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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGoldsmith - Chapter 12. The Good-Natured Man
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Goldsmith - Chapter 12. The Good-Natured Man Post by :ben.g Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :1542

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Goldsmith - Chapter 12. The Good-Natured Man


Amid much miscellaneous work, mostly of the compilation order, the play of the _Good-natured Man began to assume concrete form; insomuch that Johnson, always the friend of this erratic Irishman, had promised to write a Prologue for it. It is with regard to this Prologue that Boswell tells a foolish and untrustworthy story about Goldsmith. Dr. Johnson had recently been honoured by an interview with his Sovereign; and the members of the Club were in the habit of flattering him by begging for a repetition of his account of that famous event. On one occasion, during this recital, Boswell relates, Goldsmith "remained unmoved upon a sofa at some distance, affecting not to join in the least in the eager curiosity of the company. He assigned as a reason for his gloom and seeming inattention that he apprehended Johnson had relinquished his purpose of furnishing him with a Prologue to his play, with the hopes of which he had been flattered; but it was strongly suspected that he was fretting with chagrin and envy at the singular honour Doctor Johnson had lately enjoyed. At length the frankness and simplicity of his natural character prevailed. He sprang from the sofa, advanced to Johnson, and, in a kind of flutter, from imagining himself in the situation which he had just been hearing described, exclaimed, 'Well, you acquitted yourself in this conversation better than I should have done; for I should have bowed and stammered through the whole of it.'" It is obvious enough that the only part of this anecdote which is quite worthy of credence is the actual phrase used by Goldsmith, which is full of his customary generosity and self-depreciation. All those "suspicions" of his envy of his friend may safely be discarded, for they are mere guesswork; even though it might have been natural enough for a man like Goldsmith, conscious of his singular and original genius, to measure himself against Johnson, who was merely a man of keen perception and shrewd reasoning, and to compare the deference paid to Johnson with the scant courtesy shown to himself.

As a matter of fact, the Prologue was written by Dr. Johnson; and the now complete comedy was, after some little arrangement of personal differences between Goldsmith and Garrick, very kindly undertaken by Reynolds, submitted for Garrick's approval. But nothing came of Reynolds's intervention. Perhaps Goldsmith resented Garrick's airs of patronage towards a poor devil of an author; perhaps Garrick was surprised by the manner in which well-intentioned criticisms were taken; at all events, after a good deal of shilly-shallying, the play was taken out of Garrick's hands. Fortunately, a project was just at this moment on foot for starting the rival theatre in Covent Garden, under the management of George Colman; and to Colman Goldsmith's play was forthwith consigned. The play was accepted; but it was a long time before it was produced; and in that interval it may fairly be presumed the _res angusta domi of Goldsmith did not become any more free and generous than before. It was in this interval that the elder Newbery died; Goldsmith had one patron the less. Another patron who offered himself was civilly bowed to the door. This is an incident in Goldsmith's career which, like his interview with the Earl of Northumberland, should ever be remembered in his honour. The Government of the day were desirous of enlisting on their behalf the services of writers of somewhat better position than the mere libellers whose pens were the slaves of anybody's purse; and a Mr. Scott, a chaplain of Lord Sandwich, appears to have imagined that it would be worth while to buy Goldsmith. He applied to Goldsmith in due course; and this is an account of the interview. "I found him in a miserable set of chambers in the Temple. I told him my authority; I told him I was empowered to pay most liberally for his exertions; and, would you believe it! he was so absurd as to say, 'I can earn as much as will supply my wants without writing for any party; the assistance you offer is therefore unnecessary to me.' And I left him in his garret." Needy as he was, Goldsmith had too much self-respect to become a paid libeller and cutthroat of public reputations.

