George Colman the Elder Essay - Critical Essays

Colman the Elder, George


George Colman the Elder 1732-1794

English playwright, poet, editor, essayist, and translator.

A prolific man of letters, Colman is best known for the numerous plays he wrote and produced for some of London's most famous theaters during the second half of the eighteenth century. As manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, the Covent Garden Theatre, and the Haymarket from 1763 until his retirement in 1789, Colman found the perfect vehicle for presenting English audiences with his own original compositions as well as numerous adaptations of plays written by such figures as William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Voltaire. Colman specialized in farces, comic operas, burlesques, preludes, interludes, and afterpieces. Although few critics have regarded any of Colman's plays as masterpieces, most agree that his dramas are representative of the tastes of mainstream English theatergoers. Colman's best-known play, The Clandestine Marriage, co-written with David Garrick in 1766, is generally acknowledged as his finest effort, and its comic portrayal of human folly in general and class distinctions in particular are central thematic concerns that are repeated in the vast majority of his lesser-known plays.

Biographical Information

Born in 1732, Colman spent the first year of his life in Florence, Italy, where his English father was posted as a government envoy. After his father's death the following year, Colman was sent to London to be raised by his uncle, William Pulteney (later the Earl of Bath), one of England's richest men. Colman was educated at the Westminster School, achieving academic distinction as a King's Scholar. In 1755, Colman received his B.A. from Oxford, where he had begun to write and edit poetry in addition to producing a satirical journal, The Connoisseur, with his friend Bonnell Thornton. In 1757, Colman was called to the bar, and the following year he received his M.A. from Oxford. From 1758 to 1761, he worked as a lawyer; at the same time, he began to expand his literary range by writing plays. His first production, Polly Honeycombe (1760), would become one of the most popular comic afterpieces of the decade. The success of Polly Honeycombe and his next play, The Jealous Wife (1761), probably convinced Colman that he could survive by his literary talents alone; in any event, he expected to gain a substantial inheritance upon the death of his uncle. When Pulteney died in 1764, however, Colman had only been left a small annuity. Scholars have often noted that Colman's realization that he would have to work to support himself marked a change in his literary style from satires on sentimentalism to comedy that would appeal more to popular tastes. As Colman himself put it, he was forced to “please to live.” As performance director for Garrick's Drury Lane Theatre from 1763 to 1765, Colman seized the opportunity to stage his own plays, and in 1766 he achieved his greatest popular success in his collaborative effort with Garrick, The Clandestine Marriage. In 1767, Colman bought a quarter interest in the Covent Garden Theatre, where he continued to produce his own plays along with the works of others. In 1776, he bought the Haymarket (Theatre Royal) summer playhouse from Samuel Foote, where he remained as director, author, and editor of numerous plays until mental illness forced his retirement in 1789. His son, George Colman the Younger, then assumed ownership and directorship of the Haymarket, where he continued his father's legacy long after Colman's death in 1794.

Major Works

Colman's poetry, essays, and translations, though seldom mentioned by critics today, prove the range of his literary talents as well as his ability to treat serious subjects. Nevertheless, Colman's name is most often associated with the dozens of plays he composed or adapted from the works of more eminent authors, most of them light comedies satirizing distinctions and relations between the middle and upper classes. Colman's greatest popular and critical success, the collaboration The Clandestine Marriage, tells the story of a businessman's daughter who marries an aristocrat and the difficulties and misunderstandings resulting from their social inequality. Though few critics have praised the play as a great literary achievement, it remains the only individual work that sustains Colman's fame beyond that of a prominent eighteenth-century theater owner and manager. Staged well into the nineteenth-century, Colman's and Garrick's The Clandestine Marriage continues to garner scholarly attention for its depiction of British middle-class attitudes towards the aristocracy and as a typical example of what appealed to eighteenth-century London audiences.

Critical Reception

In spite of Colman's successful career as playwright and theater manager, most critics today focus more on the quantity rather than the quality of his plays. Even though there are some who praise Colman's wit and his ability to produce drama in nearly all the comedic genres of the age, the overwhelming majority of scholars view Colman's plays as light fare with little enduring merit or influence. His earliest plays, Polly Honeycombe, The Jealous Wife, and The Musical Lady (1762) receive mention for their satire on sentimentality and English tastes. However, their inclusion in critical analyses of eighteenth-century drama is largely due to the fact that they show how Colman became less controversial and more concerned with popular tastes after his uncle's death yielded less financial independence he had expected. Even Colman's best known and most reviewed play, The Clandestine Marriage, has attracted surprisingly little praise; it is usually considered a good play, well-crafted in its combination of comedic and sentimental elements, but one containing none of the serious thematic concerns that define great art. What scholarly debate there is dealing with The Clandestine Marriage centers upon which sections of the play should be attributed to Colman and which to Garrick. Though no consensus has emerged, Colman is usually believed to have been the more instrumental of the two. The rest of Colman's plays receive only occasional scholarly attention, and critics differ considerably in their critical assessment: New Brooms! (1776), for example, has been called one of the greatest English preludes, while the failure of Garrick's and Colman's modification of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream has been placed firmly on Colman's shoulders. What remains constant in nearly all scholarship on Colman is the conclusion that he was a capable playwright who may have produced more significant work had he challenged his audience with more substantial material.

