By Richard Schoch

19 April 2016 - 06:54

David Garrick 'dedicated his extraordinarily successful career to promoting Shakespeare as the supreme symbol of British culture'. Image (c) British Council
David Garrick 'dedicated his extraordinarily successful career to promoting Shakespeare as the supreme symbol of British culture'. Image ©

British Council.

Professor Richard Schoch explains how David Garrick, an 18th-century actor-manager and playwright, formed the popular attitudes towards Shakespeare that remain to this day.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, he was far from being the global icon ‘Shakespeare’ that we celebrate today. He was a leading English playwright, but not an isolated talent. And when London theatres reopened in 1660 upon the restoration of the British monarchy – Puritans had closed all theatres in 1642, during the Interregnum – plays were radically rewritten for performance: King Lear survived; the witches in Macbeth sang and danced; Miranda in The Tempest gained a sister. There was not yet a belief that Shakespeare’s original words were sacrosanct or that Shakespeare should be treated much differently from his peers – dramatists like Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, whose works were sometimes more popular with Restoration audiences.

Our idea of Shakespeare as a singular genius who represents the sum and summit of British culture dates only from the middle of the 18th century, more than 100 years after Shakespeare’s death. This idea, which we now take for granted, was partly inspired by the publication of scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s plays, beginning with Nicholas Rowe’s six-volume edition in 1709 and continuing throughout the century, with important editions prepared by Alexander Pope (1725), William Warburton (1747), Samuel Johnson (1765), and Edmond Malone (1790). Unlike the four Folio texts that were printed between 1623 and 1685, 18th-century Shakespeare editions commented upon the text, updated spelling and punctuation, explained obscure terms, and attempted to reconcile variant or originally misprinted passages. In other words, they looked more or less like the Cambridge, Oxford or Arden editions of Shakespeare that are used today in classrooms around the world.

An authoritative version of Shakespeare’s texts naturally created the expectation that such texts – and only such texts – would be used in theatrical performance. Indeed, most 18th-century theatre managers believed that Shakespeare’s plays no longer needed to be heavily adapted for performance. Some of the playwright’s words could be cut to keep the performance to a reasonable length; but words written by others should not be added to the original script.

The major exception to this respectful rule was the actor-manager and playwright David Garrick (1717-79), who dedicated his extraordinarily successful career to promoting Shakespeare as the supreme symbol of British culture. Garrick, the single most important figure in 18th-century Shakespeare, made his London debut at Goodman’s Fields in 1741, playing Richard III. Within six years, he rose to the top of his profession, running Drury Lane Theatre. Like Charles Macklin, his Irish-born mentor, Garrick was hailed for the ‘naturalistic’ style of his acting – a term that must always be put into context because each generation of theatre audiences has a different idea of what acting ‘naturally’ means. In the mid-18th century, it meant representing the successive emotions felt by a character throughout the play. Through gesture, pose, and facial expression, Garrick thrilled audiences with his embodiment of emotional truth.

After seeing Garrick play Hamlet, the German tourist Georg Christoph Lichtenburg memorably described the moment when the prince first sees his father’s ghost: ‘His whole demeanour is so expressive of terror that it made my flesh creep’. Lichtenburg’s account of the performance identified the measure of success for Shakespearean acting in the 18th century: the actor must become a living illustration of a recognisable emotion, which then elicits a corresponding reaction from the spectator. For spectators highly attuned to sentiment, what mattered in a performance was the quick, bold, and convincing depiction of emotion. In Garrick, those spectators hailed a virtuoso who could embody the many passions of Shakespeare’s characters, from Hamlet’s frozen terror to Macbeth’s deranged ambition, and from Romeo’s sweet ardor to Richard III’s evil cunning. James Boswell wept openly at the poignant frailty of Garrick’s Lear, an experience so pleasurable that he returned for more. Audiences today would probably be unmoved by Garrick’s acting, finding it static and ponderous. But that says more about us than it does about him and the loyal audience he attracted.

