The career of the Georgian comedian Samuel Foote is a chequered story of twists and scrapes, setbacks and rebounds, but its ending is bleak, and out of apparently lightweight materials there emerges a sort of tragedy. In theatrical lore the most famous of his setbacks was the amputation of a leg (probably his left) after a riding accident. Foote is a pretty good name for any comedian but for a one-legged comedian it’s unbeatable, and his misfortune was greeted with a gleeful salvo of puns and bon-mots, an echo of which can be heard in the title of Ian Kelly’s splendid new biography. Ever the theatrical opportunist, he was soon back onstage, with a new prosthesis and two new comedies fit for purpose: The Lame Lover, in which he played the lecherous Sir Luke Limp; and The Devil upon Two Sticks, a satire on the medical profession. This is what people loved about Foote: he was unstoppable in his pursuit of laughs. He flouted convention and censorship, and excelled in ‘comedic harassment’ of famous contemporaries, and now – with his wooden leg as a kind of co-star – he set about mercilessly mocking his own disability. As Kelly says, he ‘lines up all the gags that crowd into the audience’s mind, then puts them into his own mouth.’ Sir Luke’s cavalier claim to be ‘much the better’ for the loss of his leg – ‘Consider, I can have neither sprain nor gout, have no fear of corns or that another man should kick my shins … To be sure, I am a little awkward at running but then, to make amends, I’ll hop with any man in town’ – is at once absurd and defiantly courageous.
For roughly three decades in the mid-18th century Foote was England’s pre-eminent stage comic, the toast of the clubs and coffee-houses of London’s blossoming West End, and the perfect clownish counterfoil to David Garrick’s smouldering tragic hero. In his heyday in the 1760s, a summer season at the Haymarket theatre earned his company up to £5000, which may be multiplied a hundredfold for its value today. He had a townhouse on Suffolk Street, round the corner from the Haymarket, and a large leafy residence out in Fulham, and a fancy coach to convey him between the two. Always the dandy, he might be seen in a suit of ‘bird’s eye orange’ lined with pea-green satin; or another of ‘striped strawberry coloured corded silk with spangl’d buttons’; or, bizarrely, a suit made entirely of beaver fur. But these garbs, which were among the items auctioned off at Christie’s after his death, do not disguise an essential seediness. It is noted by his first biographer, William Cooke, that he ‘took snuff in such quantities as often rendered him a very slovenly beau’. Variously called the ‘Hogarth of the stage’ and the ‘English Aristophanes’ – in both cases rather flatteringly – Foote included among his fans Dr Johnson (‘For a broad laugh I must confess the scoundrel has no fellow’) and Edward Gibbon, who told his sister in a letter: ‘When I am tired of the Roman Empire I can laugh away an evening at Foote’s theatre.’ Yet he died, said Garrick, excusing himself from the funeral, ‘very little regretted even by his nearest acquaintance’, or as Henry Fielding put it more bluntly, ‘pissed upon with scorn and contempt’.
Foote’s celebrity status can be measured in the proliferation of theatrical prints and paintings of him onstage, working the audience with his idiosyncratic blend of goofy humour and topical satire, the latter sharpened by his fabled knack as an impressionist. His physical charms were few: a short, burly figure, tending to fatness in later years, he had ‘a large inexpressive apology for a face’ and a fidgety stage manner, always ‘plucking at his beard’ (he was clean-shaven, so this is metaphorical) and punctuating his punchlines with an interjection of ‘Hey-hey what!’ We see him as Major Sturgeon, a self-deluding old booby in The Mayor of Garrett; as Zachary Fungus in The Commissary; as Dr Hellebore in The Devil upon Two Sticks; and – his best-loved creation – mob-capped and shawled as Mrs Cole in The Minor. This prototypical pantomime dame was also a topical skit on a Covent Garden brothel-keeper, ‘Mother Douglas’, whose recent conversion to Methodism provided the kind of ready-made comedy of modern manners on which he thrived. All these were Foote star-turns in plays which he wrote, produced and – in the sketchy 18th-century sense of the word – directed. He was the author of at least 25 comedies: his fondness for revamping and retitling earlier works makes the exact number nebulous, and many of them were not so much plays as satirical revues. Alongside the theatrical prints, which were the equivalent of today’s publicity shots, there are more formal portraits. In a rather stiff Gainsborough, painted in Bath in about 1762, we see him in a brocaded coat of bottle-green velvet. In a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (now known only in copies) he leans on a walking stick: confident, relaxed, the look bland but slightly bullying. But the most pungent likeness is a head and shoulders in oils in the National Portrait Gallery, which at first glance might be thought another Reynolds but which is actually by a French artist, Jean-François Colson. Painted in 1769, it shows Foote in his late forties. With his droll, puffy face, and the bleary twinkle in his eye, he is not a million miles from W.C. Fields.
