When I got the idea of telling the story of a famous eighteenth-century club that called itself simply “the Club,” I knew that there were incredibly rich resources in the writings of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and the rest – as well as fascinating diaries kept by their women friends Hester Thrale and Frances (“Fanny”) Burney. But I was afraid there would be no way to do justice to one of the most gifted members, the actor David Garrick. Everyone who saw him agreed that his performances were startlingly realistic, at a time when actors usually stood around passively until it was time to recite their own lines. But descriptions of acting are often vague, and Garrick’s performances died with him two and a half centuries ago.
His breakthrough role was as Richard III, and especially for his terrified “start” when he awakens from a dream in which the ghosts of his victims foretell his imminent death. When Fanny Burney saw the play she was dazzled. “Garrick was sublimely horrible! Good heaven–how he made me shudder whenever he appeared! It is inconceivable, how terribly great he is in this character. . . . The applause he met with exceeds all belief of the absent. I thought at the end they would have torn the house down. Our seats shook under us.” That’s high praise indeed–but in what way, exactly, was Garrick sublimely horrible?
Fortunately, if you look for them, insightful accounts of particular performances do exist. An actor named Thomas Wilkes said this about Garrick as Lear: “I never see him coming down from one corner of the stage, with his old grey hair standing, as it were, erect on his head, his face filled with horror and attention, his hands expanded, and his whole frame actuated by a dreadful solemnity, but I am astounded, and share in all his distresses. . . . I feel the dark drifting rain, and the sharp tempest.” In the crude, candlelit setting of the Drury Lane stage, Garrick could make you feel the storm. And his delivery was wonderfully expressive. Wilkes continued, “What superlative tenderness does he discover in speaking these words, ‘Pray do not mock me; for as I am a man / I take that lady to be my child Cordelia.’” The most striking phrase of all in Wilkes’s description is “I never see him.” You could see Garrick in the same role many times, and still be overwhelmed.
The German writer Georg Christoph Lichtenberg saw Garrick in Hamlet, and noted some fine details of the actor’s technique when Hamlet sees the Ghost. “His whole demeanor is so expressive of terror that it made my flesh creep even before he began to speak. The almost terror-struck silence of the audience, which preceded this appearance and filled one with a sense of insecurity, probably did much to enhance this effect. At last he speaks, not at the beginning but at the end of a breath, with a trembling voice: ‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’”
Most unusually, Garrick was equally great in comedy as well as tragedy. One of his most popular comic roles was the tobacconist Abel Drugger in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, a victim of con men who persuade a series of dupes that they can look forward to enormous wealth. “When the astrologers spell out from the stars the name Abel Drugger, henceforth to be great, the poor gullible creature says with heartfelt delight, ‘That is my name.’ Garrick makes him keep his joy to himself, for to blurt it out before everyone would be lacking in decency. So Garrick turns aside, hugging his delight to himself for a few moments, so that he actually gets those red rings round his eyes which often accompany great joy, at least when violently suppressed, and says to himself, ‘That is my name.’ The effect of this judicious restraint is indescribable, for one did not see him merely as a simpleton being gulled, but as a much more ridiculous creature, with an air of secret triumph, thinking himself the slyest of rogues.”
Garrick was eight years younger than Johnson, and in his youth had been Johnson’s student in a short-lived boarding school near their native town of Lichfield in Staffordshire. It struck their friends how remarkable it was that two obscure young men from the same town should end up with memorials next to each other in Westminster Abbey. After they had both become famous, Johnson was diverted by a story about a poor woman who came to London and fell upon hard times. When asked where she was from, she said Lichfield, but that there was no likelihood that anyone she used to know still existed. “I knew one David Garrick indeed, but I once heard that he turned strolling player, and is probably dead long ago. I also knew an obscure man, Samuel Johnson, very good he was too–but who can know anything of poor Johnson?” When Johnson heard about that he collected money from his friends on her behalf.
Garrick was the first to die, five years before Johnson; no fewer than thirty-four coaches carried mourners to the Abbey, four of which were allocated to members of the Club. A playwright who was there recalled seeing “old Samuel Johnson standing beside his grave, at the foot of Shakespeare’s monument, bathed in tears.”
Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature Emeritus at Harvard University. His previous works include the National Book Critics Circle Award winner Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, and Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake. He lives in Newton, MA.