One of the most important theatre people between Betterton and Garrick, Colley Cibber was born on 6 November 1671, the son of the sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber. Colley showed an interest in theatre and, against his parents’ wishes, he joined the United Company of players at Drury Lane Theatre, playing bit parts and learning his trade under London’s leading actor, Thomas Betterton. Cibber’s first recorded part was a servant in “Sir Anthony Love” in September 1690, but his real break came in January 1694, when he substituted for Edward Kynaston as Lord Touchwood in “The Double Dealer”. The author Congreve was so delighted that he helped get Cibber a five-shilling raise (to £1 weekly). Then Betterton and many of the older players rebelled against Drury Lane’s lawyer-manager Christopher Rich; Cibber chose to stay with Rich, where he probably felt his opportunities were more promising. Indeed, they were: in May 1695 he took Thomas Doggett’s old part of Fondlewife in “The Old Bachelor” and did an imitation of Doggett that even pleased the actor himself. The next year Cibber tried his hand at playwriting and turned out “Love’s Last Shift”, creating for himself the role of Sir Novelty Fashion. Though he went on to try a variety of other types, comic fops became his specialty, and Cibber, almost from the beginning of his stage career, was London’s most successful comedian-playwright.
Then, as both actor and playwright, he attempted tragedy. In December 1699 his adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” came out at Drury Lane, with Colley casting himslf in the title role. The adaptation was successful enough – indeed, it held the stage into the twentieth century, but Cibber as Richard, a role he insisted on playing for years, was damned by almost all of the critics. In 1734 Aaron Hill in “The Prompter” said Cibber played Richard with ‘the distorted heavings of an unjointed caterpillar,’ and the “Grub Street Journal” reported that ‘he foams, struts, and bellows with the voice and cadence of a watchman rather than a hero and a prince.’ Near-obliviousness to harsh criticism was one of Cibber’s most remarkable qualities. It saw him through repeated attacks by rival authors, players and critics; he simply did not let the barbs bother him. Perhaps he was just indifferent, for that is how he seems to have treated his wife for years, but it may be closer to the mark to see Cibber as one who enjoyed attention, even when it was ridicule at his own expense.
In addition to establishing one career as an actor and another as a playwright, Cibber began, as early as November 1704, to share in the management of the Drury Lane troupe. He signed a contract with Rich for five years at a weekly wage of £3 10s and accepted a verbal agreement to receive an additional 10s weekly for casting parts, reading plays and ‘other services.’ He was paid 20s for assisting in the management of the theatre. Still young, Colley was the highest-paid and most influential actor at Drury Lane, and he remained a successful sharer in the management, with Barton Booth and Robert Wilks, into the 1730s. A master at conciliation and keeping cool under fire, Cibber was the ideal middle man.
He continued churning out plays over these years, too, the most successful after “Love’s Last Shif”t and “Richard III” being “Love Makes the Man”, “She Wou’d and She Wou’d Not”, “The Careless Husband”, “The Double Gallant”, “The Non-Juror” (an adaptation of Molière’s “Tartuffe”) and “The Provok’d Husband”. In 1730 Cibber was appointed poet laureate, much to the chagrin or delight of pundits, and in the years that followed he dutifully composed undistinguished verses for the crown. Then, in 1740, he published “An Apology for the Life of Mr Colley Cibber”, a rambling, windy, self-deprecating, self-indulgent but priceless history of the London theatre of his time. With all its faults it is a delightful and informative work, and, remarkably, it became a very successful publication, reprinted regularly over the centuries.
Colley retired from the stage several times, but his last real season was 1732-33, when at Drury Lane he acted, among other popular roles, Bayes in 'The Rehersal', Foppington in 'The Relapse' and 'The Carelss Husband', fondlewife in 'The Old Bachelor', Richard III, Ben in 'Love for Love', Subtle in 'The Alchemist', Sir Fopling in 'The Man of Mode', Sir Brute in 'The Provok'd Wife' and Witwoud in 'The way of the world' - most of which had been in his repertoire for years. He retired comforably, made a few return engagements and entertained the public with squabbles in print with Dennis, Fielding and Pope. He seems, especially after his retirement in 1733, to have relaced and enjoyed his carefree twilight years. He died on 11 December 1757, quietly in his bed at the age of 86. James Ralph in 1758 said that 'Cibber was a Player, Writer, and Manager too, and, over and above, a Bottle of as pert small Beer, as ever whizz'd in any Man's face'. Grisoni's famous portrait of him as Lord Foppington, sums up the man. (BDA) [EAL]