by Kirk Woodward
[Kirk Woodward, the most prolific of Rick On Theater’s contributors, is not only a playwright, actor, director, and teacher of acting, but, like me, he’s a perpetual student of theater history. If ROTters haven’t spotted that already in his slew of previous posts, he demonstrates it once again in his report on Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, the memoir of the 17th- and 18th-century actor-playwright-manager. Cibber worked the boards during what’s arguably the most—certainly one of the most—tumultuous and confusing period of English theater history, the gap between the restoration of the British monarchy and the reopening of the theaters after the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell and the rise of the great writers and actors of the late 18th century, the Enlightenment in Europe, and the surge of creativity in the early and middle 19th century that led ultimately to Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, the beginnings of the modern theatrical era.
[Kirk demonstrates his knowledge of theater history, as well as general cultural history, as he puts Cibber and his career in context and comments on his accomplishments (or lack thereof) often in contrast not just to Cibber’s contemporary detractors, but to the memoirist himself. Kirk’s done this before on ROT, most notably with Shaw, of whom Kirk’s a huge fan but not a blind one (see his “Bernard Shaw, Pop Culture Critic,” 5 September 2012; “Eric Bentley On Bernard Shaw,” 3 December 2015; and the “Re-Reading Shaw” series, 3 and 18 July, 8 and 23 August, and 2 September 2016). At the very least, Kirk’s profile of Colley Cibber is an opportunity to get an introduction to a less-well-known figure in theater history and a less-familiar time in British theater—which, after all, is the foundation for American theater, like it or not. (We revolted against the British Crown in the 18th century—after Cibber’s death, of course—but not British culture.)
[The recurrent benefit of Kirk’s contributions as guest blogger is that he always provides an informative and edifying perspective on whatever topic he examines. I’m always delighted to publish one of his pieces and will always be grateful that my friend lets me do so as often as he does. I trust that ROTters will agree upon reading “Colley Cibber.” ~Rick]
Without question my favorite literary genre is theatrical autobiography. The reason couldn’t be simpler: I love theater, and I can’t think of anything more fun than, in person or in books, hanging around with others who love it too. I suppose the most thrilling example of the genre is Act One (1959), an account by Moss Hart (1904-1961) of his life up to his first big theatrical success, Once in a Lifetime (1930), which he wrote with George S. Kaufman (1889-1961). [Kirk has blogged on the Lincoln Center Theater’s stage adaption of Act One; see his article on 25 June 2014.]
An earlier example of theatrical autobiography is the Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber (1740) – a life that more than one person has said he was right to apologize for. We will get to that point shortly.
A brief historical perspective: The English Civil War began in 1642 and the English theaters were closed that same year, breaking the continuous line of production from Elizabethan times. In 1647 the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) actually outlawed dramatic productions.
The restoration of a king (Charles II, 1630-1685) in 1660 led to the re-legalization of theater. Cibber describes in his book two major changes in the new theatrical scene around that time: plays began to feature scenery (as opposed to the relatively bare stage of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater of Shakespeare), incidentally raising the cost of producing a play; and women began to play women’s roles, something unheard of in Shakespeare’s time.
At the time Colley Cibber (1671-1757) began his theatrical career, there was only one authorized theater in London, located in Drury Lane (sometimes called Covent Garden). That situation changed dramatically during his apprenticeship, when a second theater, Lincoln Inn’s Fields, was established.
Cibber today is remembered, when he is remembered, for the following four things:
He was the sixth person to hold the title of Poet Laureate of England, from 1730 to 1757, so his name appears in any list of British Poets Laureate. Poet Laureate is never an easy job, since the title holder is required to create verse for state occasions, a task perhaps seldom congenial to the poetic imagination, which Cibber doesn’t appear to have had in the first place. It was generally assumed that he got the position because of his fervent support for the government in power.
In particular, his exalted position as Poet Laureate was particularly irritating to Alexander Pope (1688-1744), a genuine poet, in fact the greatest of his time. Pope made Cibber the central character – the “King of Dunces” – in his four book version of the Dunciad published in 1743. This mock epic poem pictured Cibber – who is generally recognized as a major factor in the development of the sentimental drama of his time – as the symbol of all that was wrong with British culture of the day.
Cibber is also remembered as one who liberally adapted several of Shakespeare’s plays, cutting and rewriting with abandon. His version of Richard III has received particular scorn in later years. Bernard Shaw, interestingly, defended Cibber a bit, noting that “Off with his head! So much for Buckingham” (Cibber’s invention) isn’t worse than many of the words Shakespeare put in Richard’s mouth. But in general Cibber manhandled Shakespeare’s plays, although Cibber speaks of the Bard practically as an idol.
And Cibber is also remembered today because he wrote his Apology (meaning a defense of, not an expression of sorrow over, his life), which Shaw considered the best account of theater in England during and around the years of Cibber’s theatrical career (1690-1745), an opinion expressed by others as well.
The book is said to have infuriated Pope, partly because of its lack of, well, apology. In the book Cibber takes himself pretty much as he comes. He doesn’t claim extraordinary merit for himself; he recognizes that his talent is limited, but he also recognizes that he has been able to make a living, and in fact a name, in theater, and why should he apologize for that? If all he’s accused of is writing some bad verse, he says, that isn’t worth his getting terribly upset over.
