Part 6. The Dictionary Hangover

Image: Find the famous definition of ‘oats’ on this page of the Dictionary.

Johnson is sitting in his chair, next to his table, and looks tired. He touches the table.

JOHNSON Tetty never liked this table.  She said it was (he pauses) inelegant.  Of course, she used to have much finer furniture than this. But then we had to sell it all.  Ah well.

So, the Dictionary is done!  Finished!  Over!  What is strange is that all the time I was working on it, I was longing for the end, for the last of the Zs.  Now that it’s done, I miss it! I miss climbing the stairs to the dictionary room, I miss the men who wrote it out and I miss the printer getting angry because I was late in sending him something to print! I miss being part of the life of London! I was doing something then. I was relevant.  Now I have nothing to get up for.  There is nothing waiting for me.

What next?  A holiday?  A holiday!  What with?  The money I earned for the dictionary?  Ha!  I spent that long ago.

(There is a knocking at the door.  Johnson gets up and opens it.  Enter Sir Joshua Reynolds, finely dressed and very deaf.)

Why Reynolds, come in!  Come in!  It’s rare to see you east of Charing Cross, let alone in Gough Square. You have left your studio and your paintings to come and see me?  I am surprised you know your way down to the business end of London. 

REYNOLDS  I have bought the Dictionary, Sam!  Both volumes!  And I have been reading it!

JOHSON    Reading a dictionary?

REYNOLDS   Yes, reading it! I couldn’t put it down!  It’s a fine piece of work!

JOHNSON  Perhaps it is fine.  I don’t know! It’s certainly a lot of bulk.  You need a barrow to wheel it home! And now it is done. Do you know what the printer said when I sent the boy over with the last sheet, the last page of Zs?

REYNOLDS (He hasn’t heard.)  What was that?

JOHNSON (Shouting) What the printer said at the end!

REYNOLDS        What did the printer say at the end?

JOHNSON This is beginning to sound like a bad joke! (He repeats theatrically)  ‘What did the printer say at the end?’ (To Reynolds) He said, “Thank God I have done with him!” 

REYNOLDS          And what did you say?

JOHNSON  I sent the boy back to tell the printer that I was glad he thanked God for anything!

REYNOLDS    And so, after the Dictionary, what’s next?

JOHNSON Yes, what’s next? I have suddenly become an old man, Reynolds!  The moment I finished the last page of the dictionary, I became an old man.  That’s what happens with old age. If you keep it at bay, if you keep busy, you are all right, but the moment you stop what you’re doing, the moment you look at yourself in the mirror or the moment look at your old school friends, which is worse than looking in a mirror, you have a terrible shock. It happens to us all sometime sooner or later, Reynolds. It happens to us all.

REYNOLDS You were a long time at the dictionary.

JOHNSON It wasn’t so long a time, Reynolds.  Nine years.  When I began the dictionary, I had Tetty.  A death changes you, Reynolds.  It changes you.  She is not here to share anything anymore.  She only saw my worst years.  We must make the most of things while we have them, Reynolds.  There is no point in waiting for things to get better.  ‘I’ll do it when I have this, I’ll do that when I have the other!’ No, we must do it now, Reynolds, with whatever poor tools we have to hand. Tetty knew I was worth something.  But she has gone.  The dictionary has gone.

REYNOLDS        But now you have success. 

JOHNSON  Success!  What is success? Can you hold success? Can you hug success? Success is nothing! The struggle is what matters.  The applause at the end is immaterial! When fame does come, you wonder why you wanted it so much! It just slips between your fingers. Nothing at all. Just nothing.

REYNOLDS        Come on, Sam!  You have years of writing ahead of you.  Make a start now!

JOHNSON I feel I have done more than I will do, Reynolds, and that’s depressing.

REYNOLDS        None of us can go backwards!

JOHNSON (Smiling) Thank goodness!  No, we must go on!  We must go on!

(There is a loud knocking at the door.  Reynolds walks over and opens it and in comes Robert Levet, drunk, with a full bottle of gin in one hand.  He is dressed untidily and has a broad Yorkshire accent.)

LEVET       Evening all!  Evening, Mr Johnson. (He turns to Reynolds)  I don’t think I have had the pleasure.

JOHNSON (Introducing them.) 

Levet, this is Sir Joshua Reynolds, portrait painter to the aristocracy and the rich.

Reynolds, this is Robert Levet, doctor and a good friend to the poorest and the lowest of the low!

LEVET       (To Reynolds)  And, along with Miss Williams, who you will no doubt have the pleasure of meeting later, I am resident in this house, by courtesy of Mr Johnson here.

REYNOLDS        A what of this house, Sir?

