BOSWELL (At the side of the stage.) Johnson’s tour of friends is over for this year, and he is now back in London. This morning he went to the funeral of Robert Levet. Losing old friends is beginning to take its toll.
(Johnson comes into his room wearily. He throws aside his black hat and sits down at his table.)
JOHNSON A funeral is a miserable business. And what a day! A cold wind with rain and sleet. Typical of January, I suppose. And that graveyard by the church must have been the coldest place in London this morning. I love a wedding, but I hate a funeral. But this was different. This was for Robert Levet, poor man. He kept going right to the end and then went suddenly. That’s the best way when all’s said and done. God preserve me from a long, lingering illness at the end. Robert Levet! He made a good job of life. There was one thing he was really good at and that was taking care of sick people. And he did that well. Now let’s see. I’ll do my best for you, Robert! I’ll do my best.
(He picks up his pen and writes.)
‘On the Death of Dr Robert Levet’ Yes, that’s a good title. Clear and to the point.
‘His virtues walked their narrow round,
Nor made a pause, nor left a void,
And sure th’Eternal Master found
The single talent well employ’d.’
That’s it. Whatever gift we have, we must use it! He was a good doctor. He put his patients first. They were just the ordinary people living round here.
‘Of every friendless name the friend.’
How many doctors can say that?
‘Well tried through many a varying year
See Levet to the grave descend.
Helpful, innocent, sincere,
Of every friendless name the friend.’
One of the worst things about growing old is that so many of your friends go before you. Garrick has gone.
‘Death has eclipsed the gaiety of nations.’
Goldsmith has gone. Poor Goldy! No one can arrest him for debt again! And we shall not hear Topham Beauclerk any more. He was a generation younger than me! It doesn’t seem a moment since he was at college, and then so quickly the whole thing is wrapped up. Everything that you are born for, educated for, schooled for! All that preparation and then the whole thing is over so quickly.
Or do we carry our mind and our accomplishments with us? I do hope so. We must do! All our struggles here are not for nothing. All we learn here, all our effort to do things a little better will be useful in the place where we are going. (Firmly) It is not all for nothing.
Poor Levet. When your old friends go that’s sad. Poor Beauclerk. When young friends go, that is sadder still.
Henry Thrale has gone, and Miss Williams and now Levet. I wonder if Williams and Levet will quarrel in heaven. Is quarrelling permitted there? They did so love a good argument. Is Williams still tripping over Hodge there, I wonder? And cursing him as she did when she thought I wasn’t in the room? Is she still blind? Is Hodge there? Perhaps Williams and Levet will be allowed one good quarrel a week. We must be allowed some earthly joys. Eternal bliss would be terribly tedious.
(He picks up a picture on his desk.)
A picture of Hector. Edmund Hector. We were at school together. At least Hector is still going strong. The Grammar School at Lichfield! It seemed a huge place to us then. And how small it seems now. But how great we were then! We were schoolboys and we revelled in it. How we laughed at the rest of the world! Every schoolboy is a potential prime minister, a potential anything. He is not yet classified. Tinker, tailor, soldier sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief! Once you have left school you are committed. The die is cast and you carry out a job and follow its established morality. You are labelled, and then the new young will schoolboys laugh at you. Ha! And so it goes on! And we all thought we would be ‘boy eternal’.
How we used to read, Hector and I. We would devour books!
(He picks up the books on the table one by one as he names them, and holds each one in his hand.)
Here they are! ‘Robinson Crusoe’, ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ and ‘Don Quixote’. I started to love them when I was at school, and I still love them now. These are the only books that I wish were longer. When you come to think about it, they are all books about travellers, aren’t they! The journey is what matters after all, not the destination, and it is a long journey after you leave school.
(He picks up another book.)
Ha, this one is mine! ‘The Lives of the Poets’. I enjoyed writing that. I wrote it to please myself. At least, I have never been anyone else’s slave. Looking back, I find that important. A precarious independence, yes, but independence none the less. I have always been my own man! Lord Chesterfield, God rest his soul, was witness to that. I have never had to bend the knee or knuckle under to anyone. I have seen weak men write what they were told to write for this faction or that faction. I have seen good men give their best to their employer for years and then be turned off at the last.
It is the unscrupulous that reach the top in this world! I wonder where they will be in the next. The quiet, honest man gets nowhere.
(He picks up a paper.)
Now, what’s this? What a mess everything is in here. Everything mixed up together. ‘A prayer for Easter Sunday’. Well, I wrote this years ago.
(He reads it quickly, mumbling incoherently as he goes through the lines, but he reads the last line slowly and clearly.)
‘Oh dear Lord, keep me sane.’
Sane, yes. Sanity. If you lose your reason, you lose everything. Just when you think you’ve got everything right, when you think you have the future clearly mapped out, something goes wrong further up the road. Now I am over seventy and I still face all the old doubts and struggles. There is never peace. There is always another hill looming up in front of you.
Battling with your nerves is like fitting a balloon into a bag. You push it in one side and it pops out somewhere else. I have waited seventy years for the change. Jut to wake up one morning calm, composed and happy as when I was a child. Just to be able to tackle the day with no more ado. That day will never come, I’m afraid.
But I will fight it. I will not win. I cannot win. Madness has a hundred heads! As you cut off one, another grows in its place. But I do not think I shall lose the battle. No, I shall not be beaten. Nil desperandum! Never despair!
What a mess this table is in! So many odds and ends to tidy up! I think a good fire is the answer. A good blaze! Now let’s see!
(He gathers together a huge pile of papers and with them walks over to the grate where he gets down heavily on his knees.)
Let’s get this going. It should have been lit hours ago! There is nothing like lighting a good fire for cheering you up! Nothing!