Part 1. James Boswell

ELIZABETH JOHNSON          Johnson’s wife. He called her Tetty. It was an unusual match as Tetty was 20 years older than Johnson. She stood by him in the difficult years in London when he was slowly becoming known.

JAMES BOSWELL                  Boswell first met Johnson in 1763 when he was 22 and Johnson 53, and he became Johnson’s friend and companion. Most importantly for us, he wrote Johnson’s biography, “A Life of Samuel Johnson”. Boswell had an ability to record whole conversations as faithfully as a tape recorder. The resulting book is impossible to put down, and many readers go back to it year after year for solace, help and enjoyment.  Like Africa, it always provides something new.      

SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS      Reynolds was the most famous portrait painter of the age.  He painted Johnson three times. With Johnson, he founded The Club, which united the foremost writers, artists, musicians and politicians of the day.

OLIVER GOLDSMITH           Goldsmith’s play “She Stoops to Conquer” has been acted, read and enjoyed from his time to ours.  He was also a novelist and a poet.  He was a good friend to Johnson and a member of The Club.

ROBERT LEVET                   A hard-working doctor living in Johnson’s house as a permanent lodger. Johnson gave lodging to lonely people who needed help.  When Boswell asked Goldsmith how Levet came to live with Johnson, Goldsmith replied, “He is poor and honest, which is recommendation enough to Johnson.”  Levet’s patients were the poor who lived around Fleet Street. Read Johnson’s tribute ‘On the death of Dr Robert Levet’.  Read it.  It won’t take you long. This is how an elegy should be written. Levet was a rough diamond who lacked all the social graces, but Johnson respected him for the work he did with the patients he cared for day in day out.

MISS WILLIAMS                     Anna Williams was another of Johnson’s permanent lodgers.  One evening Goldsmith told Boswell, “I go to tea with Miss Williams” to show that with this honour he was part of Johnson’s inner circle of friends.  Boswell later had the same distinction.

HENRY and HESTER THRALE                    Henry Thrale was a wealthy brewery owner.  He and his wife Hester were good friends to Johnson. He often stayed at their house in Streatham which became for him a retreat of calm and comfortable living.  Just as he helped his group of lodgers, so the Thrales helped him.

BENNET LANGTON               Though much younger than Johnson, Langton became a close friend. In 1752 he and Beauclerk knocked loudly on the door of Johnson’s house at 3 o’clock in the morning. “What is it you, you dogs? I’ll have a frisk with you!” shouted Johnson from his bedroom window, and thus began a night of carousing in Covent Garden and the neighbouring taverns.  They carried on well into the next day.

TOPHAM BEAUCLERK          Beauclerk became a friend of Johnson through Bennet Langton.  Like Langton, he was an original member of The Club.

JOHN TAYLOR                Taylor was with Johnson at Pembroke College at Oxford. He remained a friend for the rest of Johnson’s life.

TOM DAVIES                         A bookseller and friend of Johnson.  OnMay 16, 1763, at Davies’ bookshop in Russell Street, Covent Garden, Boswell met Johnson for the first time. 

Not too much must be made of Johnson’s nervous tics or there is the danger that he will be reduced to little more than a comic figure.   He had odd mannerisms, such as not walking on the cracks of the pavement or not going out of a door on a certain foot.  These are common symptoms of various types of neurosis, and Johnson was not the first, nor will be the last to suffer from them.

What does matter is his continuous struggle against mental imbalance, physical ill health and poverty.  He made a success of his life by sheer strength of will, which enabled him to persevere against the odds.

Boswell, sitting on the side of the stage, is writing at a small, round table.  On the table is a lighted candle, a bottle of red wine and a glass, which Boswell refills frequently.

BOSWELL  (finishing a letter)

I remain,

Your humble servant,

James Boswell

(Repeats, self-satisfied, to himself)

Yes, James Boswell. I think that people will remember James Boswell.  Thanks to Johnson, I shall go down in history!

