The British dramatist Samuel Foote was born today in 1720. Foote was a playwright in the snickering, rabble-rousing tradition—a dry wit who was always getting himself into trouble. He performed plays without licensing them, basically the eighteenth-century equivalent of smuggling your camcorder into a movie theater; he went riding and was thrown from his horse, resulting in the loss of one of his legs; he spent some time in debtors’ prison; he’s rumored to have made passes at a footman or two in his day; and much of his writing features withering, thinly veiled caricatures of wealthy people, which really pissed off those wealthy people, to say nothing of their wealthy coteries. Most important, Foote is responsible for having coined the phrase “the Grand Panjandrum,” as refined a piece of nonsense as I can remember having heard. (He did it off the cuff, having faltered in the recitation of a text he’d “memorized.”)
What better way to pay tribute to the man than with an excerpt? Two centuries before Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs,” there was simply The Nabob, Foote’s 1772 comedy about an aristocrat newly returned to London from the Orient. You could dip into the play anywhere and come up with comic gold; its brand of buffoonery is never out of fashion. I myself have just discovered what good clean fun it is to read an exchange between a fastidious, irascible Brit—that is, Mite, our titular nabob—and his underwhelming florist:
Servant Mrs. Crocus, from Brompton, your honour.
Mite Has she brought me a bouquet?
Servant Your honour?
Mite Any nosegays, you blockhead?
Servant She has a boy with a basket.
Mite Shew her in! [Enter Mrs. Crocus.] Well, Mrs. Crocus; let us see what you have brought me. Your last bouquet was as big as a broom, with a tulip strutting up like a magistrate’s mace; and, besides, made me look like a devil.
Crocus I hope your honour could find no fault with the flowers? It is true, the polyanthuses were a little pinched by the easterly winds; but for pip, colour, and eye, I defy the whole parish of Fulham to match ‘em.
Mite Perhaps not; but it is not the flowers, but the mixture, I blame. Why, here now, Mrs. Crocus, one should think you were out of your senses, to cram in this clump of jonquils!
Crocus I thought your honour was fond of their smell.
Mite Damn their smell! It is their colour I talk of. You know my complexion has been tinged by the East, and you bring me here a blaze of yellow, that gives me the jaundice. Look! Do you see here, what a fine figure I cut? You might as well have tied me to a bundle of sunflowers!
Crocus I beg pardon, your honour!
Mite Pardon! There is no forgiving faults of this kind. Just so you served Harry Hectic; you stuck into his bosom a parcel of hyacinths, though the poor fellow’s f ace is as pale as a primrose.
Crocus I did not know—
Mite And there, at the opera, the poor creature sat in his side-box, looking like one of the figures in the glass-cases in Westminster-Abbey; dead and drest!
Crocus If gentlemen would but give directions, I would make it my study to suit ‘ em.
Mite But that your cursed climate won’t let you. Have you any pinks or carnations in bloom?
Crocus They are not in season, your honour. Lillies of the valley—
Mite I hate the whole tribe! What, you want to dress me up like a corpse! When shall you have any rosebuds?
Crocus The latter end of the month, please your honour.
Mite At that time you may call.
Crocus Your honour has no further commands?
Mite None. You may send nosegays for my chairmen, as usual.