An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber

November 6 was the natal day of Colley Cibber (1671-1757), Poet Laureate of England, playwright, and one of the first of the long chain of actor-managers that would subsequently include David Garrick, Henry Irving, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

Lovers of English theatre history know the name well for he was a major figure therein, having led the important Theatre Royal, Drury Lane from 1710 to 1733. The son of a sculptor, Cibber took to the stage circa 1690. During the late Restoration era, he was known for playing fops in comedies. The portrait above depicts him as Lord Foppington in Vanbrugh’s The Relapse. (He is shown taking a pinch of snuff, of course. “Okay” was not yet a thing.) Love’s Last Shift (1796) was the first of his two dozen plays. The Careless Husband (1704) is considered the best. Significantly, his best known literary work for the stage was his reworking of Shakespeare’s Richard III (1699), which was commonly produced for 150 years, and was even drawn upon for Olivier’s 1955 film version.

It is telling that Cibber had an affinity for Richard. Like the Crookbacked King, Cibber was known primarily as a political schemer and striver who attained all of his distinction through stratagems rather than merit. As an actor-manager, his gifts tended toward the latter rather than the former half of the job description. His performances were widely ridiculed, but once he had control of the Drury Lane company he was able to cast himself in whatever leading roles he pleased. Likewise, most of his plays and poems have never been held in high esteem. He is associated with the decline in British drama that followed the Restoration period. Like his friend Samuel Richardson, Cibber was also associated with the style known as “sentimental comedy”. Cibber’s laureateship was and is acknowledged to have been a sinecure in exchange for his support for the Whig Party. His first patron had been the Duke of Devonshire, one of the architects of the Glorious Revolution. Tory scribes like Swift, Pope and Johnson were his harshest critics, as was Fielding, who was a Whig, but of a different faction. Pope has the distinction of taking it the farthest by making Cibber the focus of much satirical ridicule in The Dunciad.

In 1740, he wrote his memoir, the amusingly titled An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber. (Then, as now, the word “apology” does not necessarily imply a submissive placation to atone for faults. It can simply mean an explanation or an argument. But it is seldom used that way nowadays, so now it sounds somewhat pathetic in light of his career of petty dealing). Cibber was 86 at the time of his passing, quite an advanced age in the 18th century.

His son Theophilus Cibber (1703-1758) also acted at Drury Lane and had a hand in its management, though he was regarded with much the same scorn as his father, with the added drawback of a reputation for rakish habits. He scarcely outlived pater, merely by a few months. He was lost during a storm at sea, when crossing to take a post at the Smock’s Alley Theatre in Dublin.