1817 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas John Dibdin

Anonymous, "Memoir of Thomas Dibdin" European Magazine 71 (March 1817) 189-92.



At almost every period of the English history, the interests of our national Drama have been supported by an extension of the most liberal public patronage towards all those, whose talents and whose time have been devoted to the public amusement. How far such patronage, and its consequent effects, have been beneficial, or otherwise, to the national character and morals, — it is not now our province to determine: — it is at least certain, that the public gratitude is eminently due to every one whose abilities are exerted in the support of virtue, and more especially when the success is at all commensurate with the exertion. Amongst the numerous candidates for literacy dramatic fame of the present day, few, if any, have displayed more talent, or received more patronage than Mr. THOMAS DIBDIN.

This versatile and prolific genius of the modern drama, is the son of the late celebrated Mr. Charles Dibdin, of the Sans Souci, and brother of Mr. C. Dibdin, jun. of Sadler's Wells. He was born in London on March 21, 1771; and by the care and at the expense of his mother, has received the foundation of his future fame, — an excellent education! At the age of fourteen, he was, by his uncle, Cecil Pitt, Esq. of Dalston, articled as an apprentice to Sir William Rawlins, at that time a celebrated upholsterer and auctioneer in the city.

In the earliest progress of his education, young Dibdin discovered a strong propensity to reading and drawing, and devoted the greater part of his leisure hours to those amusements. But the peculiar bias of each was urged to one point, and that was the drama. Thus, even in joining the recreations of his playmates, it was by courting them to gratify his wishes, and, by directing their pleasure into his own channel, to engage them in theatrical representations, while his pencil was employed upon dramatic scenery, and at the juvenile age of thirteen he made a bold attempt as an author, and produced a farce in one act, which was .represented by his schoolfellows.

The fascinating attractions of the stage adhered to him during his apprenticeship; and we are informed, that many an hour was stolen from "Nature's sweet restorer," to appropriate to his favourite pursuits. It was during this time, that he completed the model of a theatre, for which be copied all the favourite scenery then exhibiting at Drury-lane, Covent-garden, and the Royalty.

At the expiration of the fourth year of this apprenticeship, his desire to commence a theatrical career became so strong, that, unable any longer to resist it, he left his employment, assumed the name of Merchant, and made his first public appearance as an actor at East Bourne, Sussex, where he also made his first public essay as a scene-painter. He, however, soon quitted this company, and subsequently accepted of an engagement with Mrs. Baker, proprietor of the Canterbury, Rochester, and several other theatres in Kent. In the year following, he performed at Beverley and Harrowgate; after which he joined Messrs. Banks and Ward at Liverpool, with whom he continued three years, performing alternately at Manchester, Chester, and Liverpool. At the two first theatres he was chiefly employed as prompter and scene-painter; and it was at the first that he made his dramatic debut as a writer, by the production of a farce, called "Sunshine after Rain" which met with a favourable reception, and was performed some years since at Covent-garden, for the benefit of Mr. Munden.

During his engagement at Manchester, in the year 1793, he married Miss Hilliar, of the Bolton theatre; a lady ,whose subsequent conduct as a wife and mother has fully justified the propriety of his choice; for though respectable in her professional avocation, she is yet more so in the practice of those important duties which form the obligations of domestic life. Two sons and several daughters were the fruits of this union, of whom the former only now survive.

The blaze of Mr. D.'s hymeneal torch by no means, however, eclipsed or dimmed his flame of genius: for in the year following his marriage he brought out, at Sadler's Wells, a piece entitled "The Rival Royalists;" the success of which induced him to reassume his own name, and led the way to an engagement for himself and Mrs. Dibdin, which continued for four years; during which time he produced no less than sixteen favourite burlettas and pantomimes, and in one of these was first introduced his since popular song of the "Tight Little Island."

In the intervals of the Sadler's Wells seasons, Mr. and Mrs. D. rejoined the company of Mrs. Baker; where, by his extreme readiness in seizing upon any local circumstance for the subject of a song, he became a great favourite with the Men of Kent, by whom his fair partner was also much admired and patronized; by which means, added to the talents of Mr. D. in scene painting, and his indefatigable industry, they enjoyed much easier circumstances than generally fall to the share of country performers. A circumstance, however, at length occurred, which was the means of introducing them to a soil where real merit is never long destitute of encouragement and support.

