Samuel Foote is one of the most famous people few people have ever heard of, and the Dr Johnson Reading Circle enjoyed the opportunity to find out more about him. Foote was a celebrity, an actor, a writer, a comedian and impersonator, a man famous for his own fame. He was a man who fulfilled the classic celebrity route of a struggle to fame, a period of untouchability and then a sudden fall precipitated by his own actions.
This was also one of those special occasions when we had the author with us to discuss the book. Ian Kelly is both biographer and actor, giving green-room stories behind the book’s publication as well as sharing in the general discussion.
For example, the publisher originally asked to cut a large chunk at the beginning which discusses the fratricide in Foote’s family. Kelly uses court records and reportage to retell the murder of one of Foote’s uncles by another in its whole entirety, which takes the attention away from Samuel himself. It stayed because it was a good bit, an interesting story in itself and indicative of the way Foote would live his life. Rather than be ashamed of this dark incident with his near relatives, he wrote a book about it, which earned enough to release him from debtor’s jail. This created a dark sparkle of notoriety which opened doors. From then on, his career was always to skirt the lines of fame and disreputability, walking this tightrope carefully, whether with his initial two legs or his later one.
It’s obvious in person that Ian Kelly is an actor:, he talks like one and moves like one but he also writes like one. There’s a real confidence when it comes to description of the stage, the theatre and the community within it. He is also very successful at describing performance. One of the difficulties in talking about Samuel Foote is that he created many characters and plays that relied on impersonation and topical allusion, both elements that might be known or understood by a modern reader but can’t be felt. Without reaching for a glib or fatuous simile to a modern performance (there’s no comparing him to Rory Bremner, for instance) he manages to evoke what it was that audiences enjoyed so much about Foote without trying to explain it.
The book managed to tease the modernity of Foote as a subject and the similarities between London’s small social network and the modern social network, without making it explicit. There was a lot of talk around the circle of ways in which Foote was a relevant and interesting figure today, not only as a celebrity but in the areas of sexuality and disability.
As a result of a prank, Foote fell off a horse and shattering his left leg, which had to be amputated. Typical of his courage (and in keeping with the persona he had cultivated) he immediately started making jokes about saving on shoe leather and such. As a well-documented case of amputation, he would prove a fascinating case study for historians of disability. One of the interesting elements to this part of the story was how much he had to adapt. Even the stages of the time, heavily tilted (or raked) so the audience could see, were a physical challenge for him. Although this may have lead to different blocking of scenes, even in the theatre he owned, the physical structure of the building was not changed to make things easier. It was he who had to adapt.
Another area where Foote may be an interesting case study is one of sexuality. It would seem that Foote dallied in Molly culture, played a number of drag roles in his career and purposefully blurred the lines of sexuality in keeping with his love of danger. As Kelly said during the evening, ‘I think he would want us puzzled.’
At the height of his career, Foote wrote a play against Elizabeth Chudleigh and the publicity for his play and the spats in newspapers between them pushed her trial for bigamy into being played out in a larger court. Shortly afterwards one of his own footmen went to Bow Street and accused him on trying to commit ‘indecent acts’. Foote’s initial response was to announce, ‘buggery, I won’t stand for it’. The accuser, actually called Sangster, became known as ‘Roger the Footman’.
This leads to a great set piece in the book where Foote walks on stage following the allegations and is applauded by the London crowd who are behind him. A few hundred years later the event was replicated when John Gielgud walked on stage having been accused of cottaging. This is the Foote that we’d like to be left with, a man with the courage to face a possibly fierce audience and to be accepted. He was pronounced innocent and many people thought the accusation to be Chudleigh’s revenge.
But that’s not all… lurking in the files of Dr Hunter is a description of Foote’s mental state following his amputation and a worry that the concussion he suffered from the fall off the horse, together with the trauma of losing a leg, may have unbalanced him in more than the obvious manner. Also, the Christie’s catalogue of Foote’s possessions include a number of items that were mentioned in Sangster’s testimony that he would have had no knowledge of in any normal way. Kelly made it very clear that he wanted the reader to decide whether this darker part of Foote’s life was true or not but he also arranged the evidence in such a way that makes it a very real possibility that Sangster wasn’t lying.
Whichever it was, the stress of the accusation and the trial weakened Foote’s already compromised health (which had started to keep him off the stage) and he died in Dover on the way to France. He was buried quietly at night in Westminster Abbey, but the records of where his body lies are now lost, a quiet end to a noisy life.
As the evening drew near an end, a pot of marzipan feet (foots?) was passed around and everyone munched happily, particularly Ian Kelly who declared marzipan to be one of his favourites. We had time for a little stage gossip, learning that Kelly hadn’t meant to play George III in his stage adaptation of the play but in so doing he had, he said, ‘given myself some really good lines.’ We also learned that the Theatre Royal in Haymarket (which had originally only been given that title for Foote to use in his lifetime) is an awkward theatre, too large for intimate plays but too small for big performances. Finally, we learnt that there are moves towards a TV series about Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s servant and that Ian Kelly is involved.
We reflected on how the small world of the eighteenth century can be a bit like visiting friends, and seeing familiar and new faces around the circle it seemed true that there is something about getting to know people like Samuel Johnson or Samuel Foote that can bring people together now.