Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Colman, George (1732-1794)
COLMAN, GEORGE, the elder (1732–1794), dramatist, was born in Florence, in which capital his father, Francis Colman, resided as envoy at the court of Tuscany. His mother, Mary Gumley, was sister to Mrs. Pulteney, subsequently Countess of Bath. A scandalous suggestion that George Colman was in fact the son of William Pulteney, afterwards earl of Bath, by whom after the death of Francis Colman he was befriended, and who left him a handsome annuity —had sufficient currency to lead Colman in later years to publish a denial. From Francis Colman, who was a dilettante musician and a correspondent of Handel, and who for Owen McSwiney, at one time manager of Drury Lane Theatre, corresponded with Senesino and other Italian vocalists, George Colman assumably derived his dramatic tastes. His name of George was bestowed upon him after George II, who, as was customary in the case of a child of an ambassador, was his sponsor. For a similar reason his only sister was named after the queen, Caroline. Colman was baptised in the Duomo of Florence on 18 April 1732. A year later (20 April 1733) his father died, and his mother was assigned a house near Rosamond's Pond, in the south-west corner of St. James's Park, where she resided till her death, May 1767. The charge of young Colman was undertaken by William Pulteney, by whom he was sent to Westminster School. His first literary production, consisting of 'Verses to the Right Hon. Lord Viscount Pulteney,' his cousin, was written at Westminster. It subsequently appeared in the 'St. James's Magazine,' edited by his friend and schoolfellow, Robert Lloyd. In 1751, having at the request of Lord Bath ' stood over ' for a year, making his entire stay at Westminster five years, he ' was elected head to Oxford' (Forshall, Westminster School Past and Present, p. 242), entering at Christ Church on 5 June 1751. His first published production consisted of 'A Vision,' contributed to the ' Adventurer ' of Dr. Hawkesworth, in which it appeared as No. 90, on Saturday, 15 Sept. 1753. On 31 Jan. 1754 he began with Bonnell Thornton 'The Connoisseur,' which lasted until 30 Sept. 1756. While at Oxford, where he took his B.A. degree in 1755, Colman was entered by Lord Bath at Lincoln's Inn, where he was called to the bar in 1755. His position about this time, with his uncle urgently persuading him to aim at legal distinction, his aunt recommending him to take orders, and his own temptations to literature, is depicted in ' The Law Student ' (Works Prose, ii. 284), which contains a few interesting autobiographical particulars. His chief associates at this time were Lloyd, Bonnell Thornton, and Churchill, and he also made the acquaintance of Cowper. An intimacy with Garrick, which soon ripened into a friendship, interfered greatly with his chance of legal preferment. In 1759 Colman, who the previous year had proceeded M.A., went on the Oxford circuit, receiving from his uncle, who addressed him constantly as ' Dear Coley,' all encouragement in so doing. Not until the death of Lord Bath, however, who had become reconciled to Colman's literary pursuits and proud of his reputation, was the bar definitely abandoned. Colman's acquaintance with Garrick began through his dedicating to the actor a pamphlet entitled ' Critical Reflections on the Old English Dramatick Writers ' (ib. ii. 107), afterwards prefixed to Coxeter's edition of ' Massinger,' or, according to another account, presenting him with an unsigned pamphlet entitled ' A Letter of Abuse to David Garrick, Esq.,' 1757-8, in which, at the expense of Theophilus Cibber and Macklin, Garrick is warmly if covertly complimented. The 'Ode to Obscurity and Oblivion,' parodies on those of Mason and Gray (ib. p. 273), were published in 1759. Colman was now known as a writer, and as a man of taste. Murphy, in February 1758, quotes in favour of his farce, 'The Upholsterer,' the opinion of Colman; Churchill, in his ' Rosciad' (1761), lines 65-6, speaking of the judge of art to be appointed, writes:
For Colman many, but the peevish tongue
Of prudent age found out that he was young.
