George Colman the Elder Critical Essays

Introduction

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.