There was something infectious about Foote, whether on the stage or in person. You might not like him, you certainly didn’t trust him, but you just couldn’t resist him and his dedication to the chief creed of his philosophy – that life was ‘improved by laughter’. The quips of a bygone age do not always last well, but some of the ‘genuine bon-mots, anecdotes, opinions &c’ collected in Cooke’s Memoirs of Samuel Foote (1805) still raise a smile. The vain but short-statured Garrick was a perennial target. Asked by a lady if the puppets in his new show were life-size, Foote replied: ‘No Madam, they are just a little bigger than Garrick.’ And of the actor’s somewhat mannered tragic style: ‘Garrick was a man born’ – long pause – ‘never to finish a sentence.’ Johnson recalled his first, almost reluctant immersion in the flood of Footeian wit. This was in the early 1740s, and from what he had heard of Foote he had formed ‘no good opinion’ of him. ‘I went on eating my dinner pretty sullenly, affecting for a long time not to mind him, but the dog was so very comical that I was obliged to lay down my knife and fork and throw myself back in my chair and fairly laugh it out.’ Johnson was one who stood behind him when the game got rough, but he remained characteristically clear-sighted as to the core of ruthlessness that lay behind the jocular charm. Foote ‘has no principles and is governed neither by good manners nor discretion, and very little by affection’. He ‘never lets truth stand between him and jest’. And – resonating against the physical fact of his disability – ‘one species of wit he has in an eminent degree: that of escape. You drive him into a corner with both hands; but he’s gone, Sir, when you think you have got him – like an animal that jumps over your head.’
Foote was born in Truro in 1720, the fourth son of a Cornish magistrate and backwoods MP who had improved his fortunes by marrying an heiress, Eleanor Dineley-Goodere, whose wealthy but very dysfunctional family introduced what a later commentator called ‘a pretty smart touch of insanity’ into the Foote genes. His early years are typical enough of a spendthrift younger son battling his way out of provincial obscurity: a curtailed career at Oxford noted mainly for its bibulousness; a failed business venture in the manufacture of small beer; a spell in debtors’ prison. In 1741, he married a Truro girl, Mary Hickes, whose dowry promised to staunch the effects of his youthful hoorays. The marriage did not last: Mary fades from view and the only offspring recorded in Foote’s will were two illegitimate sons. It was another, rather different family event which proved the more lasting benefit, for Foote first came to metropolitan notice through a sensational murder case involving two of his maternal uncles: Sir John Dineley-Goodere, who was the victim; and his younger brother Captain Samuel Goodere (after whom Foote was named), who was executed for the murder. The back story was a saga of legal wrangling over some hugely valuable estates so wrapped around with entails, codicils and familial animosity that the case was not finally resolved until the early 19th century, and was one of the models used by Dickens for the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Bleak House. Sir John was coarse, choleric, semi-literate and probably epileptic, and tended to resolve family disputes by means of a blunderbuss. On 18 January 1741 he was abducted in the dockside streets of Bristol by thugs in the pay of his brother, conveyed aboard a man of war, HMS Ruby, and strangled with a length of ship’s rope, his cravat having proved inadequate for the job. Captain Goodere and three accomplices were hanged on St Michael’s Hill in Bristol the following April. Foote immediately scented commercial potential and before the year was out he had two pamphlets on sale, A Genuine Account of the Murder of Sir John Dineley Goodere and The Genuine Memoirs of the Life of Sir John Dinely [sic] Goodere, Bart. The reiterated claim of genuineness trumps various competitors with his close family connection to the case.
