Image: A meeting of The Club. From the left: James Boswell, Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Pasqual Paoli, Charles Burney, Thomas Warton, Oliver Goldsmith. Painting by James William Edmund Doyle.
Johnson’s house. Levet comes shuffling in from the right. Miss Williams is sitting on the far left, sewing. Levet looks around the room.
LEVET No Johnson? Isn’t Johnson at home? Where is he?
(He walks over to Miss Williams and shouts in her ear.) Where is he tonight then?
MISS WILLIAMS (She jumps in surprise and pricks her finger with the needle.) Oah! I am blind not deaf!
LEVET (to himself) Yes, you’re blind alright, Miss W! I don’t know why she insists on sewing. Ridiculous! (He mimics her.) Can I sew that button on for you, Mr Johnson?
MISS WILLIAMS What was that?
LEVET (Impatiently) I said I was looking for Mr Johnson.
MISS WILLIAMS It’s Friday.
LEVET I know it’s Friday! Lord, what a woman!
MISS WILLIAMS It’s Friday so he’s at The Club. Sir Joshua will be there and Edmund Burke and Goldsmith. That scallywag Boswell will be there, hanging on his coat sleeve as usual. Ugh! That man gives me the creeps! I don’t know how Mr Johnson can stand him. He was only elected to the Club because Mr Johnson insisted on it. (She holds her hands together in a pathetically wistful way, Cinderella dreaming of the ball.) Yes, they will be a glittering company tonight. (To Levet) And no one will outshine him. Of that you can be sure.
LEVET Hmph! (He sees Hodge sleeping on a chair.) Poor Hodge! Left alone again. But you like to be alone, don’t you? You and your master keep much the same hours, you know. He’s out till the middle of the night, and so are you. He’s in bed half the morning, when honest folk are working, and so are you. But you are different from him in one way, Hodge. You like to be alone. All cats like to be alone. But he surrounds himself with company. He hedges himself with friends. That’s the long and the short of it, Hodge. And you must remember that. You must keep him company in the early hours and not stay out mousing or whatever you’re about. And I must keep him company, and even poor Williams must keep him company. (Quietly to Hodge) Though what solace that old witch can provide is beyond me!
MISS WILLIAMS What was that?
LEVET I’m going out, Miss W. I’m off down to my club (he pauses). We meet at the White Hart round the corner. Fine company, fine talk and fine beer, Miss W. (He shouts back to the cat as he leaves.) Remember what I said, Hodge. Keep him company!!
MISS WILLIAMS (To herself) And now he will be laying down some tenet of the most abstruse moral philosophy. If only I could be there! If only women were men! Heavens, we can drink port as well as they can, and as for talk, ha, we can certainly talk better! Ah well. I wonder what he is saying now. I wonder.
(She goes out as the light on her fades. Johnson and Boswell enter from the other side of the stage. They are walking home through the narrow streets of London off the Strand.)
JOHNSON (Pointing to the ground with his stick.) This is a drain! This, Bozzy, on the side of the road here, is a drain.
BOSWELL I beg your pardon?
JOHNSON This is the way back home, Bozzy, because this is the drain. I remember it well. I fell into it over twenty years ago! Those were the days, Bozzy. Those were the days! You would have enjoyed living in London then. Then there were some great men for you to talk to! We are all ordinary now. There are no giants left. Anyway, this is my drain and so we must go (he points with his stick) this way. This is a short cut to the Strand. I know my London, Bozzy. Well, we had a good talk at the club tonight!
BOSWELL Yes, you tossed and gored several people! Goldsmith was quiet though.
JOHNSON Yes, Goldsmith is not well. He’s not himself. But it’s good for Goldie to be quiet. He gets on in a conversation without knowing where to get off! But he is a good man, Bozzy. You know he’s written a play? It will be performed in Covent Garden very soon. “She Stoops to Conquer.” Mistaking a house for an inn, or an inn for a house or something like that. But it will live, Bozzy. That play will live, and that is what matters. I wrote a verse drama once. High tragedy. “Irene” it was called. But who wants a play in verse today? A play in verse will never succeed on the stage of London again! The subject was good, the poetry was not bad, but it won’t live, Bozzy. I fact, it has died off already! The public don’t like it, and they’re right! It doesn’t amuse them, and they have a right to be amused. They pay their money, after all. But Goldsmith’s play will live.
There! Here we are, Charing Cross! Look! Just look, Bozzy. Look at London passing by. This is the centre of the world! The full tide of human existence is at Charing Cross! (Boswell whips out his notepad to write this down.)
BOSWELL “The full tide…”
JOHNSON (Impatiently) Let’s get on now!
BOSWELL I am taking notes, Sir.
BOSWELL For a life. For your life, Sir. To write your life.
JOHNSON (His first reaction is to explode with anger. Then he reconsiders the idea.) If you do it at all, Bozzy, you must do it well. Yes, I think you will do it well.
BOSWELL So I can continue? I have your blessing?
JOHNSON Do what you can, Bozzy. It is good to read other men’s lives. In that way we can amend our own. There may be something in mine worth the telling. But God preserve anyone else from having to live something similar. Here we are! The Strand, Bozzy. I said we’d come out in The Strand.