Pope’s Dunciad is brilliant satirical verse, ending with a vision of the triumph of “Dulness” that today still has the power to make us take a second look at mass culture:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.
But one feels, reading Cibber’s book, that he does not feel responsible for the fall of civilization or anything of the sort. One also feels, perhaps, that Pope spends a lot of time and energy on someone he claims to consider an insignificant artist.
They knew each other and did not get along well; Pope attacks Cibber many times in his writing, Cibber replies several times. Pope would say that Cibber represented the decline of art in his time. Cibber would say that he was just trying to make a living. The two positions are not mutually exclusive.
There are, in fact, other reasons for possible irritation at Cibber. As a staunch Whig party [later the Liberals] man, he wrote a political play, The Non-Juror (1717) that infuriated the Tories [Conservatives], and on the other hand he supported the establishment of the censorship of the drama, originally created in particular to silence Henry Fielding’s anti-Whig plays and not finally abolished until 1968. Cibber devotes pages to a defense of that institution.
He is often an eccentric stylist as a writer. And he seems, even by his own account, to have been, to say the least, an imperfect character. On the other hand, who isn’t? And while Pope might not have approved of Cibber’s memories of the theater of the time, we ought to. Their historical value is huge.
In his Apology it takes Cibber a little while to settle in to the “meat” of his reminiscences, the sections on theater. In early passages, and occasionally later, he sometimes seems to feel he needs to write extensively in order to fill up a book. As he gets going, though, he seems to find he has plenty of material.
He writes his book as though he is speaking it, in an informal tone which one would guess also irritated Pope. Cibber can be droll, which makes sense since tragedy was never his field; comedy was his forte, and we see that, for example, in this glance at audience responses of the time:
To speak critically of an Actress that was extremely good were as hazardous as to be positive in one’s Opinion of the best Opera Singer.
A few samples of his narrative of the theater of his time will hopefully give the flavor of the Apology. For example, Cibber remembers vividly the life of an ordinary working actor. He recounts a squeeze play between management and performers, which the performers finally won, but not before management attempted to correct its mistakes by stiffing the actors:
When it became necessary therefore to lessen the Charge, a Resolution was taken to begin with the Sallaries of the Actors.
However, it turned out that audiences were not as interested in producers as they were in actors, so management had to give in – to an extent:
Powel and Verbruggen [two significant actors], who had then but forty Shillings a Week, were now raised each of them to four Pounds [i.e., 80 shillings] and others in Proportion: As for myself, I was then too insignificant to be taken into their Councils, and consequently stood among those of little Importance, like Cattle in a Market, to be sold to the first Bidder.
Like many another actor (say, off-Off Broadway), Cibber was happy to be poorly paid if he could only have a place on or near the stage:
Pay was the least of my Concern; the Joy and Privilege of every Day seeing Plays for nothing I thought was a sufficient Consideration for the best of my Services.
Management created one theater, many of the leading actors formed another. As the management side lost clout, its productions fell in quality:
Honours of the Theatre! all became at once the Spoil of Ignorance and Self-conceit! Shakespear was defac’d and tortured in every signal Character – Hamlet and Othello lost in one hour all their good Sense, their Dignity and Fame. Brutus and Cassius became noisy Blusterers, with bold unmeaning Eyes, mistaken Sentiments, and turgid Elocution!
Cibber notes that none of these disasters were his fault, since he was at that time such a minor actor that he was unable to have any impact.
Cibber’s entire account of these management/actor “wars” makes riveting and even hilarious reading. The story of two competing performances of Hamlet, and how first one theater and then the other gave up and abandoned Hamlet, both choosing instead the same replacement play, something called The Old Batchelor (by William Congreve, 1693); how at the last minute Cibber’s troupe realized they hadn’t cast an important role in the play, and in desperation let Cibber have it; how he impersonated the original actor of the role to perfection, to great applause; and how he still couldn’t get decent roles afterwards, because the company thought he couldn’t play anything else . . . one can hardly imagine a better theater story.
Cibber, in fact, notes that he was almost never able to get the roles he wanted, unless he wrote them for himself.
This Misfortune, if it were one, you are not to wonder at; for the same Fate attended me, more or less, to the last Days of my remaining on the Stage. What Defect in me this may have been owing to, I have not yet had Sense enough to find out, but I soon found out as good a thing, which was, never to be mortify’d at it.
Cibber wrote Love’s Last Shift (1688), giving himself the supporting role of Sir Novelty Fashion, and his play is the one usually cited in biographies today. John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) wrote a sequel,The Relapse (1696) that is still performed today, although Cibber’s ordinarily is not – an irony in Cibber’s career of ironies.
Cibber went on to write or adapt more than two dozen plays, frequently creating roles for himself. He played numerous villains, such as Othello’s Iago, and he speculates that he owed some of his rather unfortunate popular reputation to his success in playing disgusting characters convincingly. Cibber reports that he simply did not have the vocal qualities appropriate for noble or tragic characters.