On Friday, 5 Dec. 1760, after 'Merope,' was produced at Drury Lane 'Polly Honeycombe,' a 'dramatic novel,' otherwise a farce, Colman's first dramatic attempt. It was well acted by Miss Pope, who acquired much reputation as the heroine, Yates, and King, and was a success. It was anonymous, and was ascribed to Garrick, who, however, in some lines he added to the prologue, denied the authorship. The secret was kept out of regard to Lord Bath until, on 12 Feb. 1761 (not 26th, as stated by Peake, the biographer of the Colmans), the conspicuous success of the 'Jealous Wife' rendered impossible the further concealment of Colman's dramatic proclivities. This comedy, derived in part from 'Tom Jones,' and acted by Garrick, Yates, Palmer, King, Moody, Mrs. Pritchard, and Mrs. Clive, was the most popular piece of its epoch. The 'St. James's Chronicle' was started by Bonnell Thornton, Garrick, and Colman. In this the fifteen numbers of 'The Genius ' by Colman were printed, 1761-2. On 6 March 1762 'The Musical Lady,' rejected as surplusage by Garrick from 'The Jealous Wife,' and converted into a two-act farce, was played at Drury Lane. During the Encaenia at Oxford (July 1763) in honour of the peace Colman published daily the not very brilliant satire entitled 'Terrse Filius,' in which, under the name of Mr. and Mrs. Folio, Newberry the publisher and his wife appear to be held up to ridicule. On 8 Oct. 1763 Colman gave at Drury Lane his alteration of 'Philaster,' in which Powell, soon to become a great favourite, made his first appearance on the stage. The alterations of Colman are in the main judicious. On 4 Nov. of the same year he produced at the same house 'The Deuce is in him,' a two-act comedy founded on two tales of Marmontel. Prattle in this piece, played by King, appears to have been the first of the so-called 'patter parts' in which, in days comparatively recent, Charles Mathews won much reputation. On 8 July 1764 the Earl of Bath died, leaving Colman an income of nine hundred guineas. His brother, General Pulteney, who came in for the bulk of the property, extended to Colman a protection scarcely less active than that of Lord Bath. A translation of the 'Comedies' of Terence, 4to, 1765, was received with signal favour, and did much to raise Colman in public estimation. It won enthusiastic praise from scholars of the day, and in subsequent times from Southey. To a translation of 'Plautus,' begun by Bonnell Thornton, Colman contributed one play, 'The Merchant.' In connection with Garrick Colman now wrote 'The Clandestine Marriage,' a highly successful comedy, played at Drury Lane on 20 Feb. 1766. The refusal of Garrick to take the part of Lord Ogleby, which was assigned to King, led to a temporary estrangement between the joint authors. 'The English Merchant,' a comedy founded on 'L'Ecossaise' of Voltaire, was given at Drury Lane on 21 Feb. 1767. It brought Colman, in subsequent years, a letter from Voltaire, behind the polite phraseology of which lurks more than a suspicion of satire. A step which converted into anger the coolness of Garrick, and influenced unfavourably in many ways the fortunes of Colman, was now taken. The death of his mother had led to an accession of fortune. With these and other means, in connection with Powell the actor, Harris, and Rutherford, he purchased Covent Garden Theatre. More serious than the annoyance of Garrick was the vexation of General Pulteney, who had always disapproved of Colman's theatrical tastes, and had offered him a seat in parliament and a provision if he would quit the stage and his connection with Miss Ford, the mother of George Colman the younger [q. v.], and Colman's subsequent wife. The refusal of Colman is held to have cost him a large estate, which had been willed to him. Since the death of John Rich in 1762, Beard, his son-in-law, had conducted Covent Garden, principally with musical entertainments. According to powers conferred on him by the will of Rich, Beard sold for the sum of 60,000l. the two patents granted by Charles II, the purchasers being Colman and his associates. The conduct of the stage was by agreement left to Colman. On 14 Sept. 1767 Covent Garden opened under Colman's management with 'The Rehearsal' and a prologue by Whitehead, in lieu of one refused on the ground of illness by Dr. Johnson. A few weeks later, on 26 Oct. 1767, General Pulteney died. Disputes among the four proprietors broke out at once, and a pamphlet warfare, in which others joined, was waged by Colman and Powell on the one side, against Harris and Rutherford on the other. So trivial and personal are the causes of quarrel that the pamphlets, though not wanting in wit, are unreadable to all except those who, in studying the history of the stage, are