The Lives of the Poets-Laureate/Colley Cibber
Colley Cibber was eminent among his contemporaries as an actor, a dramatic writer, and a successful theatrical manager; to us he is better known as the hero of "The Dunciad." He was born in Southampton Street, Strand, the 6th of November, 1671. His father, Caius Gabriel Cibber, or Cibert, a statuary by profession, was a native of Flensburg, in the Duchy of Holstein. He settled in England a short time previous to the Restoration, and became carver to the King's closet. To him we owe the bas-relief on the monument on Tower Hill, and the figures of Melancholy and Raving Madness at Bethlehem Hospital. He was twice married; his second wife was a member of one of those families whose fortunes were wrecked through their faithful adherence to the cause of the Stuarts, and her grandfather, Sir Anthony Colley, at the close of the civil war, found his patrimony diminished from £3000 to £300 a-year. Colley Cibber was the fruit of this second marriage.
When about ten years old he was sent to the free school of Grantham, in Lincolnshire, where he remained five years, and the slender stock of classical learning he there acquired, received little increase from study in after life. At school he was noted for conceit, carelessness, and quickness. He once received punishment for a bad theme, while his master, at the same time, announced that in parts it far exceeded in merit any that his competitors had produced. At the coronation of King James II. the school petitioned for a holiday; the request was granted, provided an ode were first composed on the event. The boys were disheartened, but Cibber undertook the task and completed it in half an hour. His vanity, however, was so offensive on the occasion, that his schoolfellows excluded him from a pastime in which he was most desirous to participate.
In 1687 his father took him from school, and sent him to stand at the election of scholars at Winchester, where, through the descent on the mother's side from the founder, William of Wykeham, he trusted to have obtained his admittance. Good easy man! His soul must have been too much absorbed in his art, to have had time to contemplate the peculiarities of English manners. "Had he," says Cibber, "tacked a direction to my back and sent me by the carrier to the mayor of the town, to be chosen Member of Parliament there, I might have had just as much chance to have succeeded in the one as the other." A friendless boy presenting himself, without interest or recommendations, at the door of any of our munificent foundations for indigent scholars, would not be likely to excite much consideration. This, however, would result from the coldness and pride of our national character, and if there was blame on this occasion it lay not with the institution but with the father.
The refusal taught him a lesson, and the second son profited by the mishap of the elder. He exerted himself; the present of a statue of the founder was convincing as to his worth; and the younger brother became a scholar at Winchester, and died a fellow of New College. The want of academical training is visible in the whole future career of Cibber, and his moral character suffered by being thrown, thus undisciplined, among the shifting quicksands of London life. The instant he heard of his failure, he hastened back to London, intent on spending an evening at the theatre before giving an account of himself at home. As he gazed upon the mimic scene, and heard the burst of applause that greeted each favourite actor, his heart heaved with emotion, and he pined to share that tinsel splendour and that empty approbation. He longed to become an actor, but suppressed, he says, "the bewitching ideas of so sublime a station," through dread of his father's displeasure. Fearing the temptation might become too strong if he remained within its immediate influence, he wrote to his father, requesting he might not have to wait another year for an election at Winchester, when he might only encounter a second disappointment, but proceed at once to the University. His father, who was occupied at Chatsworth, under the Earl of Devonshire, seemed inclined to accede to his wishes, and as he had some years before made some sculptures for Trinity College, he trusted his acquaintance with some of the Heads of Houses might be of service in settling young Colley at Cambridge.
Some months, however, elapsed, and to put a stop to his idleness in London, he was summoned to Chatsworth. On reaching Nottingham he found his father in arms, under the Earl, who had raised some troops in favour of William, Prince of Orange. As the old sculptor could make but an indifferent soldier, his son was readily accepted as his substitute, and he entered upon his new career with high glee. "At this crisis," he remarks, with his customary conceit, "it will be observed that the fate of King James, and of the Prince of Orange, and of myself were all at once upon the anvil." He had had but a few days to admire himself in his gay costume, when news arrived that, on the defection of the Prince of Denmark, the Princess Anne, fearing her father's resentment, had withdrawn herself by night from London, and was hastening towards Nottingham; and the report that two thousand of the King's dragoons were in hot pursuit, threw the new levies into a state of painful consternation. They scrambled to arms, and advanced with precipitation along the London road. Before they had proceeded many miles they met the Princess journeying leisurely in a coach, attended only by Lady Churchill, afterwards the famous Duchess of Marlborough, and Lady Fitzhardinge. The recruits, on being assured that no dragoons were in pursuit, turned gallantly back; and escorted Her Highness into Nottingham, with a calm consciousness of superior valour.
In the evening, the nobility and principal personages in the neighbourhood supped with the Princess. There being some dearth of attendants, Cibber's services were requested, and the post assigned to him was to wait on the Lady Churchill. Fifty years later, Cibber, in language of inflated exaggeration, described the effect the lofty Sarah's beauty produced upon his heart that evening. "All my senses were collected into my eyes, which, during the whole entertainment, wanted no better amusement than of stealing now and then the delight of gazing on the object so near me." Nor does the lapse of half a century seem to have chilled the warmth of his admiration. "A person," says he, "so attractive; a husband so memorably great; an offspring so beautiful; a fortune so immense; and (a title, which when royal favour had no higher to bestow, she could only receive from the Author of nature) a great-grandmother without grey hairs! These are such consummate indulgences that we might think Heaven has centred them all in one person, to let us see how far, with a lively understanding, the full possession of them could contribute to human happiness."
On the establishment of the new dynasty, Cibber was one of the first who accepted a discharge. "Of all the comedians who have appeared on the stage in my memory," says Chesterfield, in after years, "no one has taken a kicking with such humour as our excellent Laureate," and the sarcasm will tend to explain how so short a campaign served to dissipate his martial predilections. His father's patron was now in high favour at court, and Cibber, at his instigation, drew up a petition to that nobleman, asking him for some appointment. The duke (for he had been rewarded with this advance in the peerage) told his father to send him to London, and indirectly undertook to provide for him. He waited there five months, and had some prospect of employment in the office of the secretary of state; but having now an opportunity of indulging his theatrical tastes, his inclination towards the stage increased in intensity till it assumed the shape of an absorbing passion. "I saw no joy in any other life than that of an actor," says he; "'twas on the stage alone I had formed a happiness preferable to all that camps or courts could offer me, and there was I determined, let father and mother take it as they pleased, to fix my non ultra." Accordingly, he appended himself to the company at Drury Lane, then the only theatre open in London.
The patentees had established a harsh though wholesome regulation, to the effect that no novice should receive pay before undergoing a probation of six months. Master Colley, as he was called, waited full three quarters of a year in anxious suspense, but no one in authority deigned to notice him. At length he was fixed upon to carry a message on the stage, and he could not control his emotion at having at last an opportunity of distinguishing himself. As the eventful moment approached, however, he grew so timid, and in the end acquitted himself so ill, that the whole scene was disconcerted by his awkwardness. Betterton asked angrily who the fellow was that had so bungled. "Master Colley," was the reply. "Master Colley, then forfeit him." "Why, Sir, he has no salary," said the prompter. "No?" said Betterton, "then put him down ten shillings, and forfeit him five." This, Cibber tells us, he thought "a most plentiful accession, and himself the happiest of mortals. Not Alexander himself," says he, "nor Charles XII. of Sweden, when at the head of their victorious armies, could feel a greater transport in their bosoms, than I did then in mine, when but in the rear of this troop of comedians."
