Joe Miller: The Drury Lane Actor and Joe Miller’s Jests

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.”[1]

Joe Miller, Public Domain

Joe Miller. Public domain.

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, Joe 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.”[2] Moreover, his acting abilities resulted in him playing all, or most leading comedy parts at Drury Lane until 1730.

“[In 1731 he] temporarily left Drury Lane owing to ‘some mean economy of the managers,’ … and was engaged at Goodman’s Fields [located on Ayliffe Street in Whitechapel, London], where he made a first appearance as Teague in the ‘Committee … All his favourite roles followed.”[3]

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, or the Front Fair on the Thames. His performances and successes were made all the more amazing because some historians assert Joe 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].”[4]

Drury Lane Theatre, Public Domain

Drury Lane Theatre. Public domain.

Whether or not he was illiterate, there are several other interesting facts known about Joe 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. Miller 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.

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

William Hogarth’s self portrait of 1735. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As to Miller’s comedic abilities, he was said to be “very witty, and the cause of wit in others.”[5] One writer noted of Joe 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.”[6]

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.”[7]

One historian noted that Joe Miller was a “snapper up of unconsidered trifles, and as a gleaner and compiler of other men’s saying he has no equal.”[8] Supposedly, it was Miller’s gleaning and compiling of men’s sayings that eventually achieved him immortality:

“It appears to have been the custom, during at least two centuries, for people who were going to social parties, to prepare themselves by committing to memory a selection of jokes from some popular jest-book; the result of which would of course be, that the ears of the guests were subjected to old jokes over and over again. People whose ears were thus wearied, would often express their annoyance, by reminding the repeater of the joke of the book he had taken it from; and, when the popularity of Joe Miller’s jests had eclipsed that of all its rivals, the repetition of every old Joe would draw forth from some on the exclamation: ‘That’s a Joe Miller!’ until the title was given indiscriminately to every jest which was recognised as not being a new one. Hence arose the modern fame of the old comedian, and the adoption of his name in our language as synonymous with ‘an old joke.'”[9]

After Miller’s 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 below.) The book used a variety of existing works, “with no doubt a large sprinkling of Joe’s own jokes recollected from former conversations.”[10] 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.”[11] 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.”

Joe Miller's Jests, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Joe Miller’s Jests, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Joe Miller’s Jests included many jokes related to famous individuals. Among the jokes that ended up in it was 101 titled “Deplorable Situation” that stated:

“Lalande was once placed at dinner between Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier. ‘How lucky I am,’ exclaimed Lalande, ‘here I am seated between wit and beauty’ ‘and without possessing either the one or the other,’ added Madame de Staël.”[12]

There was also number 610 titled “Loss of an Arm” related to the famous British Admiral Horatio Nelson.

“When Nelson visited the Royal Naval Hospital at Yarmouth after the battle of Copenhagen, he went round the wards, stopped at every bed, and to every man said something kind and cheering. At length, he stopped opposite to a bed on which was lying a sailor who had lost his right arm close to the shoulder-joint, when the following short dialogue ensued: – Nelson – ‘Well! Jack, what’s the matter with you?’ Sailor – ‘Lost my right arm, your honour.’ Nelson paused, looked down at his empty sleeve, then at the sailor, and said playfully, ‘Well Jack, then you and I are spoiled for fishermen; cheer up, my brave fellow.'”[13]

Horatio Nelson as Vice Admiral by Lemuel Francis Abbott in 1799. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Royalty was also not excluded in Joe Miller’s Jests as indicated by number 15 titled “Royal Librarian.”

“George III., shortly after his accession, on walking one morning into his library, found one of the under librarians asleep in a chair. He stepped up softly, and gave him a slight slap on the cheek; the sleeper clapt his hand on the place instantly, and with his eyes still closed, taking the disturber of his nap for his fellow librarian, whose name was George, exclaimed: ‘Hang it, George, let me alone, you are always playing some foolish trick or another.'”[14]

References:

  • [1] Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 13, 1909, p. 415.
  • [2] Chambers, Robert, The Book of Days, Vol. 2, 1832, p. 216.
  • [3] Dictionary of National Biography, p. 415.
  • [4] “Honest Joe Miller,” in The Era, 19 February 1898, p. 16.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] “Joe Miller,” in Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, 19 August 1881, p. 2.
  • [7] “Honest Joe Miller,” p. 16.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Chamber, Robert, p. 217-218.
  • [10] “Honest Joe Miller,” p. 16.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Joe Miller’s Jest Book, 1873, p. 26.
  • [13] Ibid., p. 137.
  • [14] Ibid., p. 12.

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