Cibber's poetical work was ridiculed in his time, and has been remembered only for being bad. His importance in British theatre history rests on his being the first in a long line of actor-managers, on the interest of two of his comedies as documents of mutating early 18th-century taste and ideology, and on the value of his autobiography as a source for our knowledge of the 18th-century London stage.
After an inauspicious start as an actor, Cibber eventually became a popular comedian, wrote and adapted many plays, and rose to become himself one of the newly empowered businessmen-managers. He took over the management of Drury Lane in 1710 and was as theatre manager highly commercially, if not artistically, successful. In 1730, he was made Poet Laureate, an appointment which attracted widespread scorn, particularly from Alexander Pope and other Tory satirists.
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 (Covent Garden, 15 February 1745), a miserable paraphrase of Shakespeare's play. He died in 1757.
Cibber's colourful autobiography, An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber (1740), pioneered the truly personal autobiography, and inaugurated a distinctive British tradition of chatty, meandering, anecdotal memoirs. 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.
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 cutthroat theatre company rivalries and chicanery of the time, as well as providing pen portraits of the actors he knew. The Apology is notoriously vain and self-serving, as both contemporaries and posterity have enjoyed pointing out (see Barker). For the early part of Cibber's career, it is also unreliable in respect of chronology and other hard facts, understandably, since he was writing down his recollections fifty years after the events, apparently without the help of any journal or notes. Nevertheless, it is an invaluable source for the theatre history of the Restoration and early 18th-century period, 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 (albeit at the end of their careers) and lived to see the ultra-modern David Garrick perform, he is a fascinating bridge between a mannered and a more naturalistic style of performance.
The self-complacency of Cibber's Apology infuriated some of his contemporaries, notably Pope. However, 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.
Cibber began his career as an actor at Drury Lane in 1690, with little success for several years. "The first Thing that enters into the Head of a young Actor", he wrote in his autobiography half a century later, "is that of being a Hero: In this Ambition I was soon snubb'd by the Insufficiency of my Voice; to which might be added an uninform'd meagre Person… with a dismal pale Complexion. Under these Disadvantages, I had but a melancholy Prospect of ever playing a Lover with Mrs. Bracegirdle, which I had flatter'd my Hopes that my Youth might one Day have recommended me to." At this time the London stage was in something of a slump after the glories of the early Restoration period, and the two theatre companies had been merged into a monopoly, leaving actors in a weak negotiating position and basically at the mercy of the dictatorial manager Christopher Rich. When the senior actors rebelled and established a cooperative company of their own in 1695, Cibber "wisely", as the Biographical Dictionary of Actors puts it, stayed with the remnants of the old company, "where the competition was less keen". He had still after five years not been very successful in his chosen profession, and there had been no heroic parts and no love scenes. However, the return of two-company rivalry created a sudden demand for new plays, and Cibber seized this opportunity to launch his career by writing a comedy with a big, flamboyant part for himself to play. He scored a double triumph: his comedy Love's Last Shift, or Virtue Rewarded (1696) was a great success, and his own uninhibited performance as the Frenchified fop Sir Novelty Fashion delighted the audiences. His name was made, both as playwright and as comedian.
Later in life, when Cibber himself had the last word in casting at Drury Lane, he wrote, or patched together, several tragedies that were tailored to fit his continuing hankering after playing "a Hero". But his performances of such parts never pleased audiences, which wanted to see him typecast as an affected fop, a kind of character that fitted both his private reputation as a vain man, his exaggerated, mannered acting style, and his habit of ad libbing.
His tragic efforts were consistently ridiculed by contemporaries: when Cibber in the role of Richard III makes love to Lady Anne, wrote the Grub Street Journal, "he looks like a pickpocket, with his shrugs and grimaces, that has more a design on her purse than her heart". His most famous part for the rest of his career remained that of Lord Foppington in The Relapse, a sequel to Cibber's own Love's Last Shift but written by John Vanbrugh. Pope mentions the audience jubilation that always used to greet the small-framed Cibber's donning of Lord Foppington's enormous wig, which would be ceremoniously carried on stage in its own sedan chair.
