David Garrick

Garrick’s Acting As Seen in His Own Time

‘Mrs. Hopkins & Mr. Garrick in the Character of Queen Gertrude and Hamlet’, Late 18th century [1774?], via Folgerpedia

Source: Extracts from Walter Herries Pollock, ‘Garrick’s Acting As Seen in His Own Time’, Longman’s Magazine (August 1885), pp. 371-375, translated from two letters by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, originally published in German in the periodical Deutsches Museum, November 1776

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 2 and 12 December 1774

Text: Now, my dear B., if, after what I have told you, you have been able to picture a Garrick to yourself, follow me with him in one or two scenes. To-day, because I am somewhat in the humour for it, I will take the one out of Hamlet where the Ghost appears to him. You know this scene already from Mr. Partridge’s excellent description in Fielding. My description will not make the other superfluous, but only explain it.

Hamlet appears in black attire, the only one, alas, which is still worn in the whole court, for his poor father, who has been scarcely dead a couple of months. Horatio and Marcellus accompany him in uniform. They await the Ghost. Hamlet has folded his arms and pulled his hat over his eyes. It is a cold night, and just twelve o’clock. The theatre is darkened, and the whole audience as still and the faces as motionless as if they had been painted on the walls of the house. At the extreme end of the theatre one might have heard a pin drop. Suddenly as Hamlet goes rather far up the stage somewhat to the left, with his back to the audience, Horatio starts. “Look, my lord, it comes,” says he, pointing to the right where the Ghost is standing immovable, ere one is even aware of it. At these words Garrick turns suddenly round, and at the same moment staggers back two or three paces with trembling knees, his hat falls to the ground, both arms—especially the left—are nearly extended to the full, the hand as high as the head, the right arm more bent and the hand lower, the fingers spread out and the mouth open. There he remains standing, with legs far apart, but still in a graceful attitude, as if electrified, supported by his friends. His features express such horror that I felt a repeated shudder pass over me before he began to speak. The almost appalling silence of the assembly, which preceded this scene and made one feel scarcely safe in one’s seat, probably contributed not a little to the effect. At last he speaks, not with the beginning but with the end of a breath, and says in a trembling voice “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” words which complete whatever may yet be wanting in this scene to make it one of the sublimest and most terrifying of which, perhaps the stage is capable. The Ghost beckons him; then you should see him, with his eyes still fixed upon the Ghost, while yet speaking to his friends, break loose from them, although they warn him not to follow, and hold him fast. But at last, his patience exhausted, he faces them, and with great violence tears himself away, and, with a swiftness which makes one shudder draws his sword on them, saying, “By heavens, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me.” Then, turning to the Ghost,’ he holds his sword out: “Go on; I’ll follow thee;” and the Ghost moves off. Hamlet remains standing still, his sword extended before him, to gain more distance; and when the audience have lost sight of the Ghost, he begins to follow him slowly, at times stopping, and then going on again, but always with his sword extended, his eyes fixed on the Ghost, with dishevelled hair and breathless, until he, too, is lost behind the scenes. You may easily imagine what loud applause accompanies this exit. It begins as soon as the Ghost moves off, and lasts until Hamlet likewise disappears.

… In the fine soliloquy, “O that this too too solid flesh would melt,” &c, Garrick is completely overpowered by the tears of just grief for a virtuous father, for whom a frivolous mother no longer wears mourning, nor even feels grief, at a time when every parasite of the court should still be wearing black—the most unrestrained of all tears, perhaps because they are the only alleviation which in such a struggle between one duty and another duty an honest heart can procure. Of the words, “so excellent a king,” the last word is quite inaudible; you only perceive it by the motion of the mouth, which closes immediately afterwards firmly, and trembling with agitation, as if to repress with his lips the only too clear indication of the grief which might unman him. This way of shedding tears, which shows the whole burden of inward grief, as well as the manly soul suffering under it, carries one irresistibly away. At the end of the soliloquy he mixes just anger with his grief; and once, when he strikes out violently with his arm to give emphasis to a word in his indignation, the word (to the surprise of the audience) remains unuttered, choked by emotion, and only follows after a few seconds, when tears begin to flow. My neighbour and I, who had not yet exchanged a word, looked at each other and spoke. It was irresistible.

