18th c. Actor-Manager David Garrick–A Feminist?

August 15, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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One of the great delights in researching my up-coming October release of Wicked Company from Sourcebooks Landmark was discovering that David Garrick, the fabled actor-manager of the eighteenth century London Theater Royal, Drury Lane, was what we surely would call in our own age, “a feminist.”

For the nearly thirty years of his sterling career, he championed women artists–not only actresses, but dancers, novelists and playwrights as well. Here on the left in a portrait by Hogarth, he is shown  at his desk, no doubt penning one of his own plays which competed with the immortal likes of She Stoops to Conquer and The School for Scandal.

Garrick was also known for another oddity of his age and ours:  an absolute devotion to his wife, Eva-Maria, pictured behind him as a kind of bright yellow “happy muse.”

In the eighteenth century, with no television or motion pictures to steal his audiences–Garrick changed the playbill every few days or so.  He also offered dancing, singing, and other divertissments in a bold attempt to keep his fickle patrons from heading over to his nearby arch rival, Theater Royal, Covent Garden. This constant revolving of “What’s on tonight at Drury Lane?” required, however, a never-ending need for new material.

With great respect for the professional life his wife had enjoyed as a premier dancer of her day, Garrick was only too happy to hire talent, whatever its gender, to keep the public’s interest in the kinds of entertainment offered at Drury Lane, and in fact, he  encouraged women writers by offering them his services as mentor and editor as they toiled on their plays.

Garrick launched a number of women in well-paid careers as “petticoat playwrights,” among them the actress, comedienne Kitty Clive (1711-1785), seen here on the right. He also served as cheerleader to one of the playwriting “Hannahs”–Hannah More .  (The other, Hannah Cowley ,and Hannah More  actually despised each other–but  you will have to read Wicked Company to learn more about that!).

When I was first researching this historical novel at the Huntington Library and Art Galleries in the late 1980’s–as seen here on the left–there was very little published about Garrick’s role in launching these women into professional writing careers.  But soon I was bumping into theater scholars from Ohio, Delaware, and Yale universities and elsewhere, hard at work on such nonfiction efforts as Curtain Call: British and American Women and the Theater 1660-1820, and The Plays of Frances  Sheridan (mother of Richard, of The School for Scandal and The Rivals fame). Garrick produced one of Frances Sheridan’s work, The Dupe, though, sadly, it found little favor with the sometimes riotous, badly-behaved audiences.

David Garrick died in 1779, and much later, a London social club was named in his honor.  When I was in London researching Wicked Company, I was taken there as a guest on the only day a woman could enter those portals because–of course, The Garrick Club was founded by men, and as far as can be determined, remains for men only.

Ah, the ironies of history…