On the evening of Friday, the 29th of January, 1768, when Goldsmith had now reached the age of forty, the comedy of _The Good-natured Man was produced at Covent Garden Theatre. The Prologue had, according to promise, been written by Johnson; and a very singular prologue it was. Even Boswell was struck by the odd contrast between this sonorous piece of melancholy and the fun that was to follow. "The first lines of this Prologue," he conscientiously remarks, "are strongly characteristical of the dismal gloom of his mind; which, in his case, as in the case of all who are distressed with the same malady of imagination, transfers to others its own feelings. Who could suppose it was to introduce a comedy, when Mr. Bensley solemnly began--

"'Pressed with the load of life, the weary mind
Surveys the general toil of humankind'?

But this dark ground might make Goldsmith's humour shine the more." When we come to the comedy itself, we find but little bright humour in the opening passages. The author is obviously timid, anxious, and constrained. There is nothing of the brisk, confident vivacity with which _She Stoops to Conquer opens. The novice does not yet understand the art of making his characters explain themselves; and accordingly the benevolent uncle and honest Jarvis indulge in a conversation which, laboriously descriptive of the character of young Honeywood, is spoken "at" the audience. With the entrance of young Honeywood himself, Goldsmith endeavours to become a little more sprightly; but there is still anxiety hanging over him, and the epigrams are little more than merely formal antitheses.

"_Jarvis. This bill from your tailor; this from your
mercer; and this from the little broker in Crooked Lane. He
says he has been at a great deal of trouble to get back the
money you borrowed.

_Hon. That I don't know; but I'm sure we were at a great
deal of trouble in getting him to lend it.

_Jar. He has lost all patience.

_Hon. Then he has lost a very good thing.

_Jar. There's that ten guineas you were sending to the poor
gentleman and his children in the Fleet. I believe that
would stop his mouth for a while at least.

_Hon. Ay, Jarvis, but what will fill their mouths in the
mean time?"

This young Honeywood, the hero of the play, is, and remains throughout, a somewhat ghostly personage. He has attributes; but no flesh or blood. There is much more substance in the next character introduced--the inimitable Croaker, who revels in evil forebodings and drinks deep of the luxury of woe. These are the two chief characters; but then a play must have a plot. And perhaps it would not be fair, so far as the plot is concerned, to judge of _The Good-natured Man merely as a literary production. Intricacies that seem tedious and puzzling on paper appear to be clear enough on the stage: it is much more easy to remember the history and circumstances of a person whom we see before us, than to attach these to a mere name--especially as the name is sure to be clipped down from _Honeywood to _Hon. and from _Leontine to _Leon. However, it is in the midst of all the cross-purposes of the lovers that we once more come upon our old friend Beau Tibbs--though Mr. Tibbs is now in much better circumstances, and has been re-named by his creator Jack Lofty. Garrick had objected to the introduction of Jack, on the ground that he was only a distraction. But Goldsmith, whether in writing a novel or a play, was more anxious to represent human nature than to prune a plot, and paid but little respect to the unities, if only he could arouse our interest. And who is not delighted with this Jack Lofty and his "duchessy" talk--his airs of patronage, his mysterious hints, his gay familiarity with the great, his audacious lying?

"_Lofty. Waller? Waller? Is he of the house?

_Mrs. Croaker. The modern poet of that name, sir.

_Lof. Oh, a modern! We men of business despise the moderns;
and as for the ancients, we have no time to read them.
Poetry is a pretty thing enough for our wives and daughters;
but not for us. Why now, here I stand that know nothing of
books. I say, madam, I know nothing of books; and yet, I
believe, upon a land-carriage fishery, a stamp act, or a
jag-hire, I can talk my two hours without feeling the want
of them.

_Mrs. Cro. The world is no stranger to Mr. Lofty's eminence
in every capacity.

_Lof. I vow to gad, madam, you make me blush. I'm nothing,
nothing, nothing in the world; a mere obscure gentleman. To
be sure, indeed, one or two of the present ministers are
pleased to represent me as a formidable man. I know they are
pleased to bespatter me at all their little dirty levees.
Yet, upon my soul, I wonder what they see in me to treat me
so! Measures, not men, have always been my mark; and I vow,
by all that's honourable, my resentment has never done the
men, as mere men, any manner of harm--that is, as mere men.

