Posts Tagged ‘David Garrick’

Last week I gave St Paul’s Covent Garden a proper visit for the first time. The church was designed by Inigo Jones, having been commissioned by the Duke of Bedford, who told him to keep it simple. He wanted to keep costs down, so instructed the architect it should be no more than a barn, to which Jones replied: “Then you shall have the handsomest barn in England.” And so it is.


It is known as the Actors’ Church and once inside you’ll see on all walls, nooks and crannies, commemorative plaques and memorials to notable thespians of the past. This one, to Charles Macklin, immediately caught my attention.


Just look at that carving of a theatrical mask with a knife penetrating the left eye. Very gruesome you may think, and you’d be right. This must allude to the true tale of the killing by Macklin of a fellow actor Thomas Hallam by fatally wounding him through the eye with his cane. The violent dispute – apparently over a wig – took place backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Macklin defended himself in court and was convicted of accidental manslaughter, resulting in being branded with a cold iron.

Although his actual birthdate is unclear, Charles Macklin (c1690 – 1797) was born in Ulster and enjoyed an extraordinarily long life for his or any other era. A larger-than-life character, he became a leading Shakespearean actor on the London stage as well as writing and producing dramas of his own.

Based primarily at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (with whom he was constantly in dispute), he made his name through the realistic portrayal of Shakespearean drama, most famously in his depiction of Shylock. This was a radical transformation, for the first time making these plays as something we would recognise today. Audiences loved it.

He set up an acting school, mentoring among others David Garrick who then took Shakespeare to yet another level again in the decades to come. Lessons were given both at his home and in the upstairs room of the Bedford coffee house where Macklin would also be found expounding cantakerously to all and sundry. Essentially, he had founded London’s first drama academy.


Charles Macklin in later life, by John Opie

These are just the basics.
Further reading.
Wikipedia is a pretty good start, here.
My first introduction to him was in Mr Foote’s Other Leg (2012) by Ian Kelly, pp90 and ff. Excellent further detail, especially on the coffee shop scene and drama school.

More images of St Paul’s, Covent Garden in our Flickr space, here.




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John RichAs the panto season approaches, we remember the man credited with inventing the genre: theatre manager, impresario and performer, John Rich (1692 – 1761). He also opened the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden on this day in 1732.

Rich had a lucky start on the London theatre scene, such as it was, inheriting from his father a royal patent to run a theatre, the privilege initially granted to Sir William Davenant by Charles II. But it wasn’t plain sailing, for he lacked an actual theatre, the building in Lincoln’s Inn Fields being still incomplete. It opened in 1714, but the early years were beset with financial problems. He was even forced to lease out his own theatre for a few years.

From 1717 right though the 1720s, Rich staged comic dance and drama mainly based on commedia dell’arte, himself constantly performing and building his reputation, almost inevitably in a harlequin role. His first blockbuster came in 1728 with John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, the proceeds of which largely financed his new theatre, the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, which opened on 7 December 1732. He engaged some of the leading landscape painters of the day – notably George Lambert – to paint the scenery.

john rich, impresario

John Rich, comic dancing in harlequin garb.

From 1747, Rich’s biggest rival was David Garrick at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and to a lesser extent Samuel Foote’s theatre in the Haymarket, whose output was often brilliant but just as often patchy and unapologetically political. The two titans of the Georgian stage locked theatrical horns throughout for the next decade, with Rich supplying more populist pantomime fare which also introduced ground breaking special effects, though Shakespeare was by no means ignored. Yet he drew sniffy criticism and even enmity from more literary London types such as Alexander Pope, Henry Fielding and Garrick himself. They dismissed him as vulgar, unlettered, even illiterate.

But his friends and supporters included the likes of Hogarth, Samuel Johnson, John Wilkes. These were some of the original members of an early iteration of the Beefsteak Club, which Rich had founded and which in time even drew royal patronage through the person of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Not bad, he can’t have been the boor as portrayed by his detractors. Rich was also popular among his players for paying them promptly and treating them fairly, even supporting destitute retired actors. So all-in-all, a major figure in the story of London theatre, a mover, a shaker and all round good egg. John Rich.

Main Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (sub required).

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mr foote's other leg by ian kelly

So wrote Lord Byron, a man born some 11 years after the demise of Samuel Foote. Foote was possibly the most famous man in London in the mid 18C, yet all but forgotten today. He was an author, impersonator, actor, comedian and playwright in an age of polymaths. Johnson, Garrick, Fielding, Boswell and Reynolds were among his many admirers. Yet none attended his funeral in 1777 and Byron’s is the funny man’s only literary epitaph.

Mr Foote’s Other Leg may read like a work of fiction, but it is the true story of one of London’s big personalities at the dawn of celebrity.  At the risk of spoilers, Foote’s story includes fratricide and a hanging; debtors’ prison; coffee houses; bigamy; kings and aristocrats; an amputation; a court case; and theatre, always theatre.

Like many of his successful conteporaries such as Reynolds, Johnson and Garrick, Foote was a provincial, in his case a Cornishman. Short and plain of face, his talents were impersonation, satire and wit, all highly prized and appreciated among London’s oh-so-clever coffee-house intelligensia.

This meticulously researched book tells his story, the tale of an unstoppable trajectory to fame, which from the rock-bottom of the debtor’s prison is almost Whittington-esque. London’s theatre-goers loved him, flocking every summer season to his Little Theatre in the Haymarket. A guilty conscience on the part of the Duke of York saw Foote’s establishment gain a royal patent, raising it up to the Theatre Royal we know today. Yet in the end, our hero’s fortunes took a rapid dive into scandal and ignominy.

A remarkable story, then. The added value, though, for the curious historian, is what Kelly weaves in. He tells us about the 18C London Theatre (plus Dublin for good measure); we learn all about the phenomenal rise and culture of London coffee shops, one in particular: The Bedford, which was the favourite hang-out of thesps, impresarios, agents, etc; we are then turned into experts on the latest amputation techniques as practised by London’s leading surgeons. Although he didn’t actually conduct the amputation, it won’t surprise you to discover that John Hunter was one of  Foote’s physicians, and a personal friend.

On top of all this, I picked up things I did not know on the criminal courts, contemporary newspapers and much else. For Kelly doesn’t do “mention in passing”; every interesting stone in the narrative, he lifts up and takes a good look, then shares his findings with you; hence he succeeds in whetting one’s appetite for myriad other topics, leaving you a bit daunted, yet excited and wanting more. This is what raises this book above the extraordinary: Mr Foote’s Other Leg is a wonderful work of history and if you’re quick you’ll probably be able to treat yourself for Christmas.


Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly (462pp) is published by Picador. Cover price is £18.99 but available for around £11.

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