Image: Johnson and Boswell in Walking Up the High Street, Edinburgh (Picturesque Beauties of Boswell, Part the First) by Thomas Rowlandson. Creative Commons CC0 1.0
(Boswell is sitting at his desk on the left of the stage.)
BOSWELL It is 16th May 1763. Now, are you ready? This is the really important part! Everything up to now has just been a preamble! It has all been leading up to this! Yes, this is where I come in! The entrance of James Boswell! The 16th of May 1763. This is the day James Boswell meets Samuel Johnson.
Well, I won’t be needing this anymore (He pushes the table off stage) or this (He carries off his chair.) because from now on I am part of the story. But I’ll keep this (He goes back to the table and fetches his glass of wine.) Yes, now we are “live”, so to speak!
What a dull place the world would be without people like me! We are necessary, the talkers not the doers, the pushers in, the hangers on, the grab-the-opportunity people. “Blessed are the meek!” Well, yes. Blessed they may be, but they can be a bit of a pain! They certainly don’t get far in this world. The world needs more Boswells. Not too many though, or there would be nobody to listen to us. Yes, I suppose the meek do have their role to play. They are good listeners!
Anyway, as I said, this is the important bit. Monday, 16th May 1763. If you have anything important to do, do it on a Monday. The world is back at work, and everyone is on their toes. Monday is the day of action! So, it was Monday, May 16th. It rained in the morning. Just a quick shower. We get a lot of these in London in May. It’s a hangover from April, I suppose. I was only 22 years old, and I was terrified. But I had set my heart on meeting Johnson. I was in the back room at the bookshop of Tom Davies, and we had just had tea, I remember. Who should come into the shop but the great Samuel Johnson! Here was my opportunity. I thought I might do all right if he didn’t find out I was Scottish. He had a terrible reputation for disliking anyone from Scotland.
Yes, we had just had tea, and there is Tom Davies.
(Boswell goes to the table centre stage where Davies is already sitting. On the table there is a large tea pot and two cups of tea. Boswell puts down his glass of wine on the table, takes a cup of tea and is just about to drink it, when there is a tremendous bang at the door behind him. Both Boswell and Davies jump in fright.)
JOHNSON (Off stage. Johnson shouts.) Morning Davies! You need a new handle on this door! Can’t open it!
DAVIES (In mock terror to Boswell) Here he comes!
BOSWELL Oh lord!
(Another crash. The door opens and Johnson, puffing, lurches in. Boswell stands, almost to attention, still not daring to turn round and face Johnson. Davies gets up.)
(Quietly but urgently to Davies) Don’t tell him where I come from!
DAVIES (He walks over to greet Johnson) Good morning, Sir. I am sorry about the door. And this (He indicates Boswell who is shaking with fear.) is Mr Boswell (he pauses) from Scotland!
BOSWELL Mr Johnson. It is an honour! (He shakes Johnson’s hand profusely) I do indeed come from Scotland but I cannot help it.
JOHNSON That, Sir, is what a great many of your countrymen cannot help!
(They sit around the table. Boswell fussily moves the teacups and his wine glass to give Johnson more room.)
JOHNSON (To Davies) Well, Sir, I …
BOSWELL (Nervously interrupting) Scotland, Sir, has much to offer. Scotland has, for example, a great many noble wild prospects.
JOHNSON I believe, Sir, you do have a great many. Norway, too, has noble wild prospects, and Lapland is remarkable for prodigious noble wild prospects. But, Sir, let me tell you that the noblest prospect which a Scotsman ever sees is the high road that leads him to England.
(Then he turns to Davies, ignoring Boswell.)
Well, what do you think of Garrick? He won’t give me a free ticket for Miss Williams to go to the play, just because he knows he has a sure full house, and that one ticket is worth three shillings!
BOSWELL Oh, I shouldn’t imagine that Mr Garrick would ever deny anything to you, Sir!
JOHNSON (Turning angrily back to Boswell) I have known David Garrick for a lot longer than you have done, and I don’t know what right you have to talk to me on the subject.
BOSWELL Oh none at all, Sir. None at all.
DAVIES And how is Reynolds, Sir? Is he busy?
JOHNSON Why, Reynolds is fine and has more commissions than he can handle. He paints all week and even on Sundays as well, which I have asked him not to do. Sunday is a day of rest and should be observed.
BOSWELL (To himself) Reynolds! (To the audience) Sir Joshua Reynolds!
(He scribbles notes on a piece of paper, trying to hide behind the teapot as he does it. Johnson looks at him disapprovingly.)
JOHNSON (To Davies) Goldsmith is well.
BOSWELL (To audience) Goldsmith! Oliver Goldsmith!
JOHNSON He shuts himself up with his writing the whole day. Goldsmith is a fine man. No man is wiser when he writes, or more foolish when he opens his mouth. That novel of his, “The Vicar of Wakefield”, it’s a strange book but it’s making him famous. Burke, Langton and Beauclerk I shall see tomorrow.
BOSWELL (Hurriedly writing) Edmund Burke, the political thinker, philosopher, statesman. Oh, wait a minute! (He writes) Burke, Langton… Who was the other one? Ah yes, Beauclerk.
(To audience) These are famous men! Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke.
(To Johnson) These are celebrities, Sir.
JOHNSON Celebrities they may be. But my friends they certainly are. Friends are more use than celebrities, Boswell. One must have friends. Celebrities we can all do without. I could reel off the names of twenty celebrities, but twenty real friends? That is hard for anyone!
BOSWELL I am sure you have many, Sir.
JOHNSON Well, are you Sir? I wish you were right! As a man grows older, he should keep his friendship in constant repair. I love the young dogs of this age. (After some hesitation) Why, Sir, I think I even like you!
BOSWELL That is an honour, Sir!
JOHNSON Hmph! Less talk of honour! Don’t use big words for little things. Come and visit me! Gough Court, just off Fleet Street. You’ll find me at home in the mornings.
(To Davies) How many dictionaries did you sell last week?
DAVIES Five with a firm order for a sixth.
JOHNSON A firm order for a sixth! Hmph! Ten a week, Davies. You must sell ten a week!
(Johnson goes out by the same door he came in. He shouts.)
And mend this door handle, Davies!
(The door slams shut as Johnson leaves.)
BOSWELL That, I fear, did not go very well.
DAVIES But of course it went well. He likes you. You must visit him.
BOSWELL No, I couldn’t pluck up the courage!
DAVIES But he expects you to. Come, Mr Boswell, it’s not like you to give up.
BOSWELL Yes, you’re right. I’ll not be shaken off! I will visit him.