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David Garrick
"A Brief Introduction to Garrick" by K. Burnim

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"A Brief Introduction to David Garrick"

by Kalman A. Burnim

Prominent among the splendid treasures of the Folger Shakespeare Library are extensive materials relating to David Garrick, numbering about 50,000 items, which make him the second most dominating figure, after Shakespeare, to emerge from that great collection.  As displayed in the exhibition and on this website, his predominance in his spheres of influence and achievement seems astonishing.  Indeed, he was one of the most astonishing British personalities in a time and country brimming with astonishing personalities.

He was born on February 19, 1717, at the Angel Inn in Hereford, where his father Peter Garrick, of Huguenot stock and a lieutenant in a regiment of Dragoons, was on recruiting duty.  Davy resided with his family at Lichfield and for several years received a classical education at Edial Hall School under the instruction of Samuel Johnson, who became his friend and traveling companion. In 1737, together, they went off to London to seek their destinies. For a while Garrick was enrolled at Lincoln’s Inn, then he dabbled in the family wine business, but soon turned to writing and acting.  The evening of October 19, 1741, became one of those memorable events in theatrical history when Garrick made his London debut at the outlaw theater in Goodman’s Fields as Richard III.  He was a tremendous success in a performance which displayed an exciting and revolutionary style of acting that, in the words of his early biographer and sometime colleague, “threw a new light on elocution and action; he banished ranting, bombast and grimace; and restored nature, ease, simplicity, and genuine humour.” It is said that women shrieked and fainted because of his portrayal of a terrible villain. Carriages created a traffic gridlock as they made their way in droves to the little theater in London’s East End.  Within months he was hailed by William Pitt as “ye best Actor ye English Stage had produc’d.”  He was not tall—even short—but he was lithe and agile when he burst upon the stage, with a melodious and commanding voice and brilliant and penetrating eyes.  He could alter his expressions and emotions in an instant, and often in parlor games ran through a series of faces and characters.

Triumph followed triumph over the next several years: among them Chamont in The Orphan (1741), Pierre in Venice Preserv’d (1742), and Lear (1742), at Goodman’s Fields; Hamlet (1742) at Dublin, and Abel Drugger in The Alchemist (1743), Macbeth and Sir John Brute in The Provok’d Wife in 1744 at Drury Lane.  Soon his reputation and influence were so substantial that in September 1747, after only six years on the stage, he entered into partnership with James Lacy to manage Drury Lane Theatre.  Immediately the new financial and artistic prosperity there was impressive, as Garrick worked to make good on the promise he made in Dr Johnson’s prologue for the opening night on 15 September:   

To chase the charms of sound, the pomp of show,
For useful mirth, and salutary woe,
Bid scenic Virtue form the rising age,
And Truth diffuse her radiance from the stage.

Over the 27 years he guided Drury Lane’s artistic endeavors, he acted some 96 roles, appearing about 2400 nights. His theater in that period offered some 6400 pieces in repertory. Operating Drury Lane Theatre was a major enterprise, involving in any given season about 140 performers and house personnel. He was largely responsible for arranging the repertory and reading, approving and producing new plays.  He also managed to write 49 new plays and alterations and adaptations, forming a body of dramatic literature in his time inferior in quality only to the plays of Goldsmith and Sheridan.  He brought discipline to his theater, on and off the stage, and to rehearsals and performances. Kitty Clive, one of his former actresses and warm friend, upon hearing news of his imminent retirement, wrote to him “I have seen you with your magic hammer in your hand, endeavouring to beat your ideas into the heads of creatures who had none of their own—I have seen you, with your lamblike patience, endeavourng to make them comprehend you; and I have seen you when that could not be done—I have seen your lamb turned into a lion; by this your great labour and pains the public was entertained; they thought they all acted very fine,—they did not see you pull the wires.” Garrick effected a number of significant changes and reforms in stage practices, introducing innovations in the theatrical arts of scenery, lighting, costuming, and stage procedures.

His influence on literary criticism, especially in the interpretation of Shakespeare’s characters, was enormous. The genius of the “God of his idolatry” was thrown into complete action and display by Garrick.  It is an exaggeration to say that Shakespeare would have been inadequately known, felt, and celebrated if Garrick had not lived.  But Garrick was conscious of his mission.  He organized the great (but disastrous) Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford in 1769, when the rain that pelted down for three days ruined the dresses of the performers and visitors, and flooded the meadows. But even in the flood, the “Shakespeare industry” was launched.  Garrick erected his Temple to Shakespeare on the banks of the Thames at his estate in Hampton. It has recently been renovated and re-opened to pilgrims.

Garrick was well-schooled in the classics. He knew Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, and read and wrote French fluently. He possessed charm, cultivation, and elegance. His library was one of the largest in England and ranged over a broad spectrum of topics.  His bequest of his vast collection of old plays to the British Museum formed the foundation of that new institution’s library. 

His fame spread through most of Europe, especially to France and Italy, and into Russia.  While on his European Grand Tour for two years, 1763–65, Garrick wrote back to George Colman, playwright and temporary manager at Drury Lane in Garrick’s absence, “You can’t imagine, my dear Colman, what honours I have received from all kind of people here—the Nobles and the Litterati have made so much of me that I am quite ashamed of opening my heart even to you.”  At home, his friends and social acquaintances included kings, nobles, literary figures, artists, politicians and the intellectual elite of the kingdom. They formed a veritable hall of fame of eighteenth-century England. Many were pall-bearers at his funeral: the Duke of Devonshire, the Earl of Ossery, Viscount Palmerston, Earl Spencer, and Lord Camden among them.  Other friends were George Steevens, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Hannah More, George Colman, Edmund Burke, and John Hoadley.  It was a numerous circle in which he was held the idol by illustrious men who “mixed his talents with their own” (Boaden). Of course, he had his detractors and critics, and suffered abuse from disgruntled playwrights whose works he had rejected.  Samuel Johnson, whose tragedy Irene he did produce without much success, often jousted with him and spoke poorly of him in public, but when others did the same he “fought for the Dog like a Tyger.”  Johnson sobbed uncontrollably at Garrick’s death. 

