George Colman the Younger

W. B. Morgan, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 6 (December 1836) 658-61.

Oct. 26. At his residence in Brompton Square, aged 74, George Colman, Esq. the dramatic writer.

George Colman, "the younger," as he would have called himself had he lived to eternity, was born 21st Oct. 1762. His father, George "the elder," will ever be remembered as the translator of Terence into English verse, a writer of the Connoisseur, and author of "The Clandestine Marriage." At the time of the dramatic George the Second's birth, Mr. Colman was joint proprietor and manager of the Haymarket Theatre, his share in which he soon after relinquished.

George, "the younger," commenced his education at the academy of Mr. Fountain in Marylebone, a seminary then in high repute. He remained there about two years, when his mother died, and he was sent to Westminster School. His father's residence was in Soho Square, whither he was permitted to repair on holidays; and by this means he was, while a child, brought into the company of Johnson, Gibbon, Goldsmith, and that "constellation of genius" which crowded round his father's table. Of course he could appreciate their conversations very little; yet he understood enough to imbibe "a preference of hearing modern wits in English, to reading ancient classics, Greek or Latin."

In 1777, Colman, "the elder," purchased of Mr. Foote the little theatre in the Haymarket. This was an important incident in the life of his son; it foretold his destiny. The boy, who was now about fifteen years of his age, "after long and vehement suit," gained admittance to the green room of the Theatre, and the greater part of his Midsummer holidays were ever after spent within its purlieus.

In 1779 he left Westminster School, and became an undergraduate in Christ-church, Oxford, where he was more remarkable for quickness of parts than the love of study. He gained the address and manners of a gentleman, whilst he learned to he fashionable, witty, and idle, alternately revelling in the pleasurable and dissipating scenes of Oxford and the Haymarket Theatre. In 1781 his father, disapproving of his son's conduct, removed him to King's College, Aberdeen, in the hope that its alledged strictness of discipline might arrest the extreme gaiety and sprightliness of his youth. But punster George was born to be, nothing could check him, and half the witticisms which have danced about society for the last demi-century might call him parent. His wit was more humourous than sarcastic. George had little vice about him, and was beloved by his associates.

At Aberdeen Mr. Colman sojourned two years. Contrary to expectation, the regimen of the college was slack, and he paid no attention to it. But he was not altogether idle; his mind was too active to lie dormant. He first amused himself by writing a poem, and then a farce; the latter, called "The Female Dramatist," he transmitted to his father, who produced it anonymously in 1782, on a benefit night at the Haymarket Theatre. Mr. Colman has told us it was "uncommonly hissed." Nothing disheartened, he soon wrote another, which was performed after his return to London in 1784. On the 29th of June in that year, his first acknowledged play, "Two to One, a musical Comedy," was brought forward, and introduced to the public by an admirable prologue from the elder Colman, announcing it to be from the pen of "a chip of the old block." Mr. Colman has given a very lively and interesting account of its production in his "Random Records," recently published. Its success was prodigious.

To follow up our author in his wild career, we must relate, that in the latter part of the year 1784 he eloped with Miss Catharine Morris, and was married to her at Gretna Green. This affair was managed somehow unknown to "the elder;" it was acknowledged a few years after, and they were married a second time in Chelsea Church. We see how little George was altered by his banishment to Scotland. His father, desirous of placing him in some honourable profession, had chosen the Bar, where he would have enjoyed the patronage of Lord Erskine and other eminent men. The younger Colman, therefore, was entered a student of Lincoln's Inn, and provided with chambers in the Temple. His father presented him with those law books which had been given to him by Lord Bute in his Lincoln's Inn days. The son made even less use of them than his father had made before him; and in the chambers which he occupied for the study of Blackstone, he wrote a musical comedy called "A Turk or No Turk," which was acted in the summer of 1785. It was not so well written, nor was it as well received as his former effort.

