1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cibber, Colley
CIBBER, COLLEY (1671–1757), English actor and dramatist, was born in London on the 6th of November 1671, the eldest son of Caius Gabriel Cibber, the sculptor. Sent in 1682 to the free school at Grantham, Lincolnshire, the boy distinguished himself by an aptitude for writing verse. He produced an “Oration” on the death of Charles II.—whom he had seen feeding his ducks in St James’s Park,—and an “Ode” on the accession of James II. He was removed from school in 1687 on the chance of election to Winchester College. His father, however, had not then presented that institution with his statue of William of Wykeham, and the son was rejected, although through his mother he claimed to be of “founder’s kin.” The boy went to London, and indulged his passion for the theatre. He was invited to Chatsworth, the seat of William Cavendish, earl (afterwards duke) of Devonshire, for whom his father was then executing commissions, and he was on his way when the news of the landing of William of Orange was received; father and son met at Nottingham, and Colley Cibber was taken into Devonshire’s company of volunteers. He served in the bloodless campaign that resulted in the coronation of the Prince of Orange, and on its conclusion presented a Latin petition to the earl imploring his interest. The earl did nothing for him, however, and he enrolled himself (1690) as an actor in Betterton’s company at Drury Lane.
After playing “full three-quarters of a year” without salary, as was then the custom of all apprentice actors, he was paid ten shillings a week. His rendering of the little part of the chaplain in Otway’s Orphan procured him a rise of five shillings; and a subsequent impersonation (1694) on an emergency, and at the author’s request, of Lord Touchwood in The Double Dealer, advanced him, on Congreve’s recommendation, to a pound a week. On this, supplemented by an allowance of £20 a year from his father, he contrived to live with his wife and family—he had married in 1693—and to produce a play, Love’s Last Shift, or the Fool in Fashion (1696). Of this comedy Congreve said that it had “a great many things that were like wit in it”; and Vanbrugh honoured it by writing his Relapse as a sequel. Cibber played the part of Sir Novelty Fashion, and his performance as Lord Foppington, the same character renamed, in Vanbrugh’s piece, established his reputation as an actor. In 1698 he was assailed, with other dramatists, by Jeremy Collier in the Short View. In November 1702 he produced, at Drury Lane, She Wou’d and She Wou’d Not; or the Kind Impostor, one of his best comedies; and in 1704, for himself and Mrs Oldfield, The Careless Husband, which Horace Walpole classed, with Cibber’s Apology, as “worthy of immortality.” In 1706 Cibber left Drury Lane for the Haymarket, but when the two companies united two years later he rejoined his old theatre through the influence of his friend Colonel Brett, a shareholder. Brett made over his share to Wilks, Estcourt and Cibber. Complaints against the management of Christopher Rich led, in 1709, to the closing of the theatre by order of the crown, and William Collier obtained the patent. After a series of intrigues Collier was bought out by Wilks, Doggett and Cibber, under whose management Drury Lane became more prosperous than it ever had been. In 1715 a new patent was granted to Sir Richard Steele, and Barton Booth was also added to the management. In 1717 Cibber produced the Nonjuror, an adaptation from Molière’s Tartuffe; the play, for which Nicholas Rowe wrote an abusive prologue, ran eighteen nights, and the author received from George I., to whom it was dedicated, a present of two hundred guineas. Tartuffe became an English Catholic priest who incited rebellion, and there is little doubt that the Whig principles expressed in the Nonjuror led to Cibber’s appointment as poet laureate (1730). It also provoked the animosity of the Jacobite and Catholic factions, and was possibly one of the causes of Pope’s hostility to Cibber. Numerous “keys” to the Nonjuror appeared in 1718. In 1720 Drury Lane was closed for three days by order of the duke of Newcastle, ostensibly on account of the refusal of the patentees to submit to the authority of the lord chamberlain, but really (it is asserted) because of a quarrel between Newcastle and Steele, in which the former demanded Cibber’s resignation. In 1726 Cibber pleaded the cause of the patentees against the estate of Sir Richard Steele before Sir Joseph Jekyll, master of the rolls, and won his case. In 1730 Mrs Oldfield died, and her loss was followed in 1732 by that of Wilks; Cibber now sold his share in the theatre, appearing rarely on the stage thereafter. In 1740 he published An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, Comedian . . . with an Historical View of the Stage during his Own Time. “There are few,” wrote Goldsmith, “who do not prefer a page of Montaigne or Colley Cibber, who candidly tell us what they thought of the world, and the world thought of them, to the more stately memoirs and transactions of Europe.” But beside the personal interest, this book contains criticisms on acting of enduring value, and gives the best account there is of Cibber’s contemporaries on the London stage. Samuel Johnson, who was no friend of Cibber, gave it grudging praise (see Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. Birkbeck Hill, vol. iii. p. 72).
In 1742 Cibber was substituted for Theobald as the hero of Pope’s Dunciad. Cibber had introduced some gag into the Rehearsal, in which he played the part of Bayes, referring to the ill-starred farce of Three Hours after Marriage (1717). This play was nominally by Gay, but Pope and Arbuthnot were known to have had a hand in it. Cibber refused to discontinue the offensive passage, and Pope revenged himself in sarcastic allusions in his printed correspondence, in the Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot and in the Dunciad. To these, Cibber replied with A Letter from Mr Cibber to Mr Pope, inquiring into the motives that might induce him in his satirical works to be so frequently fond of Mr Cibber’s name (1742). Cibber scored with an “idle story of Pope’s behaviour in a tavern” inserted in this letter, and gives an account of the original dispute over the Rehearsal. By the substitution of Cibber for Theobald as hero of the Dunciad, much of the satire lost its point. Cibber’s faults certainly did not include dullness. A new edition contained a prefatory discourse, probably the work of Warburton, entitled “Ricardus Aristarchus, or the Hero of the Poem,” in which Cibber is made to look ridiculous from his own Apology. Cibber replied in 1744 with Another Occasional Letter . . ., and altogether he had the best of the argument. When he was seventy-four years old he made his last appearance on the stage as Pandulph in his own Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John (Covent Garden, 15th of February 1745), a miserable paraphrase of Shakespeare’s play. He died on the 11th of December 1757.