The first part in which he obtained any decided success was in the Chaplain, in Otway's play of "The Orphan." He was almost overpowered with delight on the occasion, and the praise of Goodman at rehearsal took away his breath, and drew tears from his eyes. A most extraordinary story is told of this Goodman. Finding his salary as an actor too small to satisfy the demands of his appetites, he boldly took to the highway, as a means of increasing his income. Being convicted of his crime, he was fortunate enough to obtain a pardon from King James. Goodman was so impressed with this instance of the royal clemency, that years afterwards, in 1696, he offered to assassinate William III., in order to testify his gratitude!
Cibber's success was assured by an event which brought him forward in a prominent part. The Queen had commanded "The Double Dealer" to be played. Kynaston was to act the part of Lord Touchwood, but before the evening of representation arrived, that eminent actor fell ill and was unable to perform. By Congreve's advice, his part, after much misgiving, was assigned to Cibber, and the author's judgment was vindicated by the brilliant way in which Cibber depicted the character. His salary was thereupon increased to twenty shillings a-week.
He was not two-and-twenty when he thought himself prosperous enough to marry. Miss Shore was the object of his choice. Her father was so enraged at the match, that he squandered most of his property in building a retreat on the Thames, afterwards known as Shore's Folly, but which has long since been pulled down. He was reconciled to them, however, before he died, and left them some poor remnant of his once handsome fortune. Cibber's income at this juncture consisted of £20 a-year allowed by his father, and twenty shillings a-week, his salary as an actor. "To complete his fortune," he now tells us, "he turned poet." His constitutional hilarity of disposition bore him up through all his difficulties; but the managers were tardy in appreciating his merits, and his advance was slow.
On the secession of Betterton, Mrs. Barry and others, to the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, he received an increase of pay, to keep him from following in the train of the disaffected. The company by this rupture was reduced to the most grievous straits, as they had to withstand the competition of those who had hitherto proved their chief source of attraction. One part of the tactics of the rival theatres was to play the same pieces against each other, and thus try to outdo each other in the public favour by superiority of acting. The play that was first chosen to exhibit the respective merits of the antagonists, was Congreve's "Old Bachelor." Powell was to mimic Betterton in Heartwell, and, after some hesitation, the part of Fondlewife was entrusted to Cibber. Dogget had acquired great popularity in that character—so great, indeed, that the part and the actor were inseparably connected in the public mind. Cibber, instead of striking out a new line for himself, which might jar with the public conception of the part, attempted the most minute imitation of Dogget, in voice, manner, face, and deportment. And so perfect was the resemblance, that many for some time thought it was Dogget himself on the stage, and the sight of that veteran actor in the pit, afforded no small gratification to the vanity of the successful copyist.
Still the verdict of the public was not responded to by the manager. If Cibber asked for a part different to what he had been accustomed to play, he was met with the chill rebuff that "it was not in his way." A remonstrance of his, in reply to some such observation, is worthy the attention both of actors and managers. "I thought," said he, "anything naturally written ought to be in any one's way that pretended to be an actor." This was thought then, as no doubt it would be now, an instance of conceit; and it is because the truth of this remark is not sufficiently recognised, that we see so much comic power degenerating into buffoonery, and authors pandering to an actor's oddities instead of studying truth and nature. In 1695, Cibber offered a play of his own, called "Love's Last Shift," which, through the intervention of Southerne, author of "Oronooko," was brought out in January of this year. This piece was afterwards translated into French, under the whimsical heading of "La dernière chemise de l'amour."
Southerne, though he thought highly of the play, had a less favourable opinion of the author's powers as an actor. "Young man, I pronounce thy play a good one," was his observation. "I will answer for its success if thou dost not spoil it by thy own action." Cibber had given himself the part of Sir Novelty Fashion, which was written to ridicule the tone of foppery then prevalent. The piece gave proofs of such ability, that Lord Dorset, the then Lord Chamberlain—and no bad judge in such matters—said that "it was the best first play that any author, in his memory, had produced; and for a young fellow to show himself such an actor and such a writer in one day was something extraordinary." Sir John Vanbrugh was so pleased with the play and the actor, that he wrote his "Relapse" as a sequel to it, and requested the principal character, Lord Foppington, might be given to Cibber.
It may seem strange that our hero, a man of slight principle, should, as an author, commence his career as a reformer of the immorality of the stage. Writing from reading, rather than from observation, he contrived to extract purity from impurity; and with materials borrowed from Etheredge and other licentious writers, produced a play in which, contrary to the prevalent fashion, propriety was not made ridiculous. Vanbrugh, however, true to the older instincts, in his "Relapse," endeavoured to neutralize the wholesome effect of such a production; and, with much wit and pleasantry, to degrade virtue from her novel elevation.
Cibber, in the meantime, was unceasing in his efforts to gain applause as an actor, and his long and patient study obtained its deserved success. He appeared, with considerable approbation, in the characters of Iago, Wolsey, Richard III., and others; but in tragic parts he never attained the excellence he had exhibited in comedy. His voice was deficient in depth and volume; and so important is voice in tragedy, that it may be doubted whether all other qualifications will not go for nothing if that one be wanting.
In 1697, he produced "Woman's Wit, or the Lady in Fashion," which was but coolly received. His first play seems to have exhausted his stock of reading and observation, which he had not had as yet sufficient time to replenish. His next effort, "Xerxes," a tragedy, was likewise a failure. In a paper in "The Tatler," Steele has a sly joke on the premature fate of this play. Among the items in a theatrical inventory are "The imperial robes of Xerxes, never worn but once." In fact, our author evidently mistook his powers if he expected to excel in tragedy, for which neither his studies nor the original constitution of his mind, in the least degree, fitted him.
In the following year (1700), he had a salve for his wounded vanity in the great success of his new comedy of "Love makes the Man, or the Fop's Fortune," which was brought out at Drury Lane. In the same year, he altered Shakespeare's "King Richard III." for the stage; but the licenser cut out the whole of the first act, not allowing "the small indulgence of a speech or two, that the other four acts might limp on with a little less absurdity." This slashing application of the knife was occasioned by the zeal of the Master of the Revels for the existing order of things, fearing lest the people might be reminded by the miseries of King Henry VI. of the condition of their exiled King James; so firm, at that time, was Whig reliance in the vaunted popularity of the glorious Revolution.
The division among the players, which we shall enter into more particularly in a succeeding page, had been attended with serious results to both parties. Free trade in the drama was, by no means, a successful experiment in those days; and the miseries to which the two companies were reduced by their competition has been graphically depicted by Cibber himself, who was one of the sufferers. The actors were seldom paid more than half their nominal salaries, and sometimes performed for six weeks together without receiving a day's pay; and Cibber, in these straits, found the proceeds of his pen a most welcome supply. "It may be observable, too," says he, "that my muse and my spouse were equally prolific, that the one was seldom the mother of a child, but in the same year the other made me the father of a play. I think we had a dozen of each between us, of both which kinds some died in their infancy, and near an equal number of each were alive when I quitted the theatre."
In 1703, his comedy, "She would and she would not, or the Kind Impostor," was brought out at Drury Lane; and, in the following year, he produced "The Careless Husband," which, it is generally conceded, is by far the best of his productions. Pope has adverted to the high esteem in which this piece was held in his Imitations from Horace:
"The people's voice is odd;
It is, and it is not, the voice of God.
To Gammer Gurton if it give the bays,
And yet deny The Careless Husband praise."
