1806 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas John Dibdin

Francis William Blagdon, "Biographical Sketches: Mr. Thomas Dibdin" Flowers of Literature for 1805 (1806) 49-54.



This versatile and prolific genius of the modern drama, is the son of the celebrated Mr. Charles Dibdin, of the Sans Souci; and brother of Mr. Charles Dibdin, jun. of Sadler's Wells. He was born March 21, 1771. By the care, and at the expence, of his mother, he received a good education; and at the age of fourteen he was, by a brother of his mother's (Cecil Pitt, Esq. of Dalston,) articled apprentice to Sir William Rawlins, who was, at that time, an auctioneer and upholsterer.

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 branches of each verged to one point, namely, drama. Thus, if ever he joined in the recreation of his playmates, it was by courting them to become subservient to his will, to bias their pleasures into his own channel, and engage them in theatrical representations; and thus was his pencil employed upon dramatic scenery. At the 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 propensities of the stage adhered to him in his apprenticeship; and many an hour did he steal from "Nature's sweet restorer" to appropriate to his favourite pursuit. Here he completed the model of a theatre, for which he copied all the favourite scenery then exhibiting at Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and the Royalty.

At the expiration of the fourth year of his apprenticeship, his desire to continence a theatrical life became so strong, that he found himself unable to resist it; he accordingly left his employment, assumed the name of Merchant, and made his appearance as an actor at East Bourne, in Sussex, where he also made his first public essay as a scene painter. He soon quitted this company, and accepted of an engagement with Mrs. Baker, proprietor of the Canterbury, Rochester, and several other theatres in Kent. 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 commenced dramatic writer, by the production of a farce, called "Sun-shine alter Rain," which met with a good reception, and was performed some years ago at Covent Garden, for the benefit of Mr. Munden. During his engagement at Manchester, in the year 1793, he married Miss Hilliar, of the same theatre; a lady, whose subsequent conduct has justified the propriety of his choice; for, though respectable in her profession, she also understands and practises the more important duties of domestic life.

The hymeneal torch by no means eclipsed the flame of genius; for, the year following his marriage, he brought out, at Sadler's Wells, a piece entitled "The Rival Loyalists, or Sheba's Choice;" the success of which induced kin to re-assume his own name, and led the way to an engagement for himself and Mrs. Dibdin, which continued four years; and during this engagement he produced no less than fifteen or sixteen favourite burlettas, pantomimes, &c. In one of these he introduced his since popular song of "The tight little Island."

In the intervals of the Sadlers Wells seasons, Mr. and Mrs. Dibdin rejoined the company of Mrs. Baker, where, by the ready muse of Mr. D. in seizing any local circumstance for the subject of a song, he became a great favourite with the men of Kent. Mrs. D. was also much admired and patronised; added to these, by the talent of Mr. D. for scene-painting, end his indefatigable industry, they enjoyed much easier circumstances than generally fall to the share of country actors. But a circumstance at length occurred, which was the means of introducing them to a soil where no merit can escape encouragement and support.

Mr. Dowton, of Drury Lane theatre, was very desirous of personating the character of a comic Jew, and, 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 engaged Mr. O'Keefe to produce something for them; agreeably to which that gentleman prepared for them a little piece, called "A Nosegay of Weeds," which being accepted, "The Jew and the Doctor" was consequently set 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 boards of Covent Garden.

Mr. Dibdin passed the remainder of the summer at Tunbridge Wells, where he was patronised by the Duke of Leeds, who was ever forward to succour professional merit wherever he found it. 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 victory of the Nile, as a subject well adapted for a temporary attraction to the stage. Mr. D. instantly wrote to Mr. Harris on the subject, by whom he was desired to prepare it without delay, and transmit it to London. In this instance Mr. D. gave a singular proof of the facility of his genius and 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 announced by the Gazette, when it was immediately produced, and repeated thirty-two nights that season.

