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Posts Tagged ‘Susannah Arne Cibber’


Susannah as Cordelia in Lear (a part often taken by James Quinn (1693-1766)


Susannah as Belvidera in Otway’s tragedy, Venice Preserved (Jaffier, the protagonist, played by Garrick)

For 14 consecutive nights Susannah drowned houses in tears, and stirred the very depths of men’s hearts, even her husband’s, who was so affected that he claimed and obtained the doubling of her salary, Doran, Annals of the English Stage (19th century work)

An eighteenth century actress. My first of the new style actresses blogs: I tell the story of her life in story-biography style. I had a lot more information to go on than for Adelaide Labille-Guiard, so this is also clearly about women’s position in the society and the specific conflicts of Susannah’s life and career. I chose her because she is nowadays spoken of denigratingly. The recent form of feminism which shapes studies of actresses is an aggressive capitalist one, and Susannah’s life under this lens does not draw empathy or admiration — as it should, and does from her biographer, Mary Nash (1977)

Friends and readers,

As Adelaide Labille-Guiard was my first choice for resuming my women artists blogs because her life is so little known, so Susannah Arne Cibber is my first choice for 18th century actresses because nowadays she is spoken of disparagingly as a woman dependent on men, a woman who submitted to men because too much attention has been paid to the marital and sexual arrangements that she was coerced into to survive, and then (in court) publicly humiliated for, and not enough to the strength and talents with which she began and developed her first successful career, and then, astonishingly, recuperated her life and work (in the Irish theater) to again become one of the most valued singers of her age and a deeply moving tragedian. In later years her partnership with Garrick was so firm and her insight into what an actress needed for control and respect that she worked to become a manager-partner with Garrick. She could not overcome the prejudice (in Garrick) against women, but she did, until an organic disease (in her stomach it’s said) overcame her, live a fulfilling splendid comfortable life. And again (as I have in many of these sketches from the beginning) found a good biography, Mary Nash’s The Provok’d Wife (Boston, Little Brown, 1977) and a couple of informative recent articles (by Helen Brooks).


Thomas Arne by Zoffany

There is an odd disconnect between her parentage and the musicianship both she and her brother became as masterly at. Her father and grandfather (who died in Marshalsea Prison) were upholsterers (artisans), her mother a midwife and devout Catholic. From parish registers we know that between 1710 and 1718 Anne and Thomas Arne baptised 8 infants: 5 of them died quickly; Susannah was the fourth child, born February 14, 1714, the second of three to survive. Probably because the father was ambitious, he was able to recognize genius-level talent in his son, Thomas, and Susannah. Thomas was first sent to Eton and then apprenticed as a clerk to a lawyer; he rebelled and one story tells of Thomas learning to play the violin in secret. He acquired a clavichord, a player, mastered the keyboard. They lived in the Convent Garden area, and slowly Arne began to become part of the companies playing; knew the people, wrote and worked with them on music, and then produced superb musical events with them.  Eventually he became one of the best and important composers of the era (1710-78), and among his friends, the equally talented, Henry Carey (1687-1743) and Johann Freidrich Lampe (1703-51, wrote scripts).

By contrast, the father had paid for singing lessons for Susannah for years — no need to spend money sending her to the right school to be taught to conform. She begins to sing professionally; one of her earliest professional roles was in Carey’s Amelia. She sang her brother’s music. In this early time she sang in Carey’s Rosamond (play by Addison) and her “expressive sweet contralto” won Handel over (whose Deborah she sang) and was a runaway success at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (1733). Unfortunately, she caught the eye of Theophilus Cibber, son of Colley, an obnoxious bully, sexually abusive of any woman he became involved with (his exhausted wife, Jane Cibber, married 1725, had just died), and her father by now in bad debt, she was confronted, bullied by him driven into marrying this man known as a vicious brute. She had been revulsed by Cibber, tried to hold out with her mother on her side. She had an earnest, melancholy sensitive character. There were worse men about, marriage was a form of protection (literally and from a reputation for promiscuity for unmarried actresses), and of course the two Cibbers were enormously influential in the theater.

At first Susannah was as prodigal as Theo (quickly pregnant), fitting herself into what he wanted; I would put it she accepts training by her father-in-law who recognized her capabilities. In the crowded scheduled super-busy Drury Lane, Susannah lands a break-through role in tragedy (she was hemmed in partly because roles were understood as belonging to the actress who first realized and made a hit with it), her first such role, in Aaron Hill’s translation of Voltaire’s Zaire as Zara.  Hill fancied himself knowing in dramatic art, Thomas Arne wrote the music  Her very frailty after giving birth for the first time was part of what appealed. She began to rack up (as it were) tragic and grave parts: Andromache in Philips’s Distrest Mother, Indiana in Steele’s Conscious Lovers, Amanda in Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift. Meanwhile Theo was taking these braggart coarse roles (Pistol). Those writing about her next step talk of how naive she was, how she never did anything without a man’s approbation, calling her a “priestess of sensibility.”

