1. The Performance

This second half of the eighteenth century was rich in theater, poor in drama. It saw some of the finest actors in history, and produced only two dramatists whose works have escaped the Reaper: Sheridan, whom we have already laid to rest, and Goldsmith, who will get a niche of his own under the rubric of literature. Perhaps the dearth of serious plays was cause and effect of the Shakespearean revival, which continued till the end of the century.

The dramatists suffered from the tastes of the audience. There was much discussion of histrionic, little of dramatic, technique and art. The author received, usually as his only material reward, the profits of the third performance, if this arrived; some actors and actresses, however, became as rich as prime ministers. Hired claques could damn a good play with hostile noise, or make a worthless play an exciting success. A run of twenty nights in a season was attained only by the most favored dramas. Performances began at six or six-thirty, and ordinarily included a three-hour play and a farce or a pantomime. Seats cost one to five shillings; there were no reservations except by sending a servant to buy and hold a place till the master or lady came. All seats were backless benches.71Some favored spectators sat on the stage, until Garrick ended this abomination (1764). All lighting was by candles in chandeliers, which remained lit throughout the program. Costumes, before 1782, were eighteenth-century English regardless of the play’s time or place; Cato, Caesar, and Lear were shown in knee breeches and wigs.

Despite opposition by the clergy, and the competition of opera and circuses, the theater flourished, both in London and in the “provinces.” Bath, Bristol, Liverpool, Nottingham, Manchester, Birmingham, York, Edinburgh, and Dublin had good playhouses; some had their own companies; and since the major companies went on tour, nearly every town saw good acting. London was kept on edge by the lively rivalry of two principal theaters. In 1750 both of these played Romeo and Juliet nightly for the same two weeks, with Spranger Barry and Susannah Cibber at Covent Garden, and Garrick and Miss Bellamy at Drury Lane. Samuel Foote had his own Little Theatre in the Haymarket, where he specialized in satirical mimicry; his imitations of Garrick were long a misery in David’s life.

Never had the English stage seen so many first-class performers. Charles Macklin opened the great age in 1741 with his productions of Shakespeare; he was the first actor to present Shylock as a serious character, though still as a merciless villain. (Not till Henry Irving was Shylock interpreted with some sympathy.) John Philip Kemble closed this century-long revival of Shakespeare. His supreme hours were when he and his sister Sarah played Macbeth at Drury Lane in 1785.

Some memorable actresses now graced the stage. Peg Woffington was gifted with stirring beauty of figure and face, but she lived loosely, suffered a paralytic stroke in mid-play (1757), and died prematurely old at forty-six (1760). Kitty Clive stayed with Garrick’s company twenty-two years; she astonished London by her exemplary morals; after quitting the stage (1769) she lived sixteen years in a house that Horace Walpole gave her in Twickenham. Mrs. Hannah Pritchard was the foremost tragedienne before Mrs. Siddons surpassed her as Lady Macbeth; she absorbed her life in her acting, and (it was said) never read a book; Johnson called her “an inspired idiot”;72 but she outlasted many belles, acting till within a few months of her death. Mrs. Frances Abington starred as Beatrice, Portia, Ophelia, and Desdemona, but her most famous role was as Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal . Mary Robinson acquired her popular name “Perdita” from acting that part so well in A Winter’s Tale ; she served as mistress to the Prince of Wales and lesser lovers, and sat for Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Romney.

The conscious goddess of the stage was Sarah Kemble Siddons. Born to a traveling actor in a hostelry in Wales (1755), she married at eighteen the actor William Siddons, and starred at nineteen in Otway’s Venice Preserved . Garrick engaged her a year later, but critics pronounced “her powers not equal to a London stage,” and Henry Woodward, who played comic parts for Garrick, advised her to go back to country theaters for a while. She did, and for six years she played in provincial towns. Recalled to Drury Lane in 1782, she surprised everyone by her development as an actress. She was the first to adopt in her roles the dress of the period represented. Soon Garrick favored her for Shakespearean roles, and London marveled at the dignity and pathos with which she elevated the part of Lady Macbeth. Her private life won the respect and friendship of eminent contemporaries; Johnson wrote his name on the hem of her robe in Reynolds’ picture of her as the Tragic Muse, and was struck by her “great modesty and propriety” when she called on him.73 Two of her brothers, one of her sisters, and two of her nieces continued the Kemble dynasty in the theater till 1893. Through her and Garrick the social status of actors was raised, even in an England that made class distinctions the soul and machinery of government.

2. Garrick

All who know of Johnson will recall that David Garrick was born in Lichfield (1717), attended Johnson’s school at Edial (1736), and accompanied him in their historic migration to London (1737). Seven years younger, he never won Johnson’s full friendship, for the older man could not forgive David for being an actor and rich.

On reaching London Garrick joined his brother in importing and selling wine. This involved frequent visits to taverns; there he met actors; their talk fascinated him; he followed some of them to Ipswich, where they let him take minor parts. He learned the histrionic art so rapidly that soon he undertook to play the lead in Richard III at an unlicensed theater in Goodman’s Fields in the East End of London. He relished that role because he was small, like the hunchback King, and because he enjoyed dying on the stage. His performance was so well received that he abandoned the vintner business, to the shame and chagrin of his Lichfield relatives. But William Pitt the Elder came backstage to compliment him, and Alexander Pope, as crippled as Richard, said to another spectator, “That young man never had his equal, and he will never have a rival.”74 Here was an actor who poured all his body and soul into the part that he played; who became Richard III in face and voice and hands and broken frame and sly mind and evil aims; who did not cease to act his part when others spoke, and with difficulty forgot it when he left the stage. Soon he was the talk of theatergoing London. Aristocracy came to see him; lords dined with him; “there are a dozen dukes a night at Goodman’s Fields,” wrote Thomas Gray.75 The Garricks of Lichfield proudly claimed David as their own.

