Turn the clock back to 1968 and a dull afternoon in school, with my English A-level teacher describing the various characters whom Alexander Pope had attacked with much venom in The Dunciad. In the first version the critic John Dennis and the Shakespeare editor and playwright Lewis Theobald had been the major targets, but in the enlarged revised 1743 edition the Poet Laureate Colley Cibber replaced Theobald as Pope’s “Prince of the Dunces.” Not being a huge fan of Pope, I wondered who Cibber was and why he had attracted such attention from the poet, and learnt that Cibber had published an autobiography in 1740, An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber. Off to Longman’s bookshop in Dorchester I went, to discover that the University of Michigan had just republished the book for the first time in over two hundred years, and I could get a copy from America for the princely sum of 75/- (£3 15s) —about four months’ pocket money. So I ordered it, took delivery about six weeks later, and have been fascinated by Cibber ever since.
Colley Cibber was the son of the sculptor Caius Cibber, now perhaps best known for the figures of Melancholy and Madness that used to adorn the facade of the Bethlem hospital for the mentally ill and are now housed in the Bethlem Museum of the Mind. He had a fairly conventional upbringing, as detailed in his autobiography. Before examining this work in some detail, it should be noted that it was the first autobiography which sought to not only describe a life, but also to reveal the nature of the character behind it. While it can be argued that Cibber perhaps tries a little too hard to portray himself as a genial man with few faults other than an acute desire to please his audience, the book also offers a unique insight into the contemporary world of the theatre.
Cibber’s theatrical career began when he joined the Drury Lane Company in 1690. Within a few years he had risen to become one of their leading comic actors, playing such roles as Bayes in The Rehearsal and Lord Foppington in The Relapse. In 1696 he wrote and performed in his first play Love’s Last Shift. The plot is fairly inconsequential. The long-suffering wife of a seemingly debauched rake devises a plan to return him to their comfortable married life by playing the part of a prostitute and, unrecognised, seducing her husband. The following day she reveals her true identity and the interesting fact that she has inherited a sum of £2000 a year, whereupon they are reconciled and he admits his errors.
However, Cibber genuinely revolutionises the genre in the way that he first presents the moral dilemma of the rake and his abandoned wife, and then allows the characters to resolve it in such a manner that they all display virtuous characteristics— even the libertine is called ‘honest’ at one point. Restoration comedy had delighted in exposing the vicious social interactions of the upper classes and gave them few redeeming qualities, while Cibber, by contrast, humanises his antihero and gives him a second chance at living morally. Despite the obvious criticisms that can be made of its weak characterisations and seemingly implausible plot, the play proved hugely popular. Alongside its slightly better follow-up The Careless Husband (1704), it was often revived, to great success. Cibber went on to write several more plays of variable quality and adapted others for the stage, including Shakespeare’s Richard III. In his version he emphasised Richard’s uncompromising nature as the conscienceless murderer of his nephews and others on the path to the throne. Olivier appears to have been inspired by this version of the play when he made his popular film version of Richard III in 1955, which even includes the Cibber line “Off with his head - so much for Buckingham.” An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber first appeared in 1740, and ran to four editions within the first year. It is very much a picture of the man, amusing, periodically frustrating, and on occasion downright infuriating. Always the actor, throughout the book Cibber plays several parts, most of which —like the rake in Love’s Last Shift— he performs with a good heart even in the most difficult circumstances. His account of his time as theatre manager at Drury Lane is full of intrigues and quarrels, a fascinating version of a complex interaction of strong characters and political interference. At one point Cibber was even arrested and forbidden to perform when he ran afoul of the Lord Chamberlain, the Duke of Newcastle. This argument stemmed from performances of his play The Non-Juror (1718), which in turn had implications for Cibber’s ongoing dispute with the poet Alexander Pope. Although Cibber has little to say in the Apology regarding the staging of The Non-Juror and the events that it set in train, the episode is worth looking at in some detail, for in many ways it would have a profound effect on Cibber and the way that the public viewed him.
The beginnings of the dispute with Pope can be traced back to January 1716 when Cibber appeared as the character Plotwell, in a farce by John Gay entitled Three Hours After Marriage. Pope and his friend Dr John Arbuthnot had both assisted Gay, but despite their input the play was not a success, and was withdrawn after seven performances. This may have annoyed Pope but the situation escalated when, the following month, in a Royal Command revival of The Rehearsal, Cibber ad-libbed a few jokes about the earlier play. Pope was at the performance and at the end went backstage, screamed abuse at Cibber, and said that he would get Gay to cane him if he repeated the jokes the next night. Cibber calmly stated that he would use the jokes in every performance and the following night, as expected, Gay went backstage with a cane, but before he could deliver any blows Cibber gave him a preemptive “fillip on the nose” and the skirmish was broken up before any further damage was done.
In December 1717 Cibber appeared in a new offering, The Non-Juror. For the first and only time, Cibber not only rewrote an existing play --Tartuffe by Molière— but he also turned it into a piece of anti-Jacobite propaganda. This was highly topical and guaranteed to make implacable enemies, one of whom was Pope, now firmly on the anti-government side of the Tories. The play was popular with audiences since it caught the prevailing political mood, but it provoked furious damnation in the press, with criticism of its supposed plagiarism and obscenity.
