Last night's performance was a riot

By Steve Grant
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Garrick by Ian McIntyre (Allen Lane £25)

Garrick by Ian McIntyre (Allen Lane £25)

There is an eternal problem with the performing arts, particularly those belonging to an age before recorded sound, film and video, or even widespread and accountable criticism. No surprise that in Ian McIntyre's massive and exhaustive (and exhausting) biography of the 18th century's greatest actor David Garrick, that the first quote he selects, from 1740's An Apology For the Life of Colly Cibber, is thus: "Oh what a pity it is that the strong and beautiful strokes of a great actor should not be as lasting as the strokes of the pencil or the chisel of inferior artists."

These days, Garrick's genius as an actor, and he was much more than that, is perceived through a glass very darkly: his life was surrounded by famous men, politicians, painters like Gainsborough and Hogarth who both painted him, by musicians like Handel and Thomas Arne, and of course by playwrights like Goldsmith, and Sheridan who succeeded him at Drury Lane and, unlike his thrifty predecessor, fiddled the books to maintain a prodigal lifestyle. Samuel Johnson was a famous friend; both hailed from Lichfield in Staffordshire. Johnson briefly taught young Davy and remained close to him. But even Johnson, in conversation with the mischievous James Boswell, averred that a man who claps a hump on his back and a lump on his leg and declaims "I am Richard III" demonstrates less skill than a ballad singer "who at least recites and sings".

This was in 1778, only two years before Garrick's painful death after a long battle against urinary and bladder disease. By then, the theatre had come a long way from the time that Garrick entered it, aged 24, trailing clouds of glory in Cibber's version of Richard III, styling himself an anonymous gentleman and causing one reviewer to describe it as "extraordinary and great". This was in 1741 at Goodman's Fields, and Garrick was a prodigy, almost untutored, obsessed by the theatre and determined to make it his life, despite the fears he had of outraging his family, a mix of French Huguenot military and Anglo-Irish clerical stock. There was some point to the fear: Puritan opposition to the London theatre still prevailed, and even in 1757 one anonymous scribbler declared that play actors "are the most profligate wretches, and the vilest vermine [sic] that hell ever vomited out".

These "debauchees of men's minds and morals" included the likes of James Quin and James Macklin, two of Garrick's most intriguing contemporaries - far more intriguing than he in all honesty - who both stood trial for murder. Actresses were considered, and often were, little better than whores. Theatres were as much like football grounds as places of refined entertainment: thugs often disrupted performances, fights broke out, particularly over material of a political persuasion involving the Irish or French questions, and another Sheridan, Thomas, an actor-manager, saw his wife go into premature labour following riots which lasted six hours over James Miller's tragedy Mahomet. The play struck too many chords at a time of Protestant nationalist opposition to English control of Ireland. Sheridan's baby died two months later of convulsions. In 1755 Garrick's theatre took to the press to seek out the identity of "who it was that flung a hard piece of cheese, of near half a pound weight, from one of the galleries last Tuesday night and greatly hurt a young lady in the pit".

The theatre in Garrick's age was different from today as the hustings were from our stage-managed party conferences. It was obviously brutish and chaotic and venal in the extreme, but it is also, under McIntyre's witty and scholarly eye, an immensely exciting experience, one in which the theatre really has a beating heart, a bearpit in which the passions of the period could be fought over. What if only Sheridan and Goldsmith stood the test of time; what if so many of Garrick's productions like Miss In Her Teens and The Choleric Man have all but disappeared without trace. McIntyre gives us Vanity Fair, peopled by lost giants like Peg Woffington, beautiful but cursed with a squeaky voice, the loathsome Theophilus Cibber, hated even by his own father and who fought a duel with Quin, and the wretched Isaac Bickerstaff whose encampment to Ireland after being accused of the capital crime of sodomy caused Garrick one of two serious career discomfitures. Garrick was accused of defending the homosexual writer; there were other brickbats over a suspected illegitimate son, and calumnies over his French roots when he invited some Gallic performers to Drury Lane at the height of Anglo-French tensions. But largely Garrick's life was one of success and productivity, a happy if childless marriage to the Austrian actress Violette, and a contented disposition sometimes clouded by harsh criticism of his acting, notably of his strutting and sometimes affected dying scenes, his lack of physical stature, his vanity; and by the demands of some of his more tired and emotional actresses.

Undoubtedly Garrick was the greatest actor of the greatest age since the Renaissance: one which saw Britain shake off Jacobites, French and Spanish to become an immense and confident world imperial power. Equally sound in comedy and tragedy, he radically altered the style of our acting, substituting freedom of movement and natural delivery for the wooden pomposity of his predecessors. His King Lear so affected Joshua Reynolds that he was three days recovering, but one of his most cherished comic creations was the hitherto unremarked part of the dullard Abel Drugger in Jonson's The Alchemist, and he considered the part of a spear-carrier to be as important as that of a king. As a writer he produced with George Colman one of the best comedies of the century, The Clandestine Marriage, dozens of adaptations and prologues and epilogues and the rousing words to the anthem, "Hearts of Oak". As an actor-impresario he predated Olivier by centuries, and as a stage craftsman he revolutionised set design in 1756 by introducing stage lighting concealed from the audience and removing the spectators from the stage - except while rioting. By the time he retired in 1776 actresses like Peg Woffington, Kitty Clive and Mrs Cibber had reversed the prejudice of the Elizabethan age by playing male parts. And as McIntyre points out, despite Garrick's various emendations and cuts, most done for practical reasons in a period of tender sentiments, Garrick also transformed the British appreciation of Shakespeare, increasing the repertory from some half dozen in the age of the Civil Wars to almost two dozen plays by the end of his career, which had also seen the collected editions of Pope and Johnson, and Garrick's own rain-ruined Stratford Jubilee on which he lost heavily but which he typically recouped when it was restaged in London.

Luckily for McIntyre, Garrick was a prolific letter writer, a touchy man and one of immense generosity and tenderness. This is a book which does great service to a significant but sometimes neglected figure, the first major Garrick biography in more than 40 years and one which is unlikely to be bettered.