So accomplished was he, and so dedicated to the highest professional standards, that his theater, in the words of another early biographer, Arthur Murphy, “engrossed the minds of men to such a degree . . . that there existed in England a fourth estate, King, Lords, and Commons, and Drury-Lane play-house.”  Edmund Burke wrote that Garrick  “raised the character of his profession to the rank of a liberal art.”

Garrick was an assiduous letter writer, who took pains to make copies of those he wrote and to preserve those he received.  His collected correspondence in George M. Kahrl and David M. Little’s three-volume edition number over 1400. The busy man described how he wrote all those letters while carrying on a career of amazing industry.  “I frequently write Letters in a great hurry,” he told Joseph Reed, “with the papers spread upon a Book, which is supported upon my knee, and perhaps while I am scribbling, one is speaking to me on one side, and another on another, about matters that require an immediate answer.”  The Folger holds a great number of those letters, along with notes, memoranda, verses, diaries, and plays in his hand.

The iconography of portraits of Garrick provided in the sixth volume of the Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actress, Musicians, Dancers . . . [etc.] lists over 270 depictions of him, in private and stage character, in original portraits and engravings.  Additionally there are numerous versions of many of the portraits and various states and sizes of the engravings.  Some of those originals are in the Folger, as are hundreds of the prints and engravings.  He was the most pictured person in Britain, exceeding King George III, Pope, and other luminaries.  No other actor in the history of the British theater prior to the development of the camera has been the subject of so many portraits. During Garrick’s lifetime, especially in his later years with the advent of  Johann Zoffany,  theatrical painting developed into a specialized genre. Garrick’s listing in the catalogue of engraved British portraits in the British Museum seems surpassed only by that of Queen Victoria.  His painters are a roster of the leading artists of the century: Gainsborough, Reynolds, Zoffany, Hudson, Hayman, Hogarth, Dance, Pine, Pond. Garrick seems to have spent so much time sitting for painters that one wonders when he found the time to stand and act.

But act he did, with consummate artistry and electrifying excitement.  In his acting, as in all other stage activities, he was blessed with a dramaturgical sagacity and a rare theatrical intuition.  After the French salonnière Suzanne Necker traveled to London to see Garrick’s last round of portrayals in 1776, she wrote to him: “I have in Mr Garrick’s acting, studied the manners of all men, and I have made more discoveries about the human heart than if I had gone over the whole of Europe.”  Hannah More, who saw the final three weeks of his performing his great roles in 1776, realized she was at “the funeral obsequies of the different poets.”

Garrick could be jealous and vainglorious, eager for attention and adulation.  He took care to enhance his image through the press, and he had holdings in several influential London newspapers. He had a reputation for being tight-fisted, yet there are numerous examples of his generosity and acts of personal and public charity.  Among those was his conceiving and funding the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund in the 1770s, providing his actors with a scheme for a “Theatrical Society” for the “Relief of Indigent Persons” and support of their “Invalids Widdows & Orphans."  He wrote to Sir Grey Cooper in January 1776 seeking his support in procuring an Act of Parliament to incorporate the Fund—so “I should finish my Theatrical Life, as I would Wish, by presenting the Actors with this necessary & honourable Security for their Money.”  The Act was procured and published in 1777.

He was also by all accounts a faithful and devoted husband to Eva Maria Veigel, a charming Viennese dancer whom he married in 1749.  He claimed that after their marriage he never passed a night away from her.  She survived her husband by 43 years, living quietly, mainly at their estate in Hampton, and devoting herself to perpetuating his memory.  She died on October 16, 1822, at the age of 98, and was buried beside Davy in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Garrick died in London on  January 20, 1779, just a few weeks shy of his 62nd        birthday. His funeral was one of the grandest ever to be seen in London, with the carriages of mourners stretching all the way from Westminster Abbey back to the Strand. He was buried in Poet’s Corner on February 1, near the monument to Shakespeare.  The inscription by Samuel Jackson Pratt on Garrick’s monument reads, “Shakespeare and Garrick like twin stars shall shine / and Earth irradiate with a beam divine.”  Samuel Johnson mourned that the great man’s death had “eclipsed the gaiety of nations.”

This extensive panorama of Garrick’s life and times is revealed in the exhibition and website of Folger material, the largest Garrickiana collection in the world.  Other significant repositories of materials about him are at the British Library, the Harvard Theatre Collection, and the Garrick Club, but it is at the Folger that the greatest impression of his life is seen. The Folger holds thousands of manuscripts, including verses, plays, letters, and Drury Lane accounts, plus clippings, periodicals, prints, paintings, books, and other materials and artifacts that range across Garrick’s personal and professional life, from the beginning to the end, and connect to countless playwrights, critics, authors, performers, and friends, not to mention his marriage, travels, entrepreneurship, funeral, and his far-reaching influence and legacy.  The exhibition and accompanying website are truly a cultural history of this remarkable man and the century in which he lived.


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