Doctor Johnson: A Play

These reviews of recent books of unusual value are based upon lists furnished through the courteous coöperation of such trained judges as the following: American Library Association Book List, Wisconsin Free Library Commission, and the staffs of the public libraries in Springfield (Massachusetts), Newark, Cleveland, Kansas City, and St. Louis.
by A. Edward Newton. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1923. 8vo. xviii + 120 pp. $3.50.
THE life of Samuel Johnson was in no sense dramatic. There is scarcely an event in his biography, thrilling as it is, that is significant or interesting apart from the man to whom it happened. He visited the Hebrides and he conversed with the King, but neither in these nor in the less unusual occurrences of his life was there a touch of genuine romance. Johnson was no adventurer. His instincts were all centripetal, and his tastes conservative. Even in his relations with women — and he was unusually susceptible to the charms of the sex — there is little to diversify the story. The biographers, as Mrs. Meynell has pointed out, have been cruelly unjust in making the story of Johnson’s marriage with Mrs. Porter a comic interlude; but, for all that, there is nothing in it of use to a dramatist. Some warmth and color, on the other hand, are to be found in his association with Mrs. Thrale, the brewer’s wife; but even here it is an open question whether Johnson was, in the ordinary sense of the term, in love with her. If there was ever any positive evidence of it in letters or diaries, that record has long since disappeared. But Boswell believed it, if we may trust the statement of Anna Seward. The evidence, though insufficient for a biographer, is satisfactory enough for a dramatist, who, for that matter, is at liberty to create his own evidence.
It is this love-affair, then, which furnishes Mr. Newton with a continuous thread of interest for his play. The story which he unfolds, except for the thwarted ‘proposal’ near the end of the third act, is that familiar to every reader of Boswell. The dramatist sets it down with gusto, with that abounding vivacity to which his readers have now become accustomed; but it is with no intention of writing a love-story that Mr. Newton has taken up the pen of a dramatist. It is because he has seen that the truly dramatic events of Johnson’s life, if such there be, occurred in club and drawing-room. In this phase, Johnson is a knight who accepted every challenge that was flung to him, and a warrior who drank delight of battle with his peers; but his weapons were sentences, epigrams, and first principles packed into a mot. His entry into the conversational contest dismayed the halfhearted and the muddy-minded like the raking fire of the field artillery. If that be romance, then Mr. Newton’s hero has enough and to spare. If ‘lines’ alone will make a play, we may confidently prophesy for this one the success of the century, for it skims the cream of the most interesting and varied conversations in the English language.
Mr. Newton, who cares little for the strictures of college professors, however much he may enjoy the society of the dusty race, would be the first to admit that he has manipulated the facts and dates of Johnson’s career to suit himself. He is a play-writer and not a biographer. But it may be well to warn those who approach this play as a mere transcript of Boswell that they will discover Hannah More — who was only seven years older than Fanny Burney — presented to them as an old lady who is slightly deaf; Boswell in the train of the lexicographer in the year 1755, when he was a boy fifteen years old who had, perhaps, never heard of the Sage; paragraphs out of letters and prefaces introduced into the conversation of Mrs. Thrale’s drawingroom; and even a prophetic reference to Dr. Murray of the New English Dictionary! Well, why not? Who cares about the dates anyhow? This houseboat on the Styx is more delightful than any drawing-room that ever existed, but that is precisely what Mr. Newton intended it to be. Who shall say that many of Johnson’s wittiest sentences did not first take form in conversation before they were transferred to paper? However that may be, it is surprising to see how easily they may be fitted into his conversation.
The reader of this play will find here the kindness and the wit of Johnson rather than his traditional savagery, for it is his great-heartedness that has appealed to Mr. Newton. He should thank God— if, indeed, so successful an author thanks God for anything — that he has been able to set down a pleasant judgment so pleasantly.