Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hiss’d off ye English Stage

David Garrick, probably the most important English actor and drama producer of the 18th century, died 220 years ago today. He also penned plays; and for one journey only, it seems, kept a diary. That journey was to Paris, and Garrick pulls no punches in lambasting almost every theatrical entertainment he finds there.

Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica (online 1911 edition) have detailed biographies for Garrick. Born in 1717 to a family with French Huguenot heritage, he grew up in Lichfield (about 15 miles north of Birmingham). Aged 20, he moved to London and set up a wine business with his older brother. Before long, though, he became obsessed with the theatre. In 1740, his first play - Lethe: or Aesop in the Shade - was produced at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The following year saw him take the stage as a professional actor, in particular performing Richard III in London to great acclaim.

Garrick soon became a very successful actor, particularly renowned for interpreting Shakespeare. In parallel, he started managing shows in London and Dublin. He also continued to write plays, including the farces Miss in Her Teens (early in his career) and Bon Ton (much later). In 1747, he bought a half share in the Drury Lane Theatre, which he then ran for 30 years until his retirement in 1776.

After a series of affairs, Garrick married a German dancer, Eva Marie Veigel, in 1749. She would live to be nearly a 100, thus surviving Garrick, who died on 20 January 1779, by four decades. Two years after the marriage, they travelled to Paris together; and, during their stay, Garrick kept a diary - not something, it seems, he’d done before or would do again.

In 1928, the diary manuscript was edited by Ryllis Clair Alexander and published by Oxford University Press as The Diary of David Garrick: Being a Record of His Memorable Trip to Paris in 1751. In his introduction, Alexander says the original is ‘a little note-book . . . bound in red morocco with gold-tooled edges’. Much of the book is viewable on Googlebooks. Here are four extracts, all of them showing Garrick very unimpressed by the entertainment on show in the French capital.

Friday 24 May
‘We went to ye Comedie Francaise dans les premiere Loges. The play was Molier’s L’Ecole des Maris, very ill acted but as a new Tragedy call’d Zares was acted for ye first time the night before, & by ye best actors, we saw none but ye inferior ones in this Play - the petite Piece was Le Magnifique (by La Motte as they told me) taken from La Fontaine, an indifferent farce, & worse acted.’

Saturday 25 May
‘I left my name at ye Ambassador’s (Lord Albemarle) & call’d upon M. Boyle we went this Evening to the Comedie Italliene & saw Marivaux’s fausse Suivante with an Entertainment of Dancing call’d Le May, the first was acted much better than L’Ecole des Maris but ye Dancing which was great Success & much approv’d of, would have been hiss’d off ye English Stage -’

Sunday 26 May
‘I waited upon Lady Sandwich, was very politely receiv’d by her Lady; she is a woman of great vivacity (tho very old) & of great parts; & tho much us’d to ye french and their customs, know all their foibles, & retains ye sentiments of an English woman . . . We went this Evening to ye Opera; a very raw Entertainment to me; ye scenes were well conducted & had a good Effect ye habits seemingly rich, the singers and dancer very numerous; but yet singing abominable to me, & the dancing very indifferent.’

Tuesday 4 June
‘So Hot I did not stir out all ye morning, Saw Devisse from London, din’d with Sir John Lambert & went to ye Comedie Italienne with Mr Mildmay belonging to the Embassy - there was nothing sure Ever so despicable & contemptible as Arlequin Scanderbeque. We did not, nor could not stay it out.’

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