Samuel Foote 1721-1777
English playwright, actor, and theatrical manager.
As celebrated for his humor and wit as he was notorious for his scathing on-stage caricatures, Foote was hailed in his time as the “English Aristophanes.” He was considered one of the greatest character actors of his day, and the majority of his theatrical works feature a character written specifically for his own performance. While Foote's plays are seldom performed today, they enjoyed great popular success in the eighteenth century and routinely filled London theaters.
Samuel Foote was born in 1721 in Truro, Cornwall, to Samuel Foote—a politician who had served as a Member of Parliament, and as Mayor of Truro—and Eleanor Goodere, a moderately wealthy heiress. As a child Foote exhibited a talent for mimicry by entertaining his parents' guests with imitations of his father and his father's fellow politicians. In 1737 Foote was admitted to Worcester College at Oxford University, but three years later his scholarship was revoked as a result of his frequent absences from classes, and, reportedly, his disposition to wild pranks and disregard for authority. He left the college without taking a degree. Deeply in debt, Foote married Mary Hickes, who had a sizeable dowry. From all available evidence, their marriage was not a happy one, as Hickes was apparently often the victim of Foote's jokes, and he is known to have abandoned his wife when his financial situation had improved.
Foote's career was conducted amid a London theatrical scene governed by the British Licensing Act of 1737, which gave the Lord Chamberlain complete control over the licensing of plays, as well as the authority to restrict their performance to theaters holding Royal patents. When Foote began his career in the early 1740s, there were only two playhouses in London possessing patents, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, which therefore had an effective monopoly on theatrical performances. However, many producers and actors circumvented the Licensing Act by advertising their entertainments as puppet shows, concerts, or other types of performances. Foote made his acting debut in 1744, playing the title role in a production by Charles Macklin of Othello in the Little Theatre in the Haymarket. Macklin charged no admission in an attempt to avoid violating the Licensing Act, but the authorities soon ended the production. Foote was ill-suited to serious dramatic parts and was unsuccessful in the role. As he continued his acting career, he began to garner praise for his comic acting and his ability to mimic his fellow actors. In 1747 Foote wrote his first original play, entitled The Diversions of the Morning, and assembled a troupe to perform it at the Haymarket. The authorities initially forbade him to perform the work, but he evaded the Licensing Act by presenting the work at noon and advertising it alternately as a public breakfast, an art auction, and even as a boxing match. As with his subsequent works, the play featured characters tailored to showcase Foote's skills at mimicry. It was a great success, and Foote's comic “takes” on public figures soon became the talk of the town. He continued to write and produce comedies with his company of actors at the Haymarket until 1766. While his works increased in sophistication in terms of plot and structure, his satirical imitations of public personalities remained at the heart of Foote's popularity with theatergoers.
Throughout this period, Foote was continually in financial difficulties. He often squandered the proceeds of those of his plays that made a profit, or used the money to finance his next production. To comply with the Licensing Act, he staged plays during the summer months, when the patent houses were closed, or he mounted productions in Dublin or Edinburgh. In 1766 Foote was thrown from a horse owned by the duke of York and so shattered his leg that it had to be amputated. Undaunted, he was soon back on the stage, and a year later, with the assistance of the duke of York, who was distressed by his association with the accident, he received a patent for the Haymarket Theatre. Foote continued not only to write plays, but to create parts for himself that mocked his infirmity. In 1767 he bought the Haymarket. Foote wrote, performed, and produced plays until 1777, when, in poor health, he retired from the stage and sold his interest in the Haymarket. On October 21, 1777, as he was traveling to southern France for his health, Foote died in Dover; he was buried in Westminster Abbey six days later.
Foote's plays are typically loosely structured, filled with raucous humor, and designed to provide Foote ample opportunity to demonstrate his facility with mimicry and improvisation. These characteristics are evident in his first play, The Diversions of the Morning, an amorphous work that is little more than a series of sketches featuring Foote in a variety of roles, satirizing well-known figures. It continually evolved throughout its many revivals and gave rise to several other plays, including Taste (1752). This work about two con artists who trick wealthy art patrons of into buying worthless “antiquities” mocks the pretensions of the newly rich. The Minor (1760) targets members of the then-fledgling Methodist church. Foote acted in several roles, including Mother Cole, a convert to Methodism; his depiction of the character was clearly based on a well-known prostitute. The Orators (1762), advertised under the pretense of being a lecture on elocution, is in fact a lampoon of Thomas Sheridan, who had delivered a series of lectures on oratory. After the loss of his leg Foote created works that allowed him to use his disability to his advantage. He played the titular lame devil in The Devil upon Two Sticks (1768), a burlesque of the British medical profession as well as a parody of sentimental love stories. He also performed the title role in The Lame Lover (1770), a satire of the legal profession. One of Foote's greatest successes, The Nabob (1772) takes on those who made fortunes in India by exploiting the natives and, upon their return to Britain, maintained their wealth through unscrupulous means.
Foote's satire made his works very popular with audiences who relished his lampooning of notable public figures. It also made them controversial, and his career was marked by a continual series of conflicts and skirmishes. While Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire said “when I am tired of the Roman Empire I can laugh away the Evening at Foote's Theatre,” the targets of Foote's wit were often incensed. Foote considered other authors, actors, theater owners, and legal authorities suitable targets for ridicule. One quarrel with a fellow actor erupted in a riot that significantly damaged the Haymarket Theatre. Another actor won acclaim for his scathing portrayal of Foote himself. Henry Fielding, in reaction to Foote's burlesque of him in An Auction of Pictures (1748), declared that “you Samuel Fut be p-ssed upon, with Scorn and Contempt, as a low Buffoon; and I do, with the utmost Scorn and Contempt, p-ss upon you accordingly.” A wealthy Welshman named Apreece, who enjoyed Foote's plays immensely and encouraged the author to caricature him, was so outraged at the resulting depiction in The Author (1757) that he successfully got the play banned. The Minor, Foote's satire on the Methodist church, elicited an attack from a Methodist supporter, Martin Madan, in the pamphlet Christian and Critical Remarks On a Droll, or Interlude, called The Minor; Foote responded with A Letter from Mr. Foote, To The Reverend Author Of the Remarks, Critical and Christian, on The Minor (1760). In A Trip to Calais (1775) Foote lampooned a notorious noblewoman who was convicted of bigamy. A nasty battle ensued, during which the noblewoman successfully petitioned for the suppression of the play, and Foote was labeled a homosexual and tried for sodomy in 1776. He was acquitted, but the affair left him exhausted, and he died within a year. The very sources of the success of Foote's plays—their immersion in the society of his day, and their showcasing of Foote's particular acting talents—have conspired to make them rarely read or staged today. Modern critics have studied the nature of Foote's satire, investigated the relation of his works to the social and political events of the time, and examined his remarkable success in the difficult and precarious theatrical world of eighteenth-century London.