Tuesday 9 November 2021

Cheshire's Forgotten Playwright

29th March, 1729. Men and women tumble out of the Little Theatre at Haymarket, London. There is a strange atmosphere in the air: delight, confusion, anger. The audience don’t know what to make of it – have they just witnessed a comedy, tragedy, satire, opera, or baffling mix of them all? Almost 300 years later and Hurlothrumbo still refuses to be pigeon-holed.

However hard to describe, audiences loved it, and the play was performed 29 times that season – a very considerable run for the time. So popular was it that a Hurlothrumbo society was formed and references to it were made in many other plays of the period such as Henry Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’. The saying “Mere Hurlothrumbo” became an acceptable term for anything remotely inconsistent in the 18th century.

Hurlo was penned by Cheshire’s Samuel Johnson in the 1720s, notorious for performing in his own production – dancing, playing the fiddle and walking on stilts. His witticisms were so desired that he made a living going from one wealthy family to another and being hired to entertain guests at their parties. 

The story goes as follows:

Three noblemen and the King’s general, Hurlothrumbo, plot to overthrow the kingdom by shooting guns from their rooftops to incite a riot. They succeed and the King is captured but swaps clothes with his brother-in-law Theorbeo in prison and escapes back to his troops. The rebels are defeated by the King’s forces and an assortment of supernatural beings. All the rebels are generously pardoned but Hurlothrumbo is condemned to wear Harlequin’s clothes as a reminder of his foolishness. Meanwhile romantic intrigues abound between Lord Flame (played by Johnson), the rebels, Princess Cademore and other ladies at court.

Hurlo opened doors for Johnson and made him some powerful friends. Only a few weeks after opening night was it published with the financial backing of 112 people, many of whom were distinguished Cheshire names. We are lucky enough to have a copy of Hurlo in the historic county, at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies. Although liberally stamped at some point with ‘Chester Public Library’ in blue ink and suffering a little foxing (brown spots), it is still in remarkable condition. Beautiful wood block illustrations of flowers, cherubs and birds appear at the beginning and end of each Act. A pastoral scene adorns the dedication to Johnson’s patron, the Lady Delves of Doddington Hall near Nantwich.

Very little is known about Johnson’s early life but the Biographia Dramatica of 1767 provides this contemporary clue: “Mr Johnson is a native of Cheshire, and was bred to and followed the profession of a dancing master". After his career on the stage and as a ‘jester for hire’ dwindled, he retired to Gawsworth and died there in 1773 at age 82. 

Cheshire Archives hold the original parish record of his funeral. He was buried in woods near Gawsworth New Hall where he resided for the last 30 years of his life. It was the local villagers that nicknamed him ‘Old Maggoty’ due his unusually advanced age, and it is unfortunate that this name is now most associated with the eccentric but talented playwright whose Lord Flame burned brightly but all too briefly.”

Hurlothrumbo may have been a one hit wonder but, as the Manchester poet John Byrom wrote in the epilogue, “So true a Stage, so fair a Play for Laughter, / There never was before nor ever will come after”.

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