He tried Lear next (March 11, 1742). He failed; he was too active in his movements to portray an octogenarian, and he had not acquired the dignity of a king. The failure chastened him, and proved invaluable. He gave up the part for a while, studied the play, practiced the facial expressions, the feeble gait, the ailing vision, the shrill and plaintive tones of the unhappy Lear. In April he tried again. He was transformed; the audience wept and cheered; Garrick had created another of the roles that for almost a century would recall his name. Everybody applauded but Johnson, who decried acting as mere pantomime, and Horace Walpole, who thought Garrick’s expressiveness excessive, and Gray, who mourned the fall from classic restraint to romantic emotionalism and sentiment. Scholars complained that Garrick played not an unadulterated Shakespeare but versions revised and bowdlerized, sometimes by Garrick himself; half the lines of his Richard III were written by Colley Cibber,76 and the last act of his Hamlet was changed to provide a tender finale.

In that season 1741-42 Garrick offered eighteen roles—a feat suggesting almost incredible powers of memory and attention. When he performed, the theater was filled; when he was not billed it was half empty. The licensed theaters suffered reduced attendance. By some backstage politics the playhouse in Goodman’s Fields was forced to close. Garrick, lost without a stage, signed a contract with the Drury Lane Theatre for 1742-43 at £500—a record salary for an actor. Meanwhile he left for a spring season in Dublin. Handel had just captured that city with his Messiah (April 13, 1742); now Garrick and Peg Woffington conquered it with Shakespeare. When they returned to London they set up housekeeping together, and Garrick bought a wedding ring. But she resented his parsimony and he her extravagance. He began to wonder what kind of wife would emerge from Peg’s miscellaneous past. He kept the ring, and they parted (1744).

His acting at Drury Lane marked an era in the art. He gave to each role all the force of his energy, and constant care that every motion of his body, every inflection of his voice, should be in character. He made the alarm and terror of Macbeth so vivid that this, more than any other of his roles, remained in the public memory. He replaced the declamation of older tragedians with a more natural speech. He achieved a sensitivity of facial expression that varied with the slightest change of thought or mood in the text. Years later Johnson remarked, “David looks much older than he is, for his face has had double the business of any other man’s; it is never at rest.”77 And there was his versatility. He played comic parts with almost all the care and finish that he had given to his Macbeth or Hamlet or Lear.

After five seasons as an actor Garrick signed (April 9, 1747) a contract to divide the management of Drury Lane with James Lacy: Lacy to take charge of business affairs, Garrick to choose the plays and the actors and direct the rehearsals. During his twenty-nine years as manager he produced seventy-five different plays, wrote one himself (in collaboration with George Colman), revised twenty-four of Shakespeare’s dramas, composed a great number of prologues, epilogues, and farces, and wrote for the press anonymous articles promoting and praising his work. He appreciated money, and tempered his choice of plays to the greatest happiness of the greatest paying number. He loved applause, as actors and writers must, and he arranged parts to get most of it. His actors thought him tyrannical and stingy, and complained that he underpaid them while he was becoming rich. He established order and discipline among jealous and hypersensitive individuals each of whom verged or brooded on genius. They grumbled, but they were glad to stay, for no other company weathered so well the winds of fortune and the tides of taste.

In 1749 Garrick married Eva Maria Weigel, a Viennese dancer who had come to England as “Mlle. Violette,” and had earned plaudits for her performances in opera ballets. She was, and remained, a pious Catholic; Garrick smiled at her belief in the story of St. Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins,78 but he respected her faith since she lived up to its moral code. She did much, by her devotion, to ease the strain of an actor-manager’s life. He lavished his wealth upon her, took her on Continental tours, and bought for her an expensive home in Hampton village. There, and in his London house on Adelphi Terrace, he entertained sumptuously, and many lords and distinguished foreigners were happy to be his guests. There he romped with Fanny Burney, and sheltered Hannah More.

In 1763 he gave up acting except for special occasions. “Now,” he said, “I will sit down and read Shakespeare.”79 In 1768 he suggested, planned, and supervised the first Shakespeare festival at Stratford-on-Avon. He continued to manage Drury Lane, but found the tempers and quarrels of the actors ever harder on his aging nerves. Early in 1776 he sold his share of the partnership to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and on March 7 he announced that he would soon retire. For three months thereafter he gave farewell performances of his favorite roles, and enjoyed such a succession of triumphs as probably no other actor in history has ever known. His departure from the stage caused as much talk in London as the war with America. On June 10, 1776, he closed his theatrical career with a benefit for the Decayed Actors’ Fund.

He survived three years more. He died on January 20, 1779, aged sixtytwo. On February 1 his corpse was borne to Westminster Abbey by members of Britain’s highest nobility, and was deposited in the Poets’ Corner at the foot of Shakespeare’s monument.

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