Colley Cibber Cibber, Colley - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Colley Cibber 1671-1757

English playwright, poet, essayist, and autobiographer.

A successful actor, playwright, and theater manager, Cibber was an important figure in the theatrical world of eighteenth-century London. His portrayals of overweening, overdressed fops delighted theatergoers, and his comedies perfectly captured the tone of the times, injecting a sentimental morality into farces sparkling with double entendres and romantic intrigue. Cibber is now known at least as much for his role in a sometimes brutal war of words with Alexander Pope as for his acknowledged abilities as a comic actor and playwright. Named Poet Laureate in 1730, he was ridiculed and satirized by Pope and others for his mediocre verse and his unfortunate attempts at tragedy. Cibber nonetheless excelled at satisfying the crowd both onstage and off. From his highly successful first play to his popular autobiography, Cibber fashioned himself as a spectacle some would love, some would hate, but none could ignore.

Biographical Information

Cibber was born in London on November 6, 1671, to Jane Colley and the sculptor Caius Cibber. His early years offered little hope that he would distinguish himself in letters or public service. In 1682 he went to the free school at Grantham, Lincolnshire, but he was unable to obtain admission to Winchester College, where his father had hoped he would study for a career in the church. In his An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber (1740), Cibber suggested that the failure was in part a relief, as he already had developed hopes of a career as an actor. After spending a few months in London, he went to Chatsworth to see his father, who was working at the Earl of Devonshire's estate. Shortly thereafter, war broke out, as James II virtually abdicated the throne and William of Orange came to claim it in what became known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Cibber and his father fought under Devonshire for William, but Cibber again failed to advance himself when he was unable to receive a commission in the army. When the fighting ended Cibber served Devonshire for a few months in London, frequenting the theater and befriending the theatrical prompter John Downes. He joined the United Company at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in February 1690 with probationary status, meaning he was not paid for his labor. He got his first role as a servant in Thomas Southerne's Sir Anthony Love and assumed small roles for several years. His big break came in January 1694, when he substituted for the aging Restoration player Edward Kynaston as Lord Touchwood in William Congreve's comedy The Double Dealer and earned some positive notice. The 1695 split in the United Company—with veteran actor Thomas Betterton and other leading players leaving for Lincoln's Inn Fields—opened new opportunities for Cibber. He began writing prologues for the Theatre Royal and won acclaim as Fondlewife in Congreve's The Old Bachelor. He then began creating leading roles for himself, beginning with the foppish Sir Novelty Fashion in the popular comedy Love's Last Shift (1696). Playing a similar role as Lord Foppington in The Relapse (1697), Cibber laid the groundwork for his reputation as a great comedian.

At the same time, he was becoming increasingly influential behind the scenes. In 1700 he became an advisor to Christopher Rich in the management of the Drury Lane Theatre, and by the time his next great comedy, The Careless Husband, premiered in December 1704, he had signed a five-year contract for both acting and managing. In 1708 a new company formed from the union of the Drury Lane and Haymarket companies, with Cibber named as one of three managers of the Drury Lane Theatre. In 1709 Cibber and the other actors moved secretly to circumvent Christopher Rich's influence, temporarily moving to the Haymarket and closing Drury Lane down until 1712. He premiered his next major play there in 1717; the controversial The Non-Juror capitalized on the passions aroused by the 1715 Jacobite uprising (of supporters of James II and the Stuart line) and won Cibber the support of the Hanoverian monarchy, which would name him Poet Laureate in 1730, despite his apparent inability to write poetry of even tolerable quality. It also earned him the enmity of prominent Tories, who began to disrupt performances of later plays. Cibber did not have another unqualified playwriting success until he produced The Provok'd Husband in 1728—a success that was one of his last as a dramatist. Perhaps the most prominent Tory he provoked, however, was the great poet and biting satirist Alexander Pope. Cibber's famous quarrel with Pope began in 1717. Demonstrating his ability to laugh at himself, Cibber played the Cibber-caricature Plotwell in Three Hours After Marriage, a farce partially authored by Pope. Cibber was a success as a parody of himself, but the play was a failure, and Cibber later joked about it in ad-libbed lines during a performance of the often revived Restoration comedy The Rehearsal. Lacking Cibber's sense of humor—and indeed well-known for holding a grudge—Pope was outraged, and mounted a series of attacks on Cibber that would last until Pope's death in 1744. Pope lampooned Cibber in poems and pamphlets without response; in the 1728 Dunciad he called Cibber a plagiarist and mocked both his plays and his son, Theophilus Cibber, and in his Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735) he accused Cibber of patronizing prostitutes. Perhaps out of respect for Pope's undeniable genius, Cibber kept silent; mentioning Pope in his Apology, Cibber offered unstinting praise. Excusing Pope for his assault on his character, he noted merely that satire was more likely to be popular than praise—a subtle charge of commercialism that Pope could not ignore, even among Cibber's acknowledgments of Pope's superior talent. Pope attacked again in The New Dunciad (1742), naming Cibber the “King of Dunces” and “the Antichrist of wit”; at Pope's refusal to accept a truce, Cibber began to attack viciously in several public letters mocking Pope's personal and physical failings. When Pope fell ill in 1744, however, Cibber ceased his invectives and encouraged his friends to do the same; when Pope died, Cibber contributed a conciliatory epitaph to The Gentleman's Magazine. By that time Cibber had largely retired from the theater: as early as 1733 he had sold his shares in the Drury Lane company, although he acted on and off until 1745, reviving his popular comic roles, and continuing to fall short of his aspirations as a tragic actor. Playing the lead in his own adaptations of Richard III and King John, Cibber was never able to convince the audience who loved him as a comic fool to accept him in a serious role, whether villain or hero. Three of his children—Elizabeth, Theophilus, and Charlotte—also attempted careers in the theater, and the latter two were similarly flamboyant figures of controversy. Despite his fame, however, when Cibber died in 1757, his passing went largely unnoticed, even though his plays continued to be staged for over fifty years beyond his death.

