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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VI. The Restoration Drama

§ 24. Colley Cibber’s Earlier Plays

Colley Cibber was what D’Urfey was not, a born man of the theatre. An actor by temperament, a comic poet by accident, he took a perfect measure of the public taste, and he knew his colleagues as he knew the pit and boxes. He could fit himself and them with parts nicely suited to the talent of each. The result is that his plays are no more than delicately poised machines, which run easily enough upon the stage, but creak horribly in the study. Congreve’s criticism of Cibber’s first play, Love’s Last Shift, the justice of which Cibber in his candid way publicly acknowledge, would serve as a criticism for them all. “It has only in it,” said Congreve, “a great many things that were like wit, that in reality were not wit.” Even when he declared that he drew from life, he succeeded in making the portrait lifeless as stone. Lady Betty Modish, in The Careless Husband, is said to have owed not a little to Mrs. Oldfield’s manner of converse.

  • “There are many sentiments in this character,” the author confesses, “that I may almost say, were originally her own, or only dress’d with a little more care, than when they negligently fell from her lively humour.”
  • Yet Lady Betty is essentially a puppet of the stage. As you listen to her wit, when it encounters the wit of Sir Charles Easy or Lord Foppington, your mind never flits for a moment to the talk of human beings. You are reminded, at every page, of that phrase-book of ironic genius, Swift’s Polite Conversation.

    However, Cibber, being a man of the theatre, cared as little for human character as for literature. It was for him to fill the pit and boxes, and he filled them for two generations. In the making of plays he was an expert, and he cared not whose work it was that he adapted. He improved Shakespeare with as light a heart as he improved Mrs. Centlivre. His most important service to the stage of his time was the invention of a new kind of beau in Sir Novelty Fashion, who was accepted by Vanbrugh as a type, and held the stage until he was reincarnated as Lord Dundreary. Services such as this hardly outlast the author who does them, and Colley Cibber has a claim upon our regard, which all his journey-work would not merit.