Principal Works

The Connoisseur, nos. 1-140 [editor; with Bonnell Thornton] (magazine) 1754-56

Poems by Eminent Ladies. Particularly, Mrs. Brother, Mrs. Behn, Miss Carter, Lady Chudleigh, Mrs. Cockburn, Mrs. Grierson, Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Killigrew, Mrs. Leapor, Mrs. Madan, Mrs. Masters, Lady M. W. Montague, Mrs. Monk, Duchess of Newcastle, Mrs. K. Philips, Mrs. Pilkington, Mrs. Rowe, Lady Winchelsea. 2 vols. [editor; with Bonnell Thornton] (poetry) 1755

A Letter of Abuse to D—-d G——k, Esq. (pamphlet) 1757

Polly Honeycombe (play) 1760

Two Odes [with Robert Lloyd] (poetry) 1760

Critical Reflections on the Old English Dramatick Writers; Intended as a Preface to the Works of Massinger, Addressed to David Garrick (essay) 1761

The Jealous Wife (play) 1761

The Musical Lady (play) 1762

The Deuce is in Him (play) 1763

A Midsummer Night's Dream [adaptor; with David Garrick; from the play A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare] (play) 1763; revised as A Fairy Tale, 1763

Philaster [adaptor; from a play by Francis Beaumont and John Flectcher] (play) 1763

The Comedies of Terence, Translated into Familiar Blank Verse [translator] (plays) 1765

The Clandestine Marriage [with David Garrick] (play) 1766

The English Merchant [adaptor; from the play L'Ecossaise by Voltaire] (play) 1767

The Oxomian in Town (play) 1767

King Lear [adaptor; from the play King Lear by William Shakespeare] (play) 1768

Man and Wife; or, The Shakespeare Jubilee (play) 1769

Mother Shipton; or, The Harlequin Gladiator (play) 1770


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Joseph M. Jr. Beatty (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: Beatty, Joseph M., Jr. “Garrick, Colman, and The Clandestine Marriage.Modern Language Notes 36, no. 3 (1921): 129-41.

[In the following essay, Beatty attempts to determine which sections of The Clandestine Marriage were written by Colman and which sections should be attributed to David Garrick.]

With the exception of the plays of Goldsmith and Sheridan, The Clandestine Marriage was probably the best English comedy of the second half of the eighteenth century. Its authors were George Colman, the elder, and David Garrick, respectively one of the most widely known dramatists of his generation and one of the greatest actors that England...

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George Winchester Stone, Jr. (essay date June 1939)

SOURCE: Stone, George Winchester, Jr. “A Midsummer Night's Dream in the Hands of Garrick and Colman.” PMLA 54, no. 5 (June 1939): 467-82.

[In the following excerpt, Stone claims that Colman was responsible for many of the alterations in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream that caused the play he produced with David Garrick in 1763 to fail with audiences and critics.]

By 1755 English dramatic audiences as well as English dramatic critics were less concerned with faults in the construction of Shakespeare's plays then they had been twenty years earlier. Largely because of Garrick's excellent acting, the focal point of Shakespearian criticism was...

(The entire section is 4602 words.)

Arthur John Harris (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Harris, Arthur John. “Garrick, Colman, and King Lear: A Reconsideration.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22 (1971): 57-66.

[In the following essay, Harris argues that it was Colman, not David Garrick as has most often been assumed, who was primarily responsible for the restoration of Shakespeare's King Lear in the mid-eighteenth century.]

The belief has prevailed since the early nineteenth century that David Garrick is chiefly responsible for the initial steps in the restoration of Shakespeare's King Lear to the stage. The accepted opinion has been that, while Garrick began his career with the Nahum Tate version of Shakespeare's tragedy, he was...

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Richard Bevis (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Bevis, Richard. “George Colman (1732-1794).” In The Laughing Tradition: Stage Comedy in Garrick's Day, pp. 174-88. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Bevis reviews Colman's comedic plays, concluding that while their literary merit is uneven, they are among the few dramas of the period to discuss important social questions.]

George Colman the Elder, youngest of the professional group, produced a body of comic work more substantial than Macklin's or Garrick's and more heterogeneous than Foote's, though he backed into the theater. Until 1764 Colman expected to be a leisured gentleman, but the early death of his uncle and...

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J. Terry Frazier (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Frazier, J. Terry. Introduction to New Brooms! (1776) and The Manager in Distress (1780): Two Preludes by George Colman the Elder, pp. v-xvii. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1980.

[In the following essay, Frazier argues that New Brooms! (written to assure London audiences that the English theater would survive David Garrick's retirement) and The Manager in Distress represent the highest qualities of the prelude.]

In 1776 David Garrick, retiring from a legendary career on the English stage, devised management of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane to Richard Brinsley Sheridan and his co-managers. For the English stage this was...

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E. R. Wood (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Wood, E. R. Introduction to Plays by David Garrick and George Colman the Elder: The Lying Valet, The Jealous Wife, The Clandestine Marriage, The Irish Widow, Bon Ton, edited by E. R. Wood, pp. 8-28. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, Wood provides background information on Colman's theatrical career and his association with David Garrick.]


Colman's association with Drury Lane began as a member of Garrick's circle of friends and admirers, and it was as an amateur, earning his real living as a barrister, that he began writing plays. When Garrick set out in September...

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Further Reading


Page, Eugene R. George Colman the Elder: Essayist, Dramatist, and Theatrical Manager, 1732-1794. Morningside Heights, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1935, 334 p.

Full-length study of Colman's life, works, and managerial career.

Pedicord, Harry William. “George Colman's Adaptation of Garrick's Promptbook for Florizel and PerditaI.” Theatre Survey 22, no. 2 (November 1981): 185-90.

Argues that Colman's The Sheep-Shearing was a poorly revised and edited version of David Garrick's promptbook, Florizel and Perdita, itself an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale.


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