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DAVID GARRICK by Alan Kendall (St. Martin's: $19.95; 224 pp., illustrated)

February 15, 1987|Elaine Kendall

To his previous biographers, David Garrick was a theatrical meteor blazing an incandescent trail through the heady atmosphere of 18th-Century England. A celebrated actor, innovative manager of the Drury Lane Theater, author of two enormously successful farces, he was an intimate of the great and near-great, a member of the literary club, including Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and Oliver Goldsmith; his artistic triumphs were lauded and respected by an international array of musicians, artists and statesmen. A tireless correspondent, Garrick's surviving letters to friends and colleagues fill three substantial volumes, forming a superb chronicle of the social and cultural life of his era.

Living when gossip was a prime diversion, Garrick's highly public life generated adoration, enmity and a corresponding wealth of anecdote, apocryphal and not. Virtually single-handedly, he restored Shakespeare to pre-eminence with his astonishing performances in "Richard III," "Macbeth" and "King Lear." Though he cut and edited the plays, sometimes moving a speech from the end of one to the beginning of another, he never tampered with the language itself. He conscientiously researched the original texts and stripped away the misguided improvements made by 17th-Century zealots who had altered the plays to provide happy endings more agreeable to the sensibilities of the time. Garrick made Shakespeare newly relevant by peaking naturally and insisting his company of actors follow his example, replacing the pompous declamatory mode favored by his predecessors with conversational delivery and relaxed movement. Remarkably versatile, Garrick was enthusiastically acclaimed for his work in comedy and contemporary drama and credited with revolutionizing theatrical lighting and costuming; but perhaps almost as important in that rambunctious age, he succeeded in removing spectators from their traditional seats on stage where they had felt all too free to disrupt the play in progress.

In this revisionist biography, Kendall has peeled away two centuries of accumulated legend to show us a far less flamboyant character. His David Garrick is an efficient and careful businessman, a harried bursar, a faithful doting husband and, eventually, a weary semi-invalid pushing himself beyond endurance, writing mournful letters describing his various physical ailments and financial embarrassments. This Garrick dearly loves a lord, and spends a disproportionate amount of time traveling from one great English house to another, a perpetual quest though a welcome one. "Indeed," the author comments dryly, "one wonders how so unhistrionic a personality ever achieved what he did in his chosen profession.

"Of course at times he was well able to turn a fine phrase and extract the drama latent in certain situations, but the wonder is that he did so on relatively few occasions, in view of the opportunities presented and the fact that the use of words was his lifeblood--and one must also bear in mind the fact that he lived in an age and milieu where hyperbole was common."

Here, the brilliant Garrick is not only demystified but denatured; his celebrated romance with the actress Peg Woffington reduced to "an extremely good working relationship," the fact that he shared a house with her explained away as merely a matter of sound economics; the long, intense love affair sanctimoniously dismissed as a passing fancy. "One cannot imagine a union with even a reformed Woffington being a very enduring one, and the devotion between Garrick and the woman he eventually married indicates that he was the one who believed in, and elicited in return, complete fidelity."

Of the huge fund of witty letters, the author quotes only the most mundane, creating the impression that Garrick's correspondence was dominated by recipes for digestive remedies and statements of his accounts. Instead of the magnetic charm and glowing passion, we're shown practicality and uxoriousness; in place of inspiration, mere plodding diligence.

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