But what was she to do and what did she do? she broke or tried to break her marital relationship. With all his physical bullying, driving her to work when she was pregnant, she had apparently established during the second pregnancy she was not going to sleep with him (he reproaches for this seethingly), and she moves to put a stop to being put into roles where she’d be publicly mortified. She had loathed how he spoke of and presented her as a “laughable public property.” Most of all of his insisting she take the role of Polly in Beggar’s Opera, which brought down on her Catherine Clive’s vituperative wrath. She had gone to Fleetwood for support, but he refused; nonetheless, she resisted taking Polly, insisted from now on she would decide what roles she took and what not. He went into a “cyclonic rage” and broke down the door of her dressing room, took all cash, her whole wardrobe, all her jewels, and sold it all. Basically the law gave him the right to strip her naked and leave her broke, with no shelter.

Lady Arabella: I won’t come home till four tomorrow.
Lord Loverule: I’ll order the doors locked at twelve.
Lady Arabella: Then I won’t come home till tomorrow.
Lord Loverule Then you shall never come home again, Madam.
— Vanbrugh, The Journey to London

It’s at this point William Sloper, the country squire who would make a crucial difference for her quiet eventually and for the rest of her enters the story. When later Cibber went to court and accused her and Sloper of adultery, it was said that it was Cibber who openly demanded she go to bed with Sloper for a sum of money Cibber would collect. Certainly he let the man visit his house. But an equally probable trajectory tells of how she had met Sloper at the Cibber home in Wild Court, and taught her to play backgammon. They would sit apart talking companionably; their temperaments were compatible.  His wife admired her in Othello; she learned of his splendid house, West Woodhay. He brought needed food to the house, disbursed money to half-paid servants.  Cannot it not equally and more likely be she chose this sensitive man, especially since Cibber began to resent him (especially when in prison)? Between Susannah’s salary and Sloper’s gifts, Cibber was doing very well when out of prison, but he wanted Susannah to be discreet, but now when he tried to get her to take Clive’s role of Ophelia in Hamlet (Clive was clearly unsuited for this role), Susannah would not even attend rehearsals.

The story is complicated, and includes the two lovers taking a flat apart (Blue Cross Street, Leicester Fields), moving again (Kensington lodgings), Sloper’s wife separating herself from him, then Cibber writing her a long crazed letter (Nash, 117-22), which Nash describes as hysterical, a mad, sly letter, so groveling and so menacing, so rambling and so calculating,” where there is also an assume “iron grip” on Susannah. She was now pregnant by Sloper; they capitulate for a while to the appearance of a menage a trois, — before throwing him out. There is another series of letters by Cibber. They flee to hide, but Cibber finds them out, goes after them with hired thugs and guns, and tries to wrest her from Sloper. She is dragged out of the house, but the two will not be parted. It all ends in a humiliating court case where Susannah is utterly shamed.  Even if the judge wanted to sympathize with her, the law was clear that it was Cibber who was the abused person; she, the vile sinner. Cibber asked for 5000£; the jury awarded him 10£. Some did understand Theophilus Cibber was as “depraved and rapacious” as the roles he played (Nash, 151).


West Woodhay house

It is from this nadir, Susannah climbs a long way back. It took a long time and to my way of thinking we ought to admire and respect her wondrously. She was pregnant, utterly shattered from shame and spent two years as if she were “a runway slave,” so fearful was she (and Sloper) that Cibber would make good on new threats unless (say) Sloper paid all his new debts; he advertised his case all over again, but still she kept fleeing (now with a young baby girl around whom Sloper and Susannah would eventually build a family life). Cibber was “still under a recognizance not to threaten or molest” Susannah and so he went to court again. Again he had to win because all law and custom was on his side; he was awarded 500£ (not the 10,000£ he asked for) and apparently he could not go to court again. I drop Theo’s story now: he sold his preposterous missives to the booksellers. He did continue to harass and threaten her and Sloper whenever he could; he drowned in 1758 crossing over to Dublin.