Cibber loved to act. After he had sold his interest in Drury Lane in the mid-1730s (see below) and was a wealthy man of sixty-five, he still returned to the stage a number of times to play the classic fop parts of Restoration comedy that audiences appreciated him in. His Lord Foppington in Vanbrugh's Relapse, Sir Courtly Nice in John Crowne's Sir Courtly Nice, and Sir Fopling Flutter in George Etherege's Man of Mode were legendary. These were the kind of comic parts where affectation and mannerism were positively desirable. But in tragedy, audiences were at this time being entranced by the innovatively naturalistic acting of the rising star David Garrick, and wanted less than ever to see Cibber play a hero.
Neither Cibber's adaptations nor his own original plays have stood the test of time, and hardly any of them have been staged or reprinted after the early 18th century. An exception is his popular adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III, which remained the standard stage version for 150 years. The American actor George Berrell (1849–1933), speaking of Edwin Booth's rendition of Richard III in St. Louis in the 1870s, wrote of Cibber's work:
"Hamlet was followed by Shakespeare’s Richard III, not the version generally played—a hodge-podge concocted by Colley Cibber, who cut and transposed the original version, and added to it speeches from four or five other of Shakespeare’s plays, and several really fine speeches of his own. The speech to Buckingham: “I tell thee, coz, I’ve lately had two spiders crawling o’er my startled hopes”—the well-known line “Off with his head! So much for Buckingham!" the speech ending with “Conscience, avaunt! Richard’s himself again!"— and other lines of power and effect were written by Cibber, who, with all due respect to the 'divine bard,' improved upon the original, for acting purposes.
Cibber's comedies Love's Last Shift (1696) and The Careless Husband (1704) are early heralds of a massive shift in audience taste, away from the intellectualism and sexual frankness of Restoration comedy and towards the conservative certainties and gender role backlash of exemplary or sentimental comedy. In particular, according to Parnell, Love's Last Shift illustrates Cibber's opportunism at a moment in time before the change was assured: fearless of self-contradiction, he puts something for everybody into his first play, combining the old outspokenness with the new preachiness.
The central action of Love's Last Shift is a celebration of the power of a good woman, Amanda, to reform a rakish husband, Loveless, by means of sweet patience and a daring bed-trick. She masquerades as a prostitute ("Enter Amanda, in an undress") and seduces Loveless without being recognized by him, and then confronts him with logical argument. Since he did enjoy the night with her while taking her for a stranger, it has been proved that a wife can be as good in bed as an illicit mistress. Loveless is convinced and stricken, and a rich choreography of mutual kneelings, risings and prostrations follows, generated by Loveless' penitence and Amanda's "submissive eloquence". She kneels down while he stands "amazed", then she falls in a swoon, he supports her, he "turns from her" (ashamed), she kneels again, he begs her to rise, he embraces her, she weeps, he kneels; she begs him to rise. The première audience is said to have wept at this climactic scene (Davies, 1783–1784|84). The play was a great box-office success and was for a time the talk of the town, in both a positive and a negative sense. Some contemporaries regarded it as moving and amusing, others as a sentimental tear-jerker, incongruously interspersed with sexually explicit Restoration comedy jokes and semi-nude bedroom scenes.
Love's Last Shift is today read only by the most dedicated scholars, and mainly for gaining a perspective on Vanbrugh's sequel The Relapse, which has by contrast remained a stage favorite. Modern scholars often endorse the criticism that was leveled at Love's Last Shift from the first, namely that it is a blatantly commercial combination of sex scenes and drawn-out sentimental reconciliations (see Hume).
