Foote, Samuel

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Foote, Samuel (1720-77): English Playwright.

Samuel Foote’s achievements as author and Haymarket Theatre manager had a significant influence on the development of the English stage. Despite a wealthy background, his immoderate youth left him without funds or education, though with some exposure to the dramatic arts (he studied with prominent actor/manager Charles Macklin in 1743 and played Othello to his Iago).

In 1744, he began his acting career, joining the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. In 1747 he published writings on acting and dramatic theory: A Treatise on the Passions and The Roman and English Comedy Considered, which demonstrated historical justification for satire. Evading the conditions of the Licensing Act of 1737, which limited London productions to theaters at the Drury Lane and Covent Garden, Foote held a satirical revue titled The Diversions of the Morning, ostensibly offering the entertainment free to spectators who paid for a dish of chocolate. Despite the popularity of Diversions and another similar dodge, The Auction of Pictures, most of his theatrical endeavors in the 1740s and 1750s were failures.

In 1760, however, The Minor, his most famous play, finally established him in London. He assumed the official management of the Haymarket Theatre in 1766, his license permitting him to perform during the summer months, when the major theaters were closed. Early in the year of his death, he sold the Haymarket, but various managers kept the patent alive until 1843. For much of the next century, Foote’s erstwhile theater was the recognized home of light dramatic comedy.

Foote’s comic plays helped keep the spirit of farce alive through decades of growing sentimentalism. Notable full-length comedies include: The Knights (1749), The Orators (1762), The Maid of Bath (1760), and The Minor. With farce situations and wit married to satire on contemporary targets, from physicians to the East India Company, he earned the nickname “the English Aristophanes.” The Minor satirizes the rising Methodist religion. A well balanced comedy with touches of intrigue and sentiment, it represents Foote’s distrust of Methodist leader John Wesley’s call for emotional enthusiasm, primarily through ridicule of the hypocritical Mrs. Cole. Foote’s introductory scene claims that humor is the only antidote for religious insincerity, as intelligent argument has no effect. A controversy developed when Foote attempted to bring it to the Drury Lane, and certain individuals, among them the Archbishop of Canterbury, asked the Lord Chamberlain to censor the play. The Chamberlain was a close friend of Foote, and permitted the performance, though it seems likely that his examiner removed many of the specific religious phrases. Though the contemporary reaction was perhaps out of proportion to the content of the play, which, compared to other 18th century works, constitutes a rather lightweight indictment of the Methodist faith, the style with which Foote integrated serious questions into a cleverly constructed comedy provided a model for the more polished satires of such playwrights as Goldsmith, Oliver and Sheridan, Richard Brinsley.

Further Reading:

George Taylor, ed., Plays by Samuel Foote and Arthur Murphy, 1984.

Benjamin Fisler