This work is a master-piece in its way, and presents, perhaps, the most favourable specimen of Cibber's genius. Congreve used to say of him, that his plays had many things that looked like wit but were not wit. Certainly he was deficient in that unrivalled felicity, which could dispose each gem in the setting that would best set off its lustre; but, on the other hand, his dialogue gained in ease, and, if less striking, was more natural, and did not seem a mere vehicle for the introduction of choice sayings. "The Careless Husband" owes little to plot or incident. The characters are not such as would at first sight excite much interest, and the broader features of comedy are wanting. The manners are those of fashionable life, which are apt to pall when continued unrelieved through a lengthened performance, and the whole dramatis personæ are but seven; but there is a polish and a grace pervading the whole composition which charms the spectator; and the attention is kept alive, and curiosity excited throughout, to a degree which evidences the hand of a master.
In 1706 he again attempted a tragedy, and brought out his "Perolla and Isadore," which ran a week and then sank into oblivion. His two comedies, "The Double Gallant, or the Sick Lady's Cure," and "The Lady's Last Stake, or the Wife's Resentment," followed during the subsequent year.
The former of these two plays, through caprice or mismanagement, was not a favourite on its first appearance; but on its revival two years afterwards, its merits were better appreciated, and it became a stock play. The latter showed talent, but this perpetual harping on the same string began to tire. The follies of fashionable life admitted not of much variety, and Cibber detecting the changing sentiments of his auditors, turned to other sources of interest.
Owen Swiney had now taken the theatre in the Haymarket, upon some understanding with Rich, the most influential of the patentees of Drury Lane. Rich had excepted to his engaging Cibber, but without avail, as, on some dispute between the two, Cibber, thinking himself ill-used, left Rich and joined Swiney. The two theatres, however, coalesced in the following year, when as his friend, Colonel Brett, had obtained a share in the patent, Cibber returned to Drury Lane. This was the Brett who married the Countess of Macclesfield, the reputed mother of Savage. In 1709, on the suspension of the privileges of the patent by the Lord Chamberlain, Cibber, in conjunction with Wilks, Dogget, and Mrs. Oldfield, returned to the Haymarket, where two years afterwards he obtained a share in the management; and his vanity, his most prominent characteristic through life, was in a flutter of excitement on the occasion. He became joint patentee of Drury Lane, being associated with Collier, Wilks, and Dogget.
His conduct as a manager presents the brightest side of his character. The judgment and resolution he displayed, strange in one of so mercurial a temperament, the mismanagement he corrected, the difficulties he overcame by his marvellous equanimity and perseverance, and the strict punctuality he observed in all pecuniary engagements, constituted him, in the opinion of one well competent to judge, "a character of as singular utility to the theatre as any that ever existed."
We embrace so tempting an opportunity to suspend the narrative, in order to present to the reader a rapid sketch of theatrical history from the time of Davenant to the final retirement of Cibber.
As we have observed in a preceding memoir, at the Restoration two companies were established by royal letters patent. In the dearth of existing dramatic talent, their principal resource lay in the older writers, and particularly in the works of Shakespeare, Jonson, Massinger, and Fletcher, with the understood proviso that the two theatres should never bring out the same play at the same time.
In the rivalry of competition, Davenant, probably during a temporary depression, called in auxiliary aid, and by opera, masque, and spectacle, outran his competitor in public favour. Killegrew took up the same weapons, and angry altercations arose between the two companies, while both seemed on the verge of ruin.
In 1684, Betterton, who had succeeded Davenant in the management, to put a stop to these dissensions, proposed a union. A suspension of hostilities was agreed upon, and the companies united under Davenant's patent. This, with the dormant one of Killegrew, had all the properties of personal estate. Davenant bequeathed it to his son Charles; he assigned it to his brother Alexander, who sold it to Christopher Rich, a lawyer. From Rich it went to his son, who devised it to his four daughters, of whom it was purchased by Colman and others.
At the junction of the two companies, they performed at Drury Lane under the title of the King's Company, and cheered themselves with the flattering assurance of comfortable success. In this, however, they were speedily deceived. The management, freed from the spur of competition, grew lax and negligent, audiences decreased, and while the patentees dictated their own terms to the actors, they were unable to enjoy their monopoly in peace among themselves. Of the twenty shares into which the profits were divided, ten had been appropriated to the proprietors, and the remaining ten, in certain proportions, to the actors. The proprietors who took the one moiety were likewise ten in number. These, impelled by whim or necessity, sold their shares or parts of their shares; and thus moneylenders and speculators were introduced into the management, who obtruded their voices and gave their votes on matters of which they knew absolutely, nothing. The natural consequences ensued, receipts diminished, and the incompetent managers revenged their own folly on the helpless actors by diminishing their quota of the profits.
Betterton, who to save the two companies from ruin, had planned the coalition, now perceived that the remedy had become worse than the disease, and abetted by the principal performers, he, through the medium of Lord Dorset, represented their case to the consideration of King William III. The patentees, secure in their fancied rights, by the advice of Rich, maintained that by law no other patent could be granted. This assumption was stigmatized by the opposite party as a slight on the Prerogative; and the lawyers consulted by Betterton, unanimously gave as their opinion, that the grants of Charles interfered not in the slightest degree with the power of any succeeding Prince to confer similar privileges at discretion. The patentees saw their error, and made overtures of reconciliation. At this crisis Queen Mary died, and the closing of the theatre gave Betterton time to mature his designs.
The opposite party, in the meantime, were not idle; they doubled the salaries of their actors, and beat up for recruits in all quarters. The principal performers, however, felt that the cause of Betterton was their own; they had an audience of the King, who promised them his protection, and were empowered by royal licence to open a theatre for themselves. Subscriptions were instantly set on foot to provide the necessary funds; there was no lack of popular sympathy, and they established themselves in the Tennis Court in Lincoln's Inn Fields.
The patentees were necessarily beforehand, and commenced the campaign with Mrs. Behn's "Abdelazar, or the Moor's Revenge," the prologue to which was Cibber's first attempt in literature. In about a fortnight's time, such was the incredible diligence of Betterton, the rival house opened (April 13th, 1695) with Congreve's "Love for Love," and the success of this play was so unprecedented, that it sufficed of itself to keep the theatre afloat during the whole season.
Various devices were resorted to by the Drury Lane company to win back public favour. Rich, chagrined at the preference given to the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields by persons of distinction, and calculating on the influence servants possessed over the actions of their masters, resorted to the unworthy expedient of opening the gallery free to footmen and others, who had before been excluded altogether from the house. "If he did this to get applause," says Cibber, "he certainly succeeded, for it often thundered from the full gallery above, while the thin pit and scanty boxes below were in a state of perfect serenity." The privilege once accorded, became a most formidable nuisance, and was with difficulty abolished.
Another device of this crafty lawyer was to admit "fast men" behind the scenes, sometimes on payment of money, sometimes gratis; and the same authority observes that, "the inconveniences of the custom we found so intolerable, when we afterwards had the stage in our hands, that at the hazard of our lives we were forced to get rid of them."
The tide of public favour, however, at first ran strongly with Betterton, but gradually "the novelty of encouraging merit wore off." The Drury Lane company, likewise, conscious of inferior talents, exerted themselves with the greater diligence; the actors and actresses were younger, and more ambitious of distinction. Cibber, Southerne, and Vanbrugh wrote for them; while Betterton's company, too confident in their merit and experience, flushed with success, grew slothful and negligent, and were in turn neglected.
Finding their popularity on the wane, they accused the capriciousness of the public, the public recriminated on their supineness, and when they followed the example of Drury Lane, in only paying the actors and employés as receipts fell in, their condemnation was unreserved.
It was about this time that Collier's famous book appeared.
