Rich, Christopher (DNB00)

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RICH, CHRISTOPHER (d. 1714), theatrical manager, originally an attorney, purchased, on 24 March 1688, from Alexander D'Avenant, who was co-patentee with Charles Killigrew, a share in the management of the Theatre Royal (subsequently known as Drury Lane). Alexander D'Avenant thereupon retired, while Killigrew allowed Rich to become the predominant and responsible partner in the conduct of theatrical affairs. With the management of Drury Lane was combined that of the subordinate house in Dorset Garden. From the first Rich was involved in continual lawsuits and difficulties with the actors, the proprietors, and the lord chamberlain, but his legal training fitted him to cope with all.

His difficulties arrived at a climax in 1695, when Betterton obtained a patent for a new theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and successfully opened it on 30 April with Congreve's ‘Love for Love.’ Rich would not listen to any suggestion of accommodation between the rival companies. He busied himself, according to Cibber, in making unimportant structural alterations at Drury Lane, and prophesied failure for the other house at the ‘fag end of the town.’ The success of the new house was not sustained, and in 1705 Betterton transferred his company to the new theatre in the Haymarket, which had been planned by Vanbrugh for opera in the previous year, but of which the projector had wearied. This arrangement was equally unsuccessful, and in October 1706 Vanbrugh leased the Haymarket Theatre at a rental of 5l. for every acting day to Rich's agent, Owen Swiney. The latter took with him a small detachment of actors from Drury Lane. The three London playhouses (Drury Lane, Dorset Garden, and Haymarket) were thus alike for a short while under Rich's dominion. But his avarice and oppression of the actors seem to have alienated all who came into contact with him. As sole manager of Drury Lane for several years, he could never be persuaded or coerced into rendering to the other proprietors any account of his trust; and one of the chief proprietors, Sir Thomas Skipwith, parted with his share in disgust to Colonel Brett. The machinations of the latter seem to have influenced the lord chamberlain to issue, on 31 Dec. 1707, an arbitrary edict restricting the Haymarket to opera under Swiney's directorship, and ordering Rich's actors back to Drury Lane. About the same time Swiney became completely estranged from Rich, who thenceforth lost his control over the Haymarket. Rich's Haymarket and Drury Lane companies appeared together in ‘Hamlet’ at Drury Lane on 15 Jan. 1708. But the reunion satisfied no one. On 31 March 1708 Brett assigned his share in the patent to Wilks, Estcourt, and Cibber, and these actors, who had long been dissatisfied with Rich, began to prepare for a secession.

Rich now recommenced his oppressive policy towards the actors, reducing their pay and interfering with their benefits; the latter, under Rich's management, had become the chief article in every actor's agreement. The agreements of the actors were only verbal, and were disregarded by the patentees, who arbitrarily refused any actor his benefit until he had signed a paper signifying his voluntary acceptance of it on condition of paying one-third to the patentees, any clauses from custom to the contrary notwithstanding. The actors applied to the lord chamberlain for redress, and the patentees were directed to satisfy their claims. The patentees demurred, and the theatre was reduced to silence (6 June 1709), no performances being allowed. Rich then published an advertisement, showing the sums the principal actors who were loudest in complaint had received. Wilks, Betterton, Estcourt, Cibber, Mills, and Mrs. Oldfield were stated to have received among them 1,957l. 3s. 2d. The statement was signed by the treasurer. Rich, with other patentees, including Charles Killigrew, Charles D'Avenant, William Collier, M.P. for Truro, Lord Guilford, Lord Harvey, and Ann Shadwell, in a petition to the queen, stated their grievances against the lord chamberlain, who refused them any redress. A second petition was sent by a few of the silenced actors, members of Drury Lane. Wilks, Dogget, Cibber, and Mrs. Oldfield did not join in the petition, for they had formed a confederation to join Swiney at the Haymarket, where they opened with ‘Othello’ on 15 Sept. 1709.

