David Garrick was the third of five children born to Captain Peter Garrick and his wife, Arabella Clough. Peter was an army officer stationed in Gibraltar during most of David's young life.
At the age of 10, David enrolled in Lichfield Grammar School, where he showed his predilection for the stage by performing the role of Sergeant Kite in George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer. When he was 19, he became the pupil of Mr. (not yet Dr.) Samuel Johnson, but when Johnson's school was closed, they both travelled to London to seek their fortunes. For the next four years, David Garrick made a half-hearted attempt to become a successful wine merchant while, at the same time, performing in amateur theatricals and writing his first play. Just before his business failed completely, he saw that play, a satire (Lethe: or Aesop in the Shade) produced at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Then he did what he was meant to do: He embarked upon a professional career in the theatre. And after a few months in Ipswich performing the role of Aboan in the tragedy Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave, by English dramatist Thomas Southerne, and doing some comedy turns as Harlequin, Garrick found himself back in London and on the boards of the theatre in Goodman's Fields on October 19, 1741, making his first appearance in the title role of Richard III at the age of 26.
Like a wildfire, his fame spread throughout London. When, on December 2 he played Lothario in The Fair Penitent, citizens from all parts of town flocked to see him. It was said that the theaters in the West End were entirely deserted that night.
Garrick moved on to other roles: Tate's adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear; Pierre in Otway's Venice Preserv'd; Bayes in Buckingham's comedy, The Rehearsal; and others, for a total of 18 roles in just the first six months of his acting career.
What was so compelling about this young actor? He was on the short side of average height for the time, just 5' 4" tall. His voice wasn't particularly loud. And his build was slight (although it thickened over the years). But the quality that set him apart from other actors was his natural delivery. He eschewed the bombastic performance style so prevalent then, in favor of more realistic, more believable speech patterns.
Garrick's astounding success prompted the poet Alexander Pope, who saw him perform three times in six months, to surmise that young Garrick never had his equal as an actor, and to predict that "he will never have a rival." Like so many others, Pope became a Garrick fan, but sadly, he died in 1744 at the age of 56.
Garrick's acting had its detractors, of course. New styles, new methods, disrupt the status quo, and some actors believed their lines were best delivered with all the bombast they could muster. As late as 1756, Theophilus Cibber, an actor and theater critic, earnestly believed that Garrick's realistic style went way too far, and expressed that in nearly 100 words of deep purple prose that simply reeked with jealousy.
David Garrick thoroughly enjoyed his work. After two seasons at Drury Lane, working with major players, he wound up the season with his popular Richard III, and King Lear opposite Margaret "Peg" Woffington, with whom he was having an affair. When the London season ended, he and Woffington travelled to Dublin for the summer season at the Theatre Royal, where Garrick added several new roles to his repertoire.
Peg Woffington was a popular actress in all genres and, although her affair with Garrick ended before they returned to London, she remained his leading lady in London and Dublin until 1748.
Garrick attributed some of his success in Dublin to one of his earliest fans, John Boyle, 5th Earl of Cork, to whom he was grateful for having written the praises of his talent to many Irish noblemen and gentlemen.
In 1745, Garrick again travelled to Dublin to become a director and joint manager with Thomas Sheridan, father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, of the Royal Theatre. In 1746, he returned to England and was engaged for the season at Covent Garden while a farce he had written, Miss In Her Teens, was also produced there.
In April of 1747, Garrick jumped at the chance to partner with James Lacy in the ownership and management of the Drury Lane. It was a dream come true. Productions under their partnership enjoyed great success from their very first performance which opened with an Ode to Drury Lane Theatre, on dedicating a Building and erecting a Statue, to Shakespeare, read by Garrick and written by his friend, Dr. Johnson.
The ode promised patrons that "The drama's law the drama's patrons give / For we that live to please must please to live" — succinctly summing up Garrick's ability to balance both artistic integrity and the public's fickle tastes.
Since the Woffington affair, Garrick had a series of short-lived liaisons until, in December 1746, he met and fell in love with Eva Maria Veigel, a Viennese dancer who made her first appearance at the Drury Lane on December 3rd. Their joyful courtship ended happily in marriage, twice on the same day, June 22, 1749 — first in the chapel near Russell street, Bloomsbury, and a few hours later at the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy in South Audley Street, in accordance with the rites of the Roman Catholic Church. Husband and wife were preserved together in several portraits, including this one by the great William Hogarth:
Though childless, their union was exceedingly happy. Garrick called Eva "the best of women and wives," and according to all reports, they were inseparable throughout their nearly 30 years of marriage.
