Littell's Living Age/Volume 146/Issue 1881/David Garrick

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On a cold March morning, in the year 1737, two young men started from Lichfield to try their fortunes in London. The younger of the two is but nineteen, not tall, but well made, “a very sensible fellow and a good scholar, of good dispositions, and very promising.” His companion is seven years older, somewhat ponderous in person, rolling in gait, and rather near-sighted. The former is David Garrick; the latter is his preceptor, Samuel Johnson.

Garrick was designed for law; but following a very early and a very strong impulse, he gave himself to the stage, and made his début on the hoards of Goodman’s Fields, Ipswich, under the name of Lyddal. His part was Aboan in “Oroonoko,” and from that night his success was assured. His first appearance in London “Richard III.,” and for the display of his own powers lie could not have chosen a fitter part. His success was triumphant, and as lasting as triumphant. Garrick’s was that success which ever rewards not so much continual and conscientious toil as red-hot enthusiasm. His rendering of Richard was a reformation as much as a revolution in the histrionic art.

Garrick’s popularity on and off the stage was the result of a happy combination of unusual qualities. Some of these we may endeavor to enumerate. By descent a Frenchman, he had all the volatility and indeed volubility of the French people. His stature was slightly under the middle size; his limbs beautifully proportioned; his arm charmingly tapering off into a hand very neat and very small. Manliness, elasticity, ease, and grace characterized his deportment. “His movements were refreshing to witness.” What a contrast to the burly and bulldogged Sam! With his dark-blue coat and small cocked-hat laced with gold, Garrick’s figure was unique. His countenance, never at rest, revealed the radiant mind in the expressive play of features. The eyebrows finely arched over a pair of dark, brilliant eyes, the fire of which he had the art of quenching, and making his intelligent orbs as dull as two gooseberries; in the personation of terror or tenderness his eye held the audience like a spell. His voice at once natural, cultivated, and easy in its modulations, wide in its compass, had that undefinable penetratingness peculiar to the great actor and true orator. Impressionableness or intense sensibility was a leading trait in Garrick’s mental make-up. This is that quality by which an actor, while setting due store by the words, realizes and becomes out and out the character he portrays. The mere repetition of the language of “Hamlet,” however graceful and correct the elocution may be, without that intensiveness by which Hamlet as a harmonious whole lives in and shines distinctly through the actor, is perhaps a correct enough portrait, but it lacks the living soul. Garrick too had a true workman-like delight in excellence. And with all his natural endowments and genius, perhaps few professional men have worked so constantly and with such a continued enthusiasm to the very end of a public career. His whole soul was in his work, and his work was his joy. “He saw no one on the days he performed;" he was full of the “part” for the evening. And even between the acts he separated himself from the other actors and would speak to no one. He brought genius and put conscience into his work.

Another element, if not of his success at least of his happiness, was his marriage to that charming singer, the fair Eva M. Veigel or Violette. This lady was said to be “the most agreeable woman in England." Sterne, who saw her among the beauties of Paris in the Tuileries Gardens, declared “she could annihilate them all in a single turn.” Even Horace Walpole could forsake his cynicism, and say of her that her “behavior is all sense and all sweetness.” During the twenty-eight years of their married life, David was not so much the husband as the lover; and his affection was rewarded with a love as true and as constant as his own. Mrs. Garrick survived her husband more than forty years, and for at least thirty of these she would not allow the room in which David died to be opened. Buried, at her own request, in her wedding sheets, she occupies the same grave with her husband at the base of Shakespeare’s statue, “until the day dawn and the shadows flee away.” Doubtless a helpmate so attractive and so congenial and pure greatly aided the actor in striving to attain his ideal.

Does any one, or all of the qualities mentioned as constituting the equipment of Garrick, account for the fact that unlike Mrs. Siddons, Kemble, and Macready, Garrick at once and by a bound placed himself in the front rank of the priesthood of the stage? The sun sometimes foretells his rising by scattering the clouds that cap the hilltops, while as yet we see him not; but inch by inch he rises like a golden wheel; slowly inch by inch he scatters the mist and kindles the heights, until at length he rises—a full orb—pouring his brilliant splendors on all below. So rose gradually Mrs. Siddons, Kemble, Edmund Kean, and Macready. On a dark and cloudy day, the sun is obscured; he has risen, is well up the horizon, but is draped in cloud and shadow and is invisible; the wing of the storm sweeps away shadow and cloud, and in the twinkling of an eye the burning, blazing sun has burst on view. So burst David Garrick on the British stage.

Garrick’s character was by no means perfect. Many faults were laid to his charge; and amongst others was his fondness of flattery. Murphy, to whom Garrick had given loan upon loan of money, accuses him of meanness. This charge, however, has been proved to be as unjust as it was ungrateful. On one occasion, Murphy was asked his opinion of Garrick. He replied: “Off the stage, sir, he was a mean, sneaking fellow; but on the stage”—throwing up his hands and eyes—“impossible to describe !“ Mrs. Clive was one night standing at the wing, alternately weeping and scolding at Garrick’s acting; and turning away in anger, she exclaimed: “ I believe he could act a gridiron!” Once, at a splendid dinner-party at Lord's, they suddenly missed Garrick, and could not imagine what had become of him, until they were drawn to the window by the convulsive shrieks of laughter of a young negro boy, who was rolling on the ground in an ecstasy of delight to see Garrick mimicking a turkey-cock in the courtyard, with his coat-tail stuck out behind, and in a seeming flutter of feathered rage and pride. In “Lear,” Garrick’s very stick acted. The scene with Cordelia and the physician, as Garrick played it, was ineffably pathetic. The anathema in this play exceeded all imagination; it electrified the audience with horror. The words “Kill—kill—kill!” echoed the revenge and impotent rage of a frantic king.

When it was announced that Garrick was soon to take leave of the stage, there came a rush of people from all parts of Europe to witness his last performances. Many foreigners who came specially to England to see Garrick play were unable to get admission. A week or so after his last appearance, he thus writes: “When it came to taking the last farewell, I not only lost the use of my voice, but of my limbs too. It was indeed, as I said, a most awful moment. You would not have thought an English audience void of feeling if you had seen and heard them. After I had left the stage, and was dead to them, they would not suffer the petite pièce to go on, nor would the actors perform, they were so affected.” Thus retired from the stage perhaps the greatest actor of modern times. Garrick departed this life in January 1779. His death was a national event. The funeral was the largest ever seen in London up to that time, among the mourning thousands at Shakespeare’s monument being old Samuel Johnson affected to tears. Perhaps he was thinking of that cold March morning when he and his friend left Lichfield for London.