David Garrick: Britain's Greatest Actor

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  • Topic: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, David Garrick, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
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Evan Johnson
SID 11236888
Theater 366 Essay Final

David Garrick: Britain’s Greatest Actor

David Garrick's contemporaries felt it would be vanity to describe his acting. David Garrick was considered to be the most influential and skilled actor of his time. Garrick is credited with revolutionizing the portrayal of character. His concept of experiencing the feelings of the character, is a concept that helped lead 18th-century theatre into a new naturalistic era. It was an approach to acting that was directly at odds with the theatrical philosophy prior to Garrick's inception. Garrick's innovative style known as naturalism, led the extremely popular and successful actor James Quin to remark “If this [method of Garrick's] is right, then we are all wrong". The style that was so admired and later copied by Garrick's peers was a combination of naturalism, classical representation of the passions, and exaggerated physicality.

Garrick was not the originator of naturalism, that distinction is Charles Macklin’s, although he is credited with its success. Pure naturalism can be characterized by Macklin's instruction of his players to ignore the cadence of tragedy, but simply speak the passage as you would in common life and with more emotional force. The term used to describe this new style of speech is called broken tones of utterance. It is a method of speech which concentrates more on the emotion in a verse rather than its meter. David Garrick was a opportunistic actor who borrowed from many different acting techniques. Garrick's naturalism was concerned more with the feeling of true emotion, the uniqueness of character, combined with the physical representation of the passions. Representation of the passions was an accepted artistic convention for expressing emotion. Le Brun, a late 17th-century century artist , wrote a "grammar" of the passions from Descartes earlier work. In doing so he gives a formal explanation of the 17th and eventually 18th-century representation of emotion. Le Brun's manual explains that

Contempt is expressed by the eyebrows knit and lowering towards the nose, and at the other end very much elevate; the eye very open, and the pupil in the middle; the nostrils drawing upwards; the mouth shut, and the corners somewhat down, and the upper lip thrust out farther than the upper one.

Le Brun's descriptions along with many suggestions of mannerisms which should accompany them were reprinted in the acting manuals of the time.(Stone and Kahrl 28). Garrick was well aware of these manuals and incorporated them into his new style of acting . It was Garrick's use of exaggeration when portraying a passion that led many of his peers to label him England's greatest actor. The thing that set Garrick apart is that he practiced the "sympathetic" technique of acting that can be attributed to the writer Thomas Heywood. The "sympathetic" technique stated that the use of the descriptions of the passions should be varied according to the individual being portrayed. Quin's older school of acting made little distinction between a Brutus, a Hamlet, or a Richard III. All of these characters would be portrayed using the universal motions and thus expressing the characters in much the same manner. One of Garrick's peers wrote of his versatility saying "The thing that strikes me above all others is the variety in your acting, and your being so totally a different man in Lear, from what you are in Richard…" (Cole and Chinoy 132). It was Garrick's use of exaggerated characterization to individualize a character which made him famous. Garrick's lively and very physical portrayal of character was noted by many of the great actors of the day. Richard Chamberlin wrote in his memoirs of the time when Garrick met Quin in Rowe's The Fair Penitent (1746): But when, after long and eager expectations, I beheld little Garrick, young and light, and alive in every muscle and feature, come...
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