Major Works

Cibber was a prolific writer of plays, producing at least 26 original or adapted works during his career. Of these, only the comedies are considered truly major works. Cibber's tragedies were often revisions of plays by earlier—and generally better—playwrights, and modern taste judges his works debasements of the originals. In Cibber's day, however, authors such as Shakespeare, while admired, had not begun to command the reverence granted them today. Thus Cibber's Richard III was accepted as the standard acting version of Shakespeare's drama well into the nineteenth century; Ximena (1712), his adaptation of Corneille's Le Cid, was also a minor success. Near the end of Cibber's career, however, Shakespeare's status as the preeminent English dramatist was beginning to take hold, and Cibber's final play, Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John (1745), an adaptation of Shakespeare's King John, was reviled as a bastardized version of the earlier work. Despite his failings in tragedy, even his great enemy Pope was compelled to concede Cibber's talent for humor. With his very first play, Love's Last Shift, the popular comedian mastered the balance between the public's call for a less licentious stage humor than that which typified Restoration comedy and its lingering desire for intrigue and rakishness. He succeeded with this task again in such later comedies as Love Makes a Man (1700), She Wou'd and She Wou'd Not (1702), The Careless Husband, The Double Gallant (1707), and The Lady's Last Stake (1707). Of these, The Careless Husband was good enough to merit Pope's praise, and it reflected Cibber's skill at transporting the Restoration rake—here, a philandering Sir Charles Easy—into the sentimental eighteenth century, garnering laughs at Easy's vice before drawing tears for his abrupt reformation in the final act. Cibber's final great comic success, The Provok'd Husband, was yet another work in this vein, this time featuring the folly of a wife, Lady Townly, who is brought firmly under the thumb of her husband by the play's end. One of Cibber's few major comedies to stray from this pattern was his adaptation of Molière's Tartuffe, the controversial political satire The Non-Juror, which he offered as a patriotic gesture of support to the current monarchy. Although Cibber was, as usual, roundly mocked for stealing his material from a better author, the great majority of the play consists of Cibber's innovations. Cibber's involvement in public affairs, his self-deprecating humor, and his acquaintance with several popular actors and literary figures contributed to his success in another type of writing: autobiography. Published long after he had won acclaim as a playwright, the 1740 edition of An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber was immensely popular: full of gossip, digressions, unsubstantiated anecdotes, and somewhat shameless self-aggrandizement disguised as theater history, it delighted readers immediately. The work remains of interest as both a primary resource for theater research and a milestone in the history of autobiography as a genre. In contrast to later autobiographies that reveal the private person beneath the public identity, the Apology focused on—indeed helped create—his public persona. Of Cibber's later prose, his letters to Pope have been most important to scholars, less for their blunt wit than for their documentation of an epic conflict in literary history.

