David Garrick: Britain's Greatest Actor
David Garrick’s contemporaries felt it would be vanity to describe his acting - David Garrick: Britain's Greatest Actor introduction. David Garrick was considered to be the most influential and skilled actor of his time. Garrick is credited with revolutionizing the portrayal of character. His concept of experiencing the feelings of the character, is a concept that helped lead 18th-century theatre into a new naturalistic era. It was an approach to acting that was directly at odds with the theatrical philosophy prior to Garrick’s inception.
Garrick’s innovative style known as naturalism, led the extremely popular and successful actor James Quin to remark “If this [method of Garrick’s] is right, then we are all wrong”. The style that was so admired and later copied by Garrick’s peers was a combination of naturalism, classical representation of the passions, and exaggerated physicality. Garrick was not the originator of naturalism, that distinction is Charles Macklin’s, although he is credited with its success.
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Pure naturalism can be characterized by Macklin’s instruction of his players to ignore the cadence of tragedy, but simply speak the passage as you would in common life and with more emotional force. The term used to describe this new style of speech is called broken tones of utterance. It is a method of speech which concentrates more on the emotion in a verse rather than its meter. David Garrick was a opportunistic actor who borrowed from many different acting techniques.
Garrick’s naturalism was concerned more with the feeling of true emotion, the uniqueness of character, combined with the physical representation of the passions. Representation of the passions was an accepted artistic convention for expressing emotion. Le Brun, a late 17th-century century artist , wrote a “grammar” of the passions from Descartes earlier work. In doing so he gives a formal explanation of the 17th and eventually 18th-century representation of emotion. Le Brun’s manual explains that Contempt is expressed by the eyebrows knit and lowering towards the nose, and at the other end very much elevate; the eye very open, and the pupil in the middle; the nostrils drawing upwards; the mouth shut, and the corners somewhat down, and the upper lip thrust out farther than the upper one. Le Brun’s descriptions along with many suggestions of mannerisms which should accompany them were reprinted in the acting manuals of the time. (Stone and Kahrl 28). Garrick was well aware of these manuals and incorporated them into his new style of acting .
It was Garrick’s use of exaggeration when portraying a passion that led many of his peers to label him England’s greatest actor. The thing that set Garrick apart is that he practiced the “sympathetic” technique of acting that can be attributed to the writer Thomas Heywood. The “sympathetic” technique stated that the use of the descriptions of the passions should be varied according to the individual being portrayed. Quin’s older school of acting made little distinction between a Brutus, a Hamlet, or a Richard III.
All of these characters would be portrayed using the universal motions and thus expressing the characters in much the same manner. One of Garrick’s peers wrote of his versatility saying “The thing that strikes me above all others is the variety in your acting, and your being so totally a different man in Lear, from what you are in Richard?” (Cole and Chinoy 132). It was Garrick’s use of exaggerated characterization to individualize a character which made him famous. Garrick’s lively and very physical portrayal of character was noted by many of the great actors of the day.
Richard Chamberlin wrote in his memoirs of the time when Garrick met Quin in Rowe’s The Fair Penitent (1746): But when, after long and eager expectations, I beheld little Garrick, young and light, and alive in every muscle and feature, come bounding on the stage, and pointing at the wittol Altamont (Lacy Ryan) and the heavy-paced Horatio (Quin) – Heavens, what a transition! It seemed as if a whole century had! Been stepped over in the transition of a single scene (Stone and Kahrl 29). In fact Garrick’s physical portrayal of comedic or fop characters was so lively, that later in his career he was challenged by unfounded accusations f homosexuality. He was said to be too effeminate in many of his roles, especially as a cross-dressing John Brute in The Provoked Wife. To save his dignity Garrick began to shy away from characters that had blatantly feminine characteristics (Straub 55). A few individuals, a great minority, have had a direct, concrete and powerful impact on history. Whether the revolutions they generated were political, scientific, artistic or in any other domain, people have followed them, been inspired by them, or sometimes on the contrary, completely condemned them.
Though when these people’s influence was artistic, their art was rarely seen as negative. Musicians, painters, writers, actors have inspired generation after generation, some more than others. Homer, Dante, Mozart, to name only three, in their own way and in their domain, provoked a turning point. When it comes to literature, Shakespeare is one of them. Many authors have found endless resources in his work, as has David Garrick. He was an admirer of Shakespeare’s and wanted to revive his art. To do so, he adapted many of his plays at a time when mentalities, moeurs and tastes in theater were changing.
