Truro-born Samuel Foote is an oft maligned figure from 1700s Cornwall. He was one of the most famous dramatists in Georgian England, performing at the Garrick Theatre in London and for the King. Samuel Foote had a gift for mimicry and comedic acting, often impersonating or alluding to living people as a source of comedy. Foote’s comedic ribbing of powerful socialites and politicians created many enemies and is arguably what led to his fall from grace.
The theatre is paradoxical in that it reflects back public opinion while at the same time being seen as subversive and bohemian. This duality is reflected in the career of Samuel Foote. He often appeared on stage in drag, openly playing with gender roles as the portrayal of homosexuals was acceptable on stage as ‘fop’, ‘rake’, and ‘effeminate molly’ while offstage these same characteristics were charged against Foote as a criminal offence.
Due to satirising living people, Foote was often in trouble – finally meeting his match in Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston. After Foote parodied Chudleigh, who was on trial for bigamy, her agents began publishing veiled accusations of homosexuality. Events escalated when – not long after Chudleigh’s conviction – Foote’s coachman accused him of sexual assault. Foote was acquitted but was unable to continue his professional life with the same enthusiasm. He died shortly afterwards.
We cannot know whether Foote was heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual. Indeed, these categories are a reflection of 20th century thinking and may not be helpful in understanding Foote and his contemporaries. What we can say is that Foote represents an era where playing with gender roles and openly acting with so-called ‘effeminate’ characteristics was accepted in one sphere and criminalised in another.
An engraving of Samuel Foote from The Courtney Library at the Royal Institution of Cornwall in Truro. He is dressed in drag as Mrs Cole, a character from one of his more successful plays ‘The Minor’ which was a parody of methodism. (Copyright Royal Institution of Cornwall: TRURI: 1000.192)
Playbill for Hamlet from White Heart, Launceston 1772 with Samuel Foote billed as The King. (Copyright Royal Institution of Cornwall John J Pearse, Launceston. 1875)