In 1730 Cibber was appointed Poet Laureate. This was a prestigious honour, and the choice was hotly debated in coffee houses and political pamphlets. As a Whig supporter he had the backing of influential members of the government, who put forward his name despite the fact that his poetry was generally poor (not to say dreadful). Pope would have been the obvious choice, but he was barred because of his Catholic faith and his firm Tory opposition to Walpole and his government. As Laureate, Cibber was required to produce odes and poems to celebrate various events, and most agree that they are now generally unreadable. However, his appointment did give his enemies, including Pope and Henry Fielding, more ammunition to use against him.
And then came the Apology. There had never been anything like it before: a well-known actor and theatre manager, a married man with six surviving children, writing about his own life in an informal style, admitting to mistakes and human failings but remaining sympathetic through his genial outlook and a keen awareness of his audience’s likes and dislikes. Much of the book is taken up with the detail of the day-to-day management of the Drury Lane theatre and the arguments between the various managers and actors. Cibber is at his best when describing the performing styles of actors such as Betterton or Mrs Barry, who would be merely names for students of theatre history without Cibber’s accounts of what made them special. Here, for example, is how he describes Betterton playing the Ghost scene in Hamlet:
“This was the Light into which Betterton threw this screen; which he open’d with a Pause of mute Amazement! then rising slowly, to a solemn trembling voice, he made the Ghost equally terrible to the Spectator as to himself!”
However, one small part of this entertaining memoir reignited the festering dispute with Pope. This is how Cibber explained to his readers why Pope was so keen to satirise him in his poetry: “When I therefore find my Name at length, I never look upon those lines as Malice meant to me, (for he knows I never provoked it) but Profit to himself: One of his points must be, to have many Readers……”
Colley continues to argue that, as he is so well-known, any satirical swipe at him is certain to attract more attention. The assertion is easy to make, but does not really convince. For Pope and his circle, Cibber represented a figure of the Establishment, the unworthy Poet Laureate who wrote appalling poetry and plagiarised the works of others in his plays, and who had denied better writers their opportunies in the theatre with his control of Drury Lane as manager. His treatment of Pope in the Apology infuriated the latter to such an extent that he re-wrote his epic satire The Dunciad and placed Cibber in the centre, as Prince of Dunces, republishing the poem in March 1742. Cibber had already been stung by Pope in 1735 by a line in his Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot in which Pope wrote: “And has not Colley too his Lord and his Whore?”
Cibber had finally had enough, and in July 1743, he published his Letter from Mr Cibber to Mr Pope. Unlike his previous responses, this was not cloaked in amiable humour: the gloves were off. He presents well-argued justifications for his work, refutes the charges of plagiarism, and reminds the readers of his long and successful career as an actor and playwright. Cibber makes the valid argument that a man’s work should be judged on its own merits, and not merely by the opinion of others. However, most tellingly, and perhaps as a final blow, Cibber recounts an evening that he spent with Pope and Addison’s stepson, Lord Warwick, many years before. Their visit to a brothel is the context for a cruel anecdote about Pope’s physical condition. This was intended to hit Pope hard, and it did: it should be remembered that the poet had suffered years of ill health. At the age of twelve he had contracted Pott’s disease, a form of tuberculosis that stunted his growth (he only reached four feet six inches), bent his spine, and left him with breathing problems and severe stomach cramps. Pope was acutely aware of his physical deformities, and Cibber had hit upon his Achilles’ heel. There were many references to this anecdote in pamphlets and newspapers, but by now Pope’s health was deteriorating further, and he did not respond. Cibber published a third letter shortly after, in which he said that he would write no more on the subject. He kept his word. However, it is worth noting that shortly before the third letter was published, he was begged by the Drury Lane manager to appear on the stage for the last time. Cibber agreed and played Fondlewife in The Old Batchelor for three nights, to a full house and much applause. Despite the attacks from Pope, his theatrical audience remained loyal and appreciative.
However, the portrait of Cibber in The Dunciad is the one that has remained. When students look for references to Cibber, it is one of the first sources to which they are guided: the barbs that Pope so eloquently constructed have stuck. Perhaps because Pope was a great poet, with the talent to manipulate words into patterns that we can admire and appreciate for their skill, we can be blinded to the malice and unkindness that his poetry contains. Certainly Cibber’s reputation has remained tarnished by Pope’s powerful portrayal of his Prince of Dunces.
Cibber died at the age of eighty-seven in 1757. In his old age he played the theatre’s elder statesman. He was often seen in coffee houses and in his club White’s, where some members made a wager as to who would die first: Beau Nash or Cibber. Nash outlived him but the members who made the wager, ironically, both died before Cibber himself. Now his name is barely recognised, and usually only with reference to The Dunciad. Like me years ago, English students who study Pope will learn of the faults and failings of the actor whom Pope so vehemently and successfully attacked in the poem, without being aware of the other side of the story.
Cibber was an actor to his very core. He knew the theatre and how it worked, and was a successful manager because he was able to balance the actors’ ambitions with the theatre’s commercial demands. He filled the seats by putting on plays that people wanted to see, and established the new and highly popular genre of sentimental comedy, a genre which still amuses and entertains today.
Without film, the actor’s art cannot be recorded. He creates an agreed illusion with the audience but once the play ends it is gone, and cannot be recovered: it can only be repeated again with a different audience. So it is with Cibber. His plays are rarely staged, and his poetry is justly forgotten. He remains a name from a distant past who once invented for himself a role that he could play onstage and in real life. He does not need an apology for his achievements in either.--Paul Flux