Mr. Dowton, of Drury-lane Theatre, having been long desirous of personating the character of a comic Jew, at his entreaty, Mr. Dibdin undertook to furnish him with a piece. This he commenced, and in a few days completed his "Jew and Doctor." Unknown, however, to Mr. Dowton, the partners, in his benefit had also spoken to Mr. O'Keefe on the same subject; agreeably to which, that gentleman prepared for them a petite piece, called "A Nosegay of Weeds;" which being accepted, the "Jew and the Doctor" was consequently laid aside. It remained dormant till Mr. Dowton returned to Maidstone, in the summer vacation, when he advised Mr. Dibdin to perform it at that theatre for his own benefit. This was accordingly done, and it was received with the highest applause. A report of its merit was transmitted to Mr. Harris, of Covent-garden Theatre: in consequence of which, an agreement followed for its being produced the ensuing winter on the London boards.

Mr. Dibdin passed the remainder of the summer at Tunbridge Wells, where he was patronised by his Grace the Duke of Leeds; a nobleman who was ever forward to succour merit in obscurity. It was here also that our author was introduced to Mr. Cumberland, by whom he was advised to seize the then floating rumour of Lord NELSON'S unrivalled victory of the Nile, as a subject well adapted for a temporary attraction on the stage. Mr. D. instantly wrote to Mr. Harris on the subject, by whom he was desired to proceed without delay, and transmit it to London. In this instance, Mr. D. gave a singular proof of the facility of his genius and the command of his faculties; for between the Friday on which Mr. Harris's letter was received and the Sunday following, "The Mouth of the Nile" was composed, and conveyed to town, where it remained only till the news of the victory was officially announced, when it was immediately produced, and repeated thirty-two nights that season.

The same season also introduced Mr. D. as an actor on the London stage, through rather a singular accident. He had come to town for the purpose of attending the rehearsals of his new piece; and entering the theatre one evening, so late as the fourth act he found the company distressed at the sudden indisposition of Mr. Powell, who was to have performed the part of old Pickle, in the "Spoiled Child." — To prevent the inconvenience and disappointment of withdrawing the farce, Mr. Dibdin undertook the part, and immediately commenced his study. The result was, that both the audience and the manager were so well pleased, that he was engaged at a salary of the pounds a week. The next part was his own Irishman, in the "Mouth of the Nile;" and he twice played Abednego, in his "Jew and Doctor," when Mr. Fawcett was indisposed.

The great success of Mr. Dibdin's productions induced the manager to retain him as a constant writer for the house; thus making it more eligible for him to resign the profession of an actor. Mr. Harris, however, continued his salary, on condition of his furnishing the theatre every Christmas with a pantomime, and producing on the spur of the moment any occasional prelude, interlude, or spectacle. A liberal engagement for Mrs. Dibdin having also been agreed on by the manager, country engagements were, of course, relinquished for the winter; and, by a strange coincidence, Mr. D. then became a resident in the house where his ingenious Father had written his popular and admired entertainment of "The Padlock;" the musical composition of which so successfully rivalled the Italian schools of harmony.

In the second year of his engagement at Covent-garden, Mr. D. in conjunction with his brother Charles, purchased Mr. Siddons's quarter share of Sadler's Wells, at which theatre his talents had been already eminently conspicuous.

His productions also, in the first five years of his engagement at Covent-garden, including pantomimes and alterations, amounted to above twenty, seven of which came out during the first season.

In 1810, he was engaged by Mr. Elliston to manage the Surrey Theatre, where he produced most of the novelties brought out there for two years.

Upon the rebuilding of Drury-lane Theatre, in 1812, Mr. Dibdin was appointed prompter to the new Establishment, to which he has also rendered essential service, by the production of several successful farces. Upon the secession of Messrs. Arnold and Raymond, in 1815, Mr. D. in conjunction with Mr. Rae, succeeded to the management of the concern; which station he relinquished in 1816, upon purchasing a lease of the Surrey Theatre, in Blackfriar's-road; where during the last season, the amusements have been conducted under his auspices, with an eclat not frequently attached to these minor establishments.

The several entertainments have partaken as much of the nature of legitimate drama as the acting license would permit; and the zeal and assiduity of the Proprietor have been duly appreciated and amply recompensed by the patronage of the public.

Mr. Dibdin's productions are numerous, and many of them will remain permanent records of his industry and his talents; we shall enumerate them in chronological order:

1798-9
The Month of the Nile, Musical Entertainment, 1 act. C.C.
The Jew and the Doctor, Farce, 2 acts. C.G.
Five Thousand a-Year, comedy, 3 acts. C.G.
The Birth Day, from Kotzebue, Comedy, 3 acts. C.G.
The Home and Widow, from Kotzebue, Farce, 1 act. C.G.
Sunshine after Rain, Musical Farce, 2 acts, for Mr. Munden's benefit. C.G.
Tag in Tribulation, Farce, 1 act, for Mr. Knight's benefit. C.G.
Alterations in Albert and Adelaide, Operatic Drama. C.G.
Songs in the Magic Oak. C.G.