… Hamlet, who, as I have already reminded you, is in mourning, appears here with thick, loosened hair, some of it hanging over one shoulder, he having already begun to play the madman; one of his black stockings is half-way down his leg, showing the white understocking, and a noose of red garter hangs down the middle of the calf. Thus attired, he steps slowly forward in deep thought, supporting his chin with his right hand, and the elbow of the right with the left, looking on one side on the ground in a dignified manner. Here, taking his right hand away from his chin, but, if I mistake not, still holding it supported by the left, he utters the words “To be or not to be” softly; but they are everywhere audible, on account of the great stillness, and not through the peculiar gift of the man, as some of the papers state.

I must here make a little observation on the text. In the fourth line of this soliloquy some propose reading “against assailing troubles” instead of “against a sea of troubles,” because arms cannot be taken against a sea. Mr. Garrick nevertheless says, “against a sea of troubles.”

The graveyard scene is suppressed at Drury Lane. At Covent Garden it is still kept. This suppression Garrick should not have introduced. Such a splendid old piece, with all its fine characteristic raw strength, would still in these mealy-mouthed times, when even the language of nature begins to give way to conventional babble, have broken the fall of it even if it had not been able to uphold it.

I must pass over some of the most beautiful scenes, among others that in which he instructs the actors, as well as that in which he thunders into his mother’s heart the comparison between his uncle and his father when the Ghost appears; one blow upon another before one has yet recovered.

Comments: Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) was a German physicist and philosopher. A keen Anglophile, he visited England in 1770 and over 1774-1775. His celebrated account of David Garrick‘s performance in Hamlet (original diary entries reveal that he saw the production on 2 and 12 December 1774) was written in two letters to his friend Heinrich Christian Boie in 1775 and originally published in Boie’s literary periodical Deutsches Museum in November 1776.

Links: Copy of English translation at Hathi Trust
Copy of German original at Hathi Trust

The Journal of an Excursion to the United States of North America

1788 engraving of Inkle and Yarico, via British Museum,, issued under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence

Source: Henry Wansey, The Journal of an Excursion to the United States of North America in the Summer of 1794 (Salisbury/London: J. Easton/ G. and T. Wilkie, 1796), pp. 42-43

Production: George Colman the Younger and Samuel Arnold, Inkle and Yarico, and David Garrick, Bon Ton, Federal Street Theatre, Boston (Massachusetts), 9 May 1794

Text: A very elegant theatre was opened at Boston about three months ago, far superior in taste, elegance and convenience, to the Bath, or any other country theatre that I have ever yet seen in England. I was there last night, with Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan. The play and farce were Inkle and Yarico, and Bon Ton; I paid a dollar for a ticket. It held about twelve hundred persons. One of the dramatis personae, was a negro, and he filled his character with great propriety. The dress of the company being perfectly English, and some of the actors, (Jones and his wife,) being those I had seen perform the last winter at Salisbury, in Shatford’s company, made me feel myself at home. Between the play and farce, the orchestra having played Ca Ira, the gallery called aloud for Yankee-doodle, which which after some short opposition was complied with. A Mr. Powell is the manager of the play-house. Mr. Goldfinch, the ingenious architect of this theatre, has also lately built an elegant crescent, called the Tontine, about fourteen or sixteen elegant houses, which let for near two hundred pounds sterling, a year.

Comments: Henry Wansey (1752?-1827) was an English antiquarian and traveller. In 1794 he visited the United States of America and two years later published an account of his travels, including meeting President George Washington. He attended the Federal Street Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts in May 1794, the theatre having opened the previous year. It was designed by Charles Bulfinch, not Goldfinch. Inkle and Yarico was a popular and widely performed comic opera about a shipwrecked Englishman and his love for an Indian native. Shatford was the English actor-manager James Shatford. Mr Jones played Trudge and Mrs Jones played Patty. The African-American actor Wansey says that he saw has not been identified, and is not mentioned in contemporary published accounts. Bon Ton was a comedy by the actor-manager David Garrick.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Sylas Neville

Source: Basil Cozens-Hardy (ed.), The Diary of Sylas Neville 1767-1788 (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 44-45

Production: William Shakespeare, Richard III, Drury Lane, London, 29 September 1768