Critical Reception

As Helene Koon has noted in her biography of Cibber, the reputation of the popular comedian and influential theater manager seems quite at odds with the depiction of the bumbling author, mediocre poet, and shameless fame-chaser. Cibber's status within the Western canon has suffered on two counts: first, Cibber managed to make enemies of men like Henry Fielding and Pope, whose literary achievements would long outshine his own; second, he wrote not to create great art but to please his audience, without reservation and without apology. In his aim to entertain, however, he succeeded mightily, and modern critics have begun to notice Cibber's competence in creating great stage humor in memorable characters. One of the main themes in scholarship on Cibber's plays and their performance has been his innovations with the character of the fop. Although the fop was generally a character of derision, as Lois Potter has noted, Cibber used the fop persona to enhance his popularity, conflating his successful stage portrayals with his offstage identity. In addition, according to Susan Staves, Cibber's comedies played an important part in softening attitudes toward the fop, making him less of an outsider, and drawing his flamboyance as a tolerable if sometimes risible quirk of human nature. In more recent scholarship, Stephen Szilagyi has suggested that characters such as Lord Foppington reveal Cibber's acceptance of contemporary class hierarchy. Cibber has also been hailed as a major contributor to the development of sentimental comedy as a genre characteristic of the eighteenth century. Modern scholars have found in Cibber's plays a moral tone distinct from the unexpurgated ribaldry that delighted the audiences of such Cibber predecessors as John Dryden, William Wycherley, or Congreve. In particular, critics including B. R. S. Fone and Frank Ellis have examined Love's Last Shift as a turning point in the morality of the English stage. Although it has received less attention than his dramatic works, Cibber's prose has continued to interest scholars as well. Like Potter, Kristina Straub has noted that Cibber's breezy, gossipy style and his foppish persona actually worked to increase his authority; his ability to claim a position of power by embracing a seemingly weak caricature has implications not only for literary history but also for the history of groups marginalized because of gender, race, class, or sexual identity.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

A Poem on the Death of Our Late Sovereign Lady Queen Mary (poetry) 1695

Love's Last Shift; or, The Fool in Fashion (play) 1696

Woman's Wit; or, The Lady in Fashion (play) 1697

Xerxes (play) 1699

Love Makes a Man; or, The Fop's Fortune (play) 1700

The Tragical History of King Richard III (play) 1700

The School Boy; or, The Comical Rivals (play) 1702

She Wou'd and Wou'd Not; or, The Kind Imposter (play) 1702

The Rival Queans, with the Humours of Alexander the Great (play) 1703

The Careless...

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Frederick S. Boas (essay date 1953)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Colley Cibber—Mrs. Centlivre,” in An Introduction to Eighteenth-Century Drama, 1700-1780, Greenwood Press, 1978, pp. 86-116.

[In the following excerpt from a work that was originally published in 1953, Boas surveys Cibber's career as a playwright, paying particular attention to The Careless Husband, The Non-Juror, and The Provok'd Husband.]

In the preceding chapters Colley Cibber has from time to time figured as an actor. He was also a voluminous writer of plays, of which the most representative were akin to Steele's sentimental comedies. Born in London on 6 November 1671 he was educated at Grantham and served in 1688 in the force raised by the...

(The entire section is 4456 words.)

Leonard R. N. Ashley (essay date 1965)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Playwright,” in Colley Cibber, Twayne Publishers, 1965, pp. 36-80.

[In the following excerpt, Ashley provides a comprehensive survey of Cibber's theatrical efforts.]

Colley Cibber was writing plays before Vanbrugh and Farquhar, and he did not stage his last work until 1745. During his extraordinarily long career he wrote a dozen comedies, half a dozen tragedies, a “comical-tragedy,” a handful of masques and libretti, and perhaps a dozen prologues and epilogues for other people's plays—not to mention various odes and lyrics, four public letters to Alexander Pope, several miscellaneous prose works, and one of the best autobiographies in English. In...

(The entire section is 20336 words.)

B. R. S. Fone (essay date 1970)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Love's Last Shift and Sentimental Comedy” in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1970, pp. 11-23.

[In this essay, Fone contends that not only the reformation in the final act of Love's Last Shift but also the consistent moral tone throughout the play confirms its status as the first sentimental comedy.]

That Colley Cibber's Love's Last Shift is, historically, the first sentimental comedy has been so long accepted that it has become part of the common cant of literary history. Dissenting voices acknowledge its place even while asserting their reservations. Though some few critics claim that earlier plays...

(The entire section is 6030 words.)

Lois Potter (essay date 1978)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Colley Cibber: The Fop as Hero” in Augustan Worlds, edited by J. C. Hilson, M. M. B. Jones, and J. R. Watson, Leicester University Press, 1978, pp. 153-64.

[In this essay, Potter demonstrates how Cibber himself created the fop persona that was often used by his enemies to mock him.]