Posturing and tumbling now became fashionable frivolities, in which the two theatres condescended to a degrading rivalry. Vanbrugh, for some cause unexplained, deserted Drury Lane, and projected a new theatre to be built in the Haymarket, with a more especial view in its construction to the requirements of opera and spectacle. The necessary powers were obtained, and the theatre was built in 1705. It opened with operas, the principal performers singing in Italian, the rest singing and reciting in English. The situation of the theatre, however, was disadvantageous. Drury Lane, being near the city and the Inns of Court, the principal support of the theatres, felt the benefit of the propinquity. A walk along the ill-paved and worse-lighted Strand, was then a formidable undertaking, and cabs had not been invented.
In the following year Betterton, sinking in years, and finding his affairs in an unprosperous state, induced his fellows to dissolve partnership, and advised them to put themselves under Congreve and Vanbrugh at the Haymarket. Congreve declined the labour of management, Vanbrugh was unequal to it, and was desirous of amalgamating with Drury Lane. Rich, at the latter theatre, by incessant scheming, had absorbed nearly the whole proprietorship into his own hands. When he heard that Vanbrugh's new theatre was in the market, he grasped at that likewise, but, in his cunning, overreached himself. Under a formal verbal agreement, which he intended as a blind, he empowered one Swiney, whom he regarded as his tool, to treat with Vanbrugh as in his name, intending to take advantage of or to reject the bargain, according to the issue of the speculation. Swiney treated for it with Vanbrugh, and purchased it, ingratiated himself with several actors, was joined by Cibber and others, and then boldly pressed Rich to fulfil at once his part of the contract. This led to a rupture, and the credit of ingenuousness and fair dealing lay in public estimation with Swiney. Rich, instead of having an accomplice, had raised up a competitor.
The last remaining partner of any importance at Drury Lane had been Sir Thomas Skipwith. He, disgusted with Rich's meddling propensities, had presented his share to Colonel Brett. Brett began at once to busy himself at the theatre, and, being a man of fashion, endeavoured to raise the tone of the place. By Cibber's advice, he proposed a partnership between the two theatres, which, through his interest with the Vice-Chamberlain, he was enabled to carry into effect. The terms were, that the performances at Drury Lane should be kept distinct, so that the former should confine itself to the drama, and spectacle and opera should be relegated to the latter. The agreement lasted but a year, for Rich, who delighted in confusion, and was jealous of all interference, opposed Brett in all his plans, frightened him by imaginary liabilities brought by fictitious claimants, and Skipwith was induced to resume his gift.
Rich, now autocrat of the theatrical world, began to torment the actors, who, as there was no hostile theatre to take refuge in, were obliged to submit to his perverseness; everything fell into confusion, and the manager was happy. The actors complained to the Lord Chamberlain, who issued an order to close the house. Meanwhile Swiney's powers were enlarged, and he treated with the ejected actors for the production of plays at the Haymarket. Cibber's influence had been strongly, though secretly at work through all these shifting circumstances. He had a marvellous keenness of vision, where his own interests were concerned, and possessed, or assumed an unruffled equanimity, which blinded all suspicion of his designs. He pursued his aim with that patient pertinacity which can almost compel success, and he now reaped the reward of his clear-sightedness. Rich's power was annihilated, an independent and powerful company was formed, and the Haymarket opened under the management of Wilks, Dogget, Mrs. Oldfield, and Cibber. Mrs. Oldfield soon retired upon a special allowance, and Cibber, by playing off his intractable coadjutors the one against the other, and making himself the referee upon all occasions of dispute, obtained the great object of his ambition, the entire and actual management.
Rich had hired Drury Lane, on the condition that he should pay £3 a-night while the house was open. As the house was now closed, and the payment of rent suspended, the proprietors, without cancelling his lease, granted another to one Collier, a lawyer, M.P. for Cornwall. By his interest at Court, he obtained a separate licence; and flourishing this lease and licence against Rich's lease and patent, he seized the occasion of a night of public rejoicing, and with a mob at his heels, broke into the house, and violently ejected the rightful tenant. In these prosaic times, how curiously do we look back upon those roystering days of tumultuous licence. This dashing feat actually overwhelmed Collier with popularity; and by the aid of Miss Santlowe's acting in "The Fair Quaker of Deal," his house filled nightly. Rich bowed, with a forced composure, to these strange and adverse circumstances, and turned his attention elsewhere.
Upon the dissolution of Betterton's company, he had taken a lease of the house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, in order that no one else might open it; and he now fell back upon that property, and undertook to rebuild it. He died, however, before its completion, though his son afterwards opened it, and enjoyed there a prosperous career. It stood behind the present College of Surgeons, and the principal entrance was in Portugal Street. Here Quin played all his characters. Here Fenton produced his "Mariamne;" and Miss Lavinia Fenton, the original Polly Peachum, by her wit and sprightliness, here fascinated a ducal heart, and became afterwards Duchess of Bolton. Giffard, from Goodman's Fields, took it on lease in 1732. In 1756, it was transformed into a barrack. It was next converted into a china repository, and was taken down in August, 1848, to make room for the improvements in connection with the Royal College of Surgeons.
Cibber, at the Haymarket, was now sanguine in the anticipation of success; but unexpected circumstances balked his well-grounded expectations. Sacheverell's trial became the all-absorbing topic of interest, and Collier's success at Drury Lane materially interfered with his receipts. Eventually, however, the tide turned. Collier, as soon as his speculation began to fail, and Swiney's to succeed, coolly proposed an exchange, with the restoration of the old agreement, that Drury Lane should be appropriated to drama and the Haymarket to opera and spectacle. He succeeded in compelling the acceptance of this unfair proposal; when finding matters not at all mended by the change, he again audaciously availed himself of his enormous interest at Court to reverse his own imperious arrangement.
A fresh mandate was issued, Swiney was obliged to return to the Haymarket, and, in consequence, to retire to Boulogne, and expiated, by a twenty years' exile, Collier's tyranny and mismanagement. Everything went wrong, till Collier was bribed to abstain from interfering in any way with either of the theatres. He was paid £700 a-year to remain idle; and the three actors—Cibber, Wilks, and Dogget—began their celebrated management. The partnership commenced in 1711.
Cibber's tactics were those of a consummate general. Resigning the vulgar ambition of ostentatious power, he aimed to control, and direct its secret springs; and the perverse and self-opiniated co-managers were made unconsciously the mere puppets to work out his schemes. The obstinacy and tenacity of purpose of Wilks, the frowardness and meddling industry of Dogget, became mere instruments in his hands, which he pointed and used with consummate tact; but in nothing was his address more apparent or his efforts more laudable than in the financial department. Dogget was parsimonious, Wilks inclined to expense. Cibber made the propensity of each a check on that of the other, and was himself so bent on equity and fair dealing, that, for the first time, perhaps, in theatrical management, for the space of twenty years, every tradesman's bill was paid directly it was sent in; and although, by a somewhat unusual arrangement, no written agreement was ever entered into with the actors, and the sums appended to their names on the pay-list were their only security, yet every one connected with the theatre received their dues without disputes, and with exemplary punctuality. Every Monday morning all claims were liquidated before a penny of the receipts were touched, and the managers could, in addition, afford to double the salaries of all their actors.
All was now smooth sailing, consequently there is little to record. One feature in the management may deserve the attention of contemporary actors and managers. These men—all, perhaps, exceeding in abilities any actors of the present day—never declined to take an insignificant part to strengthen the general cast of a play. Starring was not then the supercilious folly of every successful actor. The company accordingly worked together better, the gratification of the public was increased, while the actor himself gained in the variety and extended range of his powers. In 1714, Dogget, in a huff, retired to make way for Booth, who had acquired universal popularity by his performance of Cato, in Addison's play.
