Theophilus Cibber (17031758)



  • Actor
  • Author
  • Theatre Manager

Donald W. Nichol, Professor Emeritus, Memorial University of Newfoundland
November 2023

Storms presided over the birth and death of Theophilus (“Theo”) Cibber (1703–1758) and might be said to characterize much of his career and two marriages. His grandfather, Caius Gabriel Cibber (1630–1700), was a well-known sculptor whose works, like the statue of Charles II in Soho Square, still weather the elements of England. His father, Colley Cibber (1671–1757), actor, playwright, and theatre manager, was elevated to Poet Laureate in 1730, much to the surprise of many and the particular irritation of Alexander Pope. Theo attended Winchester College, then followed in his father’s footsteps in 1720 as an actor at Drury Lane Theatre. Relations between father and son were often strained. In her biography of Susannah Cibber (née Arne), Mary Nash writes: “Colley’s merry self-belittling, which was an effective kind of social appeasement, became grovelling self-loathing in Theophilus” (45). Like his father, Theo had a flair for comedy, rakish tastes, and a gambling habit. A frequent guest of the Fleet debtors’ prison, Theo could have been an understudy for William Hogarth’s Tom Rakewell in Rake’s Progress.

An early adapter of Shakespeare—his Henry VI was “altered from Shakespear” in 1720 (a second edition of his script survives dated 1724)—Theo was entrusted with managing Drury Lane’s summer season from 1722 to 1734. He performed in more than two dozen plays between 1720 and 1738 including six by James Miller, four Fielding comedies, and Thomson’s Agamemnon. As an actor, writer, and theatre manager, he had some enterprising plans. Theo adapted Patie and Peggy: or, the Fair Foundling. A Scotch Ballad Opera, based on Allan Ramsay’s hit in Edinburgh, The Gentle Shepherd, which opened at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 1730.

On Valentine’s Day 1732, Henry Fielding’s comedy, The Modern Husband, opened in Drury Lane Theatre with Colley Cibber as Lord Richly, Theo as Captain Bellamont, and his future wife Susannah (née Arne) as Lady Charlotte Gaywit. Theo also appeared in Fielding’s farce, Tragedy of Tragedies. He brought Hogarth’s painted and engraved series on Moll Hackabout’s fall into prostitution (1732) to the stage in 1733 as The Harlot’s Progress; or, the Ridotto al' Fresco: a Grotesque Pantomime Entertainment. Its 12-page pamphlet/programme bore two frontispieces: one of Hogarth at his easel and the other of “Cibber in the character of Antient Pistol” from his break-out role as Falstaff’s sidekick from 2 Henry IV at Drury Lane in 1720. It sketches out stage directions for 27 actors, provides lyrics to six airs (no musical scores), morphs into the Ridotto al' Fresco (a nod to Jonathan Tyers’s newly opened Vauxhall Gardens), and concludes with “the Masque of The Judgment of Paris &c.

Pope placed Theo in the Dunciad in 1728 (and again in 1743) at the head of a legion of in-your-face dunce-sons in Grub Street:

     Mark first that youth who takes the foremost place,
And thrusts his person full into your face.
With all thy Father’s virtues blessed, be born!
And a new Cibber shall the stage adorn. (Dunciad 3: 139–42

In 1738 Pope’s persona in Epilogue to the Satires: Dialogue I declaims against the sorry state of theatre managers who put on airs and (dis)graces:

Ye Gods! shall Cibber’s son, without rebuke,
Swear like a lord, or Rich out-whore a duke? (ll. 115–16)

Henry Fielding, whose plays provided much employment for the Cibber family, described Theo as “that face-making puppy young Cibber” in Joseph Andrews (bk III, ch. x).

Following disputes in 1733 at Drury Lane with John Highmore, Theo persuaded several fellow actors to set up a new company at Haymarket Theatre. In his 1734 engraving of Southwark Fair, Hogarth inserted John Laguerre’s print of “The Stage Mutiny,” with Theo in his Pistol stance and his father (who ultimately didn’t pass on his share in the theatre to his son) sitting to one side. When Highmore soon afterwards went bankrupt, Cibber and his company accepted the offer of the new patent owner, Charles Fleetwood, to return.

