Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Weaver, John (1673-1760)

WEAVER, JOHN (1673–1760), dancing master, son of John Weaver, was baptised at Holy Cross, Shrewsbury, on 21 July 1673. His father is believed to be identical with ‘one Mr. Weaver,’ a dancing master in the university of Oxford, who is named in a letter from Ralph Bathurst to Gascoigne, the Duke of Ormonde's secretary, 18 March 1675–6, as having been received by the chancellor of the university ‘at a time when there was room for him,’ but ‘is now like to be ruined with his family, being supplanted by Mr. Banister,’ another dancing master (Warton, Life of Bathurst, p. 140). Weaver received his education at the free school, Shrewsbury. In early life he set up as a dancing master in Shrewsbury, and is said to have taught dancing there for three generations, till nearly the close of his life. He was living there on 19 March 1711–12, when he wrote a letter to the ‘Spectator’ (No. 334, see also No. 466), announcing his intention of bringing out a small treatise on dancing, which was ‘an art celebrated by the ancients,’ but totally neglected by the moderns, and now fallen to a low ebb. But his residence in Shrewsbury was never in his adult life continuous. From 1702 he was actively associated with theatrical enterprise in London.

Weaver, and not John Rich [q. v.], as is commonly stated, was the original introducer into England of entertainments which bore the name of pantomimes. But by ‘pantomimes’ Weaver did not mean harlequin entertainments, but rather ballets, or, as he terms it, ‘scenical dancing,’ a representation of some historical incident by graceful motions. In 1702 he produced a mime at Drury Lane styled ‘The Tavern Bilkers,’ which he stage-managed, and which he describes as ‘the first entertainment that appeared on the English Stage, where the Representation and Story was carried on by Dancing Action and Motion only.’ In 1707 Weaver composed a new dance in fifteen couplets, ‘The Union,’ which was performed at court on the queen's birthday, 6 Feb. Either owing to the fluctuations of theatrical government, or possibly because his mime was not successful, Weaver did not put a second on the stage until 1716; this was called ‘The Loves of Mars and Venus,’ and was ‘an attempt in imitation of the ancient Pantomimes, and the first that has appeared since the time of the Roman Emperors.’ Weaver's subsequent pantomimic entertainments were ‘Perseus and Andromeda,’ 1716; ‘Orpheus and Eurydice,’ 1717; ‘Harlequin turn'd Judge,’ 1717; and ‘Cupid and Bacchus,’ 1719, all performed at Drury Lane. These dates of Weaver's pieces are given on his own authority, from his ‘History of the Mimes and Pantomimes.’ Most of them were probably never printed. John Thurmond produced somewhat similar pieces for Drury Lane between 1719 and 1726. Rich's pantomimes were produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields from 1717 to 1726. Weaver's ‘Tavern Bilkers’ was revived at Lincoln's Inn Fields by the younger Rich on 13 April 1717, and again at the same house on 11 Dec. 1727, under the name of ‘The Cheats.’

Weaver himself sometimes acted in his representations. In 1728 he impersonated Clown, the Squire's Man, in ‘Perseus and Andromeda, or the Flying Lovers,’ an after-piece performed at Drury Lane Theatre.

Weaver sought to establish a school of pantomime, more like the modern ballet d'action, but the public did not appreciate his effort; they preferred grotesque dancing and acting. In 1730 he complains that spectators are squandering their applause on interpolations by pseudo-players, merry-andrews, tumblers, and rope-dancers, and are but rarely touched with or encourage a natural player or just pantomime.

On 6 Feb. 1733 his ‘Judgment of Paris,’ described as ‘a new Pantomime Entertainment,’ appeared at Drury Lane. Mrs. Booth acted as Helen, and Miss Rafter as Thalia (Genest, iii. 369). There was an earlier performance, possibly during the Christmas of 1732; it is referred to in a letter from Aaron Hill [q. v.], the dramatist, to Victor, the actor, 1 Jan. 1732–3 (Victor, History of the Theatres of London and Dublin, ii. 177). It was performed by his pupils in the great room over the market-house at Shrewsbury about 1750 (Owen and Blakeway, ii. 152).

Weaver died at Shrewsbury on 24 Sept. 1760, aged 90, and was buried in the south aisle of Old St. Chad's church in Shrewsbury on 28 Sept. (Addit. MS. 21236, fol. 65 b). He is described as being ‘a little dapper, cheerful man, much respected in the town, and by the first people in the neighbourhood’ (Owen and Blakeway, ii. 152, n. 1).

He was twice married. By his first wife, Catherine, who was buried at St. Chad's, Shrewsbury, on 13 Sept. 1712, he had three children—John, baptised on 11 May 1709; Richard, baptised on 3 Nov. 1710; and Catherine, baptised on 13 Sept. 1712, all at St. Chad's Church (St. Chad's Register). His second wife, Susanna, who survived him, died on 5 Feb. 1773, aged 73, and was buried on 10 Feb. at St. Chad's, Shrewsbury. The monument was destroyed at the fall of Old St. Chad's Church in 1788; but the inscription is preserved in Addit. MS. 21236, fol. 65 b.

Besides the plays before mentioned, Weaver published: 1. ‘Orchesography; or the Art of Dancing, being an exact translation from the French of M. Feuillet,’ 1706, 4to. 2. ‘A small Treatise of Time and Cadence in Dancing,’ 1706. 3. ‘The Union: a Dance writ down in Characters,’ 1707 (?). 4. ‘An Essay towards an History of Dancing,’ 1712 (the work referred to in the Spectator, Nos. 334 and 466). 5. ‘Anatomical and Mechanical Lectures upon Dancing,’ 1721 (these were ‘read at the Academy in Chancery Lane’). 6. ‘The History of the Mimes and Pantomimes, &c. Also a List of the modern Entertainments that have been exhibited on the English Stage, either in imitation of the ancient Pantomimes, or after the manner of the modern Italians,’ London, 1728, 8vo.

[Owen and Blakeway's Hist. of Shrewsbury, ii. 151–2, 245; Baker's Biographia Dramatica, ed. Reed and Jones, i. 739; Colley Cibber's Apology; ‘The Genesis of English Pantomime,’ by W. J. Lawrence, in The Theatre for January 1895, xxv. 28–34; ‘Puzzle: Find the first Pantomime Clown,’ by W. J. Lawrence, in the Supplement to the Newcastle Weekly Chron. 29 Dec. 1894; ‘The Father of English Pantomime,’ in the Pall Mall Gazette, 27 Dec. 1897; Genest's Account of the English Stage; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iii. 89, 138, 297; information from W. J. Lawrence, esq.]

W. G. D. F.