Mr Foote’s Other Leg: Comedy, Tragedy and Murder in Georgian London

Charles Nicholl writes:

The career of the Georgian comedian Samuel Foote is a chequered story of twists and scrapes, setbacks and rebounds, but its ending is bleak, and out of apparently lightweight materials there emerges a sort of tragedy. In theatrical lore the most famous of his setbacks was the amputation of a leg (probably his left) after a riding accident. Foote is a pretty good name for any comedian but for a one-legged comedian it’s unbeatable, and his misfortune was greeted with a gleeful salvo of puns and bon-mots, an echo of which can be heard in the title of Ian Kelly’s splendid new biography. Ever the theatrical opportunist, he was soon back onstage, with a new prosthesis and two new comedies fit for purpose: The Lame Lover, in which he played the lecherous Sir Luke Limp; and The Devil upon Two Sticks, a satire on the medical profession. This is what people loved about Foote: he was unstoppable in his pursuit of laughs. He flouted convention and censorship, and excelled in ‘comedic harassment’ of famous contemporaries, and now – with his wooden leg as a kind of co-star – he set about mercilessly mocking his own disability. As Kelly says, he ‘lines up all the gags that crowd into the audience’s mind, then puts them into his own mouth.’ Sir Luke’s cavalier claim to be ‘much the better’ for the loss of his leg – ‘Consider, I can have neither sprain nor gout, have no fear of corns or that another man should kick my shins … To be sure, I am a little awkward at running but then, to make amends, I’ll hop with any man in town’ – is at once absurd and defiantly courageous.

(LRB 23 May 2013)

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