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Newsletter - November 2012


“Mr Foote’s Other Leg”

Ian Kelly is a man with a passion for the eighteenth century, and in particular eighteenth century London, London being, in this period, the richest city in the world. It was also the background for the extraordinarily dramatic life of Samuel Foote.

Samuel Foote – now largely forgotten – was a very popular theatre comedian and the first commercially successful crime writer. He was a skilled impersonator of celebrity characters and worked with Macklin and Garrick.  Macklin retired from the stage as he had murdered another actor and tutored Garrick and Foote at Drury Lane theatre.

Foote also wrote satirical plays in which he acted, and was described as the Hogarth of the stage. In Georgian London the other theatre was the theatre of medicine, where an audience was invited to autopsies and operations. Georgian theatre was a riotous affair with plays performed by candlelight, and the actors protected from the unruly audience by a row of metal spikes! However, it was also at a crossroads with a newer style of acting – initiated by Garrick – that was much more naturalistic and also by the revival of Shakespeare’s plays. In 1727 the Theatre Licensing Act necessitated that all new plays were submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for approval (an act that was not repealed until the 1960s) and performances of Shakespeare became very popular.

David Garrick between Comedy and Tragedy
Mrs Cole

Samuel Foote had problems with censorship and we have him to thank for instituting matinees, which avoided the legislation; also some performances were sold as free entertainment if you paid for tea! In this way he could perform his popular satires on contemporary actors and public figures for his audience.

Joshua Reynolds was a friend of theatre and painted portraits of Hogarth and David Garrick between Comedy and Tragedy. Foote on the other hand was a comedian, and often masqueraded as a woman. One of his most popular characters was a Mrs Cole, which was an impersonation of a famous London brothel owner; it says something about the audience that the all recognised the character!. Foote’s cross-dressing is closely related to the English pantomime dame we now enjoy.

In1766 Foote suffered the accident for which he is well known –  he bet that he could ride the Duke of York’s horse, but he fell and suffered a compound fracture of his leg. He then endured amputation without anaesthesia. In his words “Comedy is all about pain” and he used this event to turn pain into comedy, writing a piece called ‘The Lame Lover’, saying ‘What we can laugh at we can overcome”. He gained respect for having suffered the terrible aftermath of the accident and returned to the stage very quickly. He had an articulated prosthetic leg made by a puppet-maker, the first of its kind. He was also  the inspiration for the Peter Cook—Dudley Moore sketch “One Leg too Few” some 200 years later.

Peg Woffington, by contrast, was reputed to have “The best legs in London”. She was the mistress of David Garrick and acted in several of Foote’s plays in roles which required her to dress as a boy to show off her legs!

Foote ended his career in some disgrace. He had satirized the so-called Duchess of Kingston and she threatened him with prosecution for homosexuality (a capital offence) with his footman, called, yes, Roger. He had made an enemy of the Countess of Bristol who had then bigamously married the Duke of Kingston and herself been prosecuted for bigamy. Foote had ridiculed someone who had influence and a reason for revenge and he was forced to retire from the stage and died soon afterwards.

Ian Kelly had brought a fascinating character and period to life, and many members bought his book “Mr Foote’s Other Leg” which has just been published and has been excellently reviewed.

Our next event …

……. is our Christmas social evening and lecture-recital by Peter Medhurst. A good number have booked for this and it promises to be a really enjoyable evening.

Future plans

The committee are working on next year’s visits to add to the programme of lectures that is already booked, and we hope to cover a variety of interesting trips to see beautiful art in different places. We look forward to seeing as many of you as possible on these visits. Full details will be available in March.

Castle exhibition: Cedric Morris and Christopher Wood

Various members of the Society can recommend the exhibition at the Castle which remains open until 31 December and is well worth seeing. Cedric Morris is of course well known in East Anglia for his paintings and for being a plantsman. This exhibition explores the connections with the artist Christopher Wood who died tragically young at the age of 29. There is a selection of works that draws parallels between their trips to Paris and Brittany and the exhibition is suitably titled “A Forgotten Friendship”.