BOSWELL You once wrote a poem about the Strand, I believe Sir.
JOHNSON Not about the Strand, Bozzy. The Strand is a fine street. No. I was just angry at this mania for ballads. Everyone is writing ballads. Everyone has gone mock-medieval. Most fashions are ridiculous, and so is this one. Ballads are child’s play. I could talk in ballad stanzas all night. Listen!
“I put my hat upon my head,
And walked into The Strand,
And there I met another man
With his hat in his hand.”
That was the poem I wrote, and it is absolute rubbish! Here’s another!
“I went to have a cup of tea
Quite near Trafalgar Square,
But when I looked for that tea house,
I found it wasn’t there!”
BOSWELL Yes Sir.
“The king of England has a cat,
Which caught a mouse last night.
And then …”
BOSWELL (Interrupting) Yes, Sir. Perhaps that is enough.
JOHNSON Well, yes. Perhaps it is. Look we are home, Bozzy. You’ll take tea with Miss Williams?
BOSWELL But it’s nearly half past one!
JOHNSON Miss Williams will be up and waiting. Look up there! Can’t you see her old mob cap at the window? She’s looking out for me, although she is as blind as a bat, poor old dear. I call that fortitude. There. She’s gone. (Mischievously) She’ll be filling your cup of tea already!
BOSWELL Yes, I’m afraid she will. (Resigned) Lead on then, Sir. (Johnson goes ahead and Boswell turns to the audience) I remember an occasion soon after I met Johnson. Goldsmith was there too, and we had been in one of the taverns, the Essex Head I think it was, or it may have been the Mitre. We came out into the cold night air, and it was very late, just like tonight. Anyway, Goldsmith and Johnson started to walk off together, and Goldsmith turned round. He shouted “I go to drink tea with Miss Williams” as if Miss Williams were the Queen of England. And how I envied him. He was invited to Johnson’s house, the sanctum sanctorum! And now I, too, am invited to tea with Miss Williams. When we finally achieve what we long for, then we start to long for something else. And so we pass our time in longing. (Confiding to the audience) That’s philosophy!
BOSWELL I’m coming! Up I go then.
JOHNSON (More impatiently) Bozzy!
BOSWELL (Seeing the cat) Hello, Hodge. Yes, I’ve become more fussy about how Miss Williams pours the tea, haven’t I, Hodge? Come on. Let’s go in and see Miss Williams. (He goes in)
JOHNSON Come on, man. Hodge isn’t the only one who will put up with you.
MISS WILLIAMS (Looking angrily at Boswell) Ah I see we need another cup. Or perhaps the gentleman is not staying?
JOHNSON Yes, of course he’s staying. Another cup please Miss Williams.
(Boswell joins Johnson and Miss Williams at the tea table. She has two cups ready and makes a great show of grudgingly going to the cupboard for a third.)
MISS WILLIAMS Who was at The Club this evening, Sir?
JOHNSON We were all there. Garrick and Burke and Reynolds. Lanky was there, and so was Goldsmith, though he wasn’t well. And Beauclerk was there, but he wasn’t well either. Bozzy, did you notice that Beauclerk looked pale?
BOSWELL (Hurriedly to the audience) Topham Beauclerk, wit, man of society, direct descendant of Charles II, Nell Gwyn, you know, recently married to…
JOHNSON (Thundering) Bozzy! Pay attention! Did you notice that Beauclerk looked pale? He was not himself.
BOSWELL I think he is having disagreements with his wife.
JOHNSON Disagreements! I am not surprised!
BOSWELL (To audience again) His wife is a daughter of the Duke of Marlborough, and she was married to Viscount Bolingbroke. She left the Viscount to marry our friend, Beauclerk. A divorce. Great scandal. You know the sort of thing. Best hushed up. The trouble is that everyone in England knows about it!
(To Johnson) Perhaps if I had a word with her. I might be able to help?
JOHNSON Never meddle in another person’s marriage! They are a pair. Married people are paired off and that’s it. They are formidable. Do not meddle, Bozzy! You would be cut to shreds!
MISS WILLIAMS And what was the topic at The Club this evening?
BOSWELL Why, the very subject we are discussing now. Matrimony! Langton mentioned marriage, and you said, Sir…
JOHNSON (To Miss Williams as Boswell is searching through his notes for the quote.)
Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures!
MISS WILLIAMS True, true.
BOSWELL Ah, here it is. “Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures!”
(Johnson and Miss Williams exchange a patient glance.)
And then you said, about a man who had married for the second time… (He searches in his notes again.)
JOHNSON (To Miss Williams) A second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.
MISS WILLIAMS Absolutely!
BOSWELL (Reading his notes) I’ve got it! “A second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience!”
JOHNSON Yes, Bozzy, very good. Very good. Serve the tea please, Miss Williams. Serve the tea.
BOSWELL Tea! Oh dear! Yes, just a little please, Miss Williams, just a little. Half a cup is fine. No need to fill it to the top!
(She does fill it to the top, and, as always, tests with her finger to check how full it is.)