The comedy The Careless Husband (1704), generally considered to be Cibber's best play, is another example of the retrieval of a straying husband by means of outstanding wifely tact, this time in a more domestic and genteel register. The easy-going Sir Charles Easy is chronically unfaithful to his wife, seducing both ladies of quality and his own female servants with insouciant charm. The turning point of the action, famous in the annals of British theatre history as "the Steinkirk scene", comes when his wife finds him and a maidservant asleep together in a chair, "as close an approximation to actual adultery as could be presented on the 18th-century stage" (Parnell, 291). His periwig has fallen off, an obvious suggestion of intimacy and abandon on the 18th-century stage, and an opening for Lady Easy's tact. Soliloquizing to herself about how sad it would be if he caught cold, she "takes a Steinkirk off her Neck, and lays it gently on his Head" (V.i.21). (A "steinkirk" was a loosely tied lace collar or scarf, named after the way the officers wore their cravats at the Battle of Steenkirk in 1692.) She steals away, Sir Charles wakes, notices the steinkirk on his head, marvels that his wife did not wake him and make a scene, and realizes how wonderful she is. The Easys go on to have a reconciliation scene which is much more low-keyed and tasteful than that in Love's Last Shift, without kneelings and risings, and with Lady Easy shrinking with feminine delicacy from the coarse subjects that Amanda had broached without blinking. Paul Parnell has analyzed the manipulative nature of Lady Easy's lines in this exchange, showing how they are directed towards the sentimentalist's goal of "ecstatic self-approval" (Parnell, 294).
The Careless Husband was a great success on the stage and remained a repertory play throughout the 18th century. Although it has now joined Love's Last Shift as a forgotten curiosity, it kept a respectable critical reputation into the 20th century, coming in for serious discussion both as an interesting example of doublethink (Parnell), and as somewhat morally or emotionally insightful (Kenny). As late as 1929, the well-known critic F. W. Bateson described the play's psychology as "mature", "plausible", "subtle", "natural", and "affecting".
Cibber's creation of the combined actor-manager role is important in the history of the British stage because he was the first in a long and illustrious line that would include such luminaries as Garrick, Henry Irving, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Rising from actor at Drury Lane to advisor and spy (see Dictionary of Actors) on behalf of the manager Christopher Rich, Cibber worked himself by degrees into a position to take over the company. With two other actors, Thomas Doggett and Robert Wilks, he was able to buy the company outright around 1710. The events are well documented, but the three actors' maneuvering to squeeze out previous owners was so lengthy and complex that an approximate date must suffice here. After a few stormy years of power-struggle with Doggett and Wilks, Cibber became in practice sole manager of Drury Lane. He wrote no more original plays, though he continued producing adaptations and patchwork plays from "the frippery of crucified Molière" and "hapless Shakespeare for the company, and to act on the stage. He thus set a pattern for the line of more charismatic and successful actors that were to succeed him in this combination of roles. His near-contemporary Garrick, as well as the 19th century actor-managers Irving and Tree, would later structure their careers, writing, and manager identity around their own striking stage personalities. Cibber's forte as actor-manager was, by contrast, the manager side. He was a clever, innovative, and unscrupulous businessman who retained all his life a love of appearing on the stage. His triumph was that he rose to a position where, in consequence of his sole power over production and casting at Drury Lane, London audiences had to put up with him as an actor.
Cibber had learned from the bad example of Rich to be a careful and approachable employer for his actors, and was not unpopular with them, but made enemies in the literary world by his obvious enjoyment of the power he wielded over authors. Many were outraged by his sharp business methods, which may be exemplified by the characteristic way he abdicated as manager in the mid-1730s. First selling his share for over 3,000 pounds, he immediately encouraged his scapegrace son Theophilus to lead the actors in a walkout to set up for themselves in the Haymarket, rendering worthless the commodity he had sold. Cibber's application on behalf of his son for a patent to perform at the Haymarket was, however, refused by the Lord Chamberlain, who was "disgusted at Cibber's conduct.
