Joe Miller – The Drury Lane Actor

Joe Miller, Public Domain
Joe Miller, Public Domain

Joe Miller, also known as Joseph or Josias, became synonymous with joking although he reputedly never uttered a single joke and was, in fact, known for his grave demeanor and subdued humor. He was born in 1684, but his exact birthplace is unknown. His early life was obscure, although at least one source suggests he was related to the “proprietors of ‘Miller’s Droll Booth,’ which occupied a prominent place in St. Bartholomew’s Fair from 1699 to 1731.” In 1709, Miller’s name first appeared at the West End theater in London’s Covenant Garden, known as Drury Lane. It was there he played Teague in the play Committee, written by the playwright Sir Robert Howard. A few years later, on the last day of April in 1715, Miller performed the part of Young Clincher in Farquhar’s comedy The Constant Couple; or a Trip to the Jubilee. He did so with resounding success, and from that time forward Miller “became regularly engaged on the boards of Drury.”

Drury Lane Theatre, Public Domain
Drury Lane Theatre, Public Domain

His acting abilities resulted in Miller playing all, or most leading comedy parts at Drury-lane until 1730. “In 1731, … he temporarily left that theatre owing to ‘some mean economy of the managers,’ and was engaged at Goodman’s Fields [located on Ayliffe Street in Whitechapel, London], opening as Teague, and following up with his old successes till 1732, when he returned to Drury-lane.” During this time, it was also customary that when the theaters were closed for the season, actors performed in temporary theaters or booths erected at fairs, such as at Bartholomew’s Fair, Smithfield May Fair, Greenwich Fair, and the Front Fair on the Thames. His performances and successes were made all the more amazing because some historians assert Miller was illiterate and could not read. They claim that “he married … in order that his wife might read his parts to him [so he could memorize them].”

William Hogarth's Self Portrait of 1735, Courtesy of Wikipedia
William Hogarth’s Self Portrait of 1735, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Whether or not he was illiterate, there are several other interesting facts known about Miller. He was considered a prosperous actor, esteemed by his fellow actors, and supposedly a boon companion to the British painter, pictorial satirist, and cartoonist William Hogarth. As to his comedic abilities, he was said to be “very witty, and the cause of wit in others.” One writer noted of Miller that he “was completely innocent of anything like joking — so much, indeed, that his friends used, by way of irony, to accuse him of every new jest that found its way upon the town.” He was also a regular visitor at the Bull’s Head Tavern in Spring Gardens and at Black Jack’s on Portsmouth Street, which was also a favorite tavern of Drury Lane performers. Additionally, for many years he was a resident of Strand-on-the-Green, Chiswick, and it was there that he died in his own house at the age of fifty-four.

Miller was interred at the London parish of St. Clement Danes on Portugal Street. A tombstone was erected in his memory, with an inscription said to have been created by the English poet, Stephen Duck. The inscription read:

Here lye the remains of Honest Joe Miller,
Who was a Tender Husband, a Sincere Friend.
A Facetious Companion, and an Excellent Comedian
He departed this life the 15th day of August, 1738, aged 54 years.

If humour, wit, and honesty could save
The humorous, witty, honest from the grave,
His grave had not so soon its tenant found,
Whom honesty and wit and humour crowned.

Could but esteem and love preserve our breath,
And guard us long from the stroke of death,
The stroke of death on him had later fell,
Whom all mankind esteemed and loved so well.

Joe Miller's Jests, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Joe Miller’s Jests, Courtesy of Wikipedia

One historian noted that Miller was a “snapper up of unconsidered trifles, and as a gleaner and compiler of other men’s saying he has no equal.” Supposedly, it was Miller’s gleaning and compiling of men’s sayings that eventually achieved him immortality. After his death, in 1739, John Mottley published a book called Joe Miller’s Jests, or the Wit’s Vade-Mecum, under the pseudonym of Elijah Jenkins, Esquire. (The cover page is shown to the left.) The book used a variety of existing works, “with no doubt a large sprinkling of Joe’s own jokes recollected from former conversations.” Initially, there were 247 witticisms with “three separate editions of it having appeared in 1739, and seven editions being disposed of in as many years.” Later editions of the book added even more jests, until the 1865 New York edition used 1,288 jests, with the jests known by this time as a “Joe Miller,” a “Joe Millerism,” or a “Joe-Millerize.”

References:

  • Chambers, Robert, The Book of Days, Vol. 2, 1832
  • Hogarth, William Hogarth’s Own Joe Miller; or, Quips, Cranks, Joes and Squibs of Every Clime and Every Time, Collected and Digested by Toby, Hogarth’s Own Dog, 1854
  • “Honest Joe Miller,” The Era, 19 February 1898
  • “Joe Miller,” Edinburgh Evening News, 16 August 1881
  • Whitney, William Dwight, The Century Dictionary, 1889

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