The two lovers disappear (perhaps from the British Isles) and the next time she emerges, it’s November 1741 and she is “under the protection of,” working with and for James Quinn and Friedrich Handel in Dublin. Again as told this is “amazing:” what “can explain the willingness of this timid woman to leave her retirement with William Sloper … ” Maybe she was not so timid; maybe her acting career was a raison d’etre of life for her; she had not chosen to be an actress (though she clearly sang from the time she was young, opinion is divided on her sophistication), but once started, maybe she loved the power over an audience, the accomplishment, the acting out of these different identities, the interaction with other actors. She didn’t have to invent a story, she could take someone else’s and express herself as an actress and through song.


Susannah Cibber by Thomas Hudson

Several elements went into her recovery of herself and her career. First she had a happy good relationship with William Sloper who admired her partly because of her career. He had money, connections, influence. Her first, and now in the second longer, phase of her career she made friends, was liked, she worked hard and had real talent for acting and singing and she had learned well on the job. She had grasped from what happened in courts and her hidden life, she was not as much Theo’s “chattel” as she had thought, but she did remain socially elusive except for when she and Sloper were at home in his country estate. Now her life is made up of her many many acting roles — mostly poignant, grave, or tragic. Nash says her singing was “mediocre,” but she riveted audiences. Charles Burney said how effective she was in recitative; there was an “emotional projection of words;” she was an actress when she sang. Nash writes: “there was something inconsolable, something irremediably melancholy about Susanna Cibber.”  (She seems to have had an opposite character to Catherine Clive.) It was with Spranger Barry (another of her partners on stage) in Romeo and Juliet that the lovers are described as “heart-rending.” She would also take virtuous heroines: she was the sorely-tried Aspasia in Johnson’s Irene.

She formed a strong partnership with Garrick (“the least promiscuous, the most conventional of men”); she felt safe with him; they made an effective couple on stage where the chemistry was transparent. Their highly performative letters survive and it is here we see her attempting to persuade Garrick to let her be a partner in the theater management or patent. Eventually she was the winner in her “wars” with Clive; the public stayed with this disgraced woman. Everyone knows how much Garrick did to make and keep Shakespeare’s plays central to the English stage. She was paid altogether an enormous salary while still in good health.


David Garrick, by Thomas Gainsborough

But her last years were marred by her “chronic stomach disorder” which emaciated her towards the end. She had to give up her heavy schedule. She did long for social acceptance by upper class women, be they titled or of the bluestocking variety, and never had it — neither did most actresses of the era. Mrs Siddons was a remarkable exception; so too Frances Abingdon. She never belonged to any group of women, and we find her maintaining close relationships with her family members: her daughter, her sister-in-law, Cecilia Arne (whom her brother mistreated), Sloper’s sister, Margaret Lethieulllier, who defied convention by coming to stay for long visits to West Woodhay.  Sloper and she hoped for much for their son; he was enrolled in Westminster but he died in the first year away in school. They educated Molly lovingly (in manners, musical accomplishments, an educated taste); she married a well-born clergyman, a love match, and was accepted by his community, but she died young, age 46. Susannah probably hoped for something more from her relationship with Garrick, though hard to say what; when he retired from the stage, it was a blow for her — he had regarded stage as having “almost civic importance” and had transformed Drury Lane. James Quinn, one of her strong supporters, died just two weeks before her. She died January 30, 1766, age 51.  She was buried not in Westminster Abbey itself (like Garrick, Anne Oldfield), but in the North Cloister, a sort of anteroom. William Sloper died three years after the death of their daughter. I imagine him lonely after the death of Susannah and his two children by her.

The one final command performance Garrick did before the king his heroine was Susannah Cibber and since the king wanted to see a comedy (and Susannah’s strength was in serious parts), the choice became Vanbrugh’s Provoked Wife. Nash says Susannah had a “passionate fondness” for this role: a young woman “wretchedly married to Sir John Brute, who not only neglects, but loathes and even physically assaults her.” She is “tenderly wooed by Constant,” a discreet, eloquent, patient and faithful lover, and if she is not yet Constant’s mistress when the play closes, the idea is waiting to be fulfilled off-stage. So Lady Brute does not die nor is she reconciled or resigned to her husband. She asks herself: “What did I vow? … I think I swore to be true to my husband. And he promised to be kind to me. But he hasn’t kept his word. Why, then, I’m absolved from mine” (Nash 313-15). I have read this play myself and find the scenes of the husband with his wife, implied mistress, and servants distressing. Susannah could and did play her part with “special animation” and “poignancy.”


Jonathan Slinger and Alexandria Gilbreath as the Brutes (RSC, 2019)

If Jane Austen never got to see either on the stage, she knew of them by their reputations, books, and read the plays they were in.

Ellen

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