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Folger Shines Spotlight on David Garrick

Eighteenth-century England may not have had Hollywood, but it did have one distinct advantage when it came to the entertainment industry: David Garrick.

In many ways, Garrick, a polymath who revolutionized British drama in the mid-1700s through his acting, plays, theater management, and oversized personality, was the precursor to the modern megastar. Bold, brash and brilliant with a particular talent for self-promotion, Garrick dominated the dramatic scene as no other single figure of his age. In his heyday, his face was everywhere: on snuffboxes and tea saucers, scent bottles and prints. Great artists, such as William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough, painted his portrait, and their masterpieces adorned his walls.

And now for the first time in nearly 30 years in the United States, Garrick is splendidly explored in a new exhibit on his life opening Friday at the Folger Shakespeare Library that draws on the library’s trove of some 50,000 Garrick artifacts, ranging from letters to porcelains to artworks and books. (Only Shakespeare himself is better represented in its collection.)

“He was the first English international celebrity,” said exhibit co-curator Erin Blake. “There were royals who were famous like that, but he was the first of that kind.”

Garrick’s story is perhaps even more remarkable given that he ascended to such prominence in what was then a disreputable career and after rising from “modest origins,” Blake said.

Born in 1717, Garrick grew up in Lichfield, then headed to London at age 20 to seek his fortune with his former teacher and traveling companion Samuel Johnson, of “Dictionary of the English language” fame. He briefly tried his hand at the wine trade, going into business with his older brother Peter, but soon turned to what he considered his true calling: the theater.

By 1741, Garrick was appearing on stage at the Tankard Street Playhouse in Ipswich — just not under his own name. Not wanting to besmirch his family’s reputation by his association with the “lowly” acting profession, he appeared first under the maiden name of the manager’s wife, as Mr. Lyddall. Later that year, he made his London debut as Richard III, which would become one of his signature roles, under the quirkily disingenuous pseudonym, “A Gentleman, (Who never appeared on any Stage).” The following day, Garrick realized he couldn’t keep his new endeavor under wraps any longer and wrote his cousin an apologetic letter — included in the exhibit — which the cousin then forwarded to the rest of the family along with the note: “very Sorry for the Contents.”

But Garrick had no such qualms.

“My General talents that Way are not to be Doubted,” he assured his brother Peter in another letter referencing his acting career.

He was right. In his more than three decades on the stage, Garrick would do away with the formalistic acting manner, in which actors stepped forward into the light, delivered their lines stiffly and then retreated into the shadows.

Garrick, rather, became his characters, pioneering the then-rare idea of “inhabiting” a role, said Blake. As Hamlet, for instance, Garrick’s gesture of fear at the sight of his father’s ghost “became the Hamlet pose” for Hamlets for the next 100 years, she noted. (Garrick, ever the showman, sometimes used a mechanical “fright-wig” to accentuate his terror.)

A contemporary observer, writing of Garrick’s performance in another great Shakespearean tragedy, “King Lear,” noted that in Garrick’s interpretation, Lear’s madness “steals so gradually and imperceptibly [sic], the Difference grows like a Colour, which runs on from the highest to the darkest Tint, without perceiving the Shades, but by comparing them at different Parts of the Whole.”

A few years into his stage career, Garrick added co-manager of the Drury Lane Theatre to his portfolio. There, he was responsible for every aspect of the dozens of productions launched each season. Several playbills in the exhibit show just how complicated these spectacles could be, involving, in addition to the main piece itself, musical interludes, dances, prologues and epilogues.

Garrick also undertook a number of reforms and changes to the theater: eliminating the practice of allowing theatergoers to both wander freely backstage and sit on the stage during performances (common for wealthy men who wanted to be close to their favorite mistresses); attempting to jettison half-price tickets after the third act (this failed after rioting broke out); removing chandelier lighting in favor of side-lighting (which allowed for more freedom of movement on the stage); and establishing the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund, a charitable organization that served as a pension fund for needy actors.

During his career, Garrick produced 26 Shakespeare plays — including a controversial version of “Hamlet” which excises both the gravediggers scene and the fencing match between Laertes and Hamlet — and was a prominent champion of the Bard.

“He’s remembered now more for his Shakespeare work, but at the time he was known for Shakespeare and for his work,” said Blake, referring to Garrick’s prolific playwrighting output.

Garrick’s sprawling country estate in Hampton featured a “Temple to Shakespeare,” which displayed a life-size sculpture of the Bard (based in part on Garrick himself) — a 22-1/2-inch terracotta model of the piece is included here — as well as an intricately carved Shakespeare mahogany chair designed by Hogarth, also on view in the exhibit, and replete with cloven feet, snakes and various theatrical accouterments such as masks and daggers.

Garrick also was responsible for organizing the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford, a planned three-day extravaganza of song, dance, processions and fireworks — it was a bust thanks to rain, flooding and price gouging (the fireworks and elaborate procession of Shakespeare’s characters never happened). To pre-empt critics and capitalize on the disaster, Garrick penned “The Jubilee, a Farce” when he returned to London, which he ultimately performed 153 times, Blake said. Still, the jubilee was notable for pioneering two current trends: bardolatry, or the worship of Shakespeare, and the mass production of keepsake mementos for tourists, which were produced for the event.

A natural self-promoter, Garrick never missed an opportunity to advance his name or career — even when abroad.

“When he was in France he wrote a letter back home, saying ‘Please send me some more prints of myself because people want them and I need to be able to give these to people,’” noted Blake, referring to Garrick’s 1763-65 “Grand Tour” of the European continent. “He asked that they ship over these prints of him in various characters and also not in character.”

It paid off. After Garrick’s 1779 death, less than three years after he retired from the stage, thousands of mourners lined the streets of London for an extravagant funeral procession leading to his burial at Westminster Abbey.

But his legacy didn’t stop there. His extensive collection of plays lives on at the British Museum, and an eponymous all-male theatrical club in London was founded in 1831.

And while Hollywood may not have been around during his lifetime, eventually even it tried to cash in on his fame. In 1937, Warner Bros. released the feature film “The Great Garrick,” starring Olivia de Haviland and Brian Aherne in the title role, which recounts Garrick’s apocryphal encounters during his Grand Tour with the actors of the “Comédie Française.”

“David Garrick (1717-1779), a Theatrical Life,” runs through Aug. 28 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, located at 201 East Capitol Street SE. For more information on the exhibit, go to https://www.folger.edu.

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