Henry Fielding Goes to the Fair

Henry  Fielding (1707-54)is a character who keeps cropping up in my research, so here’s a chance to share some little known stuff on him.

I’ve always associated him with the London literary scene, and his achievement as chief magistrate when he created the Bow Street Runners, the first modern police force. He was born in a village near Glastonbury, so has allternative lifestyle in his genes somewhere, and he seems to have been a rather wonderful combination of artist and sensible person, as well as being rather good at networking, as the support from Bath industrialist  Ralph Allen shows.

I thought I’d finished trawling through my book on Bartholomew Fair, but Henry gets a whole chapter there, so it’s a shame not to share. Some authors credit him as having a passing contact with the great fair, but he was involved with productions there for a decade, beginning, rather spectacularly, with the first productions of John Gay’s ‘Beggar’s Opera’ in 1728. It was produced by the company of comedians at the New Theatre then moved to the George Inn during the fair, and then on to Southwark Fair, with Fielding as one of he managers, with a Mr Reynolds.

The play was so successful that imitators  immediately appeared. Colley wrote the Beggar’s Wedding, or Hunter, which was first produced in Dublin, then it appeared at the Haymarket theatre, and then Drury Lane,  during the fair of  1729 with Fielding in the part of Justice Quorum.  He was the manager when it appeared at the George Inn at the fair. In 1730 he was at the same inn for the fair as manager with Oates, a new opera called ‘the Generous Freemason, or the Constant Lady’ in which Fielding played the role of Clerimont.

Fielding was at the same venue the following her with Hippisley, a comedian,  and Hall, with comedians from the Haymarket and Drury  Lane presenting ‘The  Emperor of Chia, Grand Vulgi or Love in Distress and Virtue Rewarded, by the same author.

In 1732 Fielding was again in the George Inn with Hippisley, produciing ‘The envious Statesman, or the Fall of Essex’ with Fielding’s adaption from Moliere of Le Medecin Malgre Lui, or ‘the Humours of the Forc’d Physician’.

In 1733 the fair really shone in terms of theatrical presence. Colley Cibber first attended, and there were 4 great booths for plays. One run by Cibber, Griffin, Bullock and Hallam performed Fielding’s ‘The Miser’. Fielding was again managing with Hippsley, to produce, once more at the George Inn,  Love and Jealousy or the Downfall of alexander the Great with  cure for Covetousness or the Cheats of Scapin, again adapted from Moliere.

This was the only appearance noted by Fielding’s biographers, but it was not his last.

“It appears that in the first 6 years of his literary life he looked to Bartholomew Fair as a source of income. Fresh to his work, dependent wholly on his ingenuity for bread, and only 21 years old., he found London astir with the fame of Gay’s operatic jest, and speculated safely in the establishment of a booth in the George Inn Yard, wehre he also might profit by the crowding of the public to the Beggar’s Opera. the speculation was inevitably profitable, and by the George Inn Yard, Fielding abided. …The jests that the Fair needed, he furnihsed then and afterwards not by the usual buffooneries, but by adapting for his booth the gayest of the comedies of Moliere. In this adventure he was prosperous, for the next year he prouced another of the prompter’s plays. In the fifth year of his booth management he entertained the fair with a piece which seems to have been of his own devising, called the Earl of Essex, and with another jest from Moliere adapted by himself. ..the Daily Post claimed thae prince and princess saw it twice. His booth at the fair  became even more popular with the rise of the respected actress, Mrs Pritchard.

In 1734 he was again at the fair, for the 7th time manager of the booth in the Yard of the George Inn with Mrs Pritchard in Don Carlos, Prince of Spain, and the Constant Lover… ”

But in 1735 the Court of aldermen decreed that Bartholomew Fair shoudl be restricted to a mere 3 days, with no acting permittted, so the boom in theatrical performances was over. At the same time, the Licencing Act became law, classifying all unlicensed actors as vagrants, giving the magistrates despotic control. This was the year Fielding married and retired to the country,

But in 1736 3 days of plays were again allowed, so the impoverished Fielding was back in the capital, again with Hippisley at the George inn, producing Don Carlos and Molier’s Fourberies de Scapin or The Cheats of Scapin. Records for 1737 are missing, so he may have been a manager this year but he then went on to become a magistrate, so his days as manager were over.

In 1741 the Musical companion, or Ladies Magazine inclludes an account of a wife going to the fair in her husband’s absence

-I would ramble

The Fair all round;

I’d eat and I’d drink

Of the best could be found.

There’s Fielding and Oats,

There’s Hippesley and Hall,

There’s Bullock and Lee,

And the Devil and all

It seems likely that Fielding’s time at the fair provided him with plenty  of experience of creating and performing drama, as well as opportunities to witness the best and the worst of humanity, knowledge that served him in good stead both as a novelist and a magistrate.

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