- David Garrick and the Mediation of Celebrity by Leslie Ritchie
In the mid-1960s, the publication of The London Stage—a listing of every performance known to have been produced by a licensed theatre company in London between 1660 and 1800, along with any cast lists, reviews, casual commentaries, and passing anecdotes that the series’ dogged editors (and their even more dogged graduate students) could track down—revolutionized the way we study English theatre history of the long eighteenth century. In recent years, however, the emergence of new technologies of archiving and searching (among them the digitization of the series, led by Mattie Burkert, as The London Stage Database) has led scholars to revisit and even to reject some of the series’ sources and conclusions. Leslie Ritchie’s meticulous David Garrick and the Mediation of Celebrity joins such reconsiderations of the assumptions and anecdotes that shape the study of eighteenth-century theatre—and particularly of its most famous actor-manager.
Pointing out that his career directly coincided with the emergence of mass media in the form of newspapers and periodicals, Ritchie describes David Garrick as “the first actor to exploit the power of the press in the production and mediation of celebrity” (230). Garrick’s fame, she argues, was not only the result of his talent on the stage, but also of the savviness with which he curated his reputation in print (by, for instance, owning shares in several newspapers that featured theatrical reviews). She supports this argument with new evidence culled from a combination of careful archival research and the sorts of big-data analyses afforded by new digital tools. Ritchie thus reveals how Garrick conditioned audiences to appreciate the innovative acting techniques he is credited with having introduced to the English stage, and she traces many previously unremarked connections between Garrick and the media outlets that helped to produce his fame. As she does, she offers a potent reminder to theatre historians to delve more deeply into the personalities controlling the anecdotes and archives they have too often taken as authentic or objective records.
Ritchie organizes the book’s chapters around several modes of control that Garrick exerted over his media presence. She begins by setting the scene, laying out the eighteenth-century “mediascape” as one in which newspapers and theatres often depended on each other to create and spread the gossip that garnered readers and spectators. In chapter 2, she presents new evidence documenting Garrick’s close ties to the newspaper world. Garrick’s contemporaries, Ritchie reveals, were not only aware of this relationship but frequently commented upon it—a fact that Ritchie uses to suggest a nascent interest in a free press at this time (although the papers rarely lived up to it). Chapter 3 expands on this discussion by examining the blurred lines between news and advertising in eighteenth-century periodicals and by tracing the ways Garrick exploited this confusion to puff his own performances and create a “brand” that remained consistent throughout his career (87). Ritchie turns to negative publicity in chapter 4, asking how Garrick exploited bad press in some cases while suppressing it in others, as he sought “to protect his own and his theatre’s brand equity” (118). A final chapter examines Garrick’s role as businessman and patentee, using Garrick’s chosen metaphor of the prompter as “emblematic of Garrick’s media-centred approach to the theatre business, in which the audience is . . . prepared and prompted by media interventions to respond to Gar-rick and his theatre” (201). In a brief but illuminating conclusion, Ritchie examines how the sources through which we know David Garrick are mediated not only by the man himself but by the army of biographers and curators—both professional and amateur—who shaped his memory after his death.
Evoking the work of Judith Milhous, Robert Hume, and other documenters of the eighteenth-century playhouse, then, David Garrick and the Mediation of Celebrity contributes much to our understanding of Garrick. Although some of the book’s larger historiographical points about the unreliability of media accounts...