Text: Thursd. Sept. 29 … Hearing about 7 o’clock that Garrick did Rich. III, one of his very capital characters which he has not done these 7 or 8 years, resolved (if I could get in to see him) to bear the abhorred sight of that woman-like painted puppy, the King of Denmark. After one unsuccessful attempt got into the Pit with the greatest difficulty after the 3rd Act. Garrick is inimitably great in Richard & very different from the other Richards I have seen; his expression of the dying agony of that wretch is beyond description. Some actors speak with as strong & loud a voice in that scene as if they had received no wound & were not dying. One, Lloyd, who waits on Garrick sometimes, observed that he himself says he never acted better in his life, modestly observing that something must be allowed to the improvement of his judgment. During the Dance (for there was no Farce) I was within a yard of the Danish tyrant. O Heaven! what an instance of the corruption of mankind that a great nation should submit to the will – nay, the absolute will – of a puny vicious boy, unfit to govern himself & made for the distaff (like Sardanapalus) not for the rod of power!

Comments: Sylas Neville (1741-1840) was an English gentleman of unclear origins, who had studied medicine but spent much of his adult life travelling while being continually short of money. His surviving diary frequently mentions visits to the theatre in London. David Garrick appeared in Richard III at Drury Lane on 29 September 1768. At the end of the play there was a comic dance. Christian VII, King of Denmark, attended the performance. Sardanapalus, a legendary Assyrian king, was a byword for decadent living.

Boswell’s London Journal

Source: Frederick A. Pottle (ed.), Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763 (Melbourne/London/Toronto: William Heinemann, 1950), pp. 256-257

Production: William Shakespeare (adapted by Nahum Tate), King Lear, Drury Lane, London, 12 May 1763

Text: Thursday 12 May. I went to Drury Lane and saw Mr. Garrick play King Lear. So very high is his reputation, even after playing so long, that the pit was full in ten minutes after four, although the play did not begin till half an hour after six. I kept myself at a distance from all acquaintances, and got into a proper frame. Mr. Garrick gave me the most perfect satisfaction. I was fully moved, and I shed abundance of tears. The farce was Polly Honeycomb, at which I laughed a good deal. It gave me great consolation after my late fit of melancholy to find that I was again capable of receiving such high enjoyment.

Comments: James Boswell (1740-1795) was a Scottish lawyer, biographer and diarist, best known for his Life of Samuel Johnson. His London Journal was discovered in 1930 among a set of Boswell’s private papers. David Garrick‘s production of King Lear was first performed at Drury Lane on 19 November 1762, with Garrick as Lear. This was a version of the 1681 adaptation of the play by Nahum Tate, which cut characters such as the Fool and gave it a happy ending by preserving the lives of Lear, Kent and Gloucester, and marrying off Cordelia and Edgar. Polly Honeycombe (1760) was a one-act farce about the effects of novel-reading, written by George Colman the Elder.

The Journal of Sir Walter Scott

Source: Walter Scott, The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, 1825-1832 (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1910 [orig. pub. 1890]), vol. 2, p. 335

Production: David Garrick/Thomas Southerne, Isabella, or The Fatal Marriage, Covent Garden, London, 16 June 1830

Text: June 17. – Went last night to theatre, and saw Miss Fanny Kemble’s Isabella, which was a most creditable performance. It has much of the genius of Mrs. Siddons, her aunt. She wants her beautiful countenance, her fine form, and her matchless dignity of step and manner. On the other hand, Miss Fanny Kemble has very expressive, though not regular, features, and what is worth it all, great energy mingled with and chastened by correct taste. I suffered by the heat, lights, and exertion, and will not go back to-night, for it has purchased me a sore headache this theatrical excursion. Besides, the play is Mrs. Beverley, and I hate to be made miserable about domestic distress, so I keep my gracious presence at home to-night, though Ive and respect Miss Kemble for giving her active support to her father in his need, and preventing Covent Garden from coming down about their ears.

Comments: Walter Scott (1771-1832) was a Scottish novelist and poet, whose historical novels such as Ivanhoe, Rob Roy and The Heart of Midlothian were immensely popular and influential. The Fatal Marriage was a 1694 play by Thomas Southerne, which David Garrick adapted in 1757 as Isabella; or the Fatal Marriage. Fanny Kemble played Isabella in a production at Covent Garden. ‘Mrs. Beverley’ is a character in Edward Moore‘s popular 1753 play The Gamester.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg