Physician, Gambler, Playwright

Special Features   Physician, Gambler, Playwright


The story of Oliver Goldsmith's life is an intriguing one. Goldsmith, author of She Stoops To Conquer now being revived in Philadelphia, was born to a poor family in County Longford, Ireland in 1728. During his career, he earned considerable wealth as a playwright, but his spending habits and boundless generosity left him a pauper at the end of his life.

As a child, Goldsmith's face was disfigured by smallpox and he grew up to be short, unattractive and clumsy. In order to draw attention away from his homely looks, Goldsmith was known to wear fine and gaudy clothes -- when he could afford them.

Goldsmith's father was an Anglican clergyman who couldn't afford higher education for his son, but Goldsmith did go to Trinity College in Dublin, at the age of 17, thanks to his lifelong benefactor, his Uncle Thomas Contarine. Also, Goldsmith qualified as a "sizar," a needy student who performed menial chores at school to earn his keep.

At Trinity, Goldsmith was frequently taunted and embarrassed by both students and staff. He was apparently awkward in the presence of fine ladies -- much like Marlow in She Stoops to Conquer -- and didn't have many female friends. Yet he maintained a cheerful disposition and gave whatever he could, often literally the shirt off his back, to those in need. Goldsmith had trouble deciding on a career and made early attempts at law, then medicine, which he studied for a while at the University of Edinburgh. Taking a break from medicine, Goldsmith traveled throughout Europe. He became a successful gambler, but spent his winnings carelessly. Eventually, Goldsmith earned his medical degree and began a practice in London in 1756. However, he was a failure as a physician.

Around this time, Goldsmith evaluated his circumstances. Here's how he described his feelings in a letter to his brother: "I am not that strong, active man you once knew. You scarcely can conceive how much ... disappointment, anguish and study have worn me down ... I can neither laugh nor drink; have contracted a hesitating, disagreeable manner of speaking, and a visage that looks like ill nature itself ..."

Goldsmith worked briefly as an assistant teacher in a boy's school, then began writing for magazines and book publishers. Two poems, "The Traveler" (1764) and "The Deserted Village" (1770), and the production of his play "The Good-Natured Man" (1768) brought him wealth, but again he squandered the money. Goldsmith couldn't even afford a night's lodging at times.

Historian Thomas Macauley wrote that Goldsmith's "heart was soft even to weakness: he was so generous, that he quite forgot to be just; he forgave injuries so readily, that he might be said to invite them, and was so liberal to beggars, that he had nothing left for his tailor and butcher."

In 1773, Goldsmith scored a huge success with She Stoops to Conquer. His closest friend, writer Samuel Johnson had successfully led a campaign to have it produced at Covent Garden in London. Most theatre managers in London considered She Stoops to Conquer too risky a venture because it was so different from the sentimental comedies of the day.

All the nay-sayers were proved wrong by an opening night success. As a matter of fact, the opening was nearly spoiled to too much applause. Even King George III gave the play his stamp of approval. But Goldsmith didn't live long enough to enjoy his triumph because he died within a year, destitute, at the age of 46. Oddly enough, the cause of death for the failed physician was said to be unintentional poisoning through misuse of medication.

English novelist William Thackeray had a fitting tribute for this misunderstood writer: "Who, of the millions whom he has amused, does not love him? To be the most beloved of English writers, what a title that is for a man!"

-- By Ira Kamens

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