Foote’s theatrical career began under the tutelage of the veteran Irish actor and director Charles Macklin. Somewhat improbably, his first outing, in early 1744, was in the role of Othello. This was received well enough but his more notable success, first in London and then in Dublin, was as Lord Foppington in Vanbrugh’s The Relapse. Other repertory roles included Wildair in Farquhar’s The Constant Couple, Pierre in Otway’s Venice Preserv’d and Fondlewife in Congreve’s The Old Bachelor, but it was always the consensus that Foote’s peculiar talents really only shone in parts he had written for himself. The first of his own productions was Diversions of the Morning, performed at the Haymarket on 22 April 1747. A topical revue enlivened by virtuoso impressions of famous actors such as Macklin, Garrick and Peg Woffington, the show was a runaway success, and he would continue to milk it under various titles. Thus Foote was launched into the limelight he craved, and would remain there, for better or for worse, until his death almost exactly thirty years later.
Kelly is remarkably well qualified as his biographer, not only in view of his previous much fêted lives of Beau Brummell and Casanova – Foote thus making a trio of self-fashioning 18th-century oddballs – but because he has a parallel career as a professional actor. He writes brilliantly on the theatrical demi-monde of the period, with all its fevered convivialities and brittle rivalries. Foote emerges as a figure in a sharply realised landscape, hobnobbing with the backstage crew – ‘the property men, the candle-snuffers, the prompters and the authors’ – over mutton pies and pints of porter, and delighting in the venal ‘Green Room squabbles’ (this was the title of one of his skits) which as often as not he had himself provoked. Against this easy-going empathy which Kelly brings to the material one might cavil at an actorish tendency to over-egg his historical judgments. Kelly’s claim, à propos the Dineley-Goodere murder, that Foote wrote ‘the original crime bestseller’ is neither verifiable, in the absence of sales figures, nor very probable, given the enormous popularity of the genre from at least Jacobean times. That Foote was the first to caricature real people onstage is similarly contentious. ‘Not the carrying-up of his gown, his nice gait on his pantofles, or the affected accent of his speech but they personated,’ Thomas Nashe said of the portrayal of the Cambridge don Gabriel Harvey in Edward Forsett’s comedy Pedantius, which was performed in 1581.
The last decade of Foote’s life was shadowed with ill-fortune, or perhaps rather with the ill effects of some spectacular misjudgments. It began on the morning of Monday, 3 February 1766 at Methley Hall, a grim Tudor pile near Leeds. It was the seat of the Earl of Mexborough, the brother-in-law of Foote’s favourite scapegrace aristocrat, Frank Delaval, whom Lord Chesterfield described as a ‘consummate puppy and unprincipled jackanape’. Foote had been summoned to Methley to add some spice to the entertainment of a royal house guest, the stage-struck Edward Augustus, Duke of York, the younger brother of George III. It seems that Foote, in his cocksure way, had been boasting his prowess as a horseman. As some kind of test or wager he was given one of the duke’s most ‘mettlesome’ stallions to ride. At the first touch of the spur the horse reared violently, flinging him down onto the cobbles of the stableyard. He broke his leg in two places, bone below his knee jagging out through the leather of his boot. He also suffered severe head injuries. A surgeon was sent for – a top-class London practitioner, William Bromfeild – but the distances involved must have left Foote suffering and shivering for some days in a damp bedroom in the depths of a Yorkshire winter.
