These days, we’re not accustomed to think of our stars as playwrights too. Two hundred years ago, things were different. David Garrick, the greatest star of his (perhaps any) age, was also among its most successful playwrights. The Clandestine Marriage, a play he wrote in collaboration with his friend George Colman, has regularly been reckoned one of the best comedies of the eighteenth century.
The play is funny, and frank, in ways relatively rare in eighteenth-century comedy but more familiar in our own. A newlywed couple decides, for financial reasons, to keep their marriage secret, despite emergent signs of the new bride’s pregnancy. Incipient maternity is not her only problem. In the course of the play she is besieged by suitors from all sides, including the older roué Lord Ogleby—a rare mixture of rakishness and generosity—in whom she and her husband originally hoped to find a sponsor and supporter. The comedy culminates in a bedroom crisis-scene, teeming with doors slammed shut and popping open to conceal and reveal nearly numberless beleaguered wooers and eavesdroppers. But Garrick and Colman time things so crisply as to make the conceit at once fresh and hilarious—noises on rather than Noises Off. The play manages to mock the pretensions of both new wealth and old entitlement, the abuses of power and the naiveté of the newly arrived.
Light and quick, The Clandestine Marriage is in its own way monumental too. In the play’s prologue, Garrick begins not with a joke about marriage, but with a lament about mortality. Poets and painters, he remarks, create work that can outlive them,
But he who struts his hour upon the stage
Can scarce extend his fame for half an age;
Nor pen nor pencil can the actor save,
The art and artist share one common grave.
For Garrick, the writing of plays was partly a means to deflect this doom—to accomplish as “poet” the extension of fame that he might not sustain as actor—and The Clandestine Marriage seems particularly shaped by this intent. In the role of Lord Ogleby, which was written for Garrick, he and Colman managed to combine and distill key elements of virtually every comic part in which the actor had hitherto scored a hit, so that the character serves almost as a compact encyclopedia of his attainments. The accompanying exhibition carries the apt subtitle “A Theatrical Life,” but no item displayed behind glass will be able to restore Garrick to life in quite the way this play can do.
Associate Professor of English