The Devil upon Two Sticks

Charles Nicholl

  • Mr Foote’s Other Leg: Comedy, Tragedy and Murder in Georgian London by Ian Kelly
    Picador, 462 pp, £18.99, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 330 51783 6

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.

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