1799-1800
An occasional Farce, in one act, performed before their Majesties at Frogmore, by Mess. Elliston, Quick, and Mrs. Mattocks.
The Naval Pillar, Musical Entertainment, 1 act. C.G.
The Volcano, Pantomime. C.G.
True Friends, Farce, 2 acts. C.G.
St. David's Day, Ballad Opera, 2 acts C.G
The Hermoine, Musical Interlude.
Liberal Opinions, Comedy, 3 acts, afterwards altered to The School for Prejudice. C.G.

1800-1
Of Age To-morrow, Farce, 2 acts, D.L.
Il Bondocani, Opera, 3 acts. C.G.
Harlequin's Tour, Pantomime. C.G.
The School for Prejudice, Comedy, 5 acts, altered from Liberal Opinions. C.G.

1801-2
The Cabinet, Opera, 3 acts. C.G.
Harlequin's Almanack, Pantomime. C.G.
Songs in the Brazen Mask, &c. C.G.

1802-3
Family Quarrels, Opera, 3 acts. C.G.
Harlequin's Habeas, Pantomime. C.G.

1803-4
The English Fleet in 1342, Opera, 3 acts. C.G.
Valentine and Orson, Melo-drama, 2 acts. C.G.
The Will for the Deed, Comedy, 3 acts. C.G.

1804
Guilty or Not Guilty, Comedy, 3 acts. Haymarket.

1804-5
Thirty Thousand, Opera, 3 acts. C.G.
Harlequin Quicksilver, Pantomime. C.G.
Songs in Aggression. C.G.

1805-6
Harlequin's Magnet, Pantomime. C.G.
White Plume, Opera. 3 acts. C.G.
Five Miles Off, Comedy, 3 acts. Haymarket.

1806-7
Harlequin and Mother Goose, Pantomime. C.G.
Miseries of Human Life, Farce, 2 acts. C.G.

1807-8
Errors Excepted, Comedy, 3 acts. Haymarket.
Two Faces under a Hood, Opera, 3 acts. C.G.
Harlequin in his Element, Pantomime. C.G.

1808-9
Bonifacio and Bridgetina, Melo-drama. C.G.
Forest of Hermanstadt, Ditto, Opera House.

1809-10
The Jubilee, Musical Interlude. C.G.
Harlequin Pedlar, Pantomime. C.G.

1810-11

Harlequin Basket Maker, — Lady of the Lake, — Harper's Son, — Blood will have Blood, — the Colossus, &c. &c. at the Surrey Theatre.

1811-12
Up to Town, Opera, 3 acts. C.G.
Secret Mine, Melo-drama, 2 acts. (jointly). C.G.

1812-13
High-mettled Racer, Pantomime. Astley's Amphitheatre.
Scniederkins, Farce, 2 acts. C.G.
Harlequin and Humpo, Pantomime. D.L.

1813-14
Harlequin Harper, Pantomime. D.L.
Who's to have her? Farce, 2 acts. D.L.
Harlequin Hoax. English Opera House.

1814-15
Orange Boven! Musical Interlude, D.L.
Ninth Statue, Melo-drama (jointly). D.L.
Past Ten o'Clock, Farce, 2 acts. D.L.

1815-1816
Twenty per Cent. Farce, 2 acts. D.L.
Poet's Last Shilling, Pantomime, D.L.
What Next? Farce, 2 acts. D.L.

And six of the nine Pieces lately produced at the Surrey Theatre. A Metrical History of England, in two volumes (from which the poem of "The Institution of the Magdalen," in Vol. LXIX. page 59, of our Magazine is an extract), as also a production of Mr. Dibdin's, and was purchased by Mr. Elliston for £200: double the sum was afterwards offered for it.

Prologues, Epilogues. Addresses, and occasional Songs, out of number.

In private as in public life, Mr. Dibdin is much respected by all who have the pleasure of has acquaintance, not merely for the more superficial qualities which accompany unaffected good humour and kindness of disposition, but for those superior endowments of the heart, which those who know him best, can best estimate. Though personally unacquainted, all, however, who have been amused, or instructed, by any of the various efforts of Mr. D.'s genius, — and who has not? — will readily subscribe to our eulogy of respect for his talents, his acquirements, and his industry, and all will join in our wish that his recompense may be commensurate with his exertions.