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.
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.
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.
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.