Kelly offers a suitably harrowing account of 18th-century amputation techniques, and a surgical toolkit including a ‘well-tempered, sharp saw for dividing bones’, a pair of forceps for arteries, and a tourniquet designed for battlefield surgery that looked like an enormous thumbscrew. For stemming the blood flow during the operation Bromfeild would have used a styptic mix of caustic salts and turpentine for the smaller vessels, and heated irons and ligatures to close up severed arteries. ‘Major nerve trunks also needed to be cut as high as possible so that the highly sensate nerve stump, the neuroma, could be buried as deep as possible.’ For the terminal stump at the point of severing, the favoured covering was a suitably shaped fungus of the puffball variety (lupi crepitus) and a calf’s bladder. The use of antiseptics was a century away, and while rudimentary opium-based anaesthesia – ‘anodyne sudorifics’ – might sometimes be used, Bromfeild was on record as believing that any surgeon who used opium on a patient with concussion was ‘either ignorant or insane’. Foote was certainly suffering from concussion, so it is more than probable he underwent the whole procedure without any anaesthetics at all, beyond those which are summed up in the surgical handbooks as ‘wine and other cordials to assist and relieve the patient’.
Kelly humorously calls this Foote’s ‘lucky break’, because the Duke of York’s involvement in the accident led him to argue in favour of Foote being granted that most coveted of theatrical gifts, a royal patent, which was essentially a monopoly to perform serious ‘spoken drama’ (as opposed to pantomimes and melodramas), and more practically a prestigious ‘by royal appointment’ label. Henceforth, Foote would unevenly tread the boards at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, one of three patent theatres in the capital. (It was not the grandly porticoed building, designed by John Nash, which one sees today: this replaced Foote’s smaller, more ramshackle theatre in 1821.) Just four months after his surgical ordeal at Methley, Foote opened the season with a reprise of his role as Mrs Cole, and delighted the audience by kicking up his skirts to reveal what another famous amputee, Douglas Bader, liked to call his ‘undercarriage’. Though sometimes depicted wearing a simple peg leg à la Long John Silver, Foote used a full prosthesis for stage performance: it was made by Thomas Addison of Covent Garden, whose workshop also turned out puppets. The playwright George Colman the Younger recalled seeing it backstage at the Haymarket, ‘ready dressed in a handsome silk stocking, with a polished shoe and gold buckle’. It was jokingly referred to as ‘the most wooden member of the company’. Foote gave 56 performances that summer, a punishing schedule even in normal circumstances. Pain, stress and exhaustion were the unwritten story, which can be read, or at least glimpsed, in the battered face of the Colson portrait.
The second fall of Samuel Foote – a metaphorical fall, but the one from which he never really recovered – began obliquely with the death of the Duke of Kingston in 1773. His widow was a lady better known to 18th-century gossip by her maiden name, Elizabeth Chudleigh. A generation earlier she had titillated the beau monde at a costume ball at Ranelagh Gardens: she was dressed as Iphigenia, but – if numerous popular prints are to be believed – her Ancient Greek costume consisted of little more than a transparent gown of gauze and a garland of flowers approximating in shape to a bikini-bottom (a divinatory priest, it was said, ‘might easily have inspected’ her entrails). More pertinent, with the enormous Kingston estate now at stake, were long-established whispers that as a young maid of honour Chudleigh had contracted a clandestine marriage to Augustus Hervey, now Earl of Bristol. In 1774 the duke’s sister succeeded in putting a bill through Chancery to have his will invalidated on the grounds of his widow’s bigamy. This sort of scandal was meat and drink to Foote, and there soon wafted out news, through the usual channels of clubland and newspaper gossip, that he was at work on a new comedy in which he would play a character called Lady Kitty Crocodile, a blatant satire on the allegedly two-timing duchess. When the lord chamberlain rejected the play for performance Foote announced he would publish it instead. Various provocations followed, with Foote goading an increasingly furious Chudleigh with his faux high-minded insistence on naming and shaming her.
This rather pointless crusade would cost him dear. Among Chudleigh’s supporters was a newspaper publisher called William Jackson, and in the summer of 1775 his paper, the Public Ledger, began to print veiled but unmistakeable accusations that Foote was guilty of ‘unnatural practices’ – in other words, that he was homosexual. The allegations traded on rumours current since the late 1740s, when in the first flush of his theatrical success Foote had rather mysteriously disappeared to France for three years. There were hints then of an unnamed – or unnameable – ‘disgrace’, which Kelly thinks was probably a homosexual scandal. Mrs Thrale, who knew Foote well in later years, noted in her journal that he had long lived in fear of a ‘hideous detection’ of his ‘sodomitical’ tendencies. His relationship with the charismatic young Frank Delaval is also unclear: Delaval, Kelly says, ‘has some claim to having been the greatest love of Samuel Foote’s life’, though whether this was ‘platonic, sexual, romantic, or more simply a meeting of like minds’ is harder to gauge. In the spring of 1776, as the duchess’s trial approached, the Ledger’s smear campaign grew more strident. The case went against her, and she departed for exile in France a convicted bigamist, but by now Foote had little time or inclination to savour the victory.