Mr. Dibdin was likewise introduced, the same season, as an actor on the London boards, and this he owed to an accident. He had come to town for the purpose of attending the rehearsals of his "Mouth of the Nile;" and coming into 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 perform the part of Old Pickle, in the Spoiled Child, when, to prevent the inconvenience and disappointment of withdrawing the piece, Mr. Dibdin undertook the part, and immediately commenced his study. The result was, that he pleased the audience and the manager so well, that he was engaged at a salary of five pounds a week. His next part was his own Irishman in the "Mouth of the Nile;" and he twice played Abednego in his "Jew and the Doctor," when Mr. Fawcet was indisposed.

The great success of Mr. Dibdin's productions induced the manager to retain him as an author, making it 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 be ready to produce, on occasion, any prelude, interlude, or spectacle. A liberal engagement, likewise, for Mrs. Dibdin having been agreed on by the manager, country engagements were, at least for the winter, quite given up; and, by a strange coincidence, Mr. D. became a resident in the house where his ingenious father produced his popular and admired entertainment of The Padlock, the musical composition of which has rivalled the Italian schools; also his Love in a Village, The Maid of the Mill, &c.

In the second year of his engagement at Covent Garden, Mr. D. applied to his master in the city for his indentures, which he purchased for fifty guineas. He also, in conjunction with his brother Charles, purchased Mr. Siddons's quarter share of Sadler's Wells.

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

Mr. Dibdin is greatly respected, both within and without the circles of the theatre, for his friendly nature, unaffected good humour, and for the ingenuousness of his character.

The following is a correct list of Mr. T. Dibdin's productions up to the present time; which have obtained for him the desirable and well-merited reward of Fame and Fortune.

1793-9. — The Mouth of the Nile, a musical entertainment, its one act.
The Jew and Doctor, a farce, in two acts.
Five Thousand a Year, a comedy, in three acts.
The Birth-day, from Kotzebue, a comedy, in three acts.
The Horse and Widow, from Kotzehue, a farce, in one act.
Sunshine after Rain, a musical farce, in two acts, for Mr. Munden's benefit.
Tag in Tribulation, a farce, in one act, for Mr. Knight's benefit.
Alterations in Albert and Adelaide, an operatic drama.
Songs in the Magic Oak.

1799-1800. — The Naval Pillar, a musical entertainment, in one act.
The Volcano, a pantomime.
True Friends, a farce, in two acts.
St David's Day, a ballad opera, in two acts.
The Hermoine, a musical interlude.
Liberal Opinions, a comedy, in three acts, afterwards altered to The School for Prejudice.

1800-1. — Il Bondocani, an opera, in three acts.
Harlequin's Tour, a pantomime.
The School for Prejudice, a comedy, in five acts, from Liberal Opinions.

1801-2. — The Cabinet, an opera, in three acts.
Harlequin's Almanack, a pantomime.
Songs in the Brazen Mask, &c.

1802-3. — Family Quarrels, an opera, in three acts.
Harlequin's Habeas, a pantomime.

1803-4. — The English Fleet in 1342, an opera, in three acts.
Valentine and Orson, a melo drama, in two acts.
The Will for the Deed, a comedy, in three acts,

1804. — At the Haymarket.
Guilty or not Guilty, — a comedy, in five acts.

1804-5. — At Covent Garden.
Thirty Thousand, an opera, in three acts.
Harlequin Quicksilver, a pantomime.
Songs in Aggression.

1805-6. — Harlequin's Magnet, a pantomime.

Besides prologues to Integrity — John Bull — Who Wants a Guinea, &c. — Address to open at Covent-Garden Theatre, in 1803. — Epilogues to Integrity — Three per Cents — Love gives the Alarm — Blind Bargain — Who Wants a Guinea — School for Friends, and to most of his own pieces. — Addresses, songs, &c. for Bath, Liverpool, &c. &c.

He has also written fourteen petite pieces for Sadler's Wells of which theatre he is a proprietor — and about five for Astley's theatre, about eight years back — and he has now an opera and a comedy in preparation at Covent-Garden.