“Sir, I thought it had been better.”
Sam Johnson’s characteristically honest reason for leaving the room when someone started reading his only play, Irene, at a country house party in 1780.
Today playwrights around the world can take comfort that their fabulous, darling manuscript, perfect in every respect in their own eyes, might not be the collossus they thought it was but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will not turn out to be an incredible writer. Perhaps all they need to do is switch genre…
If you’d nipped backstage at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on the 6th February 1749, you might well have witnessed an aspiring playwright pacing backstage, nervously chewing his fingernails as he contemplated what the actors might do with his baby.
He didn’t have much of an opinion of their ability to do it justice. “Players, Sir? I look on them as no better than creatures set upon tables and joint stools to make faces and produce laughter, like dancing dogs.”
Given that Irene was a tragedy, and a big old heavy tragedy at that – one that would have gone down an absolute storm with Shakespeare’s crowd, who loved blood and guts – the idea of ‘dancing dogs’ poking fun at his work, Johnson probably had a point. He was particularly bothered about his leading lady, Hannah Pritchard, who he described as ‘a vulgar idiot.’
Of course, he might have disliked the concept of actors, but that didn’t stop him being mates with them – one of his good friends was David Garrick, whom he’d taught and who now was taking quite a risk in putting on Johnson’s play – it had already been rejected by its 18th Century equivalent of beta-readers. Garrick had insisted on a few changes that would appeal to the lighter moods of modern theatre, that Johnson didn’t approve of, but had to suck up if he wanted his show to see the light of day.
I find myself wondering whether Johnson, as he stood in the wings, awkwardly trussed up in scarlet waistcoat, gold lace and and fancy hat specially acquired for his first night as a luvvie, was rather wishing he was still in Greenwich Park, looking out over the river, sucking the end of his quill, trying to find the exact right words for the big death scene at the end. Whether he rather longed for that special time when the work is in progress, when everything can be changed and all will be fabulous.
We’re not really sure where Johnson lived while he stayed at Greenwich. He says it was at the Golden Hart in Church Street. Julian Watson suggests it could have been in the delightful weatherboarded row on the front cover of his (excellent) book (available at the Visitor Centre, last time I looked)
These houses are long-gone, not least because of the remodelling of Garden Stairs when the foot tunnel was built, but I’m guessing they’d have been approximately opposite the Cutty Sark.
If only his play had been any good. I recently went to a lecture at Johnson’s House where they were re evaluating the work, but although they come to the conclusion that it was not the utter flop History tells us it is, even the ex-curator (whose name escapes me and which I can’t look up because they annoyingly keep their website up to date…) had to admit it wasn’t a play she either recommended reading or ever putting on again.
It just wasn’t what the modern play-going public wanted. Johnson’s prose was dated, his plot clunky and his action heavy. But the thing the audiences hated most was the very thing that 150 years ago they’d have actually queued up for.
Johnson had poor Mrs Pritchard ‘strangled’ on stage, in front of the audience. Instead of lapping up the violence, though, they started hissing whistling and making cat calls that went on so long that in subsequent performances she had to exit and be murdered offstage.
Thing is, the play didn’t do as badly as many modern scholars think it did. True, it only ran for 9 performances between 6th and 20th Feb (there weren’t any shows on Wednesdays, Fridays or Sundays) but that was about average for new plays in those days. There actually weren’t many new plays as everything had to be read and passed by the Lord Chamberlain, so most shows were old classics that actors played in repertory, with the odd modern play squeezed in.
And Johnson made money. The whole idea of putting on plays in those days was to attempt to put them on in batches of three. The first two nights the profits went to the promoter; if the show lasted to a third night it became a benefit performance to pay the author, and after that every third night was the author’s night – another reason to put on plays by dead playwrights. Johnson made £236 after the house fee, which was pretty decent cash.
Nevertheless, Garrick still needed to tweak the show in order to keep the audiences coming, not least so his mate Sam could make a few more quid. Johnson’s tragedy lasted to the sixth night before Garrick slipped in a nice cheery farce at the end and there is mention of a ‘Scotch Dance’ that would have also been a splendid crowd-pleaser to get people to come so Johnson’s play limped to its ninth performance.
Nowadays Irene is often described as ‘a poem’ and it’s quite hard to come by. It’s not a classic (though some (who haven’t read it; I confess I haven’t either, so I rely on the ex-curator’s opinion) assume it must be because Johnson wrote it, but neither was it the total turkey that other scholars have claimed. And hell, it if is a total turkey, it’s our total turkey.