It is to Pope that most readers owe their image of Colley Cibber the careless coxcomb, but it was Cibber himself who created that image. He wrote and acted the parts of fops; he was a highly successful speaker of prologues and epilogues ‘in character’ as a fop; most of his non-dramatic writings, even such unlikely-sounding ones as The Character and Conduct of Cicero,...

(The entire section is 5324 words.)

Rodney L. Haley (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Cibber, Collier, and The Non-Juror,” in Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 1, Winter 1979, pp. 61-75.

[In this essay, Haley examines Cibber's defense of the stage from the attacks of Jeremy Collier, whose Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the Stage (1698) began a fierce debate over the place of the theater in society. In his play The Non-Juror, Haley argues, Cibber attacks Collier both personally and politically, using him as a model for the character of Dr. Wolf.]

The Identification of the most important character in Colley Cibber's enormously successful comedy The Non-Juror (premiere 1717; first edition...

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Helga Drougge (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Colley Cibber's ‘Genteel Comedy’: Love's Last Shift and The Careless Husband,” in Studia Neophilologica, Vol. 54, No. 1, 1982, pp. 61-79.

[In the following essay, Drougge charges that although Cibber presents his plays as realism, they are actually sentimentalism: “wishfulfilment fantasies offered as instruction, unreal behaviour offered as psychology, submissive eloquence offered as logic.”]


Colley Cibber, poet laureate and hero of Pope's Dunciad, produced some four original comedies (depending on how you count)1 during the initial stages of his impressive career as the first of the...

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Susan Staves (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “A Few Kind Words for the Fop,” in SEL, Vol. 22, No. 3, Summer 1982, pp. 413-28.

[In this essay, Staves examines the theatrical tradition of foppery and the changes it underwent throughout the eighteenth century, paying particular attention to Cibber and David Garrick. Staves demonstrates a softening attitude toward the fop character, citing Cibber's Love Makes a Man as an important example of this trend.]

Literary critics have often taken a lugubrious tone toward the fop. Fops, we are told, are legitimate objects of ridicule because vain, selfish, narcissistic, and indifferent to the welfare of others. Writing about Sparkish in The Country...

(The entire section is 6096 words.)

Frank H. Ellis (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Colley Cibber, Love's Last Shift (1696),” in Sentimental Comedy: Theory and Practice, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 25-33.

[In this excerpt from his study of sentimental comedy throughout the eighteenth century, Ellis considers Love's Last Shift as one of the earliest works in the genre, although he argues that only the last two scenes really qualify as truly sentimental.]

Out of his necessities as an immigrant's son with no more education than Shakespeare, and as a young actor trying to support a growing family on 30s. a week,1 Colley Cibber wrote his first play. He was having trouble getting good parts, so he wrote...

(The entire section is 3646 words.)

Kristina Straub (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Men from Boys: Cibber, Pope, and the Schoolboy,” in Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Vol. 32, No. 3, Autumn 1991, pp. 219-39.

[In this essay, Straub examines the eighteenth-century practice of gendering literary authority as masculine and in that context focuses on Cibber's unusual use of the sexually ambiguous figure of the schoolboy to construct an alternative model of authority.]

The trope of the schoolboy threads through a range of eighteenth-century discourses, connoting a subjected position in a homosocial, sometimes homoerotic economy of power. The spectacle of the schoolboy's bent knees or his bared ass before the corrective birch...

(The entire section is 9337 words.)

Stephen Szilagyi (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Importance of Being Easy: Desire and Cibber's The Careless Husband,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 41, No. 2, Summer 1999, pp. 142-59.

[In this essay, Szilagyi claims that the tendency to dismiss Cibber and his comedies as lightweight has caused scholars to overlook the serious social and political issues of such plays as The Careless Husband. Szilagyi views Cibber's presentation of the fop character Lord Foppington as a critique of aristocratic privilege.]

Although popular with both critics and audiences throughout the eighteenth century, Colley Cibber's The Careless Husband (1704) has not been sufficiently...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Koon, Helene. Colley Cibber: A Biography. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1986, 239 p.

Attempts to reconcile Cibber's high standing in the theater world of the eighteenth century with his reputation as Pope's King of Dunces.


Brown, Richard E. “The Fops in Cibber's Comedies.” Essays in Literature 9, No. 1 (Spring 1982): 31-41.

A study of Cibber's revision of the fop character; compares Cibber's roles with his real-life persona.

Dixon, Peter, and Rodney Hayley. “The Provoked Husband on the Nineteenth-Century Stage.”...

(The entire section is 412 words.)