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Part 16. Dinner at the Thrales

BOSWELL  (At the side of the stage. To audience.)  Mr and Mrs Thrale often invited Johnson to stay with them at their house in Streatham. They gave him their company and added some comfort to his irregular life and habits. In return, he introduced them to his friends: poets and playwrights, lawyers and politicians, actors and painters.  

A large and impressive table is set for dinner. Boswell enters reverently and walks round it, looking at the settings.

BOSWELL London again! Another year! Lord, I am past thirty. Well, we’re not exactly in London, but in Streatham. In the country. Yes, this is Streatham Place, the house of the Thrales. Henry and Esther Thrale, friends of Johnson. And at last, I, James Boswell, am invited to dine here. Now, where is it?

(He runs over and picks up his name card, breathes a sigh of relief and reads proudly.)

‘James Boswell’.

(Then he goes to the setting at the head of the table and picks up the name card there.)

‘Henry Thrale’. He’s a brewer. In fact, he owns the biggest brewery in London. He’s as rich as Croesus. He could buy up a dozen such as me.

(He walks round the table to the other end and reads the card.)

‘Hester’. That’s his wife. She has been a good friend to Johnson. She has taken him in, well, he even has his own room here in Streatham Place. She has looked after him and given him all the little luxuries of good living that he has been so long without. Well, he has never really had them. But it works both ways. You see, Hester Thrale provides her home, and he brings himself and the cream of literary society (He pauses) and he brings me! Yes, Hester Thrale has brightened up this part of his life though I don’t like to admit it! No, oh no. James Boswell must not be pushed out of the place of honour in the Johnson story!

(He picks up a card and reads it.)

‘Bennet Langton’. Yes, Lanky is a fine man. He’s good-natured and a friend to everyone.

(He reads another card.) ‘Oliver Goldsmith’. So Goldy is coming. Now, who’s this?

(He picks up another name and reads.) ‘Sir Joshua Reynolds’.

(He continues around the table, looking at the cards.)

‘Edmund Burke’, ‘Topham Beauclerk’. Ah, ha! We are all here tonight! Notice I said ‘we’! All the clan!

(He picks up his own card again and reads it importantly.)

‘James Boswell’! I think I look alright in this company, don’t you? I fit in on my own merits, don’t I?

(He addresses Sir Joshua’s chair.)

Don’t I, Sir Joshua? No? But I will. Just wait till I have written my life of Johnson.  You won’t laugh so much then.

(He picks up the last card.)

And this must be ‘Dr Samuel… (The door flies open, and Johnson comes in wheezing.) …Johnson’.

JOHNSON Oh those stairs, Bozzy. They’ll be the death of me. That’s the trouble with big houses. The stairs. When are they going to invent something that just lifts you up to the next floor. A sort of cage you can just step into which rises with ropes and pulleys and so on. Just think about it, Bozzy!

 BOSWELL Well, we must leave something for future generations to do!  I was just seeing who is coming this evening.

JOHNSON And you are hiding yourself away here. That’s not like you at all. Now listen. Lanky and Beauclerk have sent to say that they cannot come. Sir Joshua is late, and Burke is late and that is most unlike them. Goldsmith is never early but even he should be here by now. In short, this dinner is turning into a shambles.

(He shouts loudly.)

 Mr Thrale, Sir.

 (Henry Thrale enters. He is clearly the host, but he good-naturedly lets Johnson do most of the talking.)

With your permission, Sir, we will begin.

 (Hester Thrale enters hurriedly.)

HESTER THRALE Ah, Dr Johnson! Am I late?

JOHNSON Not at all, Madam. No lady can be late in their own house! But I was just saying to your husband that as everyone else is late, we might as well begin.
HESTER THRALE Of course, Sir.

(They sit around the table, leaving empty chairs for the guests who are still to arrive. As they are sorting out places, Johnson speaks to Mrs Thrale in his whisper, which resembles a shout.)