compelled to take them into account. Litigation was a natural result of these proceedings. Into this a new disputant, in the person of Macklin, entered as an opponent of Colman, with the result that chancery proceedings were continued for some years, with sufficiently damaging results to the management. At the end of nine years Macklin won his cause (Memoirs of Macklin, 1804, pp. 271-2). New pieces, including Goldsmith's 'Good-natured Man,' were, however, produced, and new actors, among whom were Spranger Barry and Miss Dancer, were brought on the stage. Colman, moreover, revived ' Cymbeline ' on 28 Dec. 1767, and produced a version of 'King Lear,' altered by himself, on 20 Feb. 1768. In four acts of this Shakespeare, with some alteration, is substituted for Tate's miserable ver- sion. In the last act a happy termination is supplied. Colman's additions, though commended in their day, contrast, it is needless to say, unpleasantly with the original text with which they are associated. Beaumont and Fletcher's comedy, 'The Beggar's Bush,' was given on 14 Dec. 1767 as an opera, entitled 'The Royal Merchant.' At this time Colman was the subject of an onslaught from William Kenrick in a satire entitled 'A Poetical Epistle to George Colman.' Colman underwent a great loss in the death (3 July 1769) of Powell, his partner, friend, and principal actor. Two years later, in April 1771, Colman lost his wife. For Powell Colman wrote a prologue, which was recited at Bristol for the benefit of the actor's family by Holland, and an epitaph, which is on Powell's tomb in St. Mary Redclyffe at Bristol. In November 1771 the differences between the partners were settled, and on 30 Nov. of the same year Colman had a fit in the theatre, from which he recovered. On 15 March 1773 the management produced Goldsmith's 'She stoops to conquer.' Colman resigned, on 26 May 1774, his post of manager at Covent Garden. In addition to the pieces named, he had during his seven years of management produced, among other works, his own 'Oxonian in Town,' a two-act comedy, 7 Nov. 1767; 'Man and Wife,' a three-act comedy, 7 Oct. 1769 ; 'The Portrait,' a burletta from the French, 22 Nov. 1770 ; 'The Fairy Prince,' a masque founded on Ben Jonson's ' Oberon,' 12 Nov. 1771 ; 'Achilles in Petticoats,' an opera in two acts, altered from Gay, 16 Dec. 1773 ; an alteration of 'Comus,' 16 Oct. 1773 ; and the 'Man of Business,' a five-act comedy extracted from Terence and other writers, 31 Jan. 1774. After a retirement to Bath, Colman, who spent most of his time at the Literary Club, started in 1764, in the company of Dr. Johnson, Boswell, Beauclerck, Bunbury, &c., contributed to the 'London Packet' some essays called 'The Gentleman.' The first number appeared on 10 July 1775, the last, which is signed 'The Blackguard,' on 4 Dec. 1775. Among his associates, past or present, were Woodfall, master of the Stationers' Company, Glover, author of 'Leonidas,' Hawkesworth, Goldsmith, Smollett. On 7 March 1776 Garrick, whose feud with Colman had been healed, and who had maintained with him an active correspondence, produced ' The Spleen, or Islington Spa,' a two-act comedy of Colman, and on 13 Jan. 1776 a version by Colman of Ben Jonson's ' Epicoane, or the Silent Woman.' In 1776 the result of negotiations with Foote was the transfer to Colman of the Haymarket Theatre. Foote died on 21 Oct. 1777, relieving Colman from an annuity of 1,600l., which was part of the transaction. Engaging Henderson, who was a country actor, with Palmer, Parsons, Bannister, Miss Farren, and others, and bringing forward Edwin, whom Foote had kept in the background, Colman got together a good company, with which the Haymarket opened with ' The English Merchant ' on 15 May 1777 ; after which, on account of the players being engaged at Drury Lane, it closed for twenty days. On the 8th of the same month Colman supplied the epilogue to 'The School for Scandal,' produced at Drury Lane. The season of 1778 opened on 18 May with Colman's unprinted 'Female Chevalier,' an alteration of ' The Artful Husband ' of Taverner, intended to turn to advantage the curiosity stirred by the Chevalier d'Eon. ' The Suicide,' a four-act drama of Colman's, also never printed, followed on 11 July with little success. Better fortune attended his alteration of Beaumont and Fletcher's ' Bonduca,' produced 30 July 1778. With his own prelude, 'The Manager in Distress,' Colman began on 30 May his season of 1780. On 2 Sept. 1780 he played his extravaganza (unprinted), 'The Genius of Nonsense.' The chief novelty of the season of 1781 was the ' Beggar's Opera,' played with women in the male characters, and vice versa. This absurd experiment proved very remunerative. On 16 Aug. 1782 was produced 'The Female Dramatist,' the first dramatic essay of George Colman the younger. In 1783 Colman published a translation of Horace's 'Art of Poetry,' with a commentary, in which he advanced a theory concerning the poem which won the approval of Hurd, bishop of Worcester, Walpole, and the Wartons. 