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WILLIAM HAZLITT, born on April 10, 1778, was thirty-five years of age, when, in 1813, he became the theatrical critic of the Morning Chronicle. Up to this time he had published nothing about the stage ; but he had been for several years a constant playgoer. His first recorded visit to the theatre took place in 1790 ; and even then, at the age of eleven, we find him taking a quite intelligent interest in what he saw. On March 18 of that year he wrote to his father from Liverpool :—
“On Friday I went to the play with Mr. Corbett, at whose house I dined and drank tea. The play was Love in Many Masks,' and the farce, No Song no Supper. It was very entertaining, and was performed by some of the best players in London, as, for instance, Kemble, Suett, Dignum, the famous singer, Mrs. Williams, Miss Hagley, Miss Romanzini, and others. Suett, who acted in the character of ‘Ned Blunt,' was enough to make any one laugh, though he stood still; and Kemble acted admirably as an officer. Mr. Dignum sang beautifully, and Miss Hagley acted the country girl with much exactness.”
"With much exactness" is delightful, and proves that the boy had already read or listened to the theatrical criticism of the day ; for this was one of its favourite stereotypes. In his boyhood, however, and indeed up to his twenty-fifth year, his opportunities for playgoing were probably scanty. He has told us how strolling companies would occasionally visit Wem in Shropshire (see p. 170), where for the most part he lived with his father ; and as Wem was only some twelve miles from Shrewsbury to the south and Whitchurch to the north, he may now and then have "resorted to the theatre" at these intellectual centres. His critical acquaintance with the stage probably dated from about 1803, when, at the house of William Godwin, he made the acquaintance of his life-long friend, Charles Lamb. He had spent the winter of 1802–3 in Paris, studying painting ; but I find no evidence that he took any interest in the French stage. From 1803 until his marriage in 1808 his headquarters were still at Wem, and from 1808 to 1812, at Winterslow, in Wiltshire. During these nine years, however, he paid frequent visits to London, and must have done a good deal of theatre-going, often, we may be sure, in the incomparable society of Lamb. On July 4, 1806, Mary Lamb writes
* An alteration of Mrs. Aphra Behn's Rover, produced at Drury Lane only a few days before, March 8, 1790.
* Mr. W. C. Hazlitt, in his life of his grandfather, dates this letter “July 2,” but in his Poems, Letters, and Remains of Charles and Mary Lainb, he prints the same letter and puts the date in brackets, as though to show that it is conjectural. It is evident from the letter itself that it was begun on a Friday, whereas July 2, 1806, was a Wednesday. The year 1806 is certainly correct ; and assuming that Mr. Hazlitt had some evidence (postmark, endorsement, or something of the sort) for placing the date early in July, I think it most probable that he made a mistake of two days only, and that the letter was begun on July 4. On that date the programme at Sadler's Wells was as follows—and if this was not the very entertainment which Lamb and Hazlitt witnessed, it was certainly something of exactly the same nature :
“In consequence of the great demand for Places to see HARLEQUIN