- Author, Author! The Newfound Significance of Colley Cibber Review Essay
For Colley Cibber, 2016 was a banner year. Three books appeared—by Elaine M. McGirr, Darryl P. Domingo, and Julia H. Fawcett—that revise standard depictions of Cibber in the beloved role of Lord Foppington, as the cavalier subject of the autobiographical Apology, and as the head dunce of Alexander Pope's four-book Dunciad (1743). Together, these new books invite us to imagine what the history of the first half of the eighteenth century would have looked like with Cibber at its centre instead of its margins.
Coming from theatre history and performance studies, McGirr and Fawcett take for granted what Domingo explicitly argues for: the significance of the category of entertainment to the literature of the period. As Author, Author, the title given to the 1962 American edition of P.G. Wodehouse's autobiography, amusingly and ironically suggests (it was called The Performing Flea when it was published in 1953 in the United Kingdom), entertainment is normally devoid of cultural authority. Though each of these scholars approaches the subject differently, and I will not discuss Fawcett's Spectacular Disappearances: Celebrity and Privacy, 1696–1801 (2016) much further here (see Brian Cowan, review of Spectacular Disappearances, by Julia H. Fawcett, ECF 29, no. 3 : 503–5), they each establish that the Cibber phenomenon requires attention to both print and performance, the various ways they intersected, enhanced one another, and diverged. These scholars thereby invite us to perceive with fresh eyes their joint contributions to the category of authorship.
McGirr's reappraisal of Cibber substantially enriches the history of the London stage of the early eighteenth century. She significantly enlarges [End Page 127] the count of Cibber's performances, the range of his roles beyond that of the fop, and his contribution to the reception of Shakespeare. The last influences the first: she observes that, by classifying Cibber's adaptation of Richard III under Shakespeare, "The London Stage neatly removes over 550 performances from Cibber's 1696–1800 tally" (13). Noticing that the credibility normally accorded to The London Stage dovetails with the gravitation of theatre historians to the Age of Garrick because of its longer paper trail, McGirr returns to the archives with a new set of questions about attribution that improves the theatre history of the earlier period.
As McGirr points out, moreover, Richard III remained Cibber's in critical ways throughout the nineteenth century. Citing Arthur Cleveland's 1906 comparison of Cibber's play with Shakespeare's, she observes that 1,102 of the revised play's 2,170 lines are Cibber's (117); furthermore, two of the play's most famous lines for generations of audiences—"Richard's himself again," and "Off with his head … so much for Buckingham"—are Cibber's (117). For McGirr, the divergence between read and performed Shakespeare neutralizes nineteenth-century theatre historian John Genest's outraged criticism of Cibber for appropriating the authorship of Richard III to himself. She thereby clears the way for a better understanding of Cibber's contributions to the eighteenth-century production of Shakespeare, an undertaking more usually ascribed exclusively to Garrick.
But, because she takes as unchanging the differences between literary and theatrical cultures, McGirr misses the opportunity to observe that the attribution of authorship to Cibber on the title page of the 1700 edition, whose subtitle reads "altered from Shakespeare by Mr. Cibber," suggests a fluid relation between print and performance in which emendation, and possibly also performance, could count as authorship. The contributions Cibber made to the emergence of an opposition of print to performance that, in 1832, Genest could assume, thus remain unspecified.
McGirr would negate all previous dismissals of Cibber with an entirely positive account that does provide a more accurate assessment of his achievements. She recasts Cibber's successful...