GEORGE COLMAN was the son of Francis Colman, Esq. His Majesty's resident at the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany at Florence, by a sister of the Countess of Bath. He was born at Florence about 1733, and had the honour of having King George the Second for his godfather. He received his education at Westminster School, where he very early showed his poetical talents. The first performance by him was a copy of verses addressed to his cousin Lord Pulteney, written in the year 1747, while he was at Westminster, and since printed in The St. James's Magazine, a work published by his unfortunate friend, Robert Lloyd. At school he had for his companions Mr. Lloyd, Mr. Churchill, Bonnel Thornton, and some others, who afterwards distinguished themselves in the literary world. From Westminster School he removed to Oxford, and became a student of Christ church. It was there, at a very early age, that he engaged with his friend Bonnel Thornton in publishing The Connoisseur, a periodical paper which appeared once a week, and was continued from Jan. 31, 1754, to Sept. 30, 1756. When the age of the writers of this entertaining paper is considered, the wit and humour, the spirit, the good sense and shrewd observations on life and manners, with which it abounds, will excite some degree of wonder; but will, at the same time, evidently point out the extraordinary talents which were afterwards to be more fully displayed in The Jealous Wife and The Clandestine Marriage.
The recommendation of his friends, or his choice, but probably the former, induced him to fix upon the law for his profession; and he was accordingly entered of Lincoln's Inn and in due season called to the bar. He attended there a very short time; though, if our recollection does not mislead us, he was seen often enough in the courts to prevent the supposition of his abandoning the profession merely for want of encouragement. It is reasonable, however, to suppose, that he felt more pleasure in attending to the Muse than to briefs and reports; and it will therefore excite no wonder, that he took the earliest opportunity of relinquishing pursuits not congenial to his taste. Apollo and Littleton, says Wycherly, seldom meet in the same brain.
On the 18th of March 1758, he took the degree of master of arts at Oxford; and in the year 1760 his first dramatic piece, Polly Honeycomb, was acted at Drury Lane, with great success. For several years before, the comic Muse seemed to have relinquished the stage. No comedy had been produced at either theatre since the year 1751, when Moore's Gil Blas was with difficulty performed nine nights. At length, in the beginning of the year 1761, three different authors were candidates for public favour in the same walk, almost the same year; viz. Mr. Murphy, who exhibited The Way of Keep Him; Mr. Macklin, The Married Libertine; and Mr. Colman, The Jealous Wife. The former and the latter of these were most successful, and the latter in a much higher degree. Indeed, when the excellent performances of Messrs. Garrick, Yates, O'Brien, King, Palmer, Moody, with Mrs. Pritchard, Mrs. Clive, and Mrs. Pritchard, are recollected, it would have shown a remarkable want of taste in the town not to have followed, as they did, this admirable piece with the greatest eagerness and perseverance.
The mention of The Jealous Wife in Churchill's Rosciad occasioned Mr. Colman to experience some of the malevolence which that and other of Mr. Churchill's satires gave birth to. Many rude and illiberal attacks issued from the press against all the different combatants; and much good writing and much wit and humour were thrown away in this very acrimonious and disgraceful controversy.
In July 1764 Lord Bath died; and on that event Mr. Colman found himself in circumstances fully sufficient to enable him to follow the bent of his genius. The first publication which he produced, after this period, was, a translation in blank verse of the comedies of Terence, 4to. 1765; and whoever would wish to see the spirit of an ancient bard transfused into the English language, must look for it in Mr. Colman's version.
The successor of Lord Bath, General Pulteney, died in 1767; and Mr. Colman again found himself remembered in his will, by a second annuity, which confirmed the independency of his fortune. He seems, however, to have felt no charms in an idle life; as, in 1767, he united with Messrs. Harris, Rutherford, and Powell, in the purchase of Covent Garden Theatre, and took upon himself the laborious office of acting manager. The differences which arose from this association are still in the memories of many of our readers, and the causes of them perhaps too ridiculous to be recorded. It may, however, in general, be observed, that the appeals to the public, during this controversy, do great credit to the talents, if not the tempers, of each party.