'The Election of the Managers,' an 'occasional prelude' of Colman's, served, 2 June 1784, for the reopening of the Haymarket. With Reynolds, Burke, Sir John Hawkins, and others Colman was pall-bearer at the funeral of Dr. Johnson, 20 Dec. 1784. After the close of the theatre in 1785 Colman, then at Margate, had a stroke of paralysis. Some progress towards recovery was made, but the mind remained enfeebled. In 1787 he published in 3 vols., under the title of 'Prose on Several Occasions, accompanied with some Pieces in Verse,' his miscellaneous essays, introductions, prologues, epilogues, and poems, and wrote some particulars of his life, which were published under the care of Richard Jackson, his executor, in London in 1795, 8vo. This has little autobiographical information, and is principally occupied with defending himself from the charge of having, by his theatrical proceedings, forfeited the respect of General Pulteney, and with a vindication of his legitimacy. Growing feebler in mind, Colman was put under restraint in Paddington, where on 14 Aug. 1794 he died, at the age of sixty-four. His remains are in the vaults under Kensington Church. Colman was a man of tact, enterprise, and taste; his plays are ingenious and occasionally brilliant, and more than one of them remains on the acting list. The characters are as a rule well drawn, and types of living eccentricity are well hit off. He was extravagant and ostentatious, but preserved during his life the esteem and affection of the best men of his day. Byron contrasted him favourably with Sheridan, saying in a well-known passage in his 'Memoirs:' 'Let me begin the evening with Sheridan and finish it with Colman. Sheridan for dinner, Colman for supper,' &c. His prologues, epilogues, and occasional pieces are often very happy. In addition to the pieces mentioned, a selection from which was published under the title of Dramatic Works' in 1777, 4 vols. 8vo, there were acted 'The Fairy Tale,' from 'Midsummer Night's Dream,' Haymarket, 18 July 1777; 'New Brooms,' Drury Lane, 21 Sept. 1776; 'The Spanish Barber, or the Fruitless Precaution,' from 'Le Barbier de Seville' of Beaumarchais, Haymarket, 30 Aug. 1777; ' Polly,' an opera altered from Gay, Haymarket, 19 June 1777; 'The Sheep Shearing,' from Garrick's alteration of 'The Winter's Tale,' Haymarket, 1777: 'The Separate Maintenance,' a four-act comedy, Haymarket, 31 Aug. 1779; 'The Manager in Distress,' Haymarket, 30 May 1780; 'Harlequin Teague, or the Giant's Causeway,' pantomime, Haymarket, 1782; 'Fatal Curiosity,' a tragedy altered from Lillo, 29 June 1782; 'Tit for Tat' comedy altered from the ' Mutual Deception ' of Joseph Atkinson, Haymarket, 29 Aug. 1786; 'Ut Pictura Poesis,' his last dramatic production, from Hogarth's print, 'The Enraged Musician,' Haymarket, 18 May 1789. A complete collection of Colman's dramas has not been made, and many of them have never been printed. Colmanedited, in 1778, ' The Dramatic Works of Beaumont and Fletcher,' 10 vols. 8vo. This was reprinted by Percival Stockdale with the works of Ben Jonson, also edited by Colman, 1811, 4 vols. royal 8vo. The preface to Beaumont and Fletcher is included in 'Prose on Several Occasions,' &c. ii. 149, in which appears also the appendix to the second edition of the translation of Terence, 'Remarks on Shylock,' ' Orthopædia, or Thoughts on Publick Education,' a scene from ' The Death of Adam ' of Klopstock, ' The Rolliad, an Heroick Poem,' written in 1759, &c. Stories concerning Colman, mostly to his credit, are to be found in many quarters. O'Keefe speaks of him as ' a man of strict probity.' Manuscript letters of Colman and his father are in the British Museum. According to Nichols's ' Illustrations ' Colman threatened an edition of Shakespeare.
[Works mentioned; Peake's Memoirs of the Colman Family, 2 vols. n. d.; Random Recollections by George Colman the Younger; Some Particulars of the Life of George Colman, 1795; Genest's Account of the English Stage; Baker, Reed. and Jones's Biographia Dramatica; The Garrick Correspondence, 2 vols. 1832; Oulton's History of the Theatres of London, 3 vols. 1818; Posthumous Letters to Francis and George Colman, ed. George Colman the younger, 4to, 1820; Memoir of C. M. Young, 2 vols. 1871; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes; Reed's Notitia Dramatica (manuscript); Southey's Life of Cowper; the Colman Controversial Tracts in the British Museum; Davies's Dramatical Miscellanies, &c.]