The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Twenty-Two

Theatrical Maneuvering — The Comedy of False Delicacy — First Performance of the Good-Natured Man — Conduct Of Johnson — Conduct of the Author — Intermeddling of the Press

The comedy of The Good–Natured Man was doomed to experience delays and difficulties to the very last. Garrick, notwithstanding his professions, had still a lurking grudge against the author, and tasked his managerial arts to thwart him in his theatrical enterprise. For this purpose he undertook to build up Hugh Kelly, Goldsmith’s boon companion of the Wednesday Club, as a kind of rival. Kelly had written a comedy called False Delicacy, in which were embodied all the meretricious qualities of the sentimental school. Garrick, though he had decried that school, and had brought out his comedy of The Clandestine Marriage in opposition to it, now lauded False Delicacy to the skies, and prepared to bring it out at Drury Lane with all possible stage effect. He even went so far as to write a prologue and epilogue for it, and to touch up some parts of the dialogue. He had become reconciled to his former colleague, Colman, and it is intimated that one condition in the treaty of peace between these potentates of the realms of pasteboard (equally prone to play into each other’s hands with the confederate potentates on the great theater of life) was that Goldsmith’s play should be kept back until Kelly’s had been brought forward.

In the meantime the poor author, little dreaming of the deleterious influence at work behind the scenes, saw the appointed time arrive and pass by without the performance of his play; while False Delicacy was brought out at Drury Lane (January 23, 1768) with all the trickery of managerial management. Houses were packed to applaud it to the echo; the newspapers vied with each other in their venal praises, and night after night seemed to give it a fresh triumph.

While False Delicacy was thus borne on the full tide of fictitious prosperity, The Good–Natured Man was creeping through the last rehearsals at Covent Garden. The success of the rival piece threw a damp upon author, manager, and actors. Goldsmith went about with a face full of anxiety; Colman’s hopes in the piece declined at each rehearsal; as to his fellow proprietors, they declared they had never entertained any. All the actors were discontented with their parts, excepting Ned Shuter, an excellent low comedian, and a pretty actress named Miss Walford; both of whom the poor author every afterward held in grateful recollection.

Johnson, Goldsmith’s growling monitor and unsparing castigator in times of heedless levity, stood by him at present with that protecting kindness with which he ever befriended him in time of need. He attended the rehearsals; he furnished the prologue according to promise; he pish’d and pshaw’d at any doubts and fears on the part of the author, but gave him sound counsel, and held him up with a steadfast and manly hand. Inspirited by his sympathy, Goldsmith plucked up new heart, and arrayed himself for the grand trial with unusual care. Ever since his elevation into the polite world, he had improved in his wardrobe and toilet. Johnson could no longer accuse him of being shabby in his appearance; he rather went to the other extreme. On the present occasion there is an entry in the books of his tailor, Mr. William Filby, of a suit of “Tyrian bloom, satin grain, and garter blue silk breeches, £8 2s. 7d.” Thus magnificently attired, he attended the theater and watched the reception of the play and the effect of each individual scene, with that vicissitude of feeling incident to his mercurial nature.

Johnson’s prologue was solemn in itself, and being delivered by Brinsley in lugubrious tones suited to the ghost in Hamlet, seemed to throw a portentous gloom on the audience. Some of the scenes met with great applause, and at such times Goldsmith was highly elated; others went off coldly, or there were slight tokens of disapprobation, and then his spirits would sink. The fourth act saved the piece; for Shuter, who had the main comic character of Croaker, was so varied and ludicrous in his execution of the scene in which he reads an incendiary letter that he drew down thunders of applause. On his coming behind the scenes, Goldsmith greeted him with an overflowing heart; declaring that he exceeded his own idea of the character, and made it almost as new to him as to any of the audience.

On the whole, however, both the author and his friends were disappointed at the reception of the piece, and considered it a failure. Poor Goldsmith left the theater with his towering hopes completely cut down. He endeavored to hide his mortification, and even to assume an air of unconcern while among his associates; but, the moment he was alone with Dr. Johnson, in whose rough but magnanimous nature he reposed unlimited confidence, he threw off all restraint and gave way to an almost childlike burst of grief. Johnson, who had shown no want of sympathy at the proper time, saw nothing in the partial disappointment of overrated expectations to warrant such ungoverned emotions, and rebuked him sternly for what he termed a silly affectation, saying that “No man should be expected to sympathize with the sorrows of vanity.”