On the morning of 6 May, Foote’s coachman Jack Sangster walked into the offices of the Bow Street magistrates and accused his master of sexual assault. He attested that he had twice been assaulted by Foote, with intent to commit ‘sodomitical acts’, once at the Suffolk Street house, where Foote had demanded to ‘have a fuck at’ him, and once in the stables in Fulham; he later added a third incident, in Dublin the previous winter, where (he claimed) Foote had exposed himself to him. Sodomy was at this time – in theory, at least – a capital offence. The presiding magistrate at Bow Street, Sir John Fielding – the blind half-brother of the novelist – was well aware that such accusations by servants were sometimes basely motivated, but he considered that Sangster’s testimony was convincing. A warrant was issued for Foote’s arrest, though he was later released on bail. Over the next few days the Ledger ran forty pages on the story: in terms of column inches the intertwined Chudleigh-Foote scandals, an explosive cocktail of bigamy and buggery, far outweighed coverage of the concurrent American War of Independence. There also appeared an anonymous, rabidly homophobic pamphlet, Sodom and Onan, almost certainly written by Jackson. Foote was not named, but the title page carried an engraving based on the Reynolds portrait of him, and the work was subtitled ‘A Satire Inscrib’d to [ – – ] Esqr, alias the Devil upon Two Sticks’, the blank being filled by an engraving of a foot (believed to be the work of the as yet unknown cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson).
Foote’s response to all this was predictable. He began proceedings to sue the Ledger for libel, and put on a play called The Capuchin, a rewrite of the previously banned Chudleigh satire, which was no longer sub judice. This featured Jackson as Dr Viper, the creepily prurient editor of the Scandalous Chronicler, and it included a scene where the eponymous monk, Brother O’Flam (played by Foote), disguised as a nun, gets thoroughly groped by amorous old Sir Harry Humper. ‘It may have been farcical, but it was also topical and, sexually, it was at the outer edges of edgy,’ Kelly comments. ‘It would have been risqué in 1776, without the background of the Foote charges. With them alive in the imagination of every audience member, it was supremely reckless comedy.’
Foote’s case came to trial before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield at the court of the King’s Bench in Westminster on 9 December 1776. No official transcript exists, but the discovery of a cache of papers at Scone Palace in 1979 has brought to light Mansfield’s own notes, jotted currente calamo during the trial, and preserving the authentic timbre of Sangster’s testimony against his former master. This extraordinary if unedifying document reads like a fragmentary draft of a Foote comedy on a subject which even he would not have dared to broach so drastically. The following is verbatim, with the addition only of speech prefixes and the recasting of reported action as stage directions:
FOOTE: Have not all my servants been good to you, while ill of the measles?
SANGSTER: They have.
FOOTE: Have I not taken a great deal of care of you? Giving you physic and things? … The best recompense you can make is to let me have a fuck at you.
SANGSTER: What? What do you mean by that?
FOOTE: Don’t you know?
SANGSTER: Yes, and I had sooner be hanged. I am very much surprised a man like you would offer such a thing to a servant. I did not know you was such a person before I came. Had I known you was such a person I would not have with you for 100 guineas a year.
FOOTE: Why John, what is your reason?
SANGSTER: Sin and shame worse than a brute beast.
FOOTE: Damn the sin, it is no sin at all, and the shame, who knows it? Louis [Bally, Foote’s valet] would let me fuck him every day. I cannot get into him. I have frigged him 500 times and he had buggered me, but his damn little nasty prick gives me no pleasure.
SANGSTER: Louis Bally and you may do as you please, Sir.