About this time the elder Mr. Colman was seized by a dreadful paralysis, from which he never recovered. He however still carried on as far as he was able the active duties which his theatre required, his son finding daily opportunities, which were no longer thwarted, of binding himself more closely to the stage. A sudden transition of fortune, we know not by what means, for we are told the theatre yielded considerable profits, seems at this moment to have plunged the Colmans from affluence into penury. The younger Colman no longer wrote his plays for the fun of being an author, but to gain subsistence for his father, his newly-married wife, and himself. His genius was stimulated by misfortune. The famous opera, "Inkle and Yarico," was first acted August 11th, 1787. It was founded on a popular story in the Spectator. The Sir Christopher Curry of this play, is one of the most pleasing conceptions we ever met with; he is made up of goodness and humour. "Inkle and Yarico" stamped the fame of Mr. Colman as a dramatic writer. His next production was "Ways and Means," a comedy, the prologue of which wounded the newspaper critics, who nearly damned the play. It has outlived their rage, and requires no panegyric from us to recommend it to posterity. The two plays we have last mentioned, are printed, as have been all Mr. Colman's plays subsequently, written.

In 1789 the elder Colman's disorder assumed a still more melancholy state; paralysis seized the brain, and this once gifted man being no longer able to take care of himself, was placed under his son's care by order of the Court of Chancery. He lingered out five years in this condition, and happy was the hour when he died. It is a solemn morality in nature, that genius should so often be reduced to this. Throughout his father's long and painful illness, the younger Colman evinced very great filial tenderness. During the same time he ably conducted the theatre in his father's behalf, and produced three pieces of his own, "The Battle of Hexham," a musical drama, 1789, "The Surrender of Calais," a play, 1791, and "Poor Old Haymarket," a prelude in 1792.

All thoughts of the Bar had long been "in the deep bosom of the ocean buried;" and after his father's demise, George Colman "the younger" reigned monarch of the Haymarket Theatre. He opened it for the season 1795, with a very clever "occasional piece," entitled "New Hay at the Old Market," (since called Silvester Daggerwood,) being a satire on the extended dimensions of the two principal London Theatres. In the course of the same summer he produced a play called "The Mountaineers," which found deserved favour with the town; and in the spring of the following year, his play, "The Iron Chest," founded on Godwin's masterly novel, "Caleb Williams," was performed for the first time in Drury Lane Theatre. In this really excellent drama, Mr. Colman unwisely introduced a passage which annoyed his friend the late John Kemble, and which was certainly intended as a satire on him. This caused a foolish war between them. The great actor had to perform the character of Sir Edward Mortimer, on which the interest of the piece depends, and (so the story goes) in return for Mr. Colman's wit, damned his play by the little care which he bestowed upon it. Mr. Colman immediately published the play, with a biting preface directed in the teeth of Kemble. This memorable quarrel was soon after adjusted. "The Iron Chest" became very popular, and its author did all in his power to smother the preface, which has not appeared in the many subsequent editions of the play.

Mr. Colman next wrote "The Heir a Law," one of the best of his comedies, in which Dr. Pangloss cuts a figure; and the "entertainment" of "Blue Beard," the latter at the instance of Michael Kelly, the composer, who furnished him with plot and music, and gave him two hundred pounds for writing words to them. In this spectacle, first acted 16th June, 1798, says Kelly, Edmund Kean, who was then an infant urchin, rode an elephant (in perspective machinery) over the scenic mountain. "Blue Devils," a farce, followed in 1798; "Feudal Times," a drama of the Blue Beard kind, 1799; and, "The Review, or the Wags of Windsor," a farce, in which Johnstone, Emery, and Fawcett acted. Need we say this farce was popular? — Put the question to an old playgoer, and see him chuckle in his reminiscences.

We now come to Mr. Colman's most brilliant and most successful compositions. His pen was so prolific, that we must content ourselves with little more than running over their titles. "The Poor Gentleman," produced in 1802, is a standard comedy, abounding in life and character. Dr. Ollapod, the scarlet apothecary, is a glorious fellow, and shows his colours well; and Corporal Foss is second only to my uncle Toby's dear companion Corporal Trim. "No prelude," a prelude 1803. "Love Laughs at Locksmiths," a farce 1803; which when Matthews played Risk and Emery Solomon Lob, was one of the most delightful entertainments of the stage. "Gay Deceivers," a farce, 1804. "John Bull," a comedy, 1805. In this comedy, for which Mr. Colman received a large sum of money, is the character of Dennis Brulgruddery, rendered so famous by the incomparable Johnstone. Mr. Colman was indebted to the actors for the immense success, of many of his plays. "Who wants a Guinea?" a comedy 1803. The characters of Oldskirt, and Solomon Gundy, are felicitously drawn. "We fly by Night," a farce, 1806, possessing much humour, and supported by the acting of Munden, Liston, and Fawcett. "The Africans," a play, 1803; "X. Y. Z." a very laughable farce, 1810; and the "Law of Java," a rather dull musical drama, 1822; together with countless very lively prologues and epilogues. These are Mr. Colman's dramatic works.

