An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, Comedian Critical Essays

Colley Cibber


(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

To read Colley Cibber’s APOLOGY is to recapture intimate views of London theatrical, social, and literary life during the last decade of the seventeenth and the first quarter of the following century, as observed by a successful actor and theatrical manager, a playwright of sorts, and a man of shrewd insight into his own foibles and those of his fellows.

Published ten years after his retirement from the stage (1730) and his acceptance of the poet laureateship, this autobiography is a frank and engaging account of his childhood experiences as the son of a well-known sculptor, his schoolboy activities, his early days as a stage-struck youth, his long career in the theater, and his candid and unprejudiced observations of people and events. For this is an apology, not in the sense of an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, mistake, or regrettable circumstance, but as an explanation of the life of a man who was regularly and closely connected with the theater; who knew and talked with many of the most influential people of his day; who was acquainted with political actions, backstage gossip, and the infinite variety of public life and private in his time. Cibber was attempting, as he expressed it in the first chapter, to present “as true a picture of myself as natural vanity will permit me to draw,” since “a man who has pass’d above forty years of his life upon a theatre, where he has never appear’d to be himself, may have naturally excited the curiosity of his spectators to know what he really was, when in no body’s shape but his own. . . .” He also proposed to include “the theatrical history of my own time, from my first appearance on the stage to my last exit.”

Following a simple chronological pattern of development, Cibber devotes the first three chapters of his autobiography to matters of his parents and family. His father had emigrated from Holstein many years before the Restoration in 1660; his mother was a member of the Colley family, formerly of some prominence in Rutlandshire. His education was regrettably limited to a few years in a free school. Early in life, he says he was possessed of a “giddy negligence,” an inconsistency of character, and these qualities persisted, he admits, frequently to his own embarrassment. But Cibber notes that Pope’s selection of him as the heir to the throne of folly in THE DUNCIAD was done not so much to satirize Cibber as it was to give publicity to the poem, for an attack on the laureate was likely to gain increased sales for any publication. Thus, with remarkable good nature, Cibber transforms Pope’s malicious defamation into a device for “profit to himself.” This was both a successful and extraordinary outcome for any controversy with Alexander Pope, “the wasp of Twickenham.”

Cibber’s attempts to gain entrance to Winchester proving fruitless, he next tried the life of a trooper in the Revolution of 1688. His father sought preferment for his lively and mercurial son in various ways, but by 1690, Cibber succumbed to the “allurements of a theatre,” and so his long stage career began.

In the remaining portion of the book, chapters IV through XVI, Cibber intermingles autobiographical details and anecdotes with factual accounts of...

(The entire section is 1334 words.)