At the accession of George I., Cibber, with wary keenness, perceived a chance of ridding himself of Collier. Their licence being held at pleasure, on Queen Anne's death a renewal became necessary. Sir Richard Steele had great influence at Court, especially with the Duke of Marlborough. He had always manifested a strong predilection for the theatre, and had frequently eulogised the actors in his papers in "The Tatler." Cibber resolved to play off Steele against Collier, and succeeded. Steele applied to the Duke, and through his influence, obtained a licence in the names of himself, Cibber, Wilks, and Booth; and, as with the change of ministers Collier's influence vanished, he was quietly thrown overboard.
Young Rich opened the new house in Lincoln's Inn Fields under his father's patent. Cibber preferring the permanency of a patent to the more temporary security of a licence, thought the present a favourable opportunity to apply for a similar privilege. He represented the case to Steele, and Steele obtained a patent for his own life and three years afterwards, which he assigned to Cibber, Wilks, and Booth, confirming their right in the entire property, reserving to himself a quarter of the profits. The patent was dated 19th Jan. 1715. The race was now between Cibber and the younger Rich. Cibber started with his usual skill and confidence, but suffered a temporary check by a clever though malicious ruse of his antagonist. A report was actively circulated that the edifice in Drury Lane was insecure, as the foundations were sinking. The rumour obtained such credit that the actors had to play to empty benches; and until an architect had formally surveyed the building, and published a written attestation of its security, Rich's company reaped the fruits of their audacious calumny.
As soon as Cibber gained upon his antagonist, Rich fell back upon artificial aid, and introduced those pantomimic performances which still retain possession of the stage. Cibber likewise, though much against his conscience, made auxiliaries of Pantaloon and Columbine, and the old game of Davenant and Killegrew was played over again. Rich, however, whose performances as Harlequin are still and might have realized a handsome competence had not mismanagement always kept him poor.in theatrical annals, completely captivated the galleries,
The personages of the pantomime, though of recent introduction in this country, are of almost immemorial antiquity in their native Italy. Their expressive gestures were the delight of the ancient Romans, and disarmed the gravity of statesmen and philosophers. Through the changing manners of successive centuries, their characters underwent various modifications. In later times Harlequin especially degenerated from his early sprightliness and humour, until the comic muse of Goldoni re-invested him with his present attractions. We present an extract on this subject from the memoirs of that entertaining writer, which, we feel assured, no reader will blame for its length.
"Comedy, which has at all times been the favourite spectacle of civilized nations, had shared the fate of the arts and sciences, and been swallowed up in the ruin of empires, and the decline of letters; but the germ of comedy was never quite extinct in the fertile imagination of the Italians. The first who laboured to revive it being disappointed, during a dark age, in skilful writers, had the boldness to compose plans, to divide them into acts and scenes, and to utter as impromptus, conversations, thoughts, and pleasantries which were previously concerted. Those who could read (and the rich were not of the number) observed that the comedies of Plautus and Terence always contained fathers who were dupes, debauched sons, amorous girls, lying valets, and corrupt maid-servants; and, traversing the different cantons of Italy, they took their fathers at Venice and Bologna, their valets at Bergamo, their enamoured youths and maids, and their soubrettes in the states of Rome and Tuscany.
"We must not wait for written proofs of this reasoning, because we are speaking of an age in which writing was nearly unknown; but I prove my assertion in this manner. The pantaloon has always been a Venetian, the doctor a Bolognese, and the harlequin and clown have ever been from Bergamo; from these places the actors took those comic characters which are known to us by the name of the four Italian masks. I advance these remarks not entirely from my own conception; I am in possession of a manuscript of the fifteenth century, in good preservation, bound in parchment, which contains a hundred and twenty subjects or canvases of Italian pieces, called comedies of the art, and of which the principal basis consists invariably of a pantaloon, a Venetian merchant; the doctor, a lawyer of Bologna; Brighella and Harlequin, valets of Bergamo; the first quick and active, the other heavy. Their antiquity and permanent existence prove their origin. With regard to their employment, the pantaloon and the doctor, whom the Italians call the two old men, represent the part of fathers or other venerable characters. The first is a merchant, because Venice was in those ancient times the richest and most extensive commercial country in Italy. He has ever preserved the ancient Venetian costume. The black robe and woollen bonnet are yet worn at Venice; while the red waistcoat, breeches cut like drawers, and red stockings and slippers represent exactly the dress of the ancient inhabitants of the Adriatic lagoons; and the beard, which was a great ornament in those distant ages, has been carried to a grotesque extreme in these latter days. The second old man, called the doctor, has been selected from the legal profession for the purpose of contrasting the learned with the commercial man; and he is from Bologna because an university existed in that city, which, with all the ignorance of the time, yet adhered to the charges and emoluments of professors. His dress preserves the ancient costume of the bar of Bologna, which is nearly the same to this hour; and the singular mask which covers the forehead and nose, has been imitated from a wine mark which deformed the face of a lawyer in those days. This tradition yet exists among the amateurs of the comedy of art. The Brighella and Harlequin, called in Italy the two Zanies, have been borrowed from Bergamo. The adroitness of the first, and the extreme heaviness of the second, are proofs of this assertion; because in no other country do we find these two extremes in the class of the people. Brighella represents an intriguing, roguish, dishonest valet. His dress is a kind of livery; and his tawny mask is a satire on the complexion of the inhabitants of those lofty mountains, scorched by the heat of the sun. The Harlequins also have their different names; but they are always natives of Bergamo, heavy and clownish, and their dress represents a poor devil, who picks up pieces of different stuffs and colours to mend his clothes. The hat corresponds with their beggary, and the tail of a hare, with which it is decorated, is to this day the usual ornament of the peasants of Bergamo."
In this country the functions of the two last-mentioned characters have been reversed. The harlequin is the active personage, and the brighella is the clown or servant.
In 1720, Steele opposed some ministerial measure, and offended thereby the Duke of Newcastle. That nobleman, who was then all-powerful, summoned the patentees, and in a peremptory manner, required the resignation of their patent, offering to grant them a licence in its stead, which of course it would have been in his power to suspend at pleasure. The managers stoutly refused compliance. The Duke became angry, and threatened to close the theatres, but had the good sense to take no further notice of the matter. Dennis, a Whig, took up the cudgels in behalf of his patron, and with the usual consistency of his party, thus alludes to the liberties of Englishmen when they happen to be actors. The language is as elegant as the sentiments are generous. "Actors in England," he writes, "have always been looked upon as vagabonds and rogues by statute, unless they have been under the protection of our kings, or some of our English peers; yet in this last case I have been credibly informed that for great misdemeanours they have been sent to Whitehall, and whipped at the porter's lodge, and I have heard Joe Haines (a celebrated actor) more than once ingenuously own that he had been twice whipped there. If Cibber in the days of King James, or King Charles I., had dared to treat a Lord Chamberlain with half the insolence that he has lately done the present, his bones would have been as bloody as his head is raw."
A few years after this incident Cibber figured in Westminster Hall as the defendant in a chancery suit, and acquitted himself with unusual adroitness and ability. Steele's improvidence had reduced him to frequent pecuniary straits, and he had found it convenient to borrow various sums of money from his co-patentees. His applications occurring, however, at continually lessening intervals, it was resolved to refuse all further advance until existing accounts could be arranged. Steele conceived such grave displeasure at this, that he entirely neglected his duties at the theatre, and left his share of the work to be performed by the rest at their convenience. The remaining managers accordingly undertook his duties, and appropriated to themselves £1 13s. 4d. a day each, as compensation for their additional labour. This arrangement was acted upon during the space of three years when Steele's creditors interfered. His affairs by this time were completely in the hands of the lawyers, and at their instance he was induced to file a bill in chancery to contest the right of the managers to retain any portion of his share of the profits. The cause came on for hearing in 1726 before Sir Joseph Jekyll, Master of the Rolls. Cibber pleaded his case in person, and obtained the applause of all who heard him, and what, perhaps, he scarcely valued as much, a verdict in his favour. The triumph was the more flattering as the two opposite counsel were both men of note, who each afterwards successively rose to be Lord Chancellor of England.