[Sangster goes to get out and finds the door locked.Foote gets hold of him and wriggles against his thigh.]
FOOTE: Damn you, I’ll be in you – I’ll be in you – I’ll be in you – damn you.
Foote gets his hand into Sangster’s breeches, tears the button off, and gets hold of his testicles.
FOOTE: Damn your blood, if you don’t let me fuck you I insist upon frigging you.
SANGSTER: Damn you, you dirty dog, I’ll call out of the window …
FOOTE: What will you do? If you say I wanted to fuck you, I have not fucked you, and if I had nobody will believe you.
This last comment, or the sentiment behind it, recurs elsewhere in Sangster’s testimony. ‘For your sake, don’t say anything about it,’ Foote says later, ‘for by God it will be your ruin. I have all the nobility on my side.’ If we wish to cast Foote as the plucky jester who spoke truth to power, or indeed as an early gay martyr battling archaic prejudices, we have to remember how ready he was, in this moment of crisis, to jump into the arms of ‘the nobility’, who will be on his side and will accord him the time-honoured protection of a cover-up.
And so it proved. Foote’s legal team – led by his friend, the playwright, lawyer and future biographer of Garrick, Arthur Murphy – got him off, partly because of certain minor inconsistencies in Sangster’s evidence; partly because of the unproven possibility that he had been put up to it by the Chudleigh-Jackson faction; and partly, as predicted by Foote, because the court was predisposed to side with the master over the servant. Foote was not himself present at the hearing; he spent the day skulking in Suffolk Street. When Murphy brought the news of his acquittal, he collapsed to the floor ‘in strong hysterics’, and was unable to speak for an hour.
Foote’s reputation doubtless suffered from these revelations – or rather the rumours of them, for the details of the case were never made public, and traditions of strict euphemism prevailed in any printed account of ‘sodomy’ trials – though it is a testament to his huge popularity that he largely retained the affections of the theatregoing public. But the ordeal of the trial, combined with the physical and psychological traumas of amputation, broke him. Some six months later we get an anonymous description of one of his last performances at the Haymarket, undoubtedly hostile in intent, but poignant nonetheless. He hobbles onstage, his ‘ochre-hued complexion flaringly illuminated with rouge’, and fixes the audience with a ‘circling leer rather than a smile’. While he speaks, ‘his head frequently drops and rises like a duck in a pond’. His voice is ‘hurried, or husky, or growling and sometimes inarticulate’, his delivery marred with ‘frequent gratings, shivers and fritters of pronunciation’. He emits ‘forced laughs … like the convulsed exertion of apes’. The whole performance demonstrates the ‘unbrac’d state of the fibres’. On 6 June 1777 he collapsed onstage during a performance of The Devil upon Two Sticks. He lay there shaking till the curtain was brought down, and the prompter announced that Mr Foote was ‘suddenly affected with a paralytic stroke’. The show was over.
His doctors hurried him off for a recuperative spell in Brighton, taking the ‘sea cure’. Thereafter he moved on to Dover, intending to take passage into retirement – or, more truthfully, exile – in France. He put up at the Ship Inn, where it was said he ‘set all the servants in a roar at his jokes’. He was accompanied by his faithful Swiss valet, Louis Bally, whose reputation should not be confined to that lurid little cameo provided by Sangster at the King’s Bench. On 21 October 1777, a journalist from the London Evening Post reported, Foote suffered a violent ‘fit of trembling’ which lasted three hours. Thereafter, ‘he lay composed and seemed inclined to sleep. Upon his valet offering to leave the room he bid him stay, and putting his hand in his, lay pretty quiet for a few minutes … At length, fixing his eyes hard on the servant, he fetched a deep sigh and expired.’ One would like to have heard a last whispered ‘Hey-hey what!’ on his lips, but the report does not offer this detail. Back in London, Johnson soon had the news. ‘The world is really impoverished by his sinking glories,’ he wrote, then added more practically: ‘I would really have his life written with diligence’ – the last word fiercely underlined. Kelly’s biography would surely have satisfied him, being outstandingly diligent in its research, and full also of warmth, wit and sympathy for this obstreperous old trouper.