Theo proved a bad-tempered, abusive, and unfaithful husband. Jane Johnson, whom he married in 1725 against his father’s wishes, was a young actress at Drury Lane. He wrote one of his rare original works for her: The Lover ran for eight performances with Jane in the lead. She died before reaching the age of thirty after giving birth to four children, two of whom survived infancy. His second wife, Susannah (née Arne), whom he married in 1734, was pressured by Theo into having an affair with William Sloper, their well-to-do lodger, to avoid the Fleet debtors’ prison. Their bizarre living arrangement—the three lived in various places around London with Theo bringing his wife and her lover a tray in bed at breakfast—led to one of the most sensational criminal conversation cases of the century.

Theo played the part of the cuckold in real life. In a legal battle that would have inspired a soap opera, he painted himself in letters to the press as a poor, unfortunate, devoted husband betrayed by a wife who was lured into adultery by a younger wealthier man. The court (after learning the plaintiff had encouraged the affair) awarded Theo £10 in damages rather than the £5000 he sought. Not one to avoid adding insult to injury, Theo then sued Sloper for £10,000 for “detaining” his wife, but this time he was awarded a more favourable sum of £500.

After discovering in 1738 that his estranged wife was pregnant, Theo abducted Susannah who had to be rescued by her brother Thomas, the composer who gave us Rule Britannia! Mother, lover, and daughter moved houses numerous times to avoid confrontations with Theo. To avoid further raids upon Susannah’s earnings and property and William’s dwindling savings, the lovers vanished for two years with their baby daughter Molly. In 1739 Theo was ousted from Drury Lane and offered his services to John Rich at Covent Garden. Late in 1741, Susannah resurfaced to accept a part in Steele’s Conscious Lovers in Dublin. She stayed on to sing at the première of Handel’s Messiah on 13 April 1742 and reprised her part there in June. Upon returning to London Susannah obtained a court injunction preventing Theo from collecting her earnings and forbidding him to perform in any theatre where she herself was acting. Since Rich had just engaged her to perform at Covent Garden and Theo had managed to get himself fired from Drury Lane, he was effectively barred from both theatres for the time being. In 1743 he migrated to Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin, but soon left after a quarrelling with Thomas Sheridan (father of the playwright) over a missing costume.

In 1744 Theo played a 41-year-old Romeo to his 14-year-old daughter Jenny’s Juliet. Revis’d, and Alter’d from Shakespear, his version borrowed Thomas Otway’s innovation (from The History and Fall of Caius Marius) of having the heroine wake up shortly before her husband succumbs to his poison. He revived the play in 1748 to compete with David Garrick’s production starring his estranged wife and Spranger Barry. Theo published his text of Romeo and Juliet, appended to which was A Serio-Comic Apology in which he fulsomely praised his daughter’s performance, condemned Susannah—she refused to do a benefit night for him, imagine!—and slighted William Warburton’s recent Shakespeare edition. Warburton, in turn, attacked Cibber in the footnotes to his 1751 edition of Pope’s Works.

When England was under threat of takeover during the Jacobite Rising in 1745, Theo wrote The Association from jail, in hope of raising funds to pay his debts:

England, provok’d, now feels, one generous Soul
Inspires each honest Heart, to loyalize the Whole…

While admitting this poem was not his best effort (given his and his country’s urgent circumstances), he managed to invent a new verb in the midst of his jingoistic verse: “to loyalize.”

In 1753 Theo’s name appeared as author of The Lives and Characters of the most Eminent Actors and Actresses of Great Britain and Ireland, intended to cover stage history from Shakespeare to the present day. Instead, Lives turned out to be a Life: one single entry, on Barton Booth (his former colleague at Drury Lane), prefaced by A Familiar Epistle to Mr. Warburton, an attack on the 1751 edition of Pope’s Works, which was totally unrelated to the book at hand. A more coherent collection, The Lives of the Poets, came out in five volumes in the same year. According to James Boswell, Samuel Johnson told him, “The Lives of the Poets by Mr. Cibber, was entirely compiled by Mr. [Robert] Shiels” and that the bookseller, Ralph Griffiths paid Theo, then in jail, ten guineas to append the Cibber name to the title-page as it still had selling power. This project may have prompted Johnson to start his own superior version a quarter of a century later.

