What attracted me to Johnson was his humanity, and his struggle to overcome his personal difficulties - psychological , physical and temperamental. He seemed such a full man, with a vivacity and a shadow self to battle with.
I first played Sam in April De Angelis’ play A Laughing Matter which Max Stafford-Clark directed. Working with Max involves a great deal of research into your character and the world of the play and I became fascinated.
Johnson was the most dominant character amongst a group of writers, artists, actors, politicians and historians including Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick and Edmund Burke. He compiled the first proper dictionary, consisting of over 42,000 words illustrated with 114,000 literary quotations. It took nine years and seven assistants and he was paid £1575 from which he had to pay for staff and materials. At the same time he lived by writing articles and essays, as well as prefaces to all of Shakespeare’s plays.
This prolific output was all the more remarkable as he suffered from a lifelong debilitating depression which would render him unable to get out of bed for days. He was terrified of death and hated being alone. Sometimes he would sit up all night rather than face the terrors that lurked in the recesses of his mind.
He was rarely alone. The local corner shop was inundated with callers requesting the whereabouts of Johnson’s house. Everyone wanted to meet him and many wanted to write about him. After his death there were three biographies published in a year. Today, in the British library, an enquiry about Dr Samuel Johnson reveals 3000 entries and he is the most quoted man after Shakespeare.
Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, Sam Johnson had a very difficult birth which left him with the palsy and scrofula, blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other. He also suffered Tourette’s syndrome. Here is Fanny Burney on meeting Johnson:
“He is indeed very ill favoured; is tall and stout; but stoops terribly; he is almost bent double . His mouth is almost continually opening and shutting, as if he was chewing. He has a strange method of frequently twirling his fingers, and twisting his hands. His body is in continual agitation, see sawing up and down.”
Johnson’s relationship with his mother was unhappy. She considered herself superior by birth to his father’s family and Johnson famously avoided revisiting Lichfield while she was alive and did not attend her funeral. The first words of his memoirs are “I was born in a house of discord”.
His time at Oxford was cut short when funds promised by a cousin failed to materialise. On his return to Lichfield he discovered that his mother had given his room away. He sunk into a depression so great that he could not “distinguish the hands on the church clock.” He walked to Birmingham where he spent many nights getting drunk with his friend William Hector drinking ‘Smoking Bishop’, a concoction of heated port and oranges with cinnamon and nutmeg.
On one of these visits he met his wife Elizabeth Porter who was married to an unsuccessful draper. She was charmed by him and they had many talks together. When her husband died, they married – Sam was 24 and she was more than 20 years his senior.
Elizabeth Porter had money which Johnson used to set up a school but perhaps because of his unusual personality he attracted only two or three pupils. The most famous of these was David Garrick, later to become one of the most famous actors of the 18th century. When the school folded Johnson and Garrick walked to London to seek their fortunes, Johnson armed with his play Irene and the Sultan Mohamed.
While Garrick became an overnight success, Johnson spent 20 years struggling, near to bankruptcy and debtors’ prison. His relationship with his wife soured and though they loved each other they quarrelled and eventually she succumbed to opium addiction and died.
After her death Johnson filled his house with what he described as vagabonds. He did not want to be alone and he could not bear to turn anyone away. The “ship’s crew” as a friend described the household consisted of Mrs Williams, a half blind peevish housekeeper; Poll Carmicheal, a prostitute who he was trying to ‘improve’ but failing miserably; Mrs Desmoulins, a homeless friend of his wife; Frank Barber, his West Indian servant who he freed from slavery and educated at his own expense; and an alcoholic doctor from Yorkshire.
After completing the dictionary Johnson was provided by the Crown with a pension of £300 a year, allowing him to live in relative comfort. But more heartbreak was to come, as our show reveals.
“I am obliged to any man who visits me.”
A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson is at the Arts Theatre until 24 September. If you're a member of our Whatsonstage.com Theatre Club you can get half price tickets to the matinee on 15 September, followed by a 'dish of tea' with the great man himself.