_Mrs. Cro. What importance, and yet what modesty!

_Lof. Oh, if you talk of modesty, madam, there, I own, I'm
accessible to praise: modesty is my foible: it was so the
Duke of Brentford used to say of me. 'I love Jack Lofty,' he
used to say: 'no man has a finer knowledge of things; quite
a man of information; and when he speaks upon his legs, by
the Lord he's prodigious, he scouts them; and yet all men
have their faults; too much modesty is his,' says his grace.

_Mrs. Cro. And yet, I dare say, you don't want assurance
when you come to solicit for your friends.

_Lof. Oh, there indeed I'm in bronze. Apropos! I have just
been mentioning Miss Richland's case to a certain personage;
we must name no names. When I ask, I am not to be put off,
madam. No, no, I take my friend by the button. A fine girl,
sir; great justice in her case. A friend of mine--borough
interest--business must be done, Mr. Secretary.--I say, Mr.
Secretary, her business must be done, sir. That's my way,

_Mrs. Cro. Bless me! you said all this to the Secretary of
State, did you?

_Lof. I did not say the Secretary, did I? Well, curse it,
since you have found me out, I will not deny it. It was to
the Secretary."

Strangely enough, what may now seem to some of us the very best scene in the _Good-natured Man_--the scene, that is, in which young Honeywood, suddenly finding Miss Richland without, is compelled to dress up the two bailiffs in possession of his house and introduce them to her as gentlemen friends--was very nearly damning the play on the first night of its production. The pit was of opinion that it was "low;" and subsequently the critics took up the cry, and professed themselves to be so deeply shocked by the vulgar humours of the bailiffs that Goldsmith had to cut them out. But on the opening night the anxious author, who had been rendered nearly distracted by the cries and hisses produced by this scene, was somewhat reassured when the audience began to laugh again over the tribulations of Mr. Croaker. To the actor who played the part he expressed his warm gratitude when the piece was over; assuring him that he had exceeded his own conception of the character, and that "the fine comic richness of his colouring made it almost appear as new to him as to any other person in the house."

The new play had been on the whole favourably received; and, when Goldsmith went along afterwards to the Club, his companions were doubtless not at all surprised to find him in good spirits. He was even merrier than usual; and consented to sing his favourite ballad about the Old Woman tossed in a Blanket. But those hisses and cries were still rankling in his memory; and he himself subsequently confessed that he was "suffering horrid tortures." Nay, when the other members of the Club had gone, leaving him and Johnson together, he "burst out a-crying, and even swore by ---- that he would never write again." When Goldsmith told this story in after-days, Johnson was naturally astonished; perhaps--himself not suffering much from an excessive sensitiveness--he may have attributed that little burst of hysterical emotion to the excitement of the evening increased by a glass or two of punch, and determined therefore never to mention it. "All which, Doctor," he said, "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." Indeed there was little to cry over, either in the first reception of the piece or in its subsequent fate. With the offending bailiffs cut out, the comedy would seem to have been very fairly successful. The proceeds of three of the evenings were Goldsmith's payment; and in this manner he received L400. Then Griffin published the play; and from this source Goldsmith received an additional L100; so that altogether he was very well paid for his work. Moreover he had appealed against the judgment of the pit and the dramatic critics, by printing in the published edition the bailiff scene which had been removed from the stage; and the _Monthly Review was so extremely kind as to say that "the bailiff and his blackguard follower appeared intolerable on the stage, yet we are not disgusted with them in the perusal." Perhaps we have grown less scrupulous since then; but at all events it would be difficult for anybody nowadays to find anything but good-natured fun in that famous scene. There is an occasional "damn," it is true; but then English officers have always been permitted that little playfulness, and these two gentlemen were supposed to "serve in the Fleet;" while if they had been particularly refined in their speech and manner, how could the author have aroused Miss Richland's suspicions? It is possible that the two actors who played the bailiff and his follower may have introduced some vulgar "gag" into their parts; but there is no warranty for anything of the kind in the play as we now read it.

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