Rivalry, riots & romance in the age of Garrick. The Birth of Modern Theatre explored in new book.

Former law professor, author and academic Norman S Poser, is spending his retirement writing about his two passions, the Georgian era and English theatre, and, in particular, the life and times of David Garrick.

With Christmas fast upon us the 90-year-old writer from New York has published The Birth of Modern Theatre which is a fascinating and engrossing read for anyone who enjoys the history of the English stage.

“In a sense this book is an attempt to express my love for the London theatre, its actors and actresses, and its inimitable atmosphere,” he told Stage Review.

Over the last two years, Norman has spent several weeks at the libraries of the Garrick Club and the Victoria and Albert Museum studying a wealth of personal diaries, letter exchanges, newspaper articles and historic documents.

The result is a lively portrait of the leading characters from the Georgian stage: actors, theatre managers and impresarios – and even their loud and opinionated audiences, who, if they didn’t like a production, would start a riot in the stalls .

David Garrick, who charmed London with his energy, playfulness and grace; the captivating Peg Woffington; the explosive Charles Macklin; the comic actor and dramatist, Samuel Foote; and Thomas Sheridan provide a wealth of hilarious and fascinating anecdotes for Poser’s work.

Here the author explains to Stage Review why Garrick’s influence is still being felt in modern theatre.

Method acting — the natural, psychologically-based style that we see in the work of film actors Marlon Brando, Kate Winslet, Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep – is far from new.

David Garrick. National Portrait Gallery.

Back in the 16th century, Shakespeare had Hamlet lecture the Players on the art of acting, telling them that the purpose of acting was “to hold the mirror up to nature”.

But for many years these lessons were forgotten. Actors on the London stage, in the early 1700s, made little attempt to get under the skin of the characters they were portraying.

Their idea of good acting was to speak in a solemn declamatory manner that bore no resemblance to ordinary human speech.

All this changed dramatically – in every sense of the word – one evening in February 1741 when an Irish actor named Charles Macklin appeared as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at the Drury Lane Theatre.

Macklin was a surly, antisocial man with a hot temper, who once killed a man in a backstage brawl and narrowly escaped hanging.

Breaking with a stage tradition of portraying Shylock as a comic character to be mocked, Macklin probed Shylock’s soul, making him appear a ruthless villain, whose wickedness was caused by the indignities that society imposed on him as a Jew. Macklin’s performance was a triumph.

From the Royal Collection Trust

A few months later, a young actor named David Garrick made his London stage debut in the title role of Shakespeare’s Richard III.

It was one of the great moments in theatre history. Garrick made his audience understand Richard’s motivations, his strengths and weaknesses.

While he showed the evil king in all of his murderous malignity, he was still able to make the audience understand and sympathise with Richard.

Garrick became a celebrity overnight. The nobility and the artistic world flocked to his performances and sought his company at their dinner tables.

His fame spread to continental Europe and the North American colonies. And he excelled in comedy as well as tragedy. He made a habit of closely observing everyone he came in contact with, and he carefully studied the psychology of the characters he played.

The new acting style caught on. Macklin taught young actors his method; and Garrick, who was the actor and manager of the Drury Lane theatre for three decades, carefully trained the members of his company.

In the year before he retired, he taught his skills to Sarah Siddons, the pre-eminent actor of the next generation, who mesmerised even her fellow actors when she played Lady Macbeth.

The actors and directors who succeeded Garrick used different styles of acting, but all were influenced by him.

Charles Macklin. The Garrick Club.

Garrick’s emphasis on portraying the inner life of characters is echoed in the work of the great early-20th century Russian director and teacher, Constantin Stanislavski.

Stanislavski impressed on his students that actors’ own inner experiences were the basic material for their work, and that, in order to express emotion on the stage the actor must study his own feelings as well as those of the character he is playing.

Stanislavski’s theories and practical training of his actors, in turn, influenced European and American teachers, directors, and actors.

But it all goes back to David Garrick, whose presence is still felt on stages across the world, as well as in London’s theatre district, which boasts a Garrick Theatre, a Garrick Street, a Garrick Club, and even a Le Garrick restaurant.

Norman S Poser is the author of The Birth of Modern Theatre: Rivalry, Riots and Romance in the Age of Garrick (published by Routledge).

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