Colley Cibber

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Colley Cibber (SIHB-ur) is in the unfortunate position of being remembered mainly as the chief target of ridicule in Alexander Pope’s Dunciad—to be immortalized as the King of Dullness is a poor sort of fame. Although Cibber’s name would not have been immortal but for Pope, he was far from being dull. He was, in fact, a remarkable actor, a playhouse manager, and a competent, though unoriginal, playwright who had the misfortune to make the best writers of England his enemies: Cibber suffered not only from the verbal assaults of Pope but also from the wit of Henry Fielding and Samuel Johnson. His Whig politics helped him in his career but also made him a ready butt for the Tory satirists.

Colley Cibber was the eldest son of Caius Gabriel Cibber, a popular Danish sculptor. Born in London on November 6, 1671, he left school at sixteen and in 1688 enlisted with his father in the Devonshire volunteers to support the cause of William of Orange. In 1690, he joined Thomas Betterton as an actor at the Drury Lane Theatre. Not able to find his niche within the company, Cibber wrote the successful Love’s Last Shift to tailor-make the role of Sir Novelty Fashion, an ignorant but essentially good-hearted fop, for his specific talents. This play about a rakish husband who reforms when he finds out how much his wife loves him broke the Restoration tradition of libertine comedy and helped initiate the new taste for sentimental comedy that was to dominate the English stage for almost a century. John Vanbrugh satirized Cibber’s sentimental ending by writing The Relapse (1696), a play that recounts the further affairs of the “reformed” husband. Cibber established his reputation as an actor by playing the role of the fop in both plays.

Although Cibber did not restrict himself to the formula established in Love’s Last Shift, he resorted to it again in his masterpiece, The Careless Husband, praised even by Pope himself. However, much of his later work was imitative. He adapted Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, John Dryden, Molière, William Shakespeare, and Pierre Corneille to suit the taste of his audience. The Non-Juror, for example, was a Whig version of Molière’s Tartuffe (pr. 1664), with the hypocrite now a Roman Catholic priest who incites rebellion; for this political stroke George I awarded him two hundred guineas. Cibber’s extremely popular version of Shakespeare’s Richard III (pr. c. 1592-1593) kept the stage until 1821 and even left its mark on Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film of the classic.

He became one of the managers of the Drury Lane Theatre in 1711 and for political reasons he was made poet laureate in 1730. Even Cibber knew that he was unsuited to be a poet by nature, and his official odes were commonly ridiculed. His famous Apology is a valuable and absorbing account of contemporary English stage history. In 1742, he attained permanent fame when Pope published The New Dunciad and in the fourth book made Cibber the “hero.” Nevertheless, Colley Cibber outlived many of his enemies and detractors and, despite the financial setbacks and reversals that plagued much of his life, he died a wealthy man in London in 1757.

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