Colley Cibber’s sustained sang-froid towards his son extended to his will. When the Laureate died in 1757, his two granddaughters were allotted £1000 each while his only male heir was left the meager sum of £50. Theo dealt with the bitterness by cashing in on his father’s posthumous reputation, staging a production at the Haymarket Theatre of Aaron Hill’s The Insolvent, or, Filial Piety, with a prologue delivered by the grieving son. The preface to this play contains the phrase, summing up the desperation facing young actors—“But sinking men catch at reeds”—which proved to be haunting. The invitation to perform again at Smock Alley Theatre proved Cibber’s undoing when the ship transporting him, his cast and crew was wrecked in a storm enroute to Dublin on 27 October 1758. According to one report, “a fiddle-case, directed for Mr. Cibber, in Dublin” washed ashore in Scotland. His widow became David Garrick’s most celebrated leading lady and lived with William Sloper until her death in 1766. Theophilus Cibber would have been vexed to know that while his widow is well remembered in The Provoked Wife: The Life and Times of Susannah Cibber (1977) by Mary Nash, a full biography of the wayward laureate’s son remains to be written.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

CIBBER, THEOPHILUS (1703–1758), actor and playwright, a son of Colley Cibber [q. v.], was born on 26 Nov. 1703, received his education at Winchester College, and made his first appearance on the stage in 1721, when he played the part of Daniel in the 'Conscious Lovers' at Drury Lane. Possessing considerable ability, and aided both by his father's influence and the patronage of Steele, he came quickly into favour with the public. 'The features of his face,' says Baker, 'were rather disgusting,' and his voice was peculiarly shrill; but these defects were largely balanced by his knowledge of stage business and his vivacity of manner. From 1 Sept. 1731 to 1 June 1732 he was a patentee of Drury Lane Theatre in the place of Colley Cibber, who had delegated the office to his son for 442l. At the end of that period Colley Cibber sold his patent, and the younger Cibber migrated to the little theatre in the Haymarket. In 1733 Cibber took the part of Bajazet in Rowe's 'Tamerlane' at Bartholomew Fair. His first wife, an actress of some slight distinction (Jenny Johnson), died in that year, leaving two daughters; and in April 1734 he married Susannah Maria Arne [see Cibber, Susannah Maria], then known only as a singer, but afterwards very famous as an actress. He returned in 1734 to Drury Lane, where for some time he was acting-manager. Pecuniary difficulties, caused by his incurable habits of extravagance, induced him to take a journey into France early in 1738 in order to be out of the reach of his creditors. Returning in the winter, he brought an action against a country gentleman named Sloper for criminal conversation with Mrs. Cibber. He claimed 5,000l., but the jury assessed the damages at 10l., as it was clearly established, in course of evidence, that Cibber had connived at the intimacy. In the following year he brought another action against Sloper for detaining Mrs. Cibber; he claimed 10,000l. damages, but was awarded only a twentieth part of that amount. About this time he entertained the notion of publishing by subscription his autobiography. His proposal had barely been laid before the public when there appeared 'An Apology for the Life of Mr. T… C… supposed to be written by himself,' London, 1740, a caustic review (ascribed to Fielding) of a not too reputable career. 'Who the low rogue of an author was,' wrote Cibber thirteen years afterwards (Lives and Characters of the most Eminent Actors), 'I could never learn.' When this 'Apology' was published, Cibber abandoned his project, and returned (he assures us) the subscriptions that he had received. In 1741-2 he was playing at Drury Lane, and in 1742-3 at Lincoln's Inn Fields. His services were engaged in the summer of 1743 at the Theatre Royal, Dublin, on which occasion he had a lively passage of arms with Thomas Sheridan. The dispute, which passed into a paper war, arose from Sheridan's refusal to act the part of Cato in Addison's play (Cibber personating Syphax) on finding that he was unable to obtain a certain robe that he considered indispensable to the part. In 1744 Cibber acted at the Haymarket, and from 1745 to 1749 at Covent Garden. Among his most successful characters were Lord Foppington in the 'Careless Husband,' Sir Francis Wronghead in the 'Provoked Husband,' Abel in the 'Committee,' and Ancient Pistol. In 1753 he published 'The Lives and Characters of the most Eminent Actors and Actresses of Great Britain and Ireland,' part i., to which is prefixed A Familiar Mr. William Warburton,' 8vo. In the introduction he states that he intended to write 'a regular account of the English and Irish stage with the lives of the deceased actors of whom I can speak more fully from the year 1720.' Part i., which contained a life of Barton Booth, was the beginning and the end of this undertaking. The epistle to Warburton was an answer to Warburton's attacks on Colley Cibber in the notes to the 'Dunciad.' In 1753 appeared 'An Account of the Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland,' 5 vols. 12mo, with the name of 'Mr. Cibber' on the title-page of the first volume, and with Theophilus Cibber's name attached to the later volumes. Dr. Johnson told Boswell that Cibber, who was then in the king's bench, accepted ten guineas from the sellers for allowing them to prefix his name to the lives, and that he had no hand in the authorship of the book, which was mainly written by Robert Shiels (Johnson's amanuensis); but the truth is that Gibber revised and improved the whole work and wrote some of the lives himself, receiving from the booksellers an honorarium of twenty guineas (Boswell's, Johnson, ed. Croker, 1848, pp. 504, 818). The book is largely based on earlier compilations by Langbaine, Jacob, Coxeter, and others, and contains little original matter of importance. In 1756 Cibber acted at the Haymarket, and was afterwards engaged at Covent Garden. In 1756 he published 'Dissertations on Theatrical Subjects as they have several times been delivered to the Public. ... With an appendix which contains several matters relative to the Stage, not yet made public,' 8vo. The first dissertation contains an inquiry into the conduct of the patentees of Drury Lane Theatre and a protest against the growing popularity of farces; in the second dissertation Gibber draws a comparison between Garrick's acting of Lear and Barry's, giving the preference to the latter. Among the contents of the appendix is an epistle (which had been published in the previous year) to Garrick, in which Cibber complains of having received very ungenerous treatment from the great actor. Following the epistle are some letters to the Duke of Grafton, the lord-chamberlain, setting forth Cibber's grievances. In October 1758 Gibber embarked at Parkgate to cross to Dublin, where his services had been engaged by Sheridan to support the Theatre Royal in opposition to the newly opened theatre in Crow Street. The vessel was driven from its course and wrecked off the coast of Scotland; a few of the passengers were saved, but Cibber perished.