His deficiencies, if that’s what they are, do not prevent him from describing a significant number of the actors of his time, with – as far as I can tell – skill and accuracy. He notes what his contemporaries can’t do on stage, but is much more interested in what they can do, and he is generous in appreciating them, even when they weren’t particularly kind to him.
Here is some of his comparison of two actors who were on the stage in the same era:
Booth and [Wilks] were Actors so directly opposite in their Manner, that if either of them could have borrowed a little of the other’s Fault, they would Both have been improv’d by it: If Wilks had sometimes too violent a Vivacity; Booth as often contented himself with too grave a Dignity. The latter seem’d too much to heave up his words, as the other to dart them to the Ear with too quick and sharp a Vehemence: Thus Wilks would too frequently break into the Time and Measure of the Harmony by too many spirited Accents in one Line; and Booth, by too solemn a Regard to Harmony, would as often lose the necessary Spirit of it: So that (as I have observ’d) could we have sometimes rais’d the one and sunk the other, they had both been nearer to the mark. Yet this could not be always objected to them: They had their Intervals of unexceptionable Excellence, that more than balnc’d their Errors.
Cibber ultimately became a successful actor (in certain roles – not in tragedy) and playwright, and one of a trio of theater managers who ran their operation successfully for twenty years – a notable theatrical achievement in any era. He appears to have shown generally good judgment as a theater manager:
I do not remember that ever I made a Promise to any that I did not keep, and therefore was cautious how I made them. This Coldness, tho’ it might not please, at least left the [actors in the company] nothing to reproach me with; and if Temper and fair Words could prevent a Disobligation, I was sure never to give Offence or receive it.
Toward the end of the book, Cibber appears to lose a little interest in his subject, and I found that the book began to wear me out. Theater, it appears, always has been and always will be a messy and exhausting business. It certainly was in Cibber’s time. Still, he loved it, and it has its rewards, including a large stock of terrific anecdotes, something of which the Apology has more than its share.
[As most theater people, both pros and amateurs, can attest, Kirk’s final statement is still true today: we love to tell theater stories culled from our own experiences as well as others’. In fact, I’ve posted a few of mine on Rick On Theater over the years, most notably in “Short Takes: Theater War Stories,” posted on 6 December 2010. Next to talking about ourselves, theater folk love to talk shop. Get a bunch of us together under any excuse, add some food (preferably free) and drink, and you’ll be regaled with all the stage anecdotes you’ll ever want to hear!
[In addition to the books Kirk names in his opening remarks, principally Moss Hart’s Act One, I’d like to mention a few more that I found particularly enjoyable. The first is Run-Through (1972) by John Houseman (1902-88), which is more than just a theater memoir, covering, as it does, Houseman’s association with Orson Welles (1915-85) in his stage, radio, and film careers. For theater people, especially actors, arguably the granddaddy of theater autobiographies is My Life in Art (1935) by Constantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938), the story behind the founding of not only the world-renowned Moscow Art Theater, but the modern art of acting and actor-training in the Western world.
[If we stretch Kirk’s parameters a little from autobiography to biography, I’d include Lyle Leverich’s Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams (1995), which takes the arc of the playwright’s life up to his first success, The Glass Menagerie in 1944. Generally deemed one the two best (with Arthur Miller) American theater writers of the second half of the 20th century, Williams (1911-83) lived a real-life soap opera—and his life is clearly reflected in many of his plays. Finally, I’d add another bio, recounting the astonishing life and career of the first American actor to gain an international reputation, Edwin Booth (1833-93). I’m referring, of course, to Eleanor Ruggles’s book Prince of Players (1953), turned into a film starring Richard Burton in 1955. There are, of course, literally hundreds of books by theater men and women, and I daresay each of them has its advocates; I imagine ROTters have their own lists of favorites.
[Kirk observes above that Colley Cibber was known to have “adapted several of Shakespeare’s plays, cutting and rewriting with abandon.” He wasn’t the only one to have taken such liberties, of course: bowdlerizing the Bard was a going concern in the 18th and 19th centuries. I’m always reminded, when I hear accounts of this practice, of something my father told me of his own school years. My dad was a native New Yorker and attended New York City public schools until college. Because German was one of the languages (among several others of eastern and central Europe) spoken in his family, Dad studied the language in high school (1932-36). He told me he was amused when he was assigned to read German translations of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as other works of literature, to find the title page of the texts inscribed with the phrase: übersetzt und verbessert. In English, that means “translated and improved”! The arrogance! he thought.
[Toward the end of his report on Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, Kirk remarks: “Like many another actor (say, off-Off Broadway), Cibber was happy to be poorly paid if he could only have a place on or near the stage.” This calls to my mind a line I repeated in a recent post, “MicroRep” by Kirk Woodward (27 July), so I’ll quote it again:
One of Kirk’s last comments, about the actors having been willing to perform for free, reminds me of a line an actor friend of mine used to like to say: ”Actors are the only people who’ll work for nothing if you let them.” I suggested we get T-shirts printed up!
[Apparently, this is a sentiment that stretches back much further than the 20th century!]