- Garrick’s Body and the Labor of Art in Eighteenth-Century Theater
“Cold and sore throat . . . ague . . . nausea . . . stomach pains . . . bilious colic . . . dizziness . . . stone, gout, jaundice . . . flatulence and gout . . . gravel”—these are but a few of the maladies that plagued David Garrick during his thirty-five-year acting career on the eighteenth-century London stage. The schematic list of illnesses takes on an anatomical feel as Garrick’s body is dissected into malfunctioning parts and symptoms. In Stone and Kahrl’s painstaking biography, Appendix F: “Garrick’s Health Record During His Professional Career” chronicles Garrick’s various ailments (some of which kept him from performing) and highlights the nature of acting as an intrinsically physical activity. 1 Such a list at first seems odd and a bit too visceral in Stone and Kahrl’s study, a study which consistently seeks to contextualize Garrick in a more refined and genteel world. But Garrick’s biographers have, in fact, called attention to the hybrid nature of acting itself. Acting is physical work, at once a “liberal art” and an act of labor: the actor functions as artist and mechanic. 2
To see the actor as parts—as well as the totality of those parts—makes sense in an age when the art of acting itself was anatomized into separate passions and into specific bodily segments designated to produce those passions onstage. 3 Despite all of the efforts of Garrick’s biographers, both contemporaries and modern counterparts, to produce a fully integrated gentleman actor in a glow of civility, actors in general were viewed as mortal beings whose characters lived on but [End Page 369] whose own “too, too solid flesh” was subject to failure and decay. The poignancy of the public display of the aging body was strongly remarked upon during the period. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, for example, lamented that Charles Macklin “has not only the years, but the stiffness, of old age. I am always grieved to see an old actor fall down on the stage, since I am aware that he, too, must be deeply grieved.” 4 The condition of the flesh is particularly relevant to the professional actor, and for a performer like Garrick, who relied so heavily on movement and energy, the state of the body is crucial. Certainly, problems such as a sore throat and gout incapacitated Garrick, or at least had a negative effect on his stage presence. His letters consistently reveal the connection between the body’s health and the actor’s art, and his description of his appearance during an episode of what sounds like hepatitis draws a marked contrast to the vivacious character usually celebrated onstage: “I am most truly ye Knight of ye Woefull Countenance & have lost legs arms belly cheeks &c and have scarce anything left but bones, & a pair of dark lack-lustre Eyes, that are retir’d an inch or two more in their Sockets & wonderfully set off ye yellow Parchment that covers ye cheekbones.” 5 The linkage of actors’ appearances and their physical (and thus social) well-being is reiterated by Lichtenberg. “The bone formation of many German players,” he writes, “is not so bad as the covering of muscle and fat, which is perpetually worn away by time and illness, and in the Parisian provinces of our native land, hunger and care also.” 6 The body is always tied to age, sickness, hunger, anxiety—but for the actor, as for anyone who earns a living through physical labor, the body is part of the resumé, and how well it functions under the strains of training, performance, illness, and care is crucial to the player’s professional well being. 7
In her study of how the “specularization” of actors contributed to the construction of “normative” and “deviant” sexualities in the eighteenth century, Kristina Straub engages players and their bodies as viable components of social history, and keenly assesses their vexed cultural position. She makes clear that “the ‘person’ of both actors and actresses was an object of curiosity often far more compelling than their skill.” 8 Although she is primarily concerned with how this (often prurient) interest in the actors’ bodies is focused on...