Garrick adapted his versions of Romeo and Juliet to correspond to the audience of the day who were heavily impacted by the social changes in progress at the time: “One of his artistic challenges was to fit his plays to the mid-century stage and so act in them as to persuade his audience of their greatness”. It had been about twenty years that politics had not evolved, though Europe was in movement, Garrick felt the freedom that was being established, and knew it was welcome on stage (Winchester, p. 198). The eighteenth century was a century of change.
A little earlier, there had been the two civil wars from 1642 to 1649, the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Exclusion Crisis from 1678 to 1682, the 1688 Glorious Revolution, the contentious religious relations followed by a loss of interest in religion during the first half of the eighteenth century, the expansion of Great Britain’s empire, the scientific revolution, the Agricultural… Garrick was not famous for having a strong voice. His oral recitation was adequate, but not outstanding. John Hill in his essay “Understanding,
Sensibility, and Fire” writes We remember the time when Mr. Garrick?[ran] himself so out of voice in some of the first scenes in the character of Pierre in Venice Preserved, that he could not be heard afterwards to that great scene in which he reproaches the senate. And when in Richard III he cried out to Richmond, ?Richard is hoarse with calling the to battle,’ the audience was so sensible of the truth of the expression, that they could scarce distinguish the sounds that conveyed it to them (Cole and Chinoly 130).
At the end of the London season, Garrick, along with Peg Woffington, traveled to Dublin for the summer season at the Theatre Royal, Smock Lane. While in Dublin, Garrick added two new roles to his repertoire: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Abel Drugger in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist and Captain Plume in Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer.  Some of his success could be attributed to one of his earliest fans, John Boyle, 5th Earl of Cork, who wrote letters to many noblemen and gentlemen recommending Garrick’s acting.
His writings led Garrick to exclaim that it must have been the reason he was “more caressed” in Dublin. Five years after joining the acting company at Drury Lane, Garrick again travelled to Dublin for a season where he managed and directed at the Smock Alley Theatre in conjunction with Thomas Sheridan, the father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. After his return to London, he spent some time acting at Covent Garden under John Rich while a farce of his, Miss in Her Teens, was also produced there.
With the end of the 1746-1747 season, Fleetwoods’ patent on Drury Lane expired in partnership with James Lacy, Garrick took over the theatre in April 1747. The theatre had been in a decline for some years, but the partnership of Garrick and Lacy led to success and accolades. The first performance under Garrick and Lacy’s management 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 the patrons that “The drama’s law the drama’s patrons give, for we that live to please must please to live. Certainly this statement could be regarded as succinctly summing up Garrick’s management at Drury Lane where he was able to balance both artistic integrity and the fickle tastes of the public. In September 1769 Garrick staged the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was a major focal point in the emerging movement that helped cement Shakespeare as England’s national poet. It involved a number of events held in the town to celebrate (five years too late) two hundred years since Shakespeare’s birth. No Shakespeare plays were performed during the Jubilee, and heavy rain forced a Shakespeare Pageant to be called off.
The Pageant was first staged a month later at Drury Lane Theatre under the title The Jubilee and proved successful enjoying ninety performances. The song Soft Flowing Avon was composed by Thomas Arne, with lyrics by Garrick, for the Jubilee. Garrick would manage the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane until his retirement from management in 1776. In his last years he continued to add roles to his repertoire; Posthumous in Cymbeline was among his last famous roles. He died less than three years later, at his house in Adelphi Buildings, London and was interred in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Mrs.
Garrick survived her husband by 43 years. Shortly before his death he worked on the production of The Camp with Sheridan at Drury Lane and caught a very bad cold. The Camp was based around the British response to a threatened invasion by France, leading some to jokingly claim that Garrick was the only casualty of the ultimately abandoned invasion. It is in the tonal quality of the voice that Garrick excelled. His use of broken tones of utterance was an innovation to the theatre world of the 18th-century (Burnim 45). Garrick was often accused by his peers that he had very little understanding of stress and how to use it (Burnim 78).
It could have been that it was the excellence of his physicality that drew attention away from his improper use of stress. Garrick’s vocal style was concerned with the characterization rather than the recitation. Garrick was considered to be the greatest actor of his time largely in part to his ability to individualize the characters he played by combining the philosophies of 17th-century theatre with the innovative method of naturalism. He brought a physicality and characterization to the stage which was unparalleled by any other actor of the day.
His exaggerated physical portrayal of character was never overdone and always motivated. Perhaps Garrick’s most unique innovation was the use of broken tones of utterance to bring a more honest portrayal of character to the stage. A modern day equivalent of Garrick would need the characterization of an Al Pacino combined with the exaggerated physicality of a Jim Carrey. Garrick’s acting style can be characterized by his versatility, quality of characterization, exaggerated physicality, and the use of broken tones of utterance.