JOHNSON Look at Boswell. He is famished. He could eat an ox. They don’t feed him much in Scotland, and so like a camel he fills himself up where he can. This is a real outing for him, you know. He’ll talk of nothing else for the next week!

BOSWELL It is a great pity that all your guests could not attend this evening, Madam. Now I cannot tell everyone that I dined at the house of Mr and Mrs Thrale with Burke, Reynolds and Goldsmith!

JOHNSON Forget yourself, Sir. Your sentences always start with ‘I’. You suffer from ‘Boswellitis’. Anyway, you can still say, ‘I was lucky enough to dine with Mr and Mrs Thrale and with Johnson.’ There’s nothing much wrong with that! We (looking at the Thrales) are the cream of the company! Or you could say…

HENRY THRALE (Receiving a note from the servant) Excuse me, Dr Johnson. A note from Reynolds. He regrets very much that he cannot come tonight.

 JOHNSON Then remove his chair. I cannot abide empty chairs.

(Mr Thrale nods to a servant, who then takes away Reynolds’ chair.)

(Johnson turns to Boswell.)

Or you could say, ‘I was invited to dine at Streatham Park, the house of Mr and Mrs Thrale, with Reynolds, Burke and Goldsmith.’ They were invited even though they did not come! That would create the impression you are looking for. The impression is what counts today, I am afraid. People love to puff themselves up. In fact, Bozzy, you are often guilty of it yourself.

 BOSWELL Well perhaps those with real ability never need to blow their own trumpet, I don’t know. But those with half a talent, or less, like me, we need to bombast a bit to cover up what is missing!

 (He offers Johnson some wine.)

JOHNSON No, not tonight, Bozzy.

BOSWELL Oh, just a little, Sir.

JOHNSON (A little angry) I cannot take ‘just a little’, so I shall take none.

HESTER THRALE Are you against wine drinking then, Sir?

JOHNSON Not at all, Madam. Quite the contrary. Wine may do some evil, but it does a lot of good. It makes people friendlier to each other, and that is no bad thing. But for me abstinence is easier than temperance.

(While Johnson is speaking, the servant brings another note to Henry Thrale.)

HENRY THRALE Excuse me, Dr Johnson. A note from Burke. He regrets that he is held up in Parliament and doubts whether he will be able to come.

JOHNSON Then remove his chair. (The servant does so.) Today I will not drink, but I have drunk nobly in the past. I have drunk two bottles of port at a sitting. Go to Oxford and ask them at University College.

HENRY THRALE But do you approve of a man drinking on his own, Sir? Drinking is surely a social pastime.

JOHNSON I have often drunk on my own, and very often I did so when I was young. At that time my own company was the worst company I could have. (Cheering up) Give me your hand, Bozzy, and yours, my good lady! Ha! Many men enjoy their best friendships when they are young, and then they finish old and lonely and irritable. But in my case, I have kept the best wine until last! (The servant brings Henry Thrale another note.)

HENRY THRALE One moment, Dr Johnson. A note from Goldsmith.

JOHNSON Goldsmith! Since when has Goldsmith been in the habit of sending notes? He must be drinking with Reynolds and Burke, and he is copying them!

HENRY THRALE He hopes, he says, to be with us later.

BOSWELL Sir Joshua is no doubt putting the finishing touches to the portrait of some peer of the realm. Burke is probably at this moment embarking on one of the finest speeches ever delivered in the House of Commons.

JOHNSON (To Hester Thrale) You should hear a speech by Burke, Madam. It does one good to hear the English language used by someone who knows how to use it.

BOSWELL But Goldsmith! What can Goldsmith have to do?

JOHNSON (Angrily) When you have written as well as Oliver Goldsmith has, Sir, and when your works have given as much pleasure to people as his have done, and when you have lived through half the troubles that he has lived through, then you will have some right to talk on the subject. Oliver Goldsmith is a fine man.

 (A servant brings in an enormous serving dish with a suckling pig with an apple in its mouth.)

JOHNSON Well, well. This a feast for the captains and the kings!

HESTER THRALE (Apologetically) We were to have been nine, you know.
(As the servant goes, Johnson shouts after him.)

JOHNSON Mr Goldsmith’s chair, if you please, Sir.

HESTER THRALE (To the servant) Could you take away this chair, please.

HENRY THRALE I was going into the brewery at Southwark this morning, and I passed a group of beggars by the roadside. Three men and two women. I stopped and I gave them a few shillings. I did my day’s work and on my way back they were all sitting in the same spot and they were all drinking. As it was my beer they were enjoying, I said nothing. In fact, I gave them some more money. But the money they spent on my beer could have been better used.

JOHNSON Sir, you provide them with the temptation of drink and then criticise them for drinking. Why criticise a poor man who eases the pain of life with a pint of beer? You like your beer, Sir, and your life is easy. Imagine theirs. They have more right to a glass of beer to sweeten their miserable existence than you or I. Have the poor no right to any pleasures?

BOSWELL But it is wrong to spend so much on beer.

JOHNSON If you were poor, you would not talk of right or wrong. Morals are superfluous when you have no money!

HESTER THRALE You are lenient, Sir.

JOHNSON I am practical, Madam.
(He looks defiantly at Boswell)
A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization. That is what the greatness of any country should be judged on; the life of its poor not the life of its rich.
(He turns to Boswell)
Don’t you agree, Bozzy?

BOSWELL (Hurriedly) Oh, yes, I do. Wholeheartedly.

JOHNSON Good. Now, can we be less extended? This is like talking to a meeting.

(They all stand and, moving their chairs, sit together at one end of the table.)

HESTER THRALE  It seems that you would have all men equal, Sir.

JOHNSON I would not. That is impossible and intolerable.

HESTER THRALE But perhaps we should do everything to make it possible, Sir. We should try.

JOHNSON You see that man over there? (He points at the servant standing in the background.)

HESTER THRALE Yes, of course.

JOHNSON Well, ask him to sit down and have dinner with us. He can have Sir Joshua’s chair. There is no shortage of chairs.


JOHNSON Now, come on!


JOHNSON If we believe in something, we should do it and not talk about it. Well, let’s have no more of this talk. It is foolish.

BOSWELL (Whispering to Hester Thrale) There’s no point in arguing with Johnson. As Goldsmith once said, ‘If his pistol misses fire, he turns it round and knocks you down with the butt end of it!’ You, Madam, have just been knocked down with the butt end.

 JOHNSON (To Boswell) What are you mumbling abut, Sir?

BOSWELL (To Hester Thrale). Now just watch me! (To Johnson) But, Sir, there are many people who would reshape society. They would have all people on the same level. The levellers, as we call them. That is a noble idea, is it not?

JOHNSON Your levellers are all very well but they have only one thing in mind. They want to level everyone down to themselves. This is very convenient. They are not so keen on levelling people up to themselves. I love a man who helps his neighbour, but God protect us all from theoretical radicals.

BOSWELL (Aloud, to Hester Thrale.) Oh dear. The pistol fired first time then. There was no need for the butt end!

JOHNSON Only the poor can really feel for the poor.

HESTER THRALE But surely, Sir you must admit that people can use their money to do some good.

JOHNSON But what is their motive, Madam? They are thinking of their own souls. If you feed a hungry man because it is a good deed to feed a hungry man, then you are thinking of your own salvation and not the man’s stomach. If you feed him to give him the pleasant feeling of being full for once in his life, then you are getting somewhere. ‘As cold as charity!’ That’s a wonderful expression, you know. Your heart has to be in it!

BOSWELL So we should give less?

 JOHNSON Give more or give less, you should clear your minds of cant and hypocrisy, yes, and you should clear your souls too. You, my dear lady, and you, Bozzy, have never been without money. For you money is always to hand. Imagine you are without a room in this great city. As it begins to get dark, you look at all the people in the street and you know that every one of them has a house to go to. You wander down a cold alley at three in the morning, walking quickly to keep warm, looking up at the curtains of the sleepers all snug in their beds. You steal half a loaf of bread and are condemned to hang by a judge who has his dinner waiting for him when he gets home. A generous man (He looks at Henry Thrale) throws you a sovereign which you use to get drunk. For this you offend the scruples of those who have money to both buy bread and to get drunk. Let’s have no more of this talk! If you please, Sir, (To Henry Thrale) carve the pork!

(Sir Joshua Reynolds comes hurrying in.)

REYNOLDS I am late. No excuses, none at all. I think real friends can arrive late without excuses.

JOHNSON You are in time, Sir, for the meat, and here is Boswell ready to write down everything you say, so don’t waste your breath in inconsequential trivia. We must not try the patience of posterity.

HESTER THRALE You are very welcome, Sir Joshua. (The servant brings back a chair, and they spread out again to give space. Then Edmund Burke arrives.)

HENRY THRALE Why, here’s Burke. Come in, Sir. Come in!

HESTER THRALE (To Burke) And the debate in the House? Can they manage without you?

BURKE They will have to manage without me, Madam. I said my little piece and I left them to it. (A chair is brought for Burke and the others rearrange themselves.) Sir Joshua, my carriage has been chasing yours all the way from Westminster. Why did you not stop? I called out when you sallied by.

REYNOLDS My good fellow, I have difficulty in hearing even Johnson when he is thundering at my elbow. How could I hear you shouting in a street in Westminster? Besides, everyone shouts in Westminster. Westminster is the ideal place to be deaf in.

JOHNSON Well, Sir Joshua, as for… (Goldsmith arrives.)

GOLDSMITH (To Mrs Thrale) Madam, a thousand apologies. I am not early.

JOHNSON Goldy, you are late. Now sit down and stop fussing! (A chair is brought for Goldsmith, and they all rearrange themselves again. They have no sooner sat down than Langton and Beauclerk arrive. Beauclerk has obviously been drinking.)

BEAUCLERK (Loudly, as he enters, helped by Langton.) Hello everybody! Hello!

HENRY THRALE And here is Beauclerk. Shepherded in by Langton.

LANGTON (Apologetically) We had a little drink on the way.

JOHNSON So it appears. Chairs, chairs, more chairs! Now we are a company!

BEAUCLERK What a sight! Roast pork! I love roast pork!

BURKE This is not yet an Alexandrian feast!

LANGTON It ripens towards it.

BOSWELL What’s that? What’s that?

JOHNSON It’s Shakespeare, Bozzy! It’s Shakespeare! I’ll explain it to you later. Don’t worry yourself about it! (They are still standing as they talk.)

BEAUCLERK We are very late. (To Hester Thrale) Excuse us, please, Madam, but Langton here was throbbed of his hearse by a peef. No, no, Madam. One moment. Langton’s curse was … No, wait…his purse was…

BOSWELL What he means, Mrs Thrale, is…

JOHNSON (Impatiently) Will you all sit down!

HESTER THRALE Yes, Sir. (She and everyone else sit down quickly.)

JOHNSON Sir Joshua, as I was saying…

REYNOLDS (Not hearing at all) Pardon?

JOHNSON As I was saying…

REYNOLDS You were praying, Sir?

JOHNSON By heaven, we were better off before they all arrived!

REYNOLDS I am sorry, Dr Johnson, but my mind was elsewhere. I was telling Burke about my nephew in Devon. He is about to join the navy.

BURKE A fine career. The future of this country depends on its navy. If our navy is strong, everything else will be fine.

GOLDSMITH Everyone loves a sailor. It’s a grand life. I remember when…

 JOHNSON It’s a terrible life, Sir. Being in a ship is being in a jail.

GOLDSMITH (To Boswell) The pistol again!

JOHNSON With the chance of being drowned!

BOSWELL (To Goldsmith) Both barrels!

HENRY THRALE (To Johnson) A drink now, Sir.

BEAUCLERK Yes, please.

JOHNSON I will take…lemonade. But my lady and you gentlemen need something stronger. Claret is the liquor for boys.

BOSWELL Port for men.