In 1728, "The Beggar's Opera," written in ridicule of the Italian opera, and the effect of which was popularly said to make Rich gay and Gay rich, was brought out at Lincoln's Inn Fields. The play had been offered to Cibber, but by an oversight, committed occasionally by shrewd men of experience, he had declined it. The hint of the piece had been given by Swift, but Congreve, Pope, and Swift all doubted whether it would fail or succeed. During the first act they were still hesitating, when they heard the Duke of Argyll, who was in the next box, exclaim: "It will do, it must do, I see it in the eyes of them." Presently a burst of applause approved the keenness of the Duke's perception, and the enthusiasm increased till the fall of the curtain. The mania this piece excited throughout the country is incomprehensible. Ladies learnt the songs; scenes from it were painted on their fans, and adorned the walls of their houses, and the Italian opera was for a while exploded.
From this period Drury Lane declined. Steele died in the following year; Mrs. Oldfield in 1730. Booth fell ill; and in 1731 Wilks, too, died. These accumulated misfortunes so affected the reputation and efficiency of the theatre, that, though it made a vigorous effort, it never recovered its position until Garrick, some years afterwards, brought new powers into the field, and resuscitated the system that Cibber had so prosperously carried out. In 1732 the patent expired, and Cibber without much trouble obtained its renewal for twenty-one years, in behalf of Booth, Mrs. Wilks, and himself. Booth sold a half of his share to a man named Highmore, who knew nothing of theatrical matters; Mrs. Wilks appointed one Ellis to act for her, who was equally unqualified, and Cibber foreseeing nothing but ruin, closed with an offer of Highmore, and sold his share for 3000 guineas. About this time, likewise, a rage for theatrical speculation sprang up. Odell built a theatre in Goodman's Fields, in 1729; Giffard another in 1732, and Rich opened the theatre in Covent Garden on the 7th of December of the same year.
Fielding, with his Great Mogul's Company, took the Haymarket, and the ferocious satires of that extraordinary writer induced the government to pass the celebrated bill limiting the number of theatres, and obliging all managers to submit their pieces to the supervision of a licenser.
We now recur to Cibber's dramatic career. After the comparative failure of his last play, he was meditating what new line he could take up, when an event occurred which he had the skill to avail himself of, and he adroitly made a public calamity minister to his private benefit. The rebellion in Scotland, in favour of the Pretender, gave him the cue, and he accordingly made a formal and vigorous attack on Jacobitism in his play, "The Non-Juror," founded on the "Tartuffe," of Molière. His success was great, although such success depends more on the temper of the audience than the merit of the piece, and is always one-sided; for, though he pleased many, he offended many, who could still remain faithful to their earlier predilections. He acquired, however, a noisy popularity. Lintot, the publisher, gave him a hundred guineas for the copyright, an unprecedented price at that time; and on presenting a copy to King George I. his magnanimity did not restrain him from pocketing £200 as the reward of his triumph over the fallen.
In 1730, he was dignified by the laurel. The appointment was owing, not to any poetical merit he may have manifested, but to the fact of his having proved himself a sound Whig, by writing "The Non-Juror." The ridicule poured upon him on this occasion was unsparing, and it was not diminished by the publication of his successive Birth-day Odes.
"Well, said Apollo, still 'tis mine
To give the real Laurel;
For that, my Pope, my son divine,
Of rivals ends the quarrel.
"But guessing who should have the luck
To be the Birth-day fibber,
I thought of Dennis, Tibbald, Duck,
But never dreamed of Cibber."
His enemies had been on the increase for some years past, and persecuted him with a pertinacity and bitterness of which we fortunately have no instance in the present day. Periodical publications attacked him with unremitting industry. Attempts were made at the outset to stifle plays which eventually, by their continued popularity, proved their adaptation to the public taste, and the merciless satire of Pope selected him as its choicest victim. It is difficult now to detect the causes of such rancorous hostility, as there appears little in his genius or character to warrant it. In a letter to Pope, he gives the following account of the origin of that poet's ill-feeling towards him, and, as the assertion was suffered to go forth without contradiction, we may assume that from so contemptible a cause arose that long enduring contention.
"The play of 'The Rehearsal,'" says Cibber, "which had lain some few years dormant, being by his present Majesty (then Prince of Wales) commanded to be revived, the part of Bays fell to my share. To this character there had always been allowed such ludicrous liberties of observation upon anything new or remarkable in the state of the stage as Mr. Bays might think proper to take. Much about this time, then, the 'Three Hours After Marriage' had been acted without success, when Mr. Bays, as usual, had a fling at it; which in itself was no jest, unless the audience would please to make it one. But however, flat as it was, Mr. Pope was mortally sore upon it. This was the offence: In this play, two coxcombs being in love with a learned virtuoso's wife, to get unsuspected access to her, ingeniously send themselves as two presented rarities to the husband, the one curiously swathed up like an Egyptian mummy, and the other slily covered in the pasteboard skin of a crocodile; upon which poetical expedient, I, Mr. Bays, when the two kings of Brentford came from the clouds into the throne again, instead of what my part directed me to say, made use of the words: 'Now, Sir, this revolution I had some thought of introducing by a quite different contrivance; but my design taking air, some of your sharp wits, I found, had made use of it before me; otherwise I intended to have stolen one of them in the shape of a Mummy, and the other in that of a Crocodile!' Upon which, I doubt, the audience, by the roar of their applause, shewed their proportionable contempt of the play they belonged to. But why am I answerable for that? I did not lead them by any reflection of my own into that contempt. Surely, to have used the bare words Mummy and Crocodile was neither unjust nor unmannerly. Where, then, was the crime of simply saying there had been two such things in a former play? But this, it seems, was so heinously taken by Mr. Pope, that in the swelling of his heart, after the play was over, he came behind the scenes, with his lips pale and his voice trembling, to call me to account for the insult; and accordingly fell upon me with all the foul language that a wit out of his senses could be capable of. How durst I have the impudence to treat any gentleman in that manner, &c. Now let the reader judge by this concern who was the true mother of the child! When he was almost choked with the foam of his passion, I was enough recovered from my amazement to make him, as near as I can remember, this reply: 'Mr. Pope, you are so particular (distinguished) a man, that I must be ashamed to return your language as I ought to do; but since you have attacked me in so monstrous a manner, this you may depend upon, that as long as the play continues to be acted, I will never fail to repeat the same words over and over again.' Now, as he accordingly found I kept my word for several days following, I am afraid that he has since thought that his pen was a sharper weapon than his tongue to trust his revenge with; and however just cause this may be for his so doing, it is, at least, the only cause my conscience can charge me with."
The play thus glanced at with such fatal effect, was a miserable performance, the joint production, as it was surmised, of Gay, Arbuthnot and Pope, which deservedly failed on the first night of representation. Pope, however, had previously sneered at Cibber in his epistle to Arbuthnot, and in the First Part of "The Dunciad." In 1740, when Cibber published his apology, he made the following characteristic allusion to the attacks of the satirist: "When," says he, "I find my name in the satirical works of this poet, I never look upon it as any malice meant to me, but profit to himself. For he considers that my face is more known than most in the nation, and therefore a lick at the Laureate will be a sure bait, ad captandum vulgus, to catch little readers." The passage nettled Pope, and he attacked Cibber again in the Fourth Book of "The Dunciad," representing him as the darling of the Goddess of Dulness.
