1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Colman the Younger

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:524-25.



The most able and successful comic dramatist of his day was GEORGE COLMAN, the younger, who was born on the 21st of October 1762. The son of the author of the Jealous Wife and Clandestine Marriage, Colman had a hereditary attachment to the drama. He was educated at Westminster school, and afterwards entered of Christ's Church college, Oxford but his idleness and dissipation at the university led his father to withdraw him from Oxford, and banish him to Aberdeen. Here he was distinguished for his eccentric dress and folly, but he also applied himself to his classical and other studies. At Aberdeen he published a poem on Charles James Fox, entitled The Man of the People, and wrote a musical farce, The Female Dramatist, which his father brought out at the Haymarket theatre, but it was condemned. A second dramatic attempt, entitled Two to One, brought out in 1784, enjoyed considerable success. This seems to have fixed his literary taste and inclinations; for though his father intended him for the bar, and entered him of Lincoln's Inn, the drama engrossed his attention. In 1784 he contracted a thoughtless marriage with a Miss Catherine Morris, with whom he eloped to Gretna Green, and next year brought out a second musical comedy, Turk and no Turk. His father becoming incapacitated from attacks of paralysis, the younger Colman undertook the management of the theatre in Haymarket, and was thus fairly united to the stage and the drama. Various pieces proceeded from his pen: Inkle and Yarico, a musical opera, brought out with success in 1787; Ways and Means, a comedy, 1788; The Battle of Hexham, 1789; The Surrender of Calais, 1791; The Mountaineers, 1793; The Iron Chest (founded on Godwin's novel of Caleb Williams), 1796; The Heir at Law, 1797; Blue Beard (a mere piece of scenic display and music), 1798; The Review, or the Wags of Windsor, an excellent farce, 1798; The Poor Gentleman, a comedy, 1802; Love Laughs at Locksmiths, a farce, 1803; Gay Deceivers, a farce, 1804; John Bull, a comedy, 1805; Who Wants a Guinea? 1805; We Fly by Night, a farce, 1806; The Africans, a play, 1808; X. Y. Z., a farce, 1810; The Law of Java, a musical drams, 1822, &c. No modern dramatist has added so many stock-pieces to the theatre as Colman, or imparted so much genuine mirth and humour to all playgoers. His society was also much courted; he was a favourite with George IV., and, in conjunction with Sheridan, was wont to set the royal table in a roar. His gaiety, however, was not always allied to prudence, and theatrical property is a very precarious possession. As a manager, Colman got entangled in lawsuits, and was forced to reside in the King's Bench. The king stept forward to relieve him, by appointing him to the situation of licenser and examiner of plays, an office worth from £300 to £400 a-year. In this situation Colman incurred the enmity of several dramatic authors by the rigour with which he scrutinised their productions. His own plays are far from being strictly correct or moral, but not an oath or double entendre was suffered to escape his expurgatorial pen as licenser, and he was peculiarly keen-scented in detecting all political allusions. Besides his numerous plays, Colman wrote some poetical travesties and pieces of levity, published under the title of My Nightgown end Slippers (1797), which were afterwards republished (1802) with additions, and named Broad Grins; also Poetical Vagaries, Vagaries Vindicated, and Eccentricities for Edinburgh. In these, delicacy and decorum are often sacrificed to broad mirth and humour. The last work of the lively author was memoirs of his own early life and times, entitled Random Records, and published in 1830. He died in London on the 26th October 1836. The comedies of Colman abound in witty and ludicrous delineations of character, interspersed with bursts of tenderness and feeling, somewhat in the style of Sterne, whom, indeed, he has closely copied in his Poor Gentleman. Sir Walter Scott has praised his John Bull as by far the best effort of our late comic drama. "The scenes of broad humour are executed in the best possible taste; and the whimsical, yet native characters, reflect the manners of real life. The sentimental parts, although one of them includes a finely wrought-up scene of paternal distress, partake of the falsetto of German pathos. But the piece is both humorous and affecting; and we readily excuse its obvious imperfections in consideration. of its exciting our laughter and our tears." The whimsical character of Ollapod in the Poor Gentleman is one of Colman's most original and laughable conceptions; Pangloss, in the Heir at Law, is also an excellent satirical portrait of a pedant (proud of being an LL.D., and, moreover, an A. double S.); and his Irishmen, Yorkshiremen, and country rustics (all admirably performed at the time), are highly entertaining, though overcharged portraits. A tendency to farce is indeed the besetting sin of Colman's comedies; and in his more serious plays, there is a curious mixture of prose and verse, high-toned sentiment and low humour. Their effect on the stags is, however, irresistible. We have quoted Joanna Baillie's description of Jane de Montfort as a portrait of Mrs. Siddons; and Colman's Octavian in The Mountaineers is an equally faithful likeness of John Kemble:—

Lovely as day he was — but envious clouds
Have dimmed his lustre. He is as a rock
Opposed to the rude sea that beats against it
Worn by the waves, yet still o'ertopping them
In sullen majesty. Rugged now his look—
For out, alas! calamity has blurred
The fairest pile of manly comeliness
That ever reared its lefty bead to heaven!
'Tis not of late that I have heard his voice;
But if it be not changed — I think it cannot—
There is a melody in every tone
Would charm the towering eagle in her flight,
And tame a hungry lion.