Over the years, Garrick and some of his leading ladies were sought-after subjects for paintings by some of the greatest artists of all time — a Who's Who of the 18th century art world. In addition to Hogarth, who painted David & Eva Garrick several times, many other artists recorded theatre scenes and players.
For example, SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS:
And THOMAS GAINSBOROUGH:
(Sarah Siddons was the best-known tragedienne of the 18th century, most famous for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth.)
And ANGELICA KAUFFMAN:
And JOHANN ZOFFANY:
And the following four paintings which cannot be overlooked, for even though I cannot identify the artists, their paintings are valuable contributions to the theatrical and literary histories of 18th century England:
David Garrick was a member of The Literary Club (called merely The Club by its members), which was founded in 1764 by Dr. Samuel Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds. What a thrill to read the names of the luminaries seated around this table.
In the 30 years that David Garrick managed the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the art of play production slowly began its evolution to time-appropriate costumes, prompted by a friend and fellow actor/playwright of Garrick's, Charles Macklin. It was Macklin who coached Garrick when he prepared his first major role, Richard III. As an actor, Macklin was in sync with Garrick's natural speech patterns.
Macklin took natural acting a step farther: He believed that a play set in, say, the 15th century, should not be performed by actors wearing 18th century fashions, and yet, that's what they did. If you don't believe it, look at these pictures:
Note that Macbeth is costumed as a British army officer, and Lady Macbeth wears a fashionable dress of the 18th century. Hard to believe, isn't it?
I get it now — the reason for all those "oldentime costume" jokes.
In 1776, Garrick gave up Drury Lane and retired from the stage. He died at his home in the Adelphi on January 20, 1779, at the age of 63, and was buried in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, the first actor to be so honored. For the next 43 years, Eva survived as his widow. She died on October 16, 1822, at the age of 98, having retained her faculties to the last. She was buried on October 25th in the same grave with her husband, near the cenotaph of Shakespeare.
In the theater, David Garrick did it all. He has been heralded as the greatest actor of his time, and one of the greatest of all time. He was an astute theater manager, a creative director and, arguably, not a half-bad writer. It has been said that Garrick is another definition for "theater." Appropriately, Garrick Theatres abound throughout the U.K. The preeminent site is in London, of course, in the West End on Charing Cross Road, Westminster. It opened April 24, 1889. It's been refurbished from time to time, and is still in operation today.
There used to be one in New York, as well, at 63 - 67 W. 35th Street, just off Herald Square. It was built by Edward Harrigan and opened as Harrigan's Theatre on December 29, 1890. When actor Richard Mansfield took over the house five years later, he renamed it, and the Garrick Theatre thrived for many years under a succession of owner/operators. The Theatre Guild took it over in 1919, and staged a series of distinguished dramas there before moving into new quarters in 1925. Over the next four years, two Rodgers and Hart musicals and two Eugene O'Neill plays were produced there. Alas, in 1929 the New York Garrick became a burlesque house, and in 1932 was torn down.
A fitting paean to David Garrick was the establishment of The Garrick Club in London in 1831, as a club for "gentlemen only."
The word "only" has been removed from the club's definition, allowing women to attend functions as guests, but they are still denied membership. Magnificent English actresses are legion. Get with it, boys!
Since his death 231 years ago, David Garrick's images have been viewed, his works have been studied, and his successes have been honored in myriad ways. Sometime close to the turn of the 20th century, homage was paid to him in the form of this beautiful (and highly collectible) cigar box label:
Having watched David Garrick on stage, and having thoroughly enjoyed the natural acting style which held Garrick's audiences spellbound, dramatist and classical scholar Richard Cumberland (1732 - 1811) wrote:
"It seemed as if a whole century had been stepped over in the passage of a single scene; old things were done away, and a new order at once brought forward, bright and luminous, and clearly destined to dispel the barbarianisms of a tasteless age, too long superstitiously devoted to the illusions of imposing declamation."
Stage Whispers is published by carlacushman.blogspot.com/