TNB Night Owl – The Great Panjandrum

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Photo by Tony Hisgett

If a bet is going to be memorable, the result of the bet should be known. Unfortunately, the success or failure of The Great Panjandrum is lost to history, but the wager itself…

Samuel Foote was an 18th century actor and writer. He had moderate success on stage, and another measure of fame due to public feuds with famous people but came to prominence as a playwright after the production of An Englishman in Paris.

His mentor was Charles Macklin, an Irish actor – one of the most celebrated actors of the era. Macklin taught Foote when the younger man was just starting on the stage, and as the pair aged Macklin decided that he should start a school of oratory, teaching more students. After all, his personal success and the subsequent fame of Foote indicated Macklin had the possibility of being a great teacher.

Foote agreed… but being a prominent wag who’d been at the forefront of public verbal feuds, he wasn’t going to sit idle as his friend taught. Instead he attended some of Macklin’s lectures and heckled the instructor.

One of Macklin’s famed boasts was that his short-term memory was so highly trained that he could repeat back any phrase, verbatim. Foote decided to put him to the test.

At one of the lectures, Foote challenged Macklin with the bet, the one whose outcome went unrecorded. The task set before Macklin was simple. Foote would recite a paragraph, and Macklin would repeat it. On the surface, a straightforward wager. What Macklin did not know was that Foote had constructed what has become known as the first prominent “nonsense” writing in the English language, predating but influencing works like Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

Foote said, “So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage leaf, to make an apple pie; and at the same time a great she-bear coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. ‘What! no soap?’ So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top; and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.”

This was the origin of the word panjandrum, which means “a powerful personage or pretentious official”. Part of me hopes it was also the incitement for a light smack to the back of the head for Foote from his long-time friend and mentor.

Question of the night: have you ever performed in public?

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.