Pope, mortified by the elevation of Cibber to laureatehood and incredulous at the vainglory of his Apology (1740), took every opportunity to attack him in his poetry, and easily got the laughers on his side. Mostly Cibber replied quite good-humoredly to Pope's aspersions ("some of which are in conspicuously bad taste", as Lowe points out), but in 1742 he snapped and hit below the belt in an angry and damaging pamphlet, A Letter from Mr. Cibber, to Mr. Pope, inquiring into the motives that might induce him in his Satyrical Works, to be so frequently fond of Mr. Cibber's name. In this pamphlet, Cibber's most effective ammunition came from a reference in Pope's Epistle to Arbuthnot (1735) to Cibber's "whore", which gave Cibber a pretext for retorting in kind with a scandalous anecdote about Pope in a brothel. "I must own", wrote Cibber, "that I believe I know more of your whoring than you do of mine; because I don't recollect that ever I made you the least Confidence of my Amours, though I have been very near an Eye-Witness of Yours." Since Pope was around four feet tall and hunchbacked due to a tubercular infection of the spine he contracted when young, Cibber regarded the prospect of Pope with a woman as something humorous, and he speaks mockingly of the "little-tiny manhood" of Pope. For once the laughers were on Cibber's side, and the story "raised a universal shout of merriment at Pope's expense. Pope made no direct reply, but took one of the most famous revenges in literary history. In the revised Dunciad that appeared in 1743, he changed his hero, the King of Dunces, from Lewis Theobald to Colley Cibber.
The derogatory allusions to Cibber in consecutive versions of Pope's mock-heroic Dunciad, from 1728 to 1743, became more elaborate as the conflict between the two men escalated, until, in the final version of the poem, Pope crowned Cibber King of Dunces. From being merely one symptom of the artistic decay of Britain, he was transformed into the demigod of stupidity, the true son of the goddess Dulness. Apart from the personal quarrel, Pope had reasons of literary appropriateness for letting Cibber take the place of his first choice of King, Lewis Theobald. Theobald, who had embarrassed Pope by contrasting Pope's impressionistic Shakespeare edition (1725) with Theobald's own scholarly edition (1726), also wrote Whig propaganda for hire, as well as dramatic productions which were to Pope abominations for their mixing of tragedy and comedy and for their "low" pantomime and opera. However, Cibber was an even better King in these respects, more high-profile both as a political opportunist and as the powerful manager of Drury Lane, and with the crowning circumstance that his political allegiances and theatrical successes had gained him the laureateship. To Pope this made him an epitome of all that was wrong with British letters. Pope explains in the "Hyper-critics of Ricardus Aristarchus" prefatory to the 1743 Dunciad that Cibber is the perfect hero for a mock-heroic parody, since his Apology exhibits every trait necessary for the inversion of an epic hero. An epic hero must have wisdom, courage, and chivalric love, says Pope, and the perfect hero for an anti-epic therefore should have vanity, impudence, and debauchery. As wisdom, courage, and love combine to create magnanimity in a hero, so vanity, impudence, and debauchery combine to make buffoonery for the satiric hero.
Writing about the degradation of taste brought on by theatrical effects, Pope quotes Cibber's own confessio in the Apology":
Once Pope struck, Cibber became an easy target for other satirists. He was attacked as the epitome of morally and aesthetically bad writing, largely for the sins of his autobiography. In the Apology, Cibber speaks daringly in the first person and in his own praise. Although the major figures of the day were jealous of their fame, self-promotion of such an overt sort was shocking, and Cibber offended Christian humility as well as gentlemanly modesty. Additionally, Cibber consistently fails to see any faults in his own character, praises his vices, and makes no apology for his misdeeds, so it was not merely the fact of the autobiography, but the manner of it that shocked contemporaries. His rather diffuse and chatty writing style, conventional in poetry and sometimes incoherent in prose, was bound to look even worse than it was when he squared up to a master of style like Pope. The contrast caused Henry Fielding, who was a Justice of the Peace, to issue a bench warrant for the arrest of Colley Cibber on a charge of "murder" of "the English language". The Tory wits were altogether so successful in their satire of Cibber that the historical image of the man himself was almost obliterated, and it is as the King of Dunces that he has come down to posterity.
"Kolley Kibber" is the newspaper nom de plume for Fred Hale, a former gangster, who returns to Brighton to anonymously distribute cards for a newspaper competition and disappears, presumably murdered, at the end of the first chapter of the novel Brighton Rock by Graham Greene.