Grantham Civic Society Column: The brash and extrovert life of Colley Cibber
Colley Cibber was an actor-manager, playwright, and Poet Laureate.
He was born in London in 1671 to Caius Gabriel Cibber, a distinguished sculptor originally from Denmark, and his wife Jane Colley.
In his memoir Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, he wrote about his school days at Grantham Grammar School. ‘In the Year 1682, at little more than Ten Years of Age, I was sent to the Free-School of Grantham in Lincolnshire, where I staid till I got through it, from the lowest Form to the uppermost.
‘And such Learning as that School could give me is the most I pretend to (which, tho’ I have not utterly forgot, I cannot say I have much improv’d by Study) but even there I remember I was the same inconsistent Creature I have been ever since! always in full Spirits, in some small Capacity to do right, but in a more frequent Alacrity to do wrong; and consequently often under a worse Character than I wholly deserv’d: A giddy Negligence always possess’d me, and so much, that I remember I was once whipp’d for my Theme, tho’ my Master told me, at the same time, what was good of it was better than any Boy’s in the Form’.
‘A great Boy, near the Head taller than myself, in some wrangle at Play had insulted me; upon which I was fool-hardy enough to give him a Box on the Ear; the Blow was soon return’d with another that brought me under him and at his Mercy. Another Lad, whom I really lov’d and thought a good-natur’d one, cry’d out with some warmth to my Antagonist (while I was down) Beat him, beat him soundly! This so amaz’d me that I lost all my Spirits to resist, and burst into Tears! When the Fray was over I took my Friend aside, and ask’d him, How he came to be so earnestly against me? To which, with some glouting Confusion, he reply’d, Because you are always jeering and making a Jest of me to every Boy in the School. Many a Mischief have I brought upon myself by the same Folly in riper Life’.
Colley’s parents wanted him to become a clergyman, and he tried unsuccessfully to gain a place at Winchester College. Colley persuaded his father to use his influence to gain him a place at the university of Oxford or Cambridge. Whilst waiting in London for this to happen, he became attracted to the stage and in 1690 began working as an actor at the Drury Lane theatre in London.
In 1693 he married Katherine Shore and went on to have numerous children. He wrote and adapted many plays, and eventually took over the management of Drury Lane theatre in 1710.
He continued writing some plays for performance by his own company at Drury Lane and adapted many more. He regarded himself as an actor and had great popular success in comical parts. He was brash and extrovert, but was a political opportunist, which was thought to have gained him the position of poet laureate in 1730. His poetry was ridiculed in his time, and he is not remembered as being very scholarly.
In his old age, he acted in productions with his grandchildren and eventually became a popular comedian. When he was seventy-three years old he made his last appearance on the stage as Pandulph in his own Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John, an adaption of Shakespeare’s play. He died in 1757.