When Goldsmith had recovered from the blow, he, with his usual unreserve, made his past distress a subject of amusement to his friends. Dining one day, in company with Dr. Johnson, at the chaplain’s table at St. James’s Palace, he entertained the company with a particular and comic account of all his feelings on the night of representation, and his despair when the piece was hissed. How he went, he said, to the Literary Club; chatted gayly, as if nothing had gone amiss; and, to give a greater idea of his unconcern, sang his favorite song about an old woman tossed in a blanket seventeen times as high as the moon. . . . “All this while,” added he, “I was suffering horrid tortures, and, had I put a bit in my mouth, I verily believe it would have strangled me on the spot, I was so excessively ill: but I made more noise than usual to cover all that; so they never perceived my not eating, nor suspected the anguish of my heart; but, when all were gone except Johnson here, I burst out a-crying, and even swore that I would never write again.”

Dr. Johnson sat in amaze at the odd frankness and childlike self-accusation of poor Goldsmith. When the latter had come to a pause, “All this, doctor,” said he dryly, “I thought had been a secret between you and me, and I am sure I would not have said anything about it for the world.” But Goldsmith had no secrets: his follies, his weaknesses, his errors were all thrown to the surface; his heart was really too guileless and innocent to seek mystery and concealment. It is too often the false, designing man that is guarded in his conduct and never offends proprieties.

It is singular, however, that Goldsmith, who thus in conversation could keep nothing to himself, should be the author of a maxim which would inculcate the most thorough dissimulation. “Men of the world,” says he, in one of the papers of the “Bee,” “maintain that the true end of speech is not so much to express our wants as to conceal them.” How often is this quoted as one of the subtle remarks of the fine witted Talleyrand!

The Good–Natured Man was performed for ten nights in succession; the third, sixth, and ninth nights were for the author’s benefit; the fifth night it was commanded by their majesties; after this it was played occasionally, but rarely, having always pleased more in the closet than on the stage.

As to Kelly’s comedy, Johnson pronounced it entirely devoid of character, and it has long since passed into oblivion. Yet it is an instance how an inferior production, by dint of puffing and trumpeting, may be kept up for a time on the surface of popular opinion, or rather of popular talk. What had been done for False Delicacy on the stage was continued by the press. The booksellers vied with the manager in launching it upon the town. They announced that the first impression of three thousand copies was exhausted before two o’clock on the day of publication; four editions, amounting to ten thousand copies, were sold in the course of the season; a public breakfast was given to Kelly at the Chapter Coffee House, and a piece of plate presented to him by the publishers. The comparative merits of the two plays were continually subjects of discussion in green-rooms, coffeehouses, and other places where theatrical questions were discussed.

Goldsmith’s old enemy, Kenrick, that “viper of the press,” endeavored on this as on many other occasions to detract from his well-earned fame; the poet was excessively sensitive to these attacks, and had not the art and self-command to conceal his feelings.

Some scribblers on the other side insinuated that Kelly had seen the manuscript of Goldsmith’s play, while in the hands of Garrick or elsewhere, and had borrowed some of the situations and sentiments. Some of the wags of the day took a mischievous pleasure in stirring up a feud between the two authors. Goldsmith became nettled, though he could scarcely be deemed jealous of one so far his inferior. He spoke disparagingly, though no doubt sincerely, of Kelly’s play: the latter retorted. Still, when they met one day behind the scenes of Covent Garden, Goldsmith, with his customary urbanity, congratulated Kelly on his success. “If I thought you sincere, Mr. Goldsmith,” replied the other, abruptly, “I should thank you.” Goldsmith was not a man to harbor spleen or ill-will, and soon laughed at this unworthy rivalship: but the jealousy and envy awakened in Kelly’s mind long continued. He is even accused of having given vent to his hostility by anonymous attacks in the newspapers, the basest resource of dastardly and malignant spirits; but of this there is no positive proof.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38