Cibber’s reputation has suffered unduly from the depreciation of Pope and Johnson. “I could not bear such nonsense,” said Johnson of one of Cibber’s odes, “and I would not let him read it to the end.” Fielding attacked Cibber’s style and language more than once in Joseph Andrews and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Cibber possessed wit, unusual good sense and tact; and in the Apology he showed himself the most delicate and subtle critic of acting of his time. He was frequently accused of plagiarism, and did not scruple to make use of old plays, but he is said to have been ashamed of his Shakespearian adaptations, one of which, however, Richard III. (Drury Lane, 1700), kept its place as the acting version until 1821. Cibber is rebuked for his mutilation of Shakespeare by Fielding in the Historical Register for 1736, where he figures as Ground Ivy.
If Cibber had not as much wit as his predecessors, he displayed in his best plays abundant animation and spirit, free from the extreme coarseness of many of his contemporaries, and a thorough knowledge of the requirements of the stage. His most successful comedies kept their place in the acting repertory for a long time. He was an excellent actor, especially in the rôle of the fashionable coxcomb. Horace Walpole said that as Bayes in The Rehearsal he made the part what it was intended to be, the burlesque of a great poet, whereas David Garrick degraded him to a “garretteer.”
The Apology was edited in 1822 by E. Bellchambers and in by R. W. Lowe, who printed with it other valuable theatrical books and pamphlets. It is also included in Hunt and Clarke’s Autobiographies (1826, &c.). Cibber’s Dramatic Works were published in 1760, with an account of the life and writings of the author, and again in 1777. Besides the plays already mentioned, he wrote Woman’s Wit, or the Lady in Fashion (1697), which was altered later (1707) into The Schoolboy, or the Comical Rivals; Xerxes (1699), a tragedy acted only once; The Provoked Husband (acted 1728), completed from Vanbrugh’s unfinished Journey to London; The Rival Queens, with the Humours of Alexander the Great (acted 1710), a comical tragedy; Damon and Phyllida (acted 1729), a ballad opera; and adaptations from Beaumont and Fletcher, Dryden, Molière and Corneille. A bibliography of the numerous skits on Cibber is to be found in Lowe’s Bibliographical Account of English Theatrical Literature.
Colley Cibber’s son, Theophilus Cibber (1703–1758), also an actor and playwright, was born on the 26th of November 1703. In 1734 he was acting-manager at the Haymarket, and he subsequently played at Drury Lane, Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Covent Garden. His best impersonation was as Pistol, but he also distinguished himself in some of the fine-gentleman parts affected by his father. He was one of the ringleaders in the intrigues against John Highmore, who had bought a share in the patent of Drury Lane from Colley Cibber. Theophilus Cibber, with a number of other actors, seceded from Drury Lane, and in thus depreciating the value of the patent, for which his father had received a considerable sum, acted with doubtful honesty. He contemplated the publication of an autobiography, but was effectually dissuaded by the appearance (1740) of a scathing account of his career by an unknown author, entitled An Apology for the Life of Mr T. . . . C. . . . supposed to be written by himself. In 1753 he began The Lives and Characters of the most Eminent Actors and Actresses of Great Britain and Ireland, but he went no further than the life of Barton Booth. He wrote some plays of no great merit. In 1753 appeared An Account of the Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, with the name of “Mr Cibber” on the title page. The five volumes of Lives are chiefly based on the earlier works of Gerard Langbaine and Giles Jacob, and the MS. collections of Thomas Coxeter (1689–1747). The book is said to have been largely written by Robert Shiels, Dr Johnson’s amanuensis. Theophilus Cibber perished by shipwreck on his way to Dublin to play at the Theatre Royal.
Susannah Maria Cibber (1714–1766), wife of Theophilus, was an actress of distinction. She was the daughter of a Covent Garden upholsterer, and sister of Dr Arne (1710–1778) the composer. Mrs Cibber had a beautiful voice and began her career in opera. She was the original Galatea in Handel’s Acis and Galatea, and the contralto arias in the Messiah are said to have been written for her. She played Zarah in Aaron Hill’s version of Voltaire’s Zaïre in 1736, and it was as a tragic actress, not as a singer, that her greatest triumphs were won. From Colley Cibber she learned a sing-song method of declamation. Her mannerisms, however, did not obscure her real genius, and she freed herself from them entirely when she began to act with Garrick, with whom she was associated at Drury Lane from 1753. She died on the 30th of January 1766. She married Theopihilus Cibber in 1734, but lived with him but a short time. Appreciations of Mrs Cibber’s fine acting are to be found in many contemporary writers, one of the most discriminating being in the Rosciad of Charles Churchill.
Colley Cibber’s youngest daughter, Charlotte, married Richard Charke, a violinist, from whom she was soon separated. She began as an understudy to actresses in leading parts, but quarrelled with her manager, Charles Fleetwood, on whom she wrote a one-act skit, The Art of Management (1735). She also wrote two comedies and two novels of small merit, and an untrustworthy, but amusing Narrative of Life of . . . Charlotte Charke, . . . by herself (1755), reprinted in Hunt and Clarke’s Autobiographies (1822).