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The Life of
Dr. James Quin, Comedian.
His birth, family, expectancies, studies, early pursuits. The reason of changing them. His future plan of life interrupted by a very uncommon and almost fatal adventure—with its sequel.
THE public will, it is imagined, not be displeased to have some account of a person of whom so much has been said, and of whom so little has been hitherto known. His jokes may be called the standing jests of the town; but those who have hackneyed some of them, and murdered others, have scarce ever entered into the most cursory part of his life and character; and yet, according to Mr. Addison, the best story in the world loses its greatest poignancy when we are unacquainted with its hero. This, amongst other considerations, induced the editor of this performance to attempt an essay towards the Life of Mr. James Quin, in hopes that some future biographer may from these materials, and such others as he can obtain, transmit to posterity the memory of a man who has diverted the present age in public and in private—upon the dramatic stage as well as that of life; who was one of the best actors and most facetious men of his time; who was at once the gentleman and the scholar-the philosopher and the critic-the humourist and the moral man, the scourge of knaves and fools, and the admiration of the sensible and good. Such are the outlines of the picture before us; in every respect an original, and indeed inimitable, yet not without defects and blemishes in some of the features and in various parts of the drapery. Perfection is not the lot of humanity, and an honest historian scorns to flatter.
In the pursuit of this task the editor has encountered many difficulties, as there are scarce any lights to be met with in such books as might be supposed to give some anecdotes of so extraordinary a character. The Histories of the Stage, the Annals of the Theatre, scarce mention him either as an actor or a man, so that what is here offered to the reader is principally gathered from conversation and acquaintance.
It might look somewhat too pompous to say that, like Homer, more than one city claimed his birth, yet this is really true; for though it has been generally believed that he drew his first breath in Dublin, other parts of Ireland have been mentioned as the place of his nativity. He was, however, born in the parish of St. Paul, Covent Garden, London, in the year 1693. Various also are the reports of his family. Some have averred that his father was an American, and that James was the illegitimate issue of a criminal correspondence, which his father kept up in Ireland upon his return from the western hemisphere, and that on this account he was deprived of his patrimonial expectations. This imaginary lineage was never allowed by Quin himself; on the contrary, he always asserted that his father was an English gentleman, who, some years after his son's birth, settled in Ireland, and was possessed of a small fortune, which his natural generosity and beneficence greatly incumbered. James's education was such as suited the station which seemed to be allotted for him, that of a gentleman. After having gone through the necessary prelude of grammar-school learning he was sent to the university of Dublin, where he remained till he was over twenty years of age.
His father destined him for the bar, and at this period he came over to England to pursue his studies in jurisprudence. To this end he took chambers in the Temple, and for some time studied Coke upon Littleton with the usual success of young Templars, who consider their situation, so particularly adapted for pleasure, as no way compatible with so dry and tedious an application. A life of gaiety and dissipation took place, and he found a much stronger disposition to read Shakespeare than the statutes at large.
About this time his father died, when he found his patrimony so very small that there was no possibility of his supporting himself upon it; and this naturally induced him to begin seriously to think of availing himself of those talents which nature had bestowed upon him, and repairing by his own merit the effects of his father's generosity and too liberal hospitality. His good sense soon pointed out to him that as he had made but a very small progress in the study of the law, so he could not expect to reap the fruits of his present pursuit but at a very distant period; a young counsellor of the greatest merit has many obstacles to surmount before he obtains any considerable practice; chance and interest are great auxiliaries to his success, as many a veteran barrister has much reason to complain. Posides, his finances were so circumscribed that there was scarce
a practicability of his accomplishing himself in this profession without some temporary support.
These reasons soon induced him to quit his present pursuit, and there appeared to him nowhere so fair a prospect as the stage. He had many requisites to form a good actor: an expressive countenance; a marking eye; a clear voice, full and melodious; an extensive memory, founded upon a long application to our best classic authors; an enthusiastic admiration of Shakespeare; a happy and articulate pronunciation; and a majestic figure. He had for some time associated with most of the capital actors of this period; he was frequently in company with Booth and Wilks, and formed a very strict intimacy with Ryan. It was to the last of these that he opened his mind with respect to coming upon the stage. Ryan was charmed to find his friend so sincerely approve of his plan of life as to be desirous of adopting it, and he introduced him to the managers of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, who engaged him in August 1717, appear the succeeding winter.
How uncertain are the events of this transitory world! Quin, who was now assiduously employed in studying several parts, in which he imagined he might appear in the ensuing season, was, by a most unexpected incident obliged to leave this metropolis and take refuge in Ireland. Whoever was acquainted with our hero in his younger days must be sensible that he was of a very amorous disposition, and that James laid claim to no extravagant share of chastity. James carried on what he thought a very snug intrigue with Mrs. L- —, a woollen draper's lady in the Strand. We shall pass over the various scenes of this growing correspondence, as they were usually represented at his own chambers; but the blind goddess was at length resolved to make him severely pay for all his good fortune. He had lent the key of his chambers to a friend of his. Quin accidentally met with Mrs. Lwho had been to the playhouse and could not get in. The opportunity was so favourable it was not to be slighted; he had already insisted upon her company, when it was too late to tell her he had just recollected he was not possessed of the key of his chambers; such an excuse would now have looked like coolness on his part. In a word, he prevailed on her, with much intreaty, to go to a bagnio, which was, perhaps, the first time in her life she had been in such a place. Her terrors were extravagantly great, till she thought there was no further danger to be apprehended, and gave a full loose to the indulgence of her passion. The hour of retreat now approached, when suddenly an ignorant waiter opened the door
to introduce another company, not knowing the room was already occupied. But consternation-shame-horror-anguish-furyrage-madness-all assist to delineate the scene! Who should appear but her husband! Quin was still in the room, and, perceiving Mr. L- ready to wreak all his vengeance upon his wife, he flew to his sword and drew it in her defence. the conflict Mr. Lwas wounded in the thigh; and this affair terminated for the present with a couple of prosecutions against Quin; the first for Crim. Con., and the next for an assault and battery.
London was now too warm a climate for our hero to respire in with safety. He flew to Dublin, where he engaged upon that theatre, and acquitted himself tolerably well in two or three parts. He learned soon after the death of Mr. L-; and his friend Ryan now prevailed upon him to return to the metropolis, and fulfil his theatrical engagements here.