Susanna Maria Arne, the daughter of the upholsterer Thomas Arne and his wife Anne, was christened at St Paul, Covent Garden, on 28 February 1714. Her brother Thomas Augustine was to become an important composer and she one of the better singers and best tragic actresses of her time. She may have acted as a child, but her first professional appearance was on 13 March 1732, when at the Haymarket Theatre she sang the title role in “Amelia”; a repeat performance was given for her benefit on 24 March. At the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, the King’s, the Haymarket, Drury Lane and Hickford’s Music Room from 1732 to 1734 she appeared in title parts and had solo benefits that gave her a remarkable amount of exposure for one just embarking on a stage career. Then, in April 1734 at a Catholic embassy chapel, she married Theophilus Cibber. Cibber was the scapegrace son of Colley Cibber and, like his father an actor-manager. Theophilus was also one of the most outrageous personalities in the London theatre world and within a few years led his bride through a very public, farcical marital caper.
But first Susanna Maria began to construct her stage career, establishing herself as a singer and actress. She developed a repertoire that included some of the best characters in English drama, starting with the title role in Aaron Hill’s “Zara” on 12 January 1736. By the end of the 1736-37 she had added Indiana in “The Conscious Lovers”, Amanda in “Love’s Last Shift”, Andromache in “The Distrest Mother”, Desdemona in “Othello”, Statita in “The Rival Queens”, Isabella in “Measure for Measure and Monimia in “The Orphan”. Her musical training stood her in good stead; though not the best of singers, she was blessed with a fine soprano that developed into a rich contralto, and Handel composed for her some of his most affecting oratorio arias. Music had given her discipline, too, and though some critics thought her strong control over her voice was sometimes too rigid, she was capable of projecting both a tenderness that brought tears to her auditors and a passion that made her scenes exciting. She had a sense of humor, especially in some of her cheerful letters to David Garrick, but she seldom showed it in public; what she did reveal was a toughness that drove her managers to distraction and a physical frailty (quite real) that frequently made her unable to perform. But how did she let herself get into the notorious court case involving her husband and her lover?
Theophilus actually introduced her to and encouraged her to have an affair with a moneyed fellow, William Sloper. It was Cibber’s plan to push his wife into a relationship with Sloper and then sue him for adultery, asking for £5000. After a trial that had all London talking Cibber was awarded only £10. (For all the absurdly lurid details see the BDA.) The notoriety Susanna received during the trial and after – for she clearly found Sloper much to her liking and remained with him the rest of her life – should have destroyed her stage career. But since in the eighteenth century the public rather expected theatre folk to misbehave, Mrs Cibber not only survived the trial but continued her remarkably successful career as a singer and actress, helping to pack theatres in Dublin and London and bring herself an annual income almost equal to that of Garrick. Though she arranged with the managers of Drury Lane and Covent Garden (for she appeared at both in the 1740s) to keep Cibber from performing at the same theatre, she kept calling herself Mrs Cibber in the bills.
In 1755-56, when Garrick at Drury Lane was paying her £700 for the season, she acted only thirteen times. With many performers that was taken as almost standard prima donna behaviour, but Mrs Cibber had real health problems, and she sometimes refused to accept a salary when she could not perform. She was, when she was well, a hard worker, and she acted many very strenuous roles. Two of her most popular and demanding characters were Alicia