By his own account, Garrick made his professional stage debut anonymously and in disguise March 1741, taking over for an indisposed actor at Goodman’s Fields without the audience knowing. His first full performance took place that summer, in Ipswich. Unwilling to associate his good family name with acting, he appeared under the pseudonym “Mr. Lyddall” (the maiden name of the manager’s wife).
On October 19, 1741, Garrick made his formal debut on the London stage and soon became the talk of the town. The little east-end theater of Goodman’s Fields began to draw crowds, including the likes of Alexander Pope and William Pitt.
Still concerned for his family’s reputation, Garrick’s name did not appear on the playbills—at least, not at first. The part of Richard III on October 19, 1741 was played by “A Gentleman, (Who never appeared on any Stage).” Garrick triumphed as Richard III, acting with a naturalism audiences had not seen in the role before, and was next advertised as “the Gentleman who perform’d King Richard.” At the end of November, 1741, he finally went public as an actor, allowing his name to appear on the playbills.
By the end of the 1741–42 season, Garrick had made the leap to the west end, debuting at Drury Lane on May 26. Letters to his family reveal Garrick’s breathless enthusiasm for the theater as well as a genuine concern to re-assure them that he has met with great success, and is confident he can make a living as an actor. He went on to spend a triumphant summer season at the Smock Alley theater in Dublin before returning to Drury Lane in the fall.
William Capon (1757–1827) drew the above watercolor of the theater in Goodman’s Fields in 1801. In addition to careful drawings like this, intended to preserve a record of local architecture, Capon worked as a scene painter, and as a theater designer. In 1794, he began painting scenes for Drury Lane, and became particularly known for his historically informed medieval buildings. The drawing comes from a collection of Garrick material compiled by writer and book collector George Daniel (1789–1864). Among the books Daniel collected was a First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s works now housed at the Folger. A digital edition created by Octavo appeared in 2001.
The Old Theatre in Tankard Street Ipswich. Watercolor, late 18th century.
James Winston. David Garrick, a collection of engravings, manuscripts, playbills ... Manuscript, compiled ca. 1830
Goodman's Fields: Henry Giffard (1699-1772), manager of Goodman's Fields, was permitted to evade the legal limiting of plays to only two houses (Drury Lane and Covent Garden) by calling the building a former theater, and nominally charging audiences to hear a concert. Each concert just happened to include a free-of-charge play. The government turned a blind eye as long as the plays remained politically tame. Drury Lane and Covent Garden made no complaint as long as their business risked no harm. Garrick's huge success prompted both theaters to urge a crack-down.
Digital edition: William Shakespeare, 1564-1616. Mr.
VVilliam Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: published according
to the true originall copies. (London, 1623). The First Folio, Folger copy
no. 5: Digital edition by Octavo, in PDF