Cibber's dramatic pieces are: 1. 'The Lover,' 1730, 8vo, acted at Drury Lane with no great success. It is dedicated to his first wife. 2. 'Patie and Peggy; or, the Fair Foundling. A Scotch ballad opera,' 1730, 8vo (in one act), founded on Ramsay's 'Gentle Shepherd;' acted at Drury Lane. The writer says it was planned and finished in one day. 3. 'The Harlot's Progress; or, the Ridotto al Fresco,' 1733, 4to, acted at Drury Lane; a short 'grotesque pantomime,' dedicated to Hogarth. Portraits of Hogarth and of Cibber (as Pistol) are prefixed. 4. 'The Auction,' 1757, 8vo, a farce acted at the Haymarket ; it consists merely of a few scenes from Fielding's 'Historical Register.' Two unprinted pieces have been ascribed to Cibber — 'Damon and Daphne,' a pastoral in two acts, performed (without success) at Drury Lane in May 1733; and 'The Mock Officer,' s.d. He also published alterations of 'Henry VI' (n. d., second edit. 1724), and of 'Romeo and Juliet' (1748). Appended to 'Romeo and Juliet' is 'A Serio-Gomic Apology for part of the life of Mr. Theophilus Cibber, Gomedian,' containing an account of his endeavours to get a license for the Haymarket. In 1733 Gibber published 'A Letter to J. Highmore,' in which he complained of the harsh treatment he had received from the patentees of Drury Lane, and in 1752 defended himself in 'A Lick at a Liar, or Calumny detected, being an occasional letter to a friend,' from the charge of having defrauded his creditors.

[Biographia Dramatica, ed. Stephen Jones; Genest's History of the Stage, iii. 112, 423, 542-4, iv. 171, 530-6; The Tryals of two causes between Theophilus Cibber, gent., and William Sloper, esq., defendant (1740); Boswell's Johnson, ed. Croker, 1848, pp. 57, 504, 818; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. xii. 217, 2nd ser. vii. 410.]