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In My Good Books

100 Years Too Late

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
4 February 2006

Colley Cibber, the actor-manager and hapless poet laureate who became a by-word for doltishness among the likes of Fielding, Johnson and Pope, has one remarkable and durable achievement to his name. He was the first English actor to write his autobiography, which appeared in 1740 under the title An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian, and Late Patentee of the Theatre Royal, With an Historical View of the Stage During His Own Time. Written by Himself

A blizzard of pamphlets and counter-pamphlets ensued, in the manner of the time, and especially because Cibber had set down a great deal of information - and gossip - about the way the theatres had been run from the Restoration on, but also because what Cibber had done, in writing his own life, was exceedingly unusual, so the feeling would be that he had no right to make a display of himself in such a way, as he flourishingly puts it "to print off this chiaroscuro of my mind".

He was born in 1671, and died in 1757; he can remember Charles II feeding his ducks and playing with his dogs in St James's Park. Although he did not tread the boards until after the Glorious Revolution (during which he had rallied to the flag of King William), he had been an attentive theatre-goer and knew all the actors from the time of the Restoration proper, which is included in his historical overview. One cannot, when reading this book, fight off the thought: what if we had had a Cibber born 100 years earlier? What if this were Shakespeare and Johnson we were hearing about, rather than Dryden, Vanbrugh and Congreve? In fact, although the differences between the Jacobean and the Restoration theatres are well known, the similarities are striking. This is a period in which London can still only support one or two theatres at a time, which means that when there are two companies, they tend to be at each others' throats, mounting last-minute productions of Hamlet as spoilers for their rivals.

Although women began to work on stage after the Restoration, it was a while before there were enough to meet requirements, so the handsomest young men were still being put into petticoats. Cibber tells of an occasion when Charles II, arriving at a tragedy earlier than expected, found the actors not ready to begin, and sent to know the meaning of it, "upon which, the Master of the Company came to the Box, and rightly judging, that the best Excuse for their Default, would be the true one, fairly told his Majesty, that the Queen was not shav'd yet. The King, whose good Humour lov'd to laugh at a Jest, as well as to make one, accept the excuse, which serv'd to divert him, till the male Queen cou'd be effeminated."

Edward Kynaston, who played female roles, "was so beautiful a Youth, that the Ladies of Quality prided themselves in taking him with them in their Coaches, to Hyde-Park, in his Theatrical Habit, after the Play." Plays in those days began at four o'clock.

We can go wrong if we think of acting in the early theatre as being somewhat broad in its effects; it is true that Cibber lets us understand that a tragedian had to have a large and beautiful voice even to begin. But in his description of Betterton's acting we are told that in "the just Delivery of Poetical Numbers, particularly where the Sentiments are pathetick, it is scarce credible, upon how minute an Article of Sound depends their greatest Beauty or Inaffection. The Voice of a Singer is not more strictly ty'd to Time and Tune, than that of an Actor in Theatrical Elocution. The least Syllable too long, or to slightly dwelt upon, in a Period, depreciates it to nothing; which very Syllable, if rightly touch'd, shall, like the heightening Stroke of Light from a Master's Pencil [= Paintbrush], give life and spirit to the whole."

And here is a description of the intimate acoustics of the Haymarket theatre, before a desire to maximise profits had ruined its design. "But when the Actors were in Possession of that forwarder Space, to advance upon, the Voice was then more in the Centre of the House, so that the most distant Ear had scarce the least Doubt, or Difficulty in hearing what fell from the weakest Utterance: All Objects were thus drawn nearer to the Sense; every painted Scene was stronger; every Grand Scene and Dance more extended; every rich, or fine-coloured Habit had a more lively Lustre ..."

It goes on. We have nothing like this for the Globe or the Rose, and we have nothing to tell us what it was like to play before Elizabeth. We should value Cibber highly.

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