Partial Histories: A Reappraisal of Colley Cibber by Elaine M McGirr - review by Norma Clarke

Norma Clarke

Sir Novelty Back in Fashion

Partial Histories: A Reappraisal of Colley Cibber


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Colley Cibber was unfortunate in his enemies. Alexander Pope made him King of the Dunces in The Dunciad, Henry Fielding pilloried him in the opening chapter of Joseph Andrews and in a number of plays, and Samuel Johnson ridiculed him. Posterity has paid more attention to the mockery of these great writers than to Cibber’s undoubted – and rather extraordinary – achievements. Elaine McGirr’s Partial Histories is an impassioned and unashamedly partisan attempt at reclamation.

Cibber was an actor, a theatre manager and a writer. In all three roles he was original, inventive and successful. He had a happy marriage and was the father of a large family. From the beginning of his stage career in 1690 until his retirement in 1733 (though he made occasional appearances until 1745), he earned a comfortable income and lived a steady professional life in early 18th-century gentlemanly style. As well as long days in Drury Lane, he spent much time in clubs – he was the first actor to be a member of White’s – gambling and settling the affairs of nations with aristocrats and politicians who also invited him to their country houses. As far as anybody can tell, he kept no mistress. His record with regard to women seems almost exemplary: he treated his female colleagues with respect. He credited his co-star Anne Oldfield with the success of his comedy The Careless Husband and, as well as writing the part of Lady Betty Modish for her (and basing it on her: ‘There are many Sentiments in the Character of Lady Betty Modish that I may almost say were originally her own, or only dress’d with a little more care than when they negligently fell from her lively Humour’), he created a dozen other roles for her too. They were the leading stage couple of their era, creating memorable characters in comedy and tragedy for over three decades.

McGirr can’t quite explain why, given the undisputed facts of his career and popularity, Cibber’s name became a byword for mediocrity, vanity, foolishness and risible stupidity. The transmission of evidence is one problem: later generations can’t go back and check the performance or question the audience, and what McGirr calls ‘the archive’ – meaning the historical record – is thin for these early years. Cibber’s trademark parts were vain fools, beginning with Sir Novelty Fashion in his first play, Love’s Last Shift (1696), and Lord Foppington in Vanbrugh’s The Relapse that same year, and later Sir Courtly Nice and Sir Fopling Flutter in plays by John Crowne and George Etherege. Playing them year after year and cultivating an off-stage persona that reinforced his celebrity, he inevitably found that the image stuck to him.

Cibber’s performances were supposedly poor in tragedies, but McGirr argues convincingly that his Iago and Richard III laid the foundations for the Shakespeare revival that came several years later and is attributed to David Garrick. She addresses the larger cultural battles that swirled around Shakespeare’s plays, which were, essentially, struggles for possession between theatre practitioners and scholarly critics. It is well known that Nahum Tate’s Lear, with its happy ending, was the preferred version of Shakespeare’s play in the 18th century, less so that Cibber’s adaptation of Richard III kept its place in the repertory for 130 years. Cibber rewrote Richard III: of the play’s 2,170 lines, 1,102 were by Cibber, including some of the most famous, and 1,810 lines were cut, along with several characters. The changes focused the action and kept Richard (played by Cibber) on stage for much of the time. Fielding called him ‘a modern poetical botcher’, mangling and pillaging the Bard. But Cibber’s Richard III was what audiences wanted to see. It was the perfect star vehicle and hence the role that Garrick chose for his debut, immortalised by Hogarth in a fine painting. Garrick, who was short, judged that coming forward as ‘a hero, or any part which is generally acted by a tall fellow’ would be more of a challenge than a part ‘adapted to his figure’, as Tom Davies put it, ‘diversified by a succession of passion, and dignified by variety and splendour of action’. Cibber had left the stage by then, but his portrayal of the character over thirty-eight years, along with his script, gave Garrick the foundation on which to display his own histrionic talents.

Like politics, theatre feeds on rumour and gossip. Publicity is its lifeblood, and the history of theatre perhaps suffers more than most subjects from the distortions of pleasure-giving anecdote. Some of the attacks on Cibber were political: he was associated with the Whig ministry of Robert Walpole, an association that became official when he was appointed poet laureate in 1730. And his reputation was ill-served by the antics of two of his children, Theophilus and Charlotte. There seems little doubt that Theophilus was, as most people seem to have thought most of the time, an obnoxious braggart and a cheat, prepared to pimp out his wife, Susannah, in order to get damages from her lover by taking them both through the courts (not once but twice). But Charlotte presents the modern feminist critic with more of a problem. Like Theo, Charlotte followed in her father’s footsteps. She had some success as a comedian, most of all in Pasquin, a 1736 play by Henry Fielding. Pasquin was already running at the Haymarket when Charlotte approached Fielding. He gave her the part of Lord Place, a nasty caricature of her father. The play ran for more than sixty nights. Was she simply a naive tool of Fielding’s enmity or did she know the pain she was causing? Cibber never forgave her.

Charlotte also followed her father in writing an autobiography, but in it she said little about her time with Fielding, except to acknowledge that it had been a mistake to leave Drury Lane. Charlotte played parts in breeches and cross-dressed in real life, even, apparently, taking a wife. Her descriptions of her adventures, as well as her lively recollections of childhood, make her Narrative of the Life of Mrs Charlotte Charke a document of great interest. Unsurprisingly, scholars interested in her (and many are interested in her) rarely extend much sympathy to Cibber. In this respect his posthumous bad luck continues.

Cibber’s own autobiography, Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber (1740), is at once an account of his life and career and a valuable history of theatre. Some people – Fielding, for example – expressed surprise that someone as lowly as an actor should address the public with stories of his own experiences. (To be more precise, Fielding implied that Cibber should feel ashamed; but Cibber had called Fielding ‘a broken wit’.) I have always been puzzled that Cibber’s jaunty, worldly, fascinating reflections on a life spent on the boards and backstage in the green room and manager’s office are not better known.

Elaine McGirr’s reappraisal is partial in the sense of being admittedly incomplete as well as partisan. It is not a fully rounded portrait and there is a little too much finger-wagging at the mistakes of previous scholars. Nevertheless, it is a timely reminder of the prejudices at play in the business of literary memory and judgement and a very apt recovery from obscurity of a man whose comedies were a staple of the repertory well into the 19th century.

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