October 1836. He had, as early as 1784, contracted a runaway marriage with an actress, Clara Morris, to whose brother David Morris, he eventually disposed of his share in the Haymarket theatre. Many of the leading parts in his plays were written especially for Mrs Gibbs (née Logan), whom he was said to have secretly married after the death of his first wife.

See the second George Colman’s memoirs of his early life, entitled Random Records (1830), and R. B. Peake, Memoirs of the Colman Family (1842).