Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer plays in a wonderful production through this weekend at UCSD. The 18th century comedy has such a light and tender spirit you’d think the author knew only sunny days. Not so.
This famous painting, they think by Edward Matthew Ward, shows Dr. Samuel Johnson reading the first page of a manuscript while a sad-eyed man looks on with baited breath. Four others stand behind with stern looks. Even the dog beneath Johnson’s chair appears a tad wary.
The scene sums up Oliver Goldsmith’s life. He’s the man in the rust-colored housecoat and black knit cap. Johnson is reading Goldsmith’s novel, The Vicar of Wakefield. Goldsmith’s landlady, she of the “over my dead” body language, had demanded overdue rent. Behind her, the unruly looking gent is a constable eager to haul Goldsmith off to debtor’s prison.
Shortly before, Goldsmith sent Johnson an S.O.S, “begging I come to him as soon as possible.” As he dressed himself, Johnson sent a guinea to help defray expenses. When Johnson arrived, the coin bought a bottle of Madeira, from which his friend had already imbibed (empty glass just off his right forearm).
Johnson corked the bottle and asked how he could help. Goldsmith handed him the manuscript. If Johnson approved, the sale could save the day.
“I looked into it and saw its merit,” says Johnson, who sold it to a bookseller for 60 pounds. “I brought Goldsmith the money, and he discharged his rent, not without rating his landlady in a high tone for having used him so ill.”
Though he spent much of his dissolute life as a Fleet Street hack, Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774) wrote one of the finest poems of the Eighteenth Century, “The Deserted Village,” one of its most popular novels, The Vicar of Wakefield, and most outstanding comedies, She Stoops to Conquer.
And though he rarely said a word at their gatherings (he preferred to mull over a topic, sometimes for days, before declaring his position), he was a member of the famous Club, which included Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter, Edmund Burke, the politician, and Dr. Johnson, legendry man of letters.
“Poor Goldsmith,” was Johnson’s constant epithet. The man of genius was renowned for his reckless nature. James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer, who may have seen Goldsmith as a rival, calls him “a ridiculous, blundering, envious, and vain creature.” Boswell also acknowledges a “tender-hearted side” and that he was “simple and generous.”
Horace Walpole called him the “inspired idiot.”
One example: to escape his creditors, Goldsmith somehow bought a ticket to sail to America, but arrived a day after the ship embarked.
The second son of an Irish clergyman, Goldsmith barely made it through school and fell short at various tries at a career as a priest, later as a doctor.
Lines from She Stoops to Conquer sum up his attitude: ‘Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain,/With grammar, and nonsense, and learning./Good liquor, I stoutly maintain,/Gives genius a better discerning.”
She Stoops was a huge success. Goldsmith finally seemed to have conquered his inelegant habits. A year later, he died broke, of dissipation.
Goldsmith’s output begs the question: How many authors can you name who excelled in such diverse literary forms: long poem, novel, and theatrical comedy?
In poker parlance, that’s “trip aces.” The “inspired idiot” was a genius.