Playwright. Actor. Theatre manager. David Garrick stands out as a towering figure of the theatrical world in the 18th century and is remembered, at least in part, for his friendship with the irrepressible lexicographer Samuel Johnson.
Born on 19th February, 1717, in Hereford to an army officer (with French Huguenot roots) as the third of five children, Garrick attended school in Lichfield, north of Birmingham, including, at the short-lived Edial Hall School where Dr Johnson himself taught Latin and Greek. It was during his youth that he first took an interest in the stage, appearing in George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer.
When the school closed due to lack of funds, Garrick accompanied Dr Johnson to London (they had become friends) and there he and his younger brother Peter established a wine business (Peter eventually went back to Lichfield to run part of the business from there). While the business wasn’t a great success, Garrick took to acting in amateur theatricals and eventually – according to Peter Thomson, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – made his professional debut acting incognito in a pantomime in London in March, 1741, although Garrick apparently said placed his debut in Ipswich that summer when he was acting in Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave (meanwhile the first performance of one of his dramatic works – Lethe, or Aesop in the Shades – had taken place at Drury Lane the previous year).
His breakthrough role came later that year – in October – when he appeared in London on the stage of the unlicensed Goodman’s Fields Theatre in the title role of Richard III. Soon acclaimed by the likes of Alexander Pope and William Pitt as the greatest actor of his time, further roles followed at Goodman’s Fields and at the famous Drury Lane Theatre as well as in Dublin (where he started an ultimately ill-fated love affair with Irish actress Peg Woffington who returned with him to London where he continued acting at Drury Lane).
Having also performed for a season, at the rival Covent Garden Theatre, in April 1747, Garrick entered into a partnership with James Lacy for the ownership of the Drury Lane Theatre. The first performance was apparently by Garrick himself, reading Ode to Drury Lane Theatre, on dedicating a Building and erecting a Statue, to Shakespeare – a piece written by Dr Johnson.
It was two years later – on 22nd June, 1749 – that he married a German dancer Eva Marie Veigel. They lived at a house at 27 Southampton Street and Garrick’s increasing wealth led him to buy a country property in Hampton, today in south west London, in 1754 which became known as “Garrick’s Villa”. Considerably altered, the Grade I-listed property still stands there today (albeit having suffered extensive damage in a 2008 fire) along with the summerhouse he built to house his collection of Shakespearian memorabilia – known as Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare, it’s open to the public over from April to October.
Meanwhile, as well as managing the theatre, Garrick continued acting and writing plays. In September, 1769, he staged the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon, celebrating 200 years since the playwright’s birth – even though it was five years too late and was ultimately a bit of a disaster, he took his celebration of Shakespeare back to Drury Lane and there it was a huge success.
Garrick, who moved from Southampton Street into the newly built Adelphi Terrace in 1772, remained manager of Drury Lane until his retirement in 1776 during which time it became widely acknowledged as the country’s leading theatre. He died at home on 20th January, 1779. His wife outlived him by 43 years. The couple had no children. Garrick was subsequently interred in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey – the first actor to receive the honour.
Garrick’s legacy was enormous – not only is he famed for bringing a new ‘realistic’ style to the profession he so loved, he set new standards in the arts of public relations and was also an instrumental figure in having Shakespeare recognised as England’s national icon. Legend goes that he was also the actor responsible for the phrase “Break a leg!” – apparently so engrossed in a performance of Richard III that he overlooked the fact he’d fractured his bone.