Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Colman, George (1762-1836)

1320685Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 11 — Colman, George (1762-1836)1887John Joseph Knight

COLMAN, GEORGE, the younger (1762–1836), dramatist, miscellaneous writer, and theatrical manager, the son of George Colman the elder [q. v.], was born on 21 Oct. 1762. His mother, whose name was Ford, is said to have been an actress, and to have lived in close relations with Mossop the actor, previous to forming a similar intimacy with the elder Colman, whom she ultimately married. Young Colman was placed at a fashionable school in Marylebone, under Dr. Fountain, which he quitted the day of his mother's death, 29 March 1771. After a short stay with his father in Richmond, he was sent in 1772 to Westminster School. A narrow escape from drowning while bathing in the Thames is the only incident of his school life worth mentioning. At his father's house in Soho Square he made the acquaintance of Johnson, Goldsmith, Garrick, and many other celebrities, principally members of the Literary Club. His father's position offered him an 'early initiation into theatrical life, and private theatricals, in which during three years he took part at Wynnstay, the seat of Sir Watkins Williams Wynn, fostered his taste for the stage. In January 1779 Colman matriculated at Christ Church. His life at Oxford was, by his own confession, irregular, and in the autumn of 1781 he was removed from Oxford and sent to complete his education at King's College, Aberdeen, whither he went in charge of the Haymarket treasurer, Jewell. Of the vicissitudes of this journey, of the routine of education in King's College, and of his life in Scotland, he gives in his ' Random Records ' an amusing account. While in Aberdeen he commenced to write, his first publication being 'The Man of the People,' a satire upon Fox. This he describes as a schoolboy tract. He also wrote a musical farce in two acts, 'The Female Dramatist,' which he sent to his father. This was anonymously produced at the Hay market on 16 Aug. 1782 for the benefit of Jewell, and was not printed nor again acted. 'Two to One,' a three-act musical comedy, also written in Aberdeen, was sent to London and accepted by the elder Colman. It was not acted, however, until 19 June 1784, when Colman, whose period of banishment was over, was present to witness its success. In a happy prologue by Colman the elder the author is spoken of as 'a chip of the old block.' The songs only of ' Two to One ' were printed, 8vo, 1784. The music was by Dr. Arnold. At the Haymarket the following pieces of Colman saw in succession the light : 'Turk and no Turk,' 9 July 1785; 'Inkle and Yarico,' a musical comedy taken from No. 11 of the 'Spectator,' 8vo, no date (1787), 4 Aug. 1787 ; ' Ways and Means, or a Trip to Dover,' 8vo, 1788, 10 July 1788 ; ' Battle of Hexham,' musical drama, three acts, 8vo, 1808, 11 Aug. 1789 ; ' Surrender of Calais,' musical drama in three acts, 8vo, 1808, 30 July 1791 ; 'Poor old Haymarket, or Two Sides of the Gutter,' 8vo, 1792, a prelude, 15 June 1792 ; 'Mountaineers,' from 'Don Quixote,' 8vo, 1795, 3 Aug. 1793 ; 'New Hay at the Old Market,' an occasional drama in one act, afterwards in a reduced form known as 'Sylvester Daggerwood,' 8vo, 1795, 9 June 1795 ; ' The Heir at Law,' 8vo, 1808, 15 July 1797, a five-act comedy, still retaining possession of the stage. During this period Colman the elder, who had been stricken with paralysis (1785), showed signs of mental derangement, and the management of the theatre devolved in 1789 upon his son. Like his father, Colman had been designed for the bar. He had chambers in King's Bench Walk and kept a few terms at Lincoln's Inn. His legal studies proceeded, however, no further. On 3 Oct. 1784 he married at Gretna Green Miss Clara Morris, an actress of small parts at the Haymarket. This marriage Colman kept a secret from his father, who disapproved of the connection. When it was at length revealed, the pair were again married, 10 Nov. 1788, at Chelsea Church. Colman meantime had begun a feud with the critics which lasted through his life. In his epilogue to 'Ways and Means,' spoken by Palmer in the character of a newspaper critic, he opened the battle with more spirit than judgment. Upon the death of his father in 1794 Colman purchased the Haymarket patent. 'The Iron Chest,' a three-act drama, taken from Godwin's 'Caleb Williams,' with music by Storace, Drury Lane, 12 March 1796, was the first play of Colman's produced elsewhere than at the Haymarket. Though it remains an acting play, and has supplied Kean and other tragedians with a favourite character, it was at first a failure. Colman attributed the responsibility of this to Kemble, the exponent of Sir Edward Mortimer. To the first published edition, accordingly, he affixed a petulant, abusive, and ill-natured preface, afterwards suppressed, which has rendered the edition a bibliographical rarity. 'Blue Beard, or Female Curiosity,' 8vo, 1798, a musical entertainment, was acted at Drury Lane (sixth time), 23 Jan. 1798, with signal success. 'Feudal Times, or the Banquet Gallery,' 8vo, 1799, a two-act drama, followed at Drury Lane, 19 Jan. 1799. 'Poor Gentleman,' 8vo, 1802, a comedy produced at Covent Garden, 11 Feb. 1801, was an essay in a higher line. 'John Bull, or an Englishman's Fireside,' comedy, 8vo, no date (1805), Covent Garden, 5 March 1803, set the seal on Colman's reputation, and is indeed his masterpiece. It was written under pressure for money and extracted act by act. Harris, the manager, refusing supplies till it was finished, Colman, it is said, 'wrote the fifth act in one night, on separate pieces of paper,' throwing them on the floor as he finished, whence they were picked up by Fawcett after Colman had gone to bed. Then followed ' Who wants a Guinea ? ' a three-act comedy, 8vo, 1805, 18 April 1805. 'We fly by Night, or Long Stories,' a farce with songs, 8vo, 1806, Covent Garden, 28 Jan. 1806. This piece was published under the name of Arthur Griflinhoofe, as were 'Review, or the Wags of Windsor,' a musical farce (Dublin, pirated edition, 12mo, 1801), London, 8vo, 1806 ; Haymarket (second time of performance), 2 Sept. 1800 ; 'Gay Deceivers, or More Laugh than Love,' taken from ' Les Evenements Imprevus ' of Hell, music by Gretry, 8vo, 1804, Haymarket, 22 Aug. 1804 ; 'Love laughs at Locksmiths,' from ' Une Folie ' by Bouilly, music by Méhul, 8vo, 1808, Haymarket, 25 July 1803. Colman had taken from 'Caleb Quotem and his Wife, or Paint, Poetry, and Putty ! ' acted at the Haymarket, 6 July 1798, under the altered title of 'Throw Physic to the Dogs,' the very popular character of Caleb Quotem ; the ' Review ' involved Colman in a dispute with Lee, its author, who with some justice objected to the appropriation, and published his piece in 1809 with a preface in which Column's behaviour is reprehended. 