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Samuel Foote (January 27, 1720 – October 21, 1777) was a theatrical manager and comic performer. In his heyday in the 1760s, a summer season at the Haymarket theatre earned his company up to £5000, which may be multiplied a hundredfold for its value today. He had a townhouse on Suffolk Street, round the corner from the Haymarket, and a large leafy residence out in Fulham, and a fancy coach to convey him between the two. Always the dandy, he might be seen in a suit of ‘bird’s eye orange’ lined with pea-green satin; or another of ‘striped strawberry coloured corded silk with spangl’d buttons’; or, bizarrely, a suit made entirely of beaver fur. These garbs were among the items auctioned off at Christie’s after his death.
In 1776 he was accused of assaulting his coachman, John Sangster, ‘with an intent to commit buggery’. According to Sangster, Foote had recited all the benefits that his servant had received from him, including treatment for the measles, and added that ‘the best recompense you can make is to let me have a fuck at you’. Fortunately for the accused, Sangster had muddled up his dates, and it was proved beyond doubt that Foote was not in town on the alleged occasion. Foote was acquitted but the strain of the trial may have been partly responsible for the stroke that killed him less than a year later.
Foote attended Worcester College, Oxford, but left without taking a degree. In 1744, having dissipated his inheritance, he turned to the theatre. His first efforts were not successful, but, while playing in the 2nd Duke of Buckingham’s Rehearsal, he demonstrated his ability as a mimic. In 1747 he presented a series of farcical entertainments called Diversions of the Morning, in which he ridiculed other actors and celebrities. Later, to avoid the restraints of the Licensing Act, which required patents for public performances, he styled his entertainments for his friends as “teas.”
After 1753 Foote returned occasionally to the regular stage, but he was unsuccessful except in his own plays, which, like his “teas,” depended on topical allusions and mimicry. Foote was adept in exploiting any event for his purposes, even his own misfortune. In 1766 he fell from a horse and broke his leg, which had to be amputated. Characteristically, he turned this to account by writing The Devil Upon Two Sticks and The Lame Lover. Another consequence of this misfortune was that the Duke of York, who was responsible for the accident, secured for Foote a life patent, which permitted him to continue without subterfuge his performances at the Haymarket Theatre.
Foote was undoubtedly a man of many talents, but he employed them only in savage attacks upon others. David Garrick, who frequently befriended him, avoided Foote’s public ridicule only through flattery. Samuel Johnson, who considered Foote’s wit “irresistible,” was obliged to threaten physical chastisement. In 1777, however, Foote met his match. Agents of the notorious Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston, whom Foote had satirized in A Trip to Calais and The Capuchin, retaliated with such persistence that he was compelled to quit the stage.
In 1774, the Duke of Kingston's sister was able to invalidate the Duke's will, on the grounds that his widow, Elizabeth Chudleigh, was guilty of bigamy. Foote picked up this news and began work on a new play in which the character "Lady Kitty Crockodile" was clearly based on Chudleigh. In response a supporter of Chudleigh's, William Jackson, in 1775 began publishing in The Public Ledger veiled accusations of homosexuality. Not long after Chudleigh was convicted of bigamy in spring 1776, Foote's coachman accused Foote of sexual assault, leading to a trial at which Foote was eventually acquitted. In the interim, the Ledger filled its pages with the story, and an anonymous pamphlet (likely written by Jackson) aimed at Foote, "Sodom and Onan", appeared. The work was subtitled "A Satire Inscrib'd to [ – – ] Esqr, alias the Devil upon Two Sticks", with the blank filled by an engraving of a foot. Inevitably, these events provided more fodder for Foote's pen, with Jackson making a disguised appearance in The Capuchin.
He died on October 21, 1777 (on his journey to France) at the Shop-Inn Dover. The body was removed to his house, Suffolk Street, Pall Mall East, by William Jewell, the treasurer to the Haymarket, who had been sent for, and on the Monday night following (3 Nov.) he was buried by torchlight in the west cloister in Westminster Abbey, Poets Corner, below the statue of Addison, without a marker. An inscription was placed at St Mary the Virgin Church, Dover, by his affectionate friend, William Jewell, who, together with Foote's sons and mother, was beneficiary of Foote's will.
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