LEVET      (He looks despairingly at Johnson and then shouts at Reynolds)  A resident!  A resident of this house, by courtesy of Mr Johnson!

JOHNSON Yes, we make an odd family.  (To Levet)  Will you sit down, Sir.  You are inebriated!

LEVET       I deny it.  I am not (stuttering over the word) inebriated.  I am drunk!  (To Reynolds) Have you noticed, Sir, that after a drink or two a gentleman is “inebriated”, and after a drink or two a lady is “tired”?  A man is drunk, and a woman is drunk, and that’s all there is to it.  I am common or garden drunk. The Palmers down Longbottom Alley had a bill of two months to settle.  They had no money, so they paid me in gin!  It would have been wrong to refuse.  Could I refuse, Sir Joshua?

REYNOLDS        No Sir.  It would have been very ungentlemanly to refuse.

JOHNSON (He gets up and finds three glasses in the cupboard.)  That bottle you’ve managed to get home without breaking.  We’ll join you in that.

LEVET       This bottle is one of a pair.  The other I finished between Longbottom Alley and here.  I delivered twins to Mrs Palmer, and so they gave me a bottle of gin for each child.  A pity it wasn’t triplets! (He looks at the bottle) This is for the little lady, Jane Mary Palmer, and for her sister, Sophia Nelly Palmer. They are both bonny babies! You wouldn’t find a bonnier baby in Kensington or in Knightsbridge.  It would have been wrong to refuse.

(Johnson fills the three glasses, and they raise them in a toast.)

JOHNSON  To Jane Mary and Sophia Nelly Palmer! A happy life!  (They drink.) Now any news from your end of London, Reynolds?  How is the business of portrait painting?

REYNOLDS        Fine, fine.  I have a long list of lords and ladies and their little ones all waiting!  But it’s not very exciting, you know.  They sit.  I paint.  They pay me, and so we go on.  (He turns to Levet)  But a doctor’s life, Mr Levet, is never dull!

LEVET      Listen a moment!  (He gets up from his chair, stands on it and recites very seriously.)

Doctor Fell fell down the well,

And broke his collar bone.

Doctors should attend the sick

And leave the well alone!

(Johnson and Reynolds exchange glances and Johnson shrugs his shoulders.)   

(Levet gets off the chair and turns to Johnson.)  That is poetry, Sir.

JOHNSON Well, yes, I suppose it is.  Of a sort.  Now listen to some of mine.

LEVET       Oh lord!

REYNOLDS        What’s that?

LEVET       (Louder, to Reynolds) We’re going to have some of his poetry.  Get ready!

JOHNSON (He starts to get up on the chair as Levet had done, but he thinks better of it and stays where he is.  He then starts declaiming solemnly)

Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,

Wearing out life’s evening grey,

Strike thy bosom, sage, and tell

What is bliss and which the way.

Thus I spoke, and speaking sighed,

Scarce repressed the starting tear,

When the hoary sage replied,

(He changes to a completely natural voice.)

“Come my lad and drink some beer!”

(Reynolds and Levet applaud.)

Now you, Reynolds, it’s your turn!

REYNOLDS        Well, since we are all being poets, I’ll have a go as well.

(He starts seriously.)

Mary had a little bear

To whom she was so kind.

(Miss Williams enters quietly, unseen by the others.  She looks highly displeased with the proceedings.)

And everywhere that Mary went

(Johnson and Levet join in, raising their glasses.)

You saw her bear behind.


Bare behind!  Yes, yes!

MISS WILLIAMS (Loudly and disapprovingly)     Some tea gentlemen?  Sometimes a cup of tea can do people in a certain condition a lot of good!

LEVET       When Miss Williams comes through the door, cheerfulness flies out of the window.

REYNOLDS        Miss Williams.  It is a great pleasure.  (He bows and kisses her hand.) But duty calls, I’m afraid.  You are very kind, but I must leave the honour of tea for another occasion.

LEVET       And I’m away to my bed.  Good night, all!

(Reynolds and Levet leave by separate doors.)

MISS WILLIAMS         (To Johnson) I do have the knack of breaking up a party! Well, well, well. I just give them one of my looks and off they all go! (She finds another glass, pours some gin into it and looking at Johnson, raises it.) This is superior to tea, Mr Johnson! Your health, Sir.

JOHNSON And here’s to yours, Miss Williams.  Here’s to yours! (They clink their glasses and drink.)

MISS WILLIAMS          Mr Levet is a very course man.

JOHNSON  Yes, Levet is course, but he is kind, and he’ll get into heaven before a lot of very refined people that I know. Anyway, your health, Miss Williams.  Sit down a moment.

(They both sit at the table.)

Now, tell me.  What has been happening here at home today?  How is my cat?  I haven’t seen him today. How is Hodge?

(The light fades.)