On Wednesday, March 20th NY Metro co-sponsored an author talk and Q&A at the East Side Shakespeare & Co. bookstore. Norman S. Poser gave an entertaining illustrated presentation about his latest book, The Birth of Modern Theatre: Rivalry, Riots, and Romance in the Age of Garrick.
David Garrick was a star from his debut 1741 to his retirement in 1776. He was the first celebrity actor, greatly influential both as a performer, as what we would call a director, and as a theater owner/manager. Equally praised for both comic roles and tragic ones, he took the lead in popularizing a more naturalistic and psychologically insightful acting style.
The talk addressed such issues as the change in the design of theaters, the censorship of plays critical of the government and the extremely rowdy nature of the audiences. “Riots” isn’t an exaggeration — audiences caused serious damage and started fights when theater prices were raised, when they thought some of the performers were French Catholics, even when an actor dared play a role another actor “owned.”
Of particular interest to the audience was the era’s fondness for Shakespeare onstage, the tragedies certainly, but also some of the comedies. Perhaps this is not too surprising — Henry Crawford declares in Mansfield Park that those plays are “part of an Englishman’s constitution.” But eighteenth century theater companies were not above “improving” Shakespeare. Garrick’s production of Romeo and Juliet had Juliet waking up before Romeo dies so that the latter can have a nice long speech, and King Lear was “fixed,” with a happy ending for all!