"Soft in her lap her Laureate son reclines."
Cibber's equanimity was disturbed, and he published the letter from which we have made the above extract, entitled, "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." This was replied to in an anonymous pamphlet, with the remarkable title of "A Blast upon Bays, or a New Lick at the Laureate; containing remarks upon a late tattling performance;" but Cibber was not entirely without champions, as one man warmly took up his cause in a letter with the motto:
"Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito."
Throughout the whole quarrel, Cibber had by far the best of it, both in temper, discretion, and the justice of his cause. His warm recognition of his antagonist's great abilities, contrasts with the asperity and the want of candour in Pope, in refusing to recognize any talent in one of the most successful dramatists of the day.
"That Cibber," says the former, "ever murmured at your fame, or that he was not always, to the best of his judgment, as warm an admirer of your writing as any of your nearest friends could be, is what you cannot by any one fact or instance disprove. How comes it then, that in your works you have so often treated him as a dunce or an enemy? Did he at all intrench on your sovereignty in verse, because he had now and then written a comedy that succeeded?"
The blows that the combatants dealt upon each other, fell with more telling effect on Pope's sensitive organization than on the thicker self-sufficiency of his antagonist. Pope, though he attempted to disguise his agony, was tortured by the wanton levity and shamelessness of his opponent. Dr. Johnson says: "I have heard Mr. Richardson relate that he attended his father on a visit, when one of Cibber's pamphlets came into the hands of Pope, who said: 'These things are my diversion.' They sat by him while he perused it, and saw his features writhen with anguish, and young Richardson said to his father, when they returned, that he hoped to be preserved from such diversion as had been that day the lot of Pope." Whereas Cibber could enjoy his own castigation, and would read to his friends the lines pointed at himself, interspersing them with humorous observations, which were as amusing to his auditory as they would have been galling to their object.
Pope now meditated a new edition of "The Dunciad," and was spurred on to the undertaking by another pamphlet, entitled "The Egotist, or Colley on Cibber," which Mr. Disraeli regards as Cibber's "Supplement to his Apology." In the latter end of 1743 "The Dunciad" appeared, in its altered and final state. Theobald had been dethroned from his painful pre-eminence, and Cibber raised to his place. Pope, in this instance, allowed his irascibility to cloud his judgment, and thus marred the whole design of the poem. Theobald, as its hero, was perhaps in his place, but to make Cibber the hero of dulness, was preposterous. He was without doubt open to attack in innumerable points, but he possessed one quality in which his superiority could enable him to laugh at all detraction, and that was the very reverse of dulness. The poem was accompanied by a long Discourse of Richard Aristarchus, intended as a reply to Cibber's attacks, written by Warburton, in which he aimed his blow at two antagonists at once, ridiculing Bentley in his manner, and Cibber in his matter. This called forth another letter from Cibber, which was the final effort in the strife.
Though the wonderful superiority of talent in Pope made the contest so unequal from the first, yet Cibber kept the laugh on his side throughout; and it may be doubted whether the satire of Pope has not, in the estimation of posterity, injured his own character and reputation more than Cibber's. Still, with all his levity and vivacity, our hero could not be quite obtuse to the keen point of such a missile. "After all," says Mr. Disraeli, "one may perceive that, though the good-humour of Cibber was real, still the immortal satire of Pope had injured his higher feelings. He betrays his secret grief at its close, while he seems to be sporting with his pen; and though he appears to confide in the falsity of the satire, as his best chance for saving him from it, still he feels that the caustic ink of such a satirist must blister and spot wherever it falls."
He quitted the stage the same year in which he was appointed Poet-Laureate. The following ten years he employed in drawing up his memoirs, which he published under the title of "An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber," a life which Fielding said he lived only to apologize for. This work has been the most popular of all his productions, and has obtained the praise of men of such diverse tempers as Horace Walpole and Dr. Johnson; the former terming it "Cibber's inimitable treatise on the stage," while Johnson pronounces it to be "very entertaining."
It is a rambling book of gossip, written in a slovenly style, but filled with interesting notices of the most eminent actors and actresses of his time. They, too, were performers of no ordinary merit; and such a work, on its first appearance, must have exceeded in interest any novel or romance. His character, as there unconsciously depicted by himself, presents little to excite our sympathy, still less our esteem. His inordinate vanity represses any impulse of admiration his talents might excite; and that utter abnegation of all self-respect, strange in one who had risen by his own unaided effort, affords room only for contempt or pity. Writing of the Earl of Chesterfield, he says: "Having often had the honour to be the butt of his raillery, I must own I have received more pleasure from his lively manner of raising the laugh against me, than I could have felt from the smoothest flattery of a serious civility." English literature presents few instances of such abject toadyism. Still he had talents, and let them receive their tribute of admiration; he did a service to his generation, and let him have his meed of praise. He was a patient reformer of inveterate abuses. By his writings he elevated the morality of the stage, and by his policy he improved its management.
His private life stands in unfavourable contrast with his public career. Witty and unprincipled, clever and vain, he lived only to amuse and be amused; a genuine comic actor, with no depth of feeling or strength of character; undepressed by misfortune, but elated with success; fond of his bottle, fond of his jest, fond likewise of the rattle of the dice.
Though undeserving the excessive depreciation he has suffered, a candid impartiality will refuse to connect any flattering encomium with his name. Whatever the debt contemporaries may owe, they who make it their chief business to cater to the public amusement merely, have little claim upon a succeeding generation; and his works having answered their purpose, will be solely valuable to the literary or historical student, as indicative of the taste of a period he neither disgraced nor adorned.
In height he was of the middle size, with a fair complexion, and a carriage easy, though not graceful. His voice was shrill, painfully so when he raised it to an unusual pitch; but his attitudes were strikingly expressive. On the stage he seemed to put on the character he was acting, and every limb and gesture spoke the part as truthfully as the words he uttered. Instances of carelessness, however, were not unfrequent. Once, when acting as Sir Courtly Rice, a part he had played a hundred times, he quite lost himself; so, making a ceremonious bow to the lady with whom he was acting, he drawled out, "your humble servant, Madam," then with quiet assurance walked across the stage, and said to the prompter, "Well, what next?"
From the time of his retirement from the management of Drury Lane till his death, he took no prominent part in theatrical matters; but occasionally appeared on the stage, and would receive as much as £50 a night for his services. There was a rising actress, in whose career he took a warm and lively interest, and that was Mrs. Woffington: the witty, the volatile, the beautiful Peg Woffington, President of the Beefsteak Club; who, at the jocund noon of night, after having melted an audience into tears by her touching impersonation of innocence and sorrow, might be seen at the head of the board, brandishing the foaming pewter, giving as the toast, "Here's to liberty, confusion to all order." He delighted to play Fondlewife to her Lætitia in Congreve's "Old Bachelor;" and Swiney, likewise, in his old age, after his twenty years residence abroad, became one of her danglers, and left her a handsome legacy at his death.
In 1745, Cibber appeared as Pandulph, in his tragedy "Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John," and his last publication was an essay on the character of Cicero, then a popular topic, owing to Dr. Middleton's celebrated life of that orator. He died December 12th, 1757, in the eighty-seventh year of his age. He had conversed with his servant at six o'clock in the morning, and appeared in his usual health, at nine he was found quite dead. Of his many children, two only acquired any notoriety, his son Theophilus, who was a great profligate, but a tolerable actor, and, like his father, excelled in the characters of fops and old men, and his youngest child Charlotte.