After continuing manager of Covent Garden Theatre seven years, Mr. Colman sold his share and interest therein to Mr. James Leake one of his then partners; and, in 1777, purchased of Mr. Foote the Little Theatre in the Haymarket. The estimation in which the entertainments exhibited under his direction were held by the public, the reputation which the theatre acquired and the continual concourse of the polite world during the height of summer, sufficiently spoke the praises of Mr. Colman's management. Indeed, it has been long admitted, that no person since the death of Mr. Garrick was so able to superintend the entertainments of the stage as the subject of this account.
To sagacity in discovering the talents of his performers, he joined the inclination and ability to display them with every advantage. To him Mr. Henderson, Miss Faren, Mrs. Bannister, Miss George Mrs. Wells, and, in some measure Mr. Edwin (whose comic powers had been buried a whole season under Mr. Foote's management), besides some others, owed their introduction to a London audience.
About the year 1785 Mr. Colman gave the public a new translation of, and commentary on, Horace's Art of Poetry; in which he produced a new system to explain this very difficult poem. In opposition to Dr. Hurd, he supposed, "that one of the sons of Piso, undoubtedly the elder, had either written or meditated a poetical work, most probably a tragedy; and that he had, with the knowledge of the family, communicated his piece or intention to Horace. But Horace either disapproving of the work, or doubting of the poetical faculties of the elder Piso, or both, wished to dissuade him from all thought of publication. With this view he formed the design of writing this epistle; addressing it, with a courtliness and delicacy perfectly agreeable to his acknowledged character, indifferently to the whole family, the father and his two sons, Epistola ad Pisones de Arte Poetica." This hypothesis is supported with much learning, ingenuity, and modesty; and, if not fully established, is at least as well entitled to applause as that adopted by the Bishop of Worcester.
On the publication of the Horace, the Bishop said to Dr. Douglas, "Give my compliments to Colman, and thank him for the handsome manner in which he has treated me; and tell him, that I think he is right."
Mr. Colman paid his court almost solely to the comic Muse; by whose inspiration he produced the following Dramas [list omitted].
These dramas have considerable merit. In his petite pieces the plots are simple, and no great matter of incident is introduced into them; yet they contain strong character, and are aimed at the ridiculing of fashionable and prevailing follies, which ought to be made essential points of consideration in every production of the sock. His more regular comedies have the same merit with the others as to the preservation of character, which reflect honour on the author. Besides his dramatic works, and those we have already mentioned, he was the author of a preface to the last edition of Beaumont and Fletcher, a dissertation prefixed to Massinger, a series of papers in The St. James's Chronicle under the title of The Genius, and many other fugitive pieces.
At the close of the theatrical season of 1785, Mr. Colman was seized at Margate with the palsy; and at the beginning of the season of 1789 he first showed symptoms of derangement of his mind, which, increasing gradually, left him in a state of idiotism. On this occasion the concluding lines of his friend Churchill's Epistle to Hogarth will naturally intrude themselves on our reader's attention:
Sure 'tis a curse which angry fates impose,
To mortify man's arrogance, that those
Who're fashion'd of some better sort of clay,
Much sooner than the common herd decay.
What bitter pangs must humbled Genius feel,
In their last hour to view a Swift and Steele!
How must ill-boding horrors fill her breast,
When she beholds men, mark'd above the rest
For qualities most dear, plung'd from that height,
And sunk, deep sunk, in second childhood's night!
Are men indeed such things? And are the best
More subject to this evil than the rest,
To drivel out whole years of idiot health
And sit the monuments of living death?
O galling circumstance to human pride!
Abasing thought! but not to be deny'd.
With curious art the brain, too finely wrought,
Preys on herself, and is destroy'd by thought.
Constant attention wears the active mind,
Blots out her pow'rs, and leaves a blank behind.
In this sad state he was committed to the care of a person at Paddington; and the management of the theatre was intrusted to his son, with an allowance of £600. a year.
Mr. Colman died at Paddington, on the 14th of August 1794, at the age of 62. A few hours before his death he was seized with violent spasms; and these were succeeded by a melancholy stupor in which he drew his last breath.