Samuel Foote

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Although Samuel Foote is known chiefly for his dramatic works, he wrote several critical essays and letters and translated a French comedy. His The Roman and English Comedy Consider’d and Compar’d (1747) and A Treatise on the Passions (1747) are well written and sound, but they are short and reflect traditional, conservative Augustan literary and dramatic criticism. A Letter from Mr. Foote, to the Reverend Author of the “Remarks, Critical and Christian,” on “The Minor” (1760) and Apology for “The Minor” (1771) are significant because in them Foote delineates his critical ideas concerning affectation, hypocrisy, comedy, farce, the humorist, and the man of humor. Foote’s thinking as presented in these two essays is strikingly similar to Henry Fielding’s ideas on these topics as stated in the famous preface to Joseph Andrews (1742). Several of Foote’s prologues and prefaces, such as the preface to Taste and the preface to The Minor, are critically important for their discussions of the aims and purposes of his satires. (The prologue to Taste that was written and spoken by actor David Garrick seems also to present some of Foote’s views.) Foote’s The Comic Theatre, Being a Free Translation of All the Best French Comedies, by Samuel Foote and Others (1762) was an ambitious undertaking, and although he wrote the preface for it, he translated only one play, The Young Hypocrite, leaving “the others” to translate the remainder of the five volumes.

Achievements

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In his time, Samuel Foote was known as the English Aristophanes, a sobriquet originally used by the opposition in a libel suit but one that stuck because of Foote’s dramatic satires of living persons and of contemporary scandals. G. H. Nettleton has described Foote as Henry Fielding’s direct descendant, because he fully developed the latter’s personalities, localized mimicry, and contemporary satire. In formulating his comic theory, Foote emphasized the corrective purpose of comedy, whose ridicule he considered to be more effective than law or reason in combating folly and vice. There were indeed times when Foote’s satire achieved this purpose. When Foote played Lady Pentweazel in his comedy Taste, for example, he wore a huge headdress made with large, loose feathers that fell off his head to litter the stage throughout the play. His ridicule of the absurd hats then in vogue was credited with reforming this extreme fashion.

Perhaps Foote’s greatest achievement was breaking the monopoly of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, the only two theaters in London that had official permission to produce plays and that did so primarily during the winter, when the social season was at his height. Foote made significant strides in breaking this monopoly when he evaded the 1737 Stage Licensing Act by advertising his performances not as drama but as entertainments, scheduling them for early in the day, and describing them under various names such as The Diversions of the Morning, The Auction of Pictures, “a dish of chocolate,” or “an invitation to a dish of tea.” None of these had a set content but instead contained combinations of successful old material, reworked material, and new material based on the latest social and political gossip. The result of Foote’s “diversions,” according to Simon Trefman (in his 1971 book on Foote), was the first theatrical matinee.

Foote finally broke the monopoly when the king awarded him a summer patent to the Haymarket Theatre that allowed him to operate between May fifteenth and September fifteenth of each year. Foote’s resourcefulness and energy were tremendous, and so was his success. He wrote, produced, and directed his plays and, for most of the season, played the leading...

(This entire section contains 531 words.)

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roles in them. Most of his plays enjoyed long runs, commanding large audiences not only at his establishment but elsewhere.The Englishman in Paris, for example, became part of the repertoire at Drury Lane and Covent Garden and was regularly played for more than twenty years. In addition, Foote was able to give steady employment to almost fifty actors during each season and to run his performances for fifty to sixty nights. Trefman claims that no one else in the history of English theater had ever drawn such crowds by the sheer power of satiric invention.

Foote was interested in new and experimental theatrical devices. The framing techniques he used in Taste and The Orators provided both unity for the segments that made up the pieces and a plausible explanation for poor and inexperienced performers, with whom they might be staged. He also experimented with puppets in his Primitive Puppet Shew. Foote’s performances were successful not only in England but also in Ireland and Scotland.

Bibliography

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Chatten, Elizabeth N. Samuel Foote. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Chatten focuses on a discussion of Foote’s dramatic works and essays on drama, evaluating them in the light of social history. She describes him as a witty social satirist who resides firmly within eighteenth century literary tradition. Chronology, annotated bibliography, and index.

Freeman, Terence M. “Best Foote Forward.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 29, no. 3 (Summer, 1989): 563. A personal profile of Foote, emphasizing his importance as an ironic satirist.

Kinservik, Matthew J. “The Censorship of Samuel Foote’s The Minor (1760): Stage Controversy in the Mid-eighteenth Century.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 32, no. 2 (Fall, 1999): 89-104. Kinservik argues that Foote benefited from the censorship of The Minor, a satiric anti-Methodist play.

Lamb, Susan. “The Popular Theater of Samuel Foote and British National Identity.” Comparative Drama 30, no. 2 (Summer, 1996): 245. Lamb relates Foote’s satires in his plays to the changes that were taking place in the England of the time. Examines The Englishman in Paris and The Englishman Returned from Paris, among others.

Murphy, Mary C. Samuel Foote’s “Taste” and “The Orators”: A Modern Edition with Five Essays. Annapolis, Md.: U.S. Naval Academy, 1982. In the essays that accompany’s Foote’s Taste and The Orators, Murphy provides information on Foote’s life and these two works. Bibliography.

Singh, Jyotsna G. Colonial Narratives/Cultural Dialogues: “Discoveries” of India in the Language of Colonialism. London: Routledge, 1996. Contains a discussion of Foote’s The Nabob for its depiction of relations between the British and the Indians.

Trefman, Simon. Foote, Comedian, 1720-1777. New York: New York University Press, 1971. An examination of Foote’s works and life.

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Critical Essays