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How David Garrick, theatre’s first star, brought respectability to the stage

David Garrick painted by Gainsborough David Garrick painted by Gainsborough. Photo: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group
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David Garrick helped define modern theatre. Nick Smurthwaite reviews Norman S Poser’s new study of the theatrical star, who brought naturalism to the stage and respectability and celebrity to the acting profession

Celebrity culture back in the 18th century was a lot more rarefied than it is today, and a handful of stars of the London stage were not so much celebrated as idolised. None more so than David Garrick (1717-79), the Laurence Olivier of his day. He was not only considered the greatest classical actor of his generation, but also a passable playwright and an exemplary custodian of London’s famous Drury Lane Theatre, which he ran for nearly 30 years.

A new book about Garrick and the Georgian stage, The Birth of Modern Theatre by Norman S Poser, argues that Garrick was the first great theatrical star who brought a new kind of naturalism to the classical stage and gave the profession a status and respectability it had previously lacked.

“Garrick has made a player a higher man,” his lifelong friend and mentor Samuel Johnson said of the diminutive star. “He lives rather as a prince than an actor.”

Garrick was clearly an astute businessman and impresario as well as a great actor. He made many innovations at the 1,000-seat Drury Lane – oil lamps instead of candles to light the auditorium and lanterns illuminating the stage, a distinguished set designer imported from France, historical costumes for Shakespeare plays rather than the fashions of the day – and built himself an imposing riverside mansion in Hampton where he entertained the great and the good of London society.

He was also, according to Poser, an assiduous networker who knew how to schmooze the right people. As the author writes: “He was an easy conversationalist and his influential friends included Edmund Burke, Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, Laurence Sterne, Robert Adam, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, both of whom painted his portrait.”

In 1773, Garrick was admitted to the exclusive Literary Club, consisting mostly of the country’s top writers and thinkers. They dined together once a week and, according to Poser, “engaged in boisterous fun as well as serious discussion”. There’s no doubt that the actor’s “salacious sense of humour” was deployed liberally throughout such evenings.

Garrick as Richard III

Though he was ordinary-looking and happily married to an elegant Viennese woman, Eva Veigel, Garrick’s charm and energy made him irresistible to many women, including the greatest actress of the time, Peg Woffington, with whom he lived for a short while before he married. The alluring Woffington specialised in cross-dressing roles, as was fashionable at the time, such as Viola in Twelfth Night and Rosalind in As You Like It. One of her admirers wrote at the time, that she “was sensible, witty and full of vivacity; her countenance was beautiful and expressive, her form elegant”.

Although their romantic association was short-lived, their professional partnership endured, notably with Woffington playing Cordelia to Garrick’s Lear, Ophelia to his Hamlet and Lady Anne to his Richard III. Poser speculates that she would have liked to have married Garrick but, for whatever reason, he never asked her.

Peg Woffington painted by Arthur Pond
Peg Woffington painted by Arthur Pond

Poser’s book vividly evokes the sense of occasion felt by Londoners visiting one of the patent theatres – Drury Lane or Covent Garden – in the mid-18th century. Each class had its own designated section of the theatre: the upper gallery for the working class, middle gallery for the middle class, while the upper boxes, nicknamed “the flesh market”, were unofficially for high-class prostitutes in search of business. The lower boxes were for the gentry, and the pit – equivalent to the stalls – was generally patronised by professionals such as lawyers, physicians, journalists and self-styled theatre critics who were not above interrupting the performance to voice their opinions.

After the show, the denizens of the pit often huddled together in the theatre lobby or in neighbouring coffee houses to pass judgement on the play.

When Garrick took over the running of Drury Lane in 1747, he tried to ban young gentlemen, often drunk, from sitting on the stage – one of the stranger theatrical customs of the time – on the basis that they interfered with the performance and distracted the audience. It would take him another 15 years, however, to finally succeed in clearing the stage of these unwanted onlookers.

Garrick set himself high standards and he expected the same from those he employed. If actors or technicians didn’t pull their weight he let them go. There was a lot of jockeying for position among the favoured actors of the day, and Garrick was loyal to his chosen ones. After the death of Hannah Pritchard in 1768 – said to be his favourite leading lady – he never played Macbeth again in honour of their many acclaimed performances in that play.

Another favourite, Kitty Clive, provided an insight into Garrick’s behaviour in the rehearsal room in a letter to the actor, quoted by Poser: “I have seen you [behaving] with lamb-like patience, endeavouring to make them [the actors] comprehend you. I have also seen your lamb turned into a lion. By this great labour and pains the public was entertained; they thought they all acted very fine. They did not see you pull the wires.”

The Birth of Modern Theatre: Rivalry, Riots, and Romance in the Age of Garrick by Norman S Poser is published by Routledge on November 15

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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