This edited article about David Garrick originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 726 published on 13 December 1975.
Few off-duty activities were more enjoyed by Britons in the 18th century than theatregoing. And do not be deceived by those spikes. They were sometimes needed, as we shall see, but at least the audience was one hundred per cent alive in a way that few modern audiences are.
Shakespeare, for instance, was the most popular playwright, and the most admired actor, David Garrick, was a supreme Shakespearean. True, Shakespeare was a little doctored in performance, with Macbeth having singing and dancing witches and with that bleakest of tragedies, King Lear, being given a happy ending (which survived until 1838). The truth is that our ancestors, for all their larger-than-life qualities which showed themselves in downing oceans of strong drink, eating mammoth repasts, emitting magnificent oratory, indulging in gales of laughter and rivers of public tears, were a sentimental lot. And the growing middle class, with far more leisure than before, demanded sentiment in the theatre.
The result was sometimes watered-down tragedies and some plays which verged on the “sloppy”, with none of the bite of the comedies written in King Charles II’s day, and with little of their theatrical skill either. Yet if the plays tended to be respectable, the audiences, for all their pin-drop silence when a great actor was in full flow, and their cheers when he had finished, were anything but good.
They loved actors and actresses, but at the same time looked down on them as “rogues and vagabonds”, and it was not just the touring companies, playing in provincial theatres, barns, sheds, or anywhere they could all over the British Isles, that suffered. The classic example of off-duty “actor baiting” occurred in 1763 at no less a theatre than Drury Lane in London, a smaller playhouse than today’s, but, with David Garrick as manager and star, very much the leading theatre in the kingdom.
In those days plays generally had five acts, and one of Garrick’s attempted reforms was to abolish the right of patrons to be allowed in at half-price after the end of the third act of a play. A troublemaker named Fitzpatrick and his friends circulated the coffee-houses distributing pamphlets protesting that Garrick had no right to demand full prices for a revived play and threatening that they would take lawful action against him.
Their idea of law was a full scale riot, choosing a new production of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, when their demands would not have applied anyway. Fitzpatrick and his gang of rowdies reached the theatre and their leader starting enflaming the audience from a box. At once, Garrick appeared and tried to calm things down, to be greeted with howls of anger, then Fitzpatrick really went to work and the audience turned into a mob, ripping up the wooden benches in the pit (today’s stalls) and setting to work wrecking the rest of the theatre. All this was regarded merely as a great frolic, as far as the audience was concerned.
The next night a badly damaged Drury Lane opened again and the rioting continued, until Garrick gave in to the mob’s demands. But Fitzpatrick and his bully boys were not satisfied. They demanded that the actors of the previous night should apologise for daring to interfere with their rioting, especially an actor named John Moody, who had had the infernal cheek to seize and extinguish a torch with which a man was trying to set the theatre alight.
Moody was no coward and he laughingly declared from the stage that he was sorry he had displeased them by saving their lives in putting out the fire.
The loutish mob was not amused and demanded that Moody should go down on his knees and say he was sorry.
“I will not, by God,” said the brave Moody, risking a lynching. “I bow my knees to two things, my God and my King. You are neither.” Then he left the stage, and Garrick embraced him and said he would pay him his salary though he could no longer allow him on stage. The splendid Moody was not prepared to be beaten by a mob and later headed straight for Fitzpatrick, who realised he had met his match and gave the word that Moody could be reinstated.
On another occasion Garrick got into trouble because he had hired some French dancers just before Britain and France went to war. Pandemonium broke out on the first night of his extravaganza, The Chinese Festival, despite the presence of the King, and for six nights a running battle raged. On that sixth night those in the more expensive seats drew their swords and rushed to the cheaper seats to sort out the troublemakers. As the benches were torn up and candelabra smashed, duels erupted all over the theatre until some charmer suggested that the mob should exit and burn down Garrick’s house. While they were busy breaking all his windows, before storming it, the military arrived, summoned by the unfortunate Garrick, and the mob was dispersed. The long-term result was that a squad of soldiers mounted guard at Drury Lane for every performance until 1895.
Garrick had more success in clearing spectators from the actual stage, a horrid habit that had crept in in Elizabethan times, when a supreme off-duty treat for top people was to sit beside and behind the actors, being seen by everyone, often talking amongst themselves, and hardly helping the “look” of a play, to put it mildly. By banishing such unwelcome guests he prevented incidents such as the one that had happened to him in Dublin when he was playing King Lear. At the point in the drama when he was sleeping with his head on daughter Cordelia’s lap, and with hardly a dry eye in the house, a gentleman came out from the wings, grabbed the actress and began hugging her, to the vast amusement of the audience.
Some actors lamented the loss of the stage spectators because they helped to swell the profits, but Garrick got round that by raising the seating capacity in the right place.
For all these lively happenings, it was a thrilling time for actors and, especially, great stars, for they were adored by a public that cared passionately. Garrick’s farewell to the stage in 1776 was a national event, and when he died in 1779, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, lords bearing his coffin.
His great successor, Mrs Siddons, burst on London in 1782 in a play called Isabella and enjoyed a legendary triumph. In the days that followed, the rich sent their servants to queue for tickets, and even then often failed to get in, while ordinary folk queued all day to be sure of a seat. Women sometimes fainted watching her, so powerful was her acting, and one young Edinburgh lady had to be carried from the theatre in hysterics. It was there that the door to the gallery had to be guarded by soldiers with fixed bayonets, so great was the throng to see the new wonder. In Rowe’s Tamerlane, she appeared to die on stage so terrible were her sufferings, and the audience thought she was dead until the Manager came forward before the curtain to explain that she was only acting.
How different it all sounds to theatregoing today, and some may say that the atmosphere seems to have been more like a wild pop concert. They would be right, for the theatre in the 18th century was popular art, with people of all classes flocking to it. Sometimes a superstar like Garrick or Siddons would appear to make the playhouse the most thrilling spot in the entire kingdom. They were comets, the talk of town and country alike. They and their humbler colleagues, even the humblest “strolling players”, spelled magic to millions.
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