September 15, 2016
David Garrick as Hamlet
On this date in 1763 the famous English actor David Garrick began is celebrated “World Tour” of western Europe. He returned to England on April 27, 1765.
The following is an essay that I published in a different format in Salem Press’s series Great Events from History: The Eighteenth Century.
By 1763 David Garrick, actor and manager of the Drury lane Theatre, was firmly established as the greatest English actor of his day, the most important figure of English theatre. His European Tour spread his reputation throughout Europe and proved to be one of the great celebrity events of the century.
Garrick was at the height of his career in 1763 but the 1762-1763 theatre season had been particularly difficult. Together the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres attempted to end the longstanding but unprofitable practice of reducing ticket prices by half after the third act. An organized audience riot at Drury Lane forced Garrick with a personal stage appearance to acquiesce to the mob’s demand. Thus Garrick and his wife Eva Marie, with whom he had never been apart for more than twenty-four hours, set out for Paris and the continent for a long deserved rest from professional duties.
Garrick’s timing was fortuitous, as his reputation had preceded him and all things English were in style. His first night in Paris he was given the freedom of the theatre of the Comédie Française where he made numerous acquaintances among the Paris theatre establishment. Again, in the next two years when returning to Paris he was welcomed further by eminent writers and thinkers. In particular Garrick enjoyed the regular hospitality of the celebrated salon of Baron Paul Henry d’Holbach, the philosopher, best known today for his famous refutation of human free will in his essay “Are We Cogs in the Universe?”
D’Holbach’s salon along with other social functions allowed Garrick the pleasure of developing lifelong acquaintances with such figures as Jean François Marmontel, Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Baron Friedrich-Melchior Grimm, all prominent writers and critics.
The Garricks spent only three weeks initially in Paris before proceeding to Italy, passing through Lyons, over Mount Cenis to Turin, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Rome, and ultimately Naples where they spent Christmas. The journey truly was a triumphal tour as notables throughout Europe vied for time spent with the great actor. At one point, passing near Ferney, Voltaire, author of Candide, sent Garrick an invitation, which Garrick however smugly rejected due to Voltaire’s well-known disdain for Shakespeare. This rejection was taken as quite an insult.
Throughout his tour Garrick also was searching out of the way sources for rare books to add to his extensive collection and also, evidently to sell for a profit upon his return to England.
Along the way Garrick made the most of his acting reputation on his visits. In Naples, accompanied by Lord and Lady Spencer and Lady Oxford he was asked by the King to the Royal theatre to test the Italian acting company by developing a scenario for a plot which they were to undertake and perform within twenty-four hours. In Parma while dining with the Duke of York and the Prince of Parma, Garrick performed his famous dagger scene from Macbeth, for which the Prince gave him a snuff box which Garrick added to his collection of many snuff boxes given out as gifts on his tour.
Upon another occasion at the private residence of Mlle. Clairon, a leading French female actor, Garrick performed the dagger scene along with the Ghost scene from Hamlet and the mad scene from King Lear. Mlle. Clairon, enraptured, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, and then, embarrassed, turned to Mrs. Garrick and apologized.
Once when riding in the countryside with another French actor, Préville, the Frenchman began pretending to be drunk. Garrick praised him on the performance but also showed him some of problems with the routine by himself demonstrating drunkenness. In doing so he fell from his horse and lay unconscious. The performance was so convincing that the veteran French actor truly thought Garrick to be dead and turned to seek help. Garrick then sat up and laughed.
Misfortune extended the length of the tour considerably. After especially difficult travel to Naples, in which the coach had broken down during severe weather, Eva Marie caught cold and developed rheumatism in one of her hips. She was forced to keep to her bed for many days, though amusingly she did attend a masquerade during Carnival in which she dressed as a lame old woman dragging her leg behind her. Nevertheless the illness persisted until near the end of the tour when Garrick himself grew severely ill with what might have been some form of typhoid fever.
Meanwhile back in London fears that the Drury Lane theatre might suffer with Garrick’s absence proved unwarranted. Garrick had left the theatre in the hands of his partner William Lacy who maintained operational matters and with George Colman Senior who maintained creative interests. Colman was to prove himself as a major figure in London theatre as he later managed Covent Garden and the Haymarket theatres successfully while composing some of the best comic drama of the period. The major acting roles were taken over by Garrick’s young protégé William Powell who developed a significant following due to his absence.
While Garrick began the lengthy preparations to London he thus began to develop concerns about his reception back home. Throughout the tour, while he had moderately kept up with Drury Lane matters, he really had missed the actors and audiences very little. Concerned that his detractors might undermine his homecoming, Garrick attempted to circumvent criticism by having Colman distribute a poem broadside titled “The Sick Monkey” which was humorously to be self-deprecating.
The effort proved unnecessary, as Garrick was welcomed back to London, renewed in health and spirit, by devoted audiences with enthusiasm. While the European Tour had caused him briefly to consider retirement, David Garrick continued an incredibly successful career on the London stage until finally retiring in 1776. He died in 1779.
David Garrick’s European Tour was perhaps the best-known celebrity tour of the eighteenth century. As a result of the tour by the distinguished actor, English theatre, and indirectly English culture gained a new respect that had been missing for decades throughout Europe. Further, Garrick’s absence from the English stage allowed new talent to develop out from under the shadow of the great actor.
Soon after his returned he assisted George Colman Senior in writing The Clandestine Marriage, a play that still holds the stage and the play that essentially initiated Colman’s distinguished literary career. William Powell’s reputation as one of the century’s great actors was to increase even upon his mentor’s return. And Garrick’s reputation itself obviously increased. Among other things, he was elected into Samuel Johnson’s Literary Club, thus validating his intellectual character.
Without question, as a result of his European Tour David Garrick came to be considered one of the great figures of the eighteenth century and brought worldwide respect and acclaim to the English stage.
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