David Garrick – master of tragedy and comedy —Page 3

David Garrick stands between Comedy and Tragedy. The original portrait was painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1760-61 and exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1762, Reynolds’s first to be shown that was not a straight portrait. That same year this mezzotint version was published by Edward Fisher at the Golden Head, Leicester Square. Reynolds has captured Garrick’s ability to switch from tragic and comic roles.

Henry Giffard had obtained a licence at Goodman’s Fields on the condition that performances were primarily of a musical nature, which was clearly not what was actually happening. Garrick’s success in dramatic and comedy works was at the expense of the two patent London theatres, which were poorly attended whenever he performed. Charles Fleetwood, manager at Drury Lane, and John Rich at Covent Garden decided to take steps to uphold the law. Giffard knew he had no chance of defending any legal action and agreed to join forces with Fleetwood at Drury Lane and Garrick joined them on a lucrative wage.

At Drury Lane Giffard and Garrick found a chaotic management and Fleetwood sold his share in the theatre to the entrepreneur James Lacy. Garrick took up an invitation from his friend Thomas Sheridan to play in Dublin and on his return was tempted to join the cast at Covent Garden. Lacy soon convinced him to return to Drury Lane but on the conditions of a half-share of the business and artistic control.

Garrick was a dramatic visionary who had studied all aspects of theatre since a child and now had the opportunity to put his ideas, about drama, entertainment and how to make theatre moral and instructive, into practice. He also had the advantage of being a businessman, with experience gained in the wine trade as well as from his friend Henry Giffard, Thomas Sheridan (who was successfully managing the theatre in Dublin), and acquaintances amongst London tradesmen. Lacey organized the running of the theatre, including the props, while Garrick took over full control of productions at Drury Lane, involving himself in every aspect.

The first season was a great success with takings higher than the previous season, a good profit, and attendances by the King, the Prince and Princess of Wales and other members of the royal family.

After the Restoration, Shakespeare’s plays were substantially altered to suit audiences of the time. During his lifetime Garrick gathered a collection of Quartos and Folios, as well as having the opportunity to discuss the works with the Shakespearian scholars Samuel Johnson and Thomas Warburton. As he grew into the parts and had the opportunity to study the original texts he began to adapt the plays to be closer to the originals. He established himself as perhaps the country’s leading Shakespearian actor, having established a number of roles which he continued to perform for the rest of his career. Garrick played the part of Hamlet 90 times between 1741 and 1776. Audiences delighted in his ability to change his mood throughout the plot, moving from comedy to drama as few other actors had achieved.

By 1749 Garrick was a relatively wealthy man, with an income estimated at £3,500 per year and still increasing. That year he married the dancer Eva-Marie Veigel, who went under the stage name of La Violette. She had been born in Vienna, the daughter of an officer in the Dutch army. She spoke German, French and Italian but not English. She trained as a dancer and was engaged to dance with the children of the Empress Maria Theresa. She arrived in England disguised as a boy, together with her father and carrying letters of introduction. Eve-Marie danced at the Haymarket theatre and Drury Lane and soon became a favourite of Lord Burlington, as well as the Prince of Wales, moving into Burlington House. By the time they married Garrick and Eve-Marie were moving in the highest circles and Lord and Lady Burlington provided their country house at Chiswick, where the newly-weds spent the summer. Over time Eva-Marie learnt to speak English and the couple had a happy marriage.

The Garricks purchased a Thames-side summer retreat of Fuller House at Hampton in 1754, where David could work in isolation in his reference library. The following year the house was enlarged with help from Robert Adam. The gardens were designed by Capability Brown and contained an octagonal Shakespeare Temple, surrounded by a grove of cypresses gifted by Horace Walpole and containing a chair hung with a medal by Hogarth.

Garrick had worked hard at Drury Lane for many seasons and by the early 1760s his health was poor. In 1763 there were riots at the theatre and, following the end of the Seven Years War he and Eva-Marie embarked on a Continental tour lasting three years, visiting France, Italy and Germany. By then Garrick had become a celebrity in France, fêted wherever he went and given use of the king’s box at the Théâtre Français. In Italy the Garricks stayed at the Duke of Parma’s palace.

By the time of their return to England in 1765 David was in his late forties and wealthy. He took the decision to not take on any new roles, leaving them to younger performers, simply continuing to perform those he had already mastered. For some years Garrick had suffered from kidney stones and with the new burden of gout.

The Garricks were sought out by everyone of any note in London and they received them all at their home. Their friend, the French choreographer Jean Georges Noverre recorded that up to twenty carriages of “the best informed men of the court, scholars, men of letters and artists” would stand outside the Garrick house, visitors received “from midday to two o’clock”. For many years their London home had been a modest house in Southampton Street. In the early 1770s the Adam brothers were building their elegant new Adelphi between the Strand and the Thames, where David had based his wine business over thirty years earlier. It was there that the Garricks took a larger new house.

David’s closest friend in later years was the author and MP Edmund Burke. Amongst the Garricks’ distinguished circle of friends were Lord and Lady Burlington and leading politicians such as William Pitt the Elder, the former prime minister. David was held in such high esteem by politicians that on one occasion in 1778, when he was sitting listening to a debate in the House of Commons and it was necessary to clear the public gallery, the MPs below were unanimous in wishing him to remain alone for the debate.