Johnson may be known as a moralist but that does not mean he did not adopt sharp practice if it suited his ends.
Oliver Goldsmith had just written a comedy but was struggling to find a name for it. Johnson’s club assembled at the British Coffee-house and finally somebody suggested “She Stoops to Conquer” which was obviously adopted. Olivers’s next problem was that Colman, the manager of Covent Garden, had rejected it. The club decided that they would do what was necessary to get the play staged. Led by Johnson, Colman was bullied into staging it against his better judgment.
Not content with this success, Johnson planned further. Johnson’s concern was that Colman was indeed right, and the play would fail. Johnson organized an early dinner at the Shakespear Tavern. In attendance were Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Fitzherbert, Whitefoord, Cumberland, and a host of others. A special recruit was an Adam Drummond who, while ignorant in all literary matters, possessed and infectious and braying laugh. Johnson was in fine form presiding at the head of the table. They left, somewhat reluctantly given Johnson’s form, and took up their pre-allotted seats strategically placed throughout the theatre for Oliver’s opening night.
The plan was that they would all laugh uproariously at the right places. Cumberland was assigned to sit next to Drummond to prod him to laugh at the right moments. Johnson had a box and all eyes were on him. When Johnson laughed this was license to the audience to roar. The braying laugh of Drummond transcended all. He became the focus of the audience. “[T]he attention of the spectators was so engrossed by his person and performances that the progress of the play seemed likely to become a secondary object”. He found a joke when there was none and a joke in almost every line. The players were becoming visibly upset.
Fortunately, the audience had a fine time and the ruse, which nearly backfired, saw that the play was a success.
I am not sure whether this is the earliest recorded instance of stacking an audience but it does show that Johnson had no hesitation in organizing such a contrivance to help his friend. It is similar to a recording artist buying his own songs to boost its position in the charts. I infer that this practice has been going on for as long as there has been a commercial advantage in doing so. Perhaps the ancient Greeks also indulged.
My source is an 1884 book called Johnsonia which I bought in America. It has a collection of anecdotes on Johnson. It includes Hester Thrale, Dr Campbell’s diary, Bishop Percy, Mrs Booth’s letters, recollection by Miss Reynolds, Sir Joshua and the like.
The anecdote comes from Memoirs of Richard Cumberland , written by himself. Mrs Cumberland apparently kept a fine table at which Johnson and others attended.
The book is published by George Bell and “newly collected and edited by Robina Napier.”