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  • David Garrick’s Masque of King Arthur with Thomas Arne’s Score (1770)
  • Todd Gilman

The 1770 Garrick-Arne King Arthur

At some point in 1768 or 1769, David Garrick, Drury Lane Theatre’s famous actor-manager, engaged the eminent English composer Thomas Augustine Arne to help him mount a revival of Dryden and Purcell’s King Arthur or, The British Worthy. Garrick apparently hoped to match the success of a Dublin revival undertaken by Spranger Barry in 1763 (Walsh 107).1 Arne had not written much for Garrick and Drury Lane since his opera buffa, Don Saverio, had failed miserably there nearly twenty years earlier, in 1750.2 Their collaborations during the 1750s had been limited to a revival of Arne’s English opera Eliza (20 December 1756), which marked the London début of the great Charlotte Brent, Arne’s star pupil; the popular pantomime Mercury Harlequin (27 December 1756); Garrick’s revival of Isabella, or the Fatal Marriage (2 December 1757), adapted from Thomas Southerne, which included Arne’s Epithalamium, “Let all, let all be gay”3; and a concert performance of Arne’s masque/oratorio/opera Alfred, also featuring Brent, in March 1759. Still, Garrick had been following Arne’s successes elsewhere, the most directly relevant of which was a revival of Purcell’s The Prophetess, or the History of Dioclesian for Covent Garden Theatre in 1758.4 And though by the late 1760s Arne and Garrick were still not on the best terms, they had recently rekindled their working relationship in a limited way by collaborating on Garrick’s farce Miss in Her Teens, or The Medley of Lovers (25 April 1766), for which Arne wrote a song;5 and, more substantially, in mounting the Great Stratford Jubilee in the summer [End Page 139] of 1769. Obviously Garrick now felt he really needed more from Arne in order to make King Arthur a success.

Arne originally proposed to re-set much of King Arthur, if not the whole thing, ostensibly because he thought Purcell’s music old-fashioned and incapable of satisfying a late-eighteenth-century audience. The truth may be that Arne wanted to shine more brightly than Purcell and also make as much money as possible from the new settings. In any event it seems Garrick initially agreed to let Arne write as much as the composer deemed necessary. Arne began by writing some songs for his daughter-in-law, Mrs. Michael Arne, née Elizabeth Wright, who was to sing the part of the airy spirit Philidel, one of the principal vocal roles. Elizabeth Wright had been deemed the “nightingale of the stage” —for her melody, fullness, and flexibility of tone were unparalleled in her day. However, Arne’s son Michael had forced his young wife Elizabeth on to the stage so often that, in Charles Burney’s words, “she may truly be said to have sung herself to death” (Rees). Sadly, she died in May 1769 at the age of only seventeen or eighteen, thus delaying the production of King Arthur for some time.

At the beginning of the 1770–71 season Garrick had been taking the cure at Bath. He returned to London on 8 November to supervise rehearsals for the new production, now to be called The Masque of King Arthur. By this time he had replaced the deceased Mrs. Arne with Sophia Baddeley (“that beautiful, insinuating creature Mrs. Baddeley,” as Boswell called her6), who had recently distinguished herself by warbling Arne’s lilting encomium to the Bard, “Thou soft-flowing Avon” (Wheler 185) at the aforementioned Stratford Jubilee. Garrick had also revised Dryden’s text of 1691 substantially, cutting and rearranging scenes and adding (mostly soprano) songs so that his version resembled that of the playbook from the 1763 Dublin revival he was emulating.

Finally, and most important for the present purpose, Garrick appears eventually to have decided unilaterally that most of Purcell’s songs would be retained--without so much as asking whether Arne had composed newer versions, let alone offering to listen to any. As King Arthur went in to rehearsal, then, Arne was understandably peeved. Garrick had welcomed Arne’s new settings of the...


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