But not only as a writer are we to memorialise George Colman, his ready wit shone in society with a fully equal lustre; he was the companion of princes, the greatest convivialist of the age. The days are yet remembered when Sheridan and he, "two great ones of the city," "were wont to set the table of a roar." Sherry led the way, and Punch followed, as Byron has said of them.

Many years of Mr. Colman's life were, we regret to say, spent in great poverty. In 1807 he admitted partners into the concern of the Haymarket Theatre, not having money sufficient to carry it on alone. Afterwards, being pressed for money, he found a difficulty to realise his theatrical property, which became entangled in a law suit, and at one time he was forced to reside in the King's Bench. Through the kindness of the late King, he was at length, in Feb. 1824, relieved from these distresses by an appointment to the situation of Licenser and Examiner of Plays, an office for which he had undoubted capabilities, and which he sustained rigorously. His emoluments were from 300 to 400 a year.

In the preface to his "Random Records," published in 1830, he says, addressing the late King, to whom the work was dedicated, "that from his Majesty's long continued patronage he had derived the means whereby he lived."

Mr. Colman was married twice. On the death of his first wife, from whom he had been long separated, he married Mrs. Gibbs, the celebrated actress. We are informed he had two sons, not the offspring of either marriage; one of them was in the army, and has died lately; the other had a place in the Lord Chamberlain's office, but has for some years been residing abroad. George Colman in his fatter days suffered much from the gout. His figure was inclined to corpulency, his countenance bespoke the wag, and his eye was as bright as a merry thought.

His remains were deposited, Nov. 3, in the family vault in Kensington Church, where the ashes of his father and grandfather likewise rest. The funeral was performed according to his last desires — "that it should be conducted with as little ceremony as possible."

It is no easy task to criticise the merits of Mr. Colman's comedies. We are scarcely pleased with Dr. Johnson's remarks on those of Congreve, the standard-bearer of modern English Comedy; yet they are undeniably just; they bear down heavily upon the sprightly dramatist, but his life is never put in danger by them. The comedies of "the younger" Colman are satires on the past age, written at a time when there was more character in the gentry of our nation than we now meet with, and less effort made to disguise or smother personal peculiarities and external follies. The wit made the most of these; and the production of a new comedy was an important and delightful event. The life and bustle of our author's writings will ever please, though the jokes were better applicable to the days of their birth; the frequent passages of sentimental morality and double-barrelled loyalty, which are now regarded as clap-traps, at the time they were written electrified the audience, and helped to keep the country from civil discord, and in satisfaction with itself. Mr. Colman believed he was blending tragedy and comedy, as Shakspeare did: he was grievously mistaken; his prosiness is, as Miss Vortex would say, "monstrous dull," though his witticisms are smart and sometimes brilliant. In reading his comedies, we are constantly reminded of Gay's remark, that "great number of dramatic entertainments are not comedies, but five-act farces." We had rather see than read them; nevertheless, they make a pleasant volume to those who delight in renewing the remembrance of certain gifted actors in particular parts.

There is one other drawback we had almost forgot to mention in Mr. Colman's plays; it is a looseness of morals, too peculiar to the dramatic writers at the commencement of the present century.

Mr. Colman has written some minor poems, "Vagaries, &c.;" they are "trifles light as air," but somewhat vulgar. Should any of our readers wish to know the merits of these "Vagaries," we refer them to an article in the Quarterly Review, which appeared shortly after their publication. The titles of his poems we subjoin.

"My Nightgown and Slippers," 4to. 1797.

"Broad Grins," comprising My Nightgown and Slippers, with additional Tales in verse, 1802. 7th edit. 1819.

"Poetical Vagaries," 4to. 1812.

Vagaries Vindicated, on Hypocritic Hypercritics," a poem addressed to the Reviewers, 4to. 1813.

"Eccentricities for Edinburgh," no date.