Despite Garrick’s energetic genius as a performer, it was his management of Drury Lane from 1747 to 1776 that made him the leading stage interpreter of Britain’s national poet. It would be hard to think of a theatrical personality in any age more influential than Garrick in forming popular attitudes toward Shakespeare – attitudes that continue to the present day, not least through Shakespeare’s central place in the English literature curriculum in universities the world over. Garrick’s innovation was to promote an idea of Shakespeare: that he embodied the superiority (as the British saw it) of British culture, particularly when contrasted with the literary and theatrical neoclassicism of Britain’s main rival, France. Shakespeare, the great national poet, was his country’s triumphant answer to Homer and Virgil, the cultural expression of its growing worldwide economic and colonial power. Shakespeare became a synonym for Britishness itself, the very substance and image of national identity.

Garrick created ‘Bardolatry’, the formal worship of Shakespeare, a phenomenon that requires believers, rituals, and pilgrimage sites. In 1769, he organised the Stratford Jubilee, a three-day celebration of Shakespeare that put the dramatist’s hometown on the tourist map. The Jubilee left Garrick saddled with debts totalling £2,000, an immense sum that he quickly recouped with the proceeds of his hugely popular play The Jubilee, a version of the rained-out pageant of Shakespearean characters that was supposed to have taken place in Stratford-upon-Avon.

If Shakespeare represented the best of British culture – ‘a kind of established religion’, as the playwright Arthur Murphy put it in 1753 – then it followed that a London theatre like Drury Lane, in possession of a royal patent, and thus in some sense a quasi-national theatre, would devote itself to performing the greatest plays of the nation’s greatest cultural figure. Just as it seemed right that Westminster Abbey boasted a statue of Shakespeare (sculpted by Peter Scheemakers in 1740 and placed in Poets’ Corner, where it remains), it seemed right that Drury Lane would become a patriotic temple to Shakespeare’s genius, a status achieved through Garrick’s own genius for profitable self-promotion.

That not a single line from a single Shakespeare play was performed during the Stratford Jubilee reveals something important: that reverence for Shakespeare’s text has never been a necessary part of reverence for Shakespeare as a cultural icon. Garrick regularly staged adaptations of Shakespeare, most of which were his own, and all of which ensured that he took the leading role. Never a commanding tragic hero, but highly gifted in comedy, Garrick avoided playing magisterial characters like Coriolanus or Othello, and much preferred to act Romeo and Benedick – roles that emphasised private and domestic relationships. In rewriting Shakespeare, Garrick eliminated the gravediggers in Hamlet (audiences strongly disliked the production because it cut one of their favourite scenes); retained the scene from Thomas Otway’s version of Romeo and Juliet, in which the heroine briefly awakens in her tomb before Romeo dies (a moment of pathos that Shakespeare inexplicably forgot to write); omitted the first three acts of The Winter’s Tale, and then introduced the truncated play (renamed Florizel and Perdita) with a prologue swearing his deep loyalty to the dramatist: ‘Tis my chief Wish, my Joy, my only Plan, ⁄ To lost no Drop of this immortal man’.

Garrick did, however, spill many precious drops, perhaps recognising better than anyone that a truly immortal Shakespeare would outlive everyone who rewrote his plays. The 1765 publication of Johnson’s edition of the plays fully underscored the point: no matter how drastically Shakespeare’s works were reshaped for performance, the full original text was always available; and available in ever more useful scholarly editions.

Yet, the seeming hypocrisy of Garrick’s adaptations – the actor professed to worship Shakespeare, but then actively rewrote the plays – did not pass unnoticed. Theophilus Cibber, Garrick’s rival in the theatrical world, attacked him for desecrating the great national poet. The irony is that Cibber’s attack turned on the very principle that Garrick himself championed: Shakespeare deserved his countrymen’s loyalty. It was a tribute to the success of the actor’s evangelical mission on Shakespeare’s behalf that his loudest critics quietly embraced the values that he urged upon them. When theatre critics today bemoan that a director has failed to respect the integrity of Shakespeare’s text, they demonstrate just how fully they, too, have internalised the values that Garrick first espoused more than two and a half centuries ago. Whether we realise it or not, we are all indebted to this 18th-century actor for the way we think about Shakespeare today.

Richard Schoch is a Professor of Drama at Queen’s University Belfast

Find out about the British Council's Shakespeare Lives programme of events and activities celebrating Shakespeare’s work on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016.

Study Shakespeare in the UK or online through UK institutions.

You might also be interested in: