Colley Cibber - Autobiography


Cibber's colourful autobiography, An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber (1740), was chatty, meandering, anecdotal, vain and occasionally inaccurate. At the time of writing the word "apology" meant an apologia, a statement in defence of one's actions rather than a statement of regret for having transgressed.

The text virtually ignores his wife and family, but Cibber wrote in detail about his time in the theatre, especially his early years as a young actor at Drury Lane in the 1690s, giving a vivid account of the cut-throat theatre company rivalries and chicanery of the time, as well as providing pen portraits of the actors he knew. The Apology is vain and self-serving, as both his contemporaries and later commentators have pointed out. For the early part of Cibber's career, it is unreliable in respect of chronology and other hard facts, understandably, since it was written 50 years after the events, apparently without the help of a journal or notes. Nevertheless, it is an invaluable source for all aspects of the early 18th-century theatre in London, for which documentation is otherwise scanty. Because he worked with many actors from the early days of Restoration theatre, such as Thomas Betterton and Elizabeth Barry at the end of their careers, and lived to see David Garrick perform, he is a bridge between the earlier mannered and later more naturalistic styles of performance.

The Apology was a popular work and gave Cibber a good return. Its self-complacency, however, infuriated some of his contemporaries, notably Pope, but even the usually critical Samuel Johnson had to admit that it was "very entertaining and very well done". It went through four editions in his lifetime, and more after his death, and generations of readers have found it an amusing and engaging read, projecting an author always "happy in his own good opinion, the best of all others; teeming with animal spirits, and uniting the self-sufficiency of youth with the garrulity of age."

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