'Blue Devils,' from the French of Patrat, a farce, 8vo, 1808, was given at Covent Garden, 24 April 1798, and transferred to the Haymarket, 12 June 1798. ' The Africans, or War, Love, and Duty,' a ' pastoral ' from ' Florian,' at the Haymarket, 29 July 1808 ; and ' X. Y. Z.,' a farce, at Covent Garden, 11 Dec. 1810. The piece last named was acted only once, an injunction against its performance having been obtained in chancery by Morris, Column's brother-in-law and partner in the management. 'The Law of Java,' three-act play, 8vo, 1822, was given at Covent Garden, 11 May 1822. A collection of these plays has not been made in England, though one in four volumes 16mo has been issued (Paris, 1827), with an original life of the author (by J. W. Lake). Some of the plays have never been printed, of others the songs only exist. Manuscript copies of some, including one or two which Colman not too ingenuously claims to have destroyed as worthless, were in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire, to whom they were presented by 'Mrs.' Colman. Many of these works are included in the collections of Duncombe, Cumberland, Lacy, and the 'London Stage.' Colman's plays are often briskly written, and certain characters, such as Dr. Pangloss, Dr. Ollapod, Dennis Brulgruddery, &c., remain to this day test characters for comedians. For many of his plays he received what were then held large sums. For the ' Poor Gentleman ' and ' Who wants a Guinea ? ' he was paid 550l. each. For 'John Bull,' the most attractive and remunerative (to the management) piece of its day, he received in all 1,200l. These sums and the profits of the theatre were swallowed up in extravagance and ostentation. Almost from the outset Colman's recklessness involved him in disputes and litigation. He lived for some time in an obscure chamber at the back of the Haymarket Theatre, and afterwards, under the name of Campbell, in a cottage a few miles from town. In 1805 he disposed of shares for 8,000l. in the theatre to David Morris (his brother-in-law), Winston, and an attorney named Tahourdin, who subsequently assigned his share to Morris. Quarrels soon began, and in 1810 Colman and Winston were engaged in continuous litigation with Harris. In consequence of these proceedings the salaries of principal actors were not paid, and other irregularities were made public. Colman's monetary difficulties compelled him to reside in the King's Bench. With or without leave, however, he made frequent sorties. On one occasion permission was obtained for him by the Duke of York, his constant patron, to dine with him at Carlton House to meet George IV, then prince regent, with whom he took some comical liberties which were pardoned. From the King's Bench Colman managed the Haymarket. In 1813, however, so bitter was the feud, no performance could be given at the theatre. In the following year it reopened, though litigation continued. On 13 May 1820, by which time he had disposed of his share of the theatre to Morris, Colman was appointed lieutenant of the yeomen of the guard, a post ordinarily sold, but given him by George IV. This office by permission he afterwards sold. On 19 Jan. 1824 Colman was appointed examiner of plays. This post he held until his death. His conduct in it has subjected him to not unreasonable condemnation. Himself the author of some of the least decent publications of his day, he showed himself squeamish beyond precedent in the task of censor, his proceedings being at once tyrannical, futile, and rapacious. Not only did he cut out all reference to the deity, every form of prayer or hymn, and even such modified forms of apostrophe as ' O Lord ! ' and ' demmee ! ' but he objected to the use of words such as ' heaven ' and ' providence,' and would not even allow a lover to address his mistress as an 'angel.' When examined in 1832 before a committee of the House of Commons appointed to inquire into the state of dramatic literature, he with apparent seriousness defended the preposterous severity. The works of Colman in which he permitted himself the greatest license were his comic poems. The first of these appeared under the title of ' My Nightgown and Slippers,' London, 4to, 1797. It was reprinted, London, 1802, crown 8vo, and 1839, 12mo, with additional tales, under the title of 'Broad Grins.' 'Poetical Vagaries' followed, 4to, 1812. In 1813, 4to, appeared 'Vagaries vindicated, or Hypocritic Hypercritics. A Poem addressed to the Reviewers.' Lastly in this line came 'Eccentricities for Edinburgh,' Edinburgh, no date (1820 ?). The stories were written in imitation of ' Peter Pindar ' (Wolcot), and are very humorous and some of them extravagantly indecent. They brought upon Colman severe reprimands, especially at the hands of the 'Quarterly Review,' viii. 144. This magazine he answered in the 'Vagaries vindicated,' with the result of receiving a further castigation (ix. 246). These poems, frequently reprinted, were collected under the title of 'The Humorous Works of George Colman,' London, no date, 8vo. Colman wrote in addition many prologues and epilogues to occasional pieces and many songs, principally comic. The best-known of these are 'Mynheer Van Dunck,' set to music as a glee by Bishop, and 'Unfortunate Miss Bailey.' He published 'Posthumous Letters from various Celebrated Men addressed to Francis and George Colman the Elder,' London, 1820, 4to. Colman is said by Peake, his biographer (Memoirs of the Colman Family, ii. 331), to have espoused in secret nuptials Mrs. Gibbs, a pretty and an accomplished actress, who played successfully the heroines of many of his pieces, the characters being in many cases designed for her. The legitimacy of this union is called in question by the theatrical publications of the day. All admit, however, that Mrs. Gibbs was a woman of character generally good, and many striking stories are told of her generosity and nobleness of nature. She was a Miss Logan, made her debut at the Haymarket on 18 June 1783 as Sally in the elder Column's 'Man and Wife,' and is first heard of as Mrs. Gibbs during Palmer's tenure of the Royalty, 1787. Colman suffered much from gout; a severe attack in November 1830 disabled him. On 17 Oct. 1836 he died in Brompton Square, and was buried beside his father under the vaults in Kensington Church.