(To audience).  I know this is Johnson’s story, but you can’t keep me out of it for long.  My profession is hanging on to great people, and I’m really very good at it.  I am also a lawyer in Scotland, but that’s by the bye.  I met Voltaire in France in 1763.  Over 20 years ago now.  I met Jean-Jacques Rousseau, yes, the great Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in 1764.  Oh yes, I am a great meeter!  I met the Corsican patriot, Pasquale Paoli, the year after, in 1765, and I wrote a book about him.  But now I am back here, in London.  London!  “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life!” I didn’t say that, he did.  No, not Rousseau or Paoli but Johnson.  “The full tide of human existence is at Charing Cross!”  That’s Johnson again.  Every day he came out with pronouncements like that, and I just wrote them down.  I’m just a scribe really, but without me how much of his conversation would have been lost!

He is a great man, the greatest of my great men.  A pity you never heard him!  You’ve heard of him probably.  Have you?  Be honest now! The name rings a bell, does it? But not much more? Just a little bell? Well, I’ll soon put that right! A pity you never heard him talk!  I remember seeing him in his room at midday.  He hadn’t been up long, his clothes needed sewing here and there, they didn’t seem to fit quite right, his wig was awry but when he started to talk, none of that mattered! Yes, you never heard him talk. That’s what comes of not living in the 18th century! You’ve missed it all by coming later. How strange are the things that took place before we are born.  We accept them and we know they happened, but they really don’t mean much to us.  We can’t feel them, can we! Yes, it’s a pity that you missed out on London in those times! Not that you could help it!  We can’t choose our entrances any more than we can choose our exits. But you are unlucky not to have coincided with Johnson.

Still, you have me!  I’m doing my best!  I’m writing it all down.  I’m writing his life, you see, and it’s taking me a lot longer than I thought it would.  It’s a promise I made to myself and, in a way, to him too.   I think it will be worthwhile.  The world ought to know what sort of man he was.  Yes, when I finish this, I’ll be leaving behind something of value.

Where are we?  (Finding his place in his writing)  Yes, that’s it. (He writes) May 27th, 1768.  Anno aetatis suae 59.  “Anno aetatis suae”, the year of his age. How old he is!  Latin!  How Latin has declined since then!  If you had lived in the 18th century, you would have had to do something about your Latin.  Every educated person knew Latin then.  When Johnson was a very young man, he wanted to tell his doctor in Lichfield about the state of his mind. He analysed his own case and sent his doctor the details of the symptoms in Latin! Yes, just think of that!  

Now nobody would understand a word he wrote!  Alas!  O tempora, o mores!  What times we live in, what…! Oh, never mind! Forget it!

Where was I?  Ah yes, May 27th, 1768. Friday. It’s a Friday. He is now the Johnson of history.  Famous.  He has produced his great dictionary.  He has written his one-man periodical, ‘The Rambler’.  He has written ‘Rasselas’. ‘The Rambler’? ‘Rasselas’? The titles don’t mean much to you? They will soon. Just stay around! Now everyone recognizes Johnson as he lurches down Fleet Street, as he sits in the coffee house, and as he drinks in the Mitre Tavern. But it wasn’t always like that, you know. Far from it!  It was a long hard climb, a very long and a very hard climb indeed.

Now, I’ll put you in the picture, but I promise I won’t bore you with all the details. They’re all in my book anyway. You can buy a copy as you go out. (He looks up) No? The books haven’t arrived! Well, well! Never mind! Here we go! Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield.  That’s the city with the cathedral with three spires. It’s worth a visit. So, like Shakespeare, he was from the Midlands, and like Shakespeare he was pulled to the great magnet of London when he was young. His parents were… but you aren’t interested in all that.  I’m not interested in all that.  I put it all here in the book, but I didn’t spend long on it.  I want to get on with the later part, the part where I come in. So, we can skip a little.  (He turns over the early pages of what he has written).  Oh, this bit is important. Oxford!