David Garrick’s manner of acting and speaking on stage stood in stark contrast to what came before (and was largely established by Thomas Betterton). On today’s stage, Garrick’s innovations would certainly come across as emotional over-acting, but at the time they were revolutionary in their naturalism. Instead of reciting his lines with conventional rhetorical gestures and mannered elocution, as if presenting the text as poetry to the audience, he used tone of voice and facial expressions to seem to inhabit that character. Garrick’s style did much to elevate the profession of acting to an art that requires a spark of genius. Simply imitating other actors by going through the prescribed motions would not do.
Alexander Pope (1688–1744) commented prophetically, “That young man never had his equal, and never will have a rival.” When Garrick played Lothario opposite James Quin in Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent in 1746, biographers recalled it as one of the great theatrical events of the century. Richard Cumberland wrote that Garrick was “young and light and alive in every muscle and every feature” as he bounded onto the stage to meet a “heavy-paced” Quin. “It seemed as if a whole century had been stept over in the transition of a single scene.” Quin was not unaware that something momentous was taking place, saying “If this young fellow be right, then we have all been wrong.” Other actors, justly famous, acknowledged Garrick’s superiority throughout his life and after. Eva Maria Garrick, who admired Edmund Kean as Richard III, faulted him in another role her husband had made famous. “Dear Sir,” she wrote, “you cannot act Abel Drugger. Yours, M. Garrick.” A reply came by return post. “I know it. Yours, E. Kean.”
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