Rich, imagining that the order of silence, like others by which it had been preceded, would be withdrawn after a time, kept together Booth and such other actors as had not transferred their services to the Haymarket. The order, however, remained in force, and Collier, one of the proprietors of the patents, applied for and obtained a license, and ultimately succeeded in obtaining a lease of Drury Lane. Now that no performances were given, Rich was paying no rent, but he sought to retain the theatre in his hands. He stripped it of everything worth moving, except scenery. In the ‘Tatler,’ on 15 July, No. 42, Steele gave a mock catalogue of the contents of ‘the palace in Drury Lane, of Christopher Rich, Esquire, who is breaking up housekeeping.’ There are such things as a rainbow, a little faded; Roxana's nightgown, Othello's handkerchief, the imperial robes of Xerxes, never worn but once, a basket-hilted sword, very convenient to carry milk in, and the like. But at length, by means of a hired crew, Collier obtained, on 22 Nov. 1709, possession of the house. A humorous account of these proceedings is given in the ‘Tatler,’ No. 99, 26 Nov. 1709, in which Rich, depicted under the name of Divito, is said to ‘have wounded all adversaries with so much skill that men feared even to be in the right against him.’ Collier claimed to have the consent of a majority of the other renters for what he had done, and was joined by the actors previously in the service of Rich. As these had no rag of stage clothing, they made but a sorry show. Rich, however, finally lost his hold upon Drury Lane. Cibber wrote of him: ‘He seems in his public capacity of patentee and manager to have been a despicable character, without spirit to bring the power of the lord chamberlain to a legal test, without honesty to account to the other proprietors for the receipts of the theatre, without any feeling for his actors, and without the least judgment as to players and plays’ (ii. 430).

Rich had already, at a low rent, acquired a lease, with the patent granted by Charles II, of the deserted theatre erected by Sir William D'Avenant in Little Lincoln's Inn Fields. On the strength of this he erected a new theatre on about the same site in Portugal Row, his architect being James Shepherd, who had also built the playhouse in Goodman's Fields. Before this was quite finished Rich died, 4 Nov. 1714, leaving the building to be opened by his sons, John Rich [q. v.] and Christopher Mosyer Rich.

Colley Cibber, whose ‘Apology’ is largely occupied with Rich's doings, gives some insight into his curiously unamiable character. Gildon, in ‘A Comparison between two Stages’ (1702), speaking of him, says: ‘In the other House there's an old snarling Lawyer Master and Sovereign; a waspish, ignorant pettifogger in Law and Poetry; one who understands Poetry no more than Algebra; he would sooner have the Grace of God than do every body Justice. What a P … has he to do so far out of his way? Can't he pore over his Plowden and Dalton, and let Fletcher and Beaumont alone?’ (pp. 15–16). He, again, says that Rich ‘is a monarch of the stage, tho' he knows not how to govern one Province in his Dominion but that of Signing, Sealing, and something else that shall be nameless’ (p. 16). Genest, condensing Colley Cibber, declares that ‘Rich appears to have been a man of great cunning, and intimately acquainted with all the quirks of law; he was as sly a tyrant as was ever at the head of a theatre, for he gave the actors more liberty and fewer days' pay than any of his predecessors; he would laugh with them over a bottle and bite them in their bargains; he kept them poor, that they might not be able to rebel, and sometimes merry, that they might not think of it’ (Account of the English Stage, ii. 314). Against these opinions may be placed the less trustworthy testimony of authors who dedicated to him plays he had produced, or was expected to produce. The anonymous author of the ‘Stage Beaux tossed in a Blanket,’ 1704 (?Tom Brown), praises his management of the theatre, speaks of his private acts of charity, and says that, did he not know he should offend rather than please him, he would panegyrise him. Richard Estcourt [q. v.] dedicated, in 1706, his ‘Fair Example’ to ‘the Serene Christopher Rich, Esq., chief Patentee, Governour, and Manager of His Majesty's Theatre Royal,’ addresses him as ‘Dreadless Sir,’ and declares: ‘You have a genius extraordinary, great natural gifts, a wit just and fruitful, an understanding clear and distinct, a strength of judgment, and sweetness of temper.’ Estcourt further credits Rich with a ‘noble idea of poetry,’ judgment in the matter of plays, and generosity in the conduct of his theatre.

[All that is known concerning Christopher Rich has to be gleaned with difficulty from Cibber's Apology, which, in respect of things of the kind, is equally inaccurate and confused. Outside references are generally valueless, in consequence of the confusion that exists between father and sons. They are indexed together in works of authority. Christopher Rich is spoken of in many theatrical compilations as alive in the latter half of the eighteenth century. See also Genest and Cibber's Apology, ed. Lowe; Downes's Roscius Anglicanus; Curll's Misc. 1727, i. 18; Gildon's Comparison between the two Stages; Fitzgerald's New History of the English Stage; Tatler; Gent. Mag. 1832, pt. ii. 586–8.]

J. K.