JOHNSON But he who aspires to be a hero…

ALL Must drink brandy!

LANGTON After dinner we shall all be heroes, Sir.

GOLDSMITH I believe that…

JOHNSON All men are heroes after dinner. It is amazing how a full stomach changes one’s attitude to life.

HENRY THRALE If you all stay until Sunday, and you are very welcome to do so, you can hear the sermon that everybody is talking about. It will be given by a woman, a Methodist, and she is very good from what I hear.

 REYNOLDS What was that?

BOSWELL On Sunday there is a sermon by a female Methodist preacher.

REYNOLDS That’s what I thought he said, but then I thought I had misheard. Well, well.

BURKE I see nothing to surprise you. If she speaks sense and speaks well, she should be heard.

BEAUCLERK And if she’s pretty, I’ll go along too.

JOHNSON Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at all.

HESTER THRALE Mr Johnson, this is not fair. You yourself heard her last week, and you said she spoke well.

JOHNSON You are right, Madam, as always. I am a cantankerous old man. It takes me time to get used to new things. I admit it. Yes, I heard her. She spoke well and sensibly. It just takes me time to get used to change.

HENRY THRALE Well now, that’s enough of that. Beauclerk, I hear you are off on your travels soon?

BEAUCLERK Yes, I am away to Ireland next week. You’re Irish, Burke. Tell me. What sights should I see?

BURKE You must go to the Devil’s Causeway. It is a staircase of enormous blocks of stone. Remarkable.


JOHNSON Yes, the Devil’s Causeway is worth seeing.

GOLDSMITH There you are…
(He looks at Johnson for a moment to make sure he is not going to be interrupted once more.) …then. There you have it.
(To Beauclerk) Tell them when you get there that you have Dr Johnson’s approbation. He says that the Devil’s Causeway is a sight worth going to see.

JOHNSON Goldy, I said nothing of the sort.

GOLDSMITH With great respect, Sir, I believe you did.

JOHNSON I said the Devil’s Causeway is worth seeing. I did not say it was worth going to see. With great respect, Sir, there is a difference.

GOLDSMITH The butt end! I rest my case.

JOHNSON A toast! Bozzy, will you put down your notebook for a moment and pick up a glass! Your long-suffering readers must allow us a moment to ourselves. Madam, Sir, Gentlemen. To friendship! It is the one thing on earth that suggests heaven to come. (He raises his glass.) To my friends! (They all raise their glasses.)

ALL To our friends.

GOLDSMITH I feel half a hero already.

BOSWELL (Leaving the table and approaching the audience.) Well, that supper didn’t finish till three in the morning, and … (He sees Johnson coming.) Excuse me. (Boswell goes off.)

JOHNSON (Muttering to himself.) They mostly see me as I try to be seen, Dictionary Johnson, Shakespeare Johnson and all that. I perform reasonably well but inside there is only doubt. Bozzy sees it a little, and so does she, Hester Thrale, I mean. They see through me. Everyone does a little, I suppose, they see through the chinks in the armour. I’ll never know how much. Well, we all have our doubts and our misgivings….or do we? Is everyone as confused as me? Does anyone really live as blithe and serene as they appear? If so, they are lucky. Some do, I’m sure. Beauclerk does. He is happy by accident. He hasn’t worked at it. He hasn’t toiled for a moment’s peace. But on we go. The cheerful front! The smiling face! Be a bear, contradict everyone, be a little odd, but don’t be gloomy and don’t be tedious. No, at least I shall never bore people! To bore people is the worst sin of all.

(He goes.)

(Boswell comes quietly back.)

BOSWELL Well, as I was saying, that little do didn’t finish until three o’clock in the morning. None of us got back to London last night. We all slept at Streatham place, and we were all round the table again at breakfast. Yes, the Thrales are good to Johnson, and he knows it. He appreciates his friends. We all should.
(As he goes off.)
‘A man should keep his friendship in constant repair.’  (Consulting his notes) Now when did he say that? I know I’ve got it down here somewhere.