This post is only going to deal with the Beinecke’s William Smith papers, as its topic is nostalgia. I quoted Loftt’s reminiscences about how Garrick inspired him in an earlier post, and this time I want to explore other similar instances in letters sent to William Smith. Of course, it is not surprising to find such letters in Smith’s possession: he trained under Garrick and, even after his retirement, still represented something of a bastion of the golden era of acting at a time when the state of the stage was deplored more and more often.
That the best years of British theatre were over is the larger idea behind, for example, Thomas Coutts’ report to Smith of a reading given by an ageing Sarah Siddons in 1808.
Mrs Siddons has been reading Hamlet & The Merchant of Venice at the Hotel here & had many auditors – but I had no desire to be of the number – it seems to me one of the porrest of all amusements – and, I should think to understand an Author it is best to read to yourself – unless you were at liberty to interrupt & to discourse with the reader, & compare your feeling of a passage with his – I saw her as Catherine in Henry VIII last monday and was very tired of her – it is time for her to have done.
Similarly, albeit with considerably more measured tones, Sir George Beaumont wrote the following to Smith in 1805.
I still continue a warm admirer of the theatre, but it is of the old school. I have seen fine spectacles,
but very little nature of late years, measured steps, super exalted looks, & something approaching recitation, may surprise, but will never be eagerly followed, & I have frequently prophesised whenever nature revisits the stage, people will exclaim there is the old school again! & rush like madmen to the theatre.
This picks up on the oft-used way of praising Garrick as someone whose art was “nature”. What is important here too, though, is that Garrick’s way of acting has become generalised into the “old school”. In part, this is a compliment to Smith, who was part of the “old school”, but it also suggests something about Garrick’s longevity, that he lived on not just in specific details of performance, but in a wider style of acting. The proof for this is in the various modifications brought to the name of David Garrick across Smith’s correspondence, a body of work in which he figures so frequently that I started wondering at one point if Smith was actively soliciting his friends for memories of the theatres good old days.
Here are a few of these modifications. Beaumont in November 1807 praises the actor Bowles as “a firm stickler for nature & the old school & I believe as correct a Garrickean as any living”, conflating Garrick and the “old school” and coining an adjective in the process. Thomas Coutts in 1791 wishes for “a Garrick” to rejuvenate the stage in a phrase where the addition of the indefinite article turns the specific actor into a type. John Byng uses the same trick when he praises Smith as “a Garrick” while a poem from Lofft in praise of Smith speaks more tenderly of “thy Garrick”.
I suppose I pick up on this nostalgia, and its strange coalescence around the figure of David Garrick because it strikes me as an interesting way of looking at the legacy of the ephemeral actor. Garrick lives on in these texts not as a specific character but rather as a kind of generalised model. This distinguishes him from other eighteenth-century figures like Sterne, who found immortality as a version of a character (or characters) they created. We think of Yorick or of Tristram when we try to picture Sterne; but when we think of Garrick there is no single image, but rather a hoard of Richard IIIs, Hamlets, Romeos, Benedicks, Able Druggers and more, united only in a sense that Garrick somehow acted in a way more true to nature. It is that fidelity that many of these letters mourn.