A witticism of the son has been preserved. The father once meeting him dressed in the extreme of foppery, surveyed him curiously for some minutes, and then said, with great disdain: "Indeed, The, I pity you." "Don't pity me, Sir," replied the son, "pity my tailor."
The career of his daughter Charlotte was so eccentric, replete with such singular vicissitudes, that we cannot resist devoting a paragraph to her memory. She seemed to labour under a deficiency in some one faculty, which more than neutralized the unusual activity of all the rest. Ardent, intelligent, and persevering, her conduct ever bordered on the extravagant; a Lola Montes in her day, though with greater virtue, and, therefore, not so fortunate as to win the favour of kings and guardsmen. The principal materials of this sketch are to be found in a narrative written by herself, and dedicated to herself, to which she affixed the following appropriate motto:
"This tragic story, or this comic jest,
May make you laugh or cry, as you like best."
In very early life she gave indications of an excitable temperament, and an unruly will. Among her juvenile pranks, she relates how one morning, when but four years old, she got up early, put on her father's wig, dressed herself as well as she could in male attire, and triumphal entry into the village, sitting astride upon an ass, and attended by a retinue of screaming urchins, whom she had bribed to take part in the procession. At eight years of age she was sent to school, and devoted herself to her studies with passionate vehemence. The needle, woman's ordinary weapon against inactivity, she could never learn to manage; but every masculine pursuit or amusement had for her an irresistible attraction. She would hunt, shoot, ride races, dig, drink beer, do anything, in short, that a young lady ought not to do. At fourteen, she went to live with her mother at a house near Uxbridge. There she became a capital shot, would rise early, spend the whole day at her sport, and return home, laden with spoil. Her gun, at the suggestion of a good-natured friend, was soon taken away from her, and she revenged herself by attempting to demolish the chimneys of the house, by firing at them with a huge fowling-piece that had hung over the kitchen mantel-piece.the paternal strut, went out to receive the obeisances of the passers-by: how, on another occasion, her father was awoke by deafening acclamations, and on looking out of the window, beheld his hopeful daughter making a
To the gun succeeded the curry-comb, and she became an adept in all the mysteries of the stable. She next applied herself to the study of physic, obtained some drugs, and with formal gravity practised among those poor people who were credulous enough to swallow her concoctions. Her next employment was gardening, which she pursued with her usual enthusiasm, and after two or three hours hard work would not allow herself rest even for her meals, but with some bread and bacon in one hand, and a pruning knife in the other, continue unremittingly her self-imposed labour. At this time her father was abroad, and the man who acted in the double capacity of groom and gardener, was for some irregularity dismissed. Charlotte was in ecstasies, as she was now arch-empress of his two-fold domain, and unceasing were her manoeuvres to prevent the engagement of a successor. The dismissed servant having been seen straying near the house one evening, suspicions were aroused, which Charlotte skilfully inflamed by her dark suggestions, and then boldly undertook the defence of the leaguered house. The plate was carried up into her room, which she garnished with all the weapons of war the establishment could afford, and then sent the household to bed. After a long vigil, to her great mortification, no attack was made, universal silence prevailed, when luckily a cur began to bark. Up went the window, and volley after volley was poured into the unoffending void, while her mother and the domestics lay below in trembling consternation. While still a girl, she married Mr. Charke, an eminent composer on the violin, but he was a worthless libertine, and after the birth of a daughter, they separated. She then obtained an engagement on the stage, and relates with childish simplicity, how for a whole week she did nothing but walk from one end of the town to the other, to read her name on the bills. Her success was such as to justify expectations of her becoming a most accomplished actress, and as Lucy in "George Barnwell," she attracted considerable attention; but she soon quarrelled with the manager, and afterwards satirized him in a farce she wrote, termed "The Art of Management." She then tried a new sphere, and opened a shop in Long Acre, as oil-woman and grocer, and her whole soul was absorbed in the fluctuations of sugar. The shop did not pay, and she quitted it to become the proprietress of a puppet-show, by which she lost all she had, and was arrested for a debt of seven pounds. Her release was effected by the contributions of some acquaintances, when she dressed herself in male attire, and assumed the name of Mr. Brown. Under this disguise, she engaged the affections of a young heiress, to whom, in order to escape a private marriage urged by the amatory damsel, she was compelled to disclose her secret. Shortly afterwards, she exhibited her valorous spirit by knocking a man down with a cudgel for having fabricated some story at her expense. She next obtained a situation as valet-de-chambre to a nobleman, where she appears for a short time to have known something like comfort; but on being dismissed from this place, she became extremely reduced, her child fell ill, and ruin stared her in the face. A timely supply from a friend relieved her from her more immediate necessities, and with some small remainder she set up as an itinerant sausage-seller. This, like her other avocations, did not prove remunerative; and we next hear of her as a singer at some musical entertainment, then as a performer at Bartholomew fair, then as assistant to a master of legerdemain. She next, by means of some advances made by an uncle, opened a public-house in Drury Lane, the first she saw vacant, which of course failed; and her next employment was as a waiter in a tavern at Marylebone. Here she made herself so useful that a kinswoman of the landlady intimated that her hand would not be refused if applied for, and the captivating waiter to escape a second involuntary marriage, was obliged again to reveal the secret of her sex. She next engaged herself to manage Punch at a puppet-show, and afterwards joined a band of strolling players. Tired of wandering, it would seem, she settled at Chepstow, and opened a pastry-cook's shop. When she had built her oven, she had not wherewithal to heat it, and when she had obtained the fuel, she was without the necessary materials for her trade; but every obstacle gave way before her ingenuity and perseverance. After a short trial, she removed her business to Pell, a place near Bristol, received a small legacy, with which she paid off her debts, and commenced life afresh. She wrote a short tale for a newspaper, and obtained thereby a situation as corrector of the press; but her earnings at this toilsome occupation being insufficient to support her, she obtained employment as prompter at the theatre at Bath. She afterwards returned to London, and kept a public-house at Islington, but as we here lose the aid of her narrative, her movements at this epoch are uncertain. She finally had recourse to her pen for subsistence, and began the publication of her memoirs. Her next production was a novel, and a graphic picture has been given of her home at this period. When the publisher with a friend called for the purpose of purchasing her manuscript, she was living in a wretched hut near the Clerkenwell prison. The furniture consisted of a dresser extremely clean, ornamented with a few plates; and a fractured pitcher stood underneath it. A gaunt domestic guarded the establishment, while on a broken chair by the grate sat the mistress in her strange attire. A monkey was perched on one hob, a cat on the other, at her feet lay a half-starved cur, and a magpie chattered from her chair. The remains of a pair of bellows laid upon her knees served as a desk, her inkstand was a broken teacup, and her solitary pen was worn to the stump. On her visitors seating themselves on a rough deal board, for there was not a second chair in the room, she began with her beautiful, clear voice to read from the manuscript before her, and asked thirty guineas for the copyright. The grim handmaiden stared aghast at the enormity of the demand. The iron-hearted publisher proposed five pounds, but finally doubled the sum, and offered in addition fifty copies of the work. The bargain was struck, and the authoress was left in temporary affluence. From this time Mrs. Charlotte Charke disappears from our view, and she died shortly afterwards on the 6th of April, 1760.
So strange a story could hardly befrom the wildest pages of romance. Through an infinite variety of endeavours, success never once shone upon her path, and old age found her in a state of the most abject penury. After so fitful a fever, how welcome must have been the advent of repose.
- See page 257.