'The Circle of Anecdote and Wit,' which bears Colman's name, went through many editions, but was disowned by him. ' Memoirs of the Life, Public and Private, of Madame Vestris, by Arthur Griffinhoofe,' London, no date (1836?), 8vo, bears a pseudonym of Colman, but there is no evidence on which to fix on him the reproach of authorship. 'The Rovers, or the Double Arrangement,' is reprinted in the 'Dramatic Magazine,' vols. ii. and iii. (1830-1), from the 'Anti-Jacobin,' 1797, as by George Canning and George Colman. An alteration of this, in which is the famous song on 'The University of Gottingen,' under the title of 'The Quadrupeds of Quadlinburgh,' was played at the Haymarket on 26 July 1811. This was assigned to Colman and is probably by him. 'Some Remarks on Colman's Preface to the "Iron Chest,"' which appeared in the 'Monthly Mirror,' 1796-7, were reprinted in 8vo, 1796. Colman was an entertaining companion and a genuine humourist. He was, however, disorderly if not profligate in his writings and in his life. The trustworthiness and stability of his father did not descend to him. As a manager he was capable, but his extravagance led to constant difficulties and feuds.

[Colman the Younger's Random Records, 1830; Peake's Memoirs of the Colman Family; Dunlap's Life of George Frederick Cooke, 1813; Genest's Account of the Stage; Baker, Reed, and Jones's Biographia Dramatics; Oulton's History of the Theatres of London, 1818; Brayley's London Theatres, 1826; Tallis's Dramatic Magazine; Oxberry's Dramatic Biography; Mrs. Mathews's Anecdotes of Actors; works cited, and many magazines between 1796 and 1836.]

J. K.