Susannah Maria Cibber (1714–1766)
Note: the 19th-century biography below preserves a historical record. A new biography is forthcoming.
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)
CIBBER, SUSANNAH MARIA (1714–1766), actress was born in London in February 1714. Her father was Mr. Arne, an upholsterer in Covent Garden, the original of the political upholsterer immortalised by Addison in the 155th number of the ‘Tatler,’ who in his concern for the affairs of Europe neglected his own business. Happily, his daughter and her brother, Thomas Augustine Arne [q. v.], afterwards distinguished as a composer, turned to excellent account such education as their parents had managed to give them before domestic straits pressed too heavily upon the family. They were both gifted with musical genius, and Mrs. Cibber’s correspondence shows that she had read widely and profited by her reading. Thus a naturally fine voice, of great sweetness, if not of remarkable power, with a cultivated mind to animate and guide it, and a highly sensitive organisation, made her very early a favourite with the public. Her first public appearance was as a singer in 1732 at the Haymar et Theatre as the heroine of Lumpé’s opera ‘Amelia,’ and she continued to appear in opera, rising steadily in public favour on to 1736. On 2 Jan. of that year she made her first essay as an actress as Zarah in Aaron Hill’s version of Voltaire’s tragedy of ‘Zaire,’ and with complete success. Two years before she had married—‘very much against her inclination,’ according to Victor, who knew both families well—Theophilus Cibber [q. v.], then not long a widower, ugly, of small stature, and of extravagant an vicious habits. The natural result followed. Indifference in the pretty young woman turned to disgust as she saw more of her worthless husband. In this mood a Mr. Sloper, a friend of the family and a man of good position, became a not unacceptable wooer, and the wretched Cibber, with a view to extracting damages, threw his young wife deliberately in Sloper's way. What a jury thought of his conduct was shown by their awarding 10l. only as damages in an action tried in December 1738, in which he had claimed 5,000l. Up to this period Mrs. Cibber's reputation rested chiefly upon her powers as a singer. She was a special favourite with Handel. She was the first Galatea in his ‘Acis and Galatea.' He wrote the contralto songs in the ‘Messiah’ and the art of Micah in ‘Samson’ expressly for her. Her studies as an actress had no doubt given to her singing the quality of strong emotional expression, based upon that thorough understanding of the author’s purpose which gives to acting, as it does to singing, its principal charm. How she impressed her hearers, for example, in her treatment of the songs in the ‘Messiah,’ may be gathered from the remark, tinged with that complacent profanity in which churchmen occasionally indulge, of Dr. Delany, the friend and companion of Dean Swift., when that oratorio was produced in Dublin in December 1741: ‘Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!’ The Sloper trial of 1738 explains, if it scarcely justifies, the exclamation. Mrs. Cibber continued for some years after this period to in oratorios and on the stage. Her voice, naturally small, had been we trained, and., both a head and a heart behind it, reduced powerful effects. ‘She captivated every ear,’ says Dr. Burney, ‘by the sweetness and expression of her voice in singing.’ It has been well remarked (sub voce Mrs. Cibber in Grove's Dictionary of Musicians): ‘Passing' by the songs in the “Messiah” which call for the highlest powers of declamation and pathetic narration, we have only to examine the part of Micah in “Samson,” comprising songs requiring not only the expression of pathetic and devout feelings, but also brilliancy and fertility of execution, to judge of Mrs. Cibber’s ability.’ Her reputation as a singer soon, however, became merged in that of the great tragic actress, her rich plaintive voice, her sensibility, and power of identifying herself with the characters she had to portray, having raised her in a few years to great eminence. She seems to have owed her first instruction for the stage to her father-in-law, Colley Cibber. His lessons for a time injured her style. He was an admirer of the demi-chant in declamation, and used to teach his pupils what Victor calls ‘the good old manner of singing and squeezing out their tragical notes.’ She was still under the influence of this teaching when Richard Cumberland, then a mere youth, saw her as Calista in Rowe’s ‘Fair Penitent.’ Mrs. Cibber, he writes, ‘in a key high-pitched, but sweet withal, sang, or rather recitatived, Rowe’s harmonious strain, something in the manner of the improvisatores; it was so extremely wanting in contrast, that though it did not wound the ear it wearied it; when she had once recited two or three speeches, I could anticipate the manner of each succeeding one. It was like a long old legendary ballad of innumerable stanzas, every one of which is sung to the same tune, eternally chiming on the ear without variation or relief.’ The ublic had long been accustomed to these balanced cadences. Quin, the leading tragedian of the hour, in the same lay and on the same occasion, chanted as Horatio a similar descant; and Garrick, whom Cumberland saw on the stage with Quin, and who was to bring back the public and the players to a truer taste, had only begun to make his influence felt. But under this conventional manner the latent fire of the true actress every now and then flashed out. Quin saw of what she was capable, and so early as 1744, when Garrick expressed a doubt of her powers to cope with the character of Constance of Bretagne in ‘King John,’ which was about to be revived at Drury Lane, said with some warmth, 'Don't tell me, Mr. Garrick ! That woman has a heart, and can do anything where passion is required.' He proved to he right. As Constance, Victor writes, 'Mrs. Oihher surpassed all that have followed her. When, the cardinal and others attempting to comfort her, she sank on the ground, and, looking round with a dignified wildness and horror, said,
Here I and sorrow sit ;
Here is my throne, bid kings come bow to it,
nothing that ever was exhibited could exceed this picture of distress. And nothing that ever came from the mouth of mortal was ever spoken with more dignified propriety.' Davies also, speaking of her (Dram. Misc. i. 66) in the same play, says : 'When going off the stage ehe uttered the words, "O Lord, my boy, my Arthur, my fair son !" with such an emphatical scream of agony as will never be forgotten by those who heard her.* The same wrtter in his 'Life of Garrick' says : 'Her great excellence consisted in that simplicity which needed no ornament ; in that sensibility which despised all artw There was in her countenance a small share of beauty ; but nature had given her such symmetry of form and fine expression of feature that she preserved all the appearance of youth long after she had reached to middle life. The harmony of her voice was as powerful as the animation of her look. In grief or tenderness her eyes looked as if they were in tears ; in rage and despair they seemed to dart flashes of fire. In spite of the unimportance of her figure she maintained a dignity in her action and a grace in her step. This description is borne out by the fine engraved portraits of Mrs. Cibber, of which there are several, in which sensibility, refinement, and imaginative dreaminess are very marked. Looking at these, it is easy to understand Charles Diodin's remark, that she was, like Garrick, 'the character she represented. Love, rage, resentment, pity, disdain, find all the gpradations of the various passions she greatly felt and vigorously expressed.' In Ophelia she was no less admirable than in Constance or Bel videra. 'Her features, figure, and singing,' says Tate Wilkinson, 'made her appear the best Ophelia that ever appeared eitner before or since.' It says much for her excellence that Wilkinson, who spared none of her contemporaries in his mimicry, avows that she was beyond his power of imitation. The combination of strong feeling with intuitive grace was manifestly the secret of her charm. Her emotions told upon her health, and when exhausted with the strain upon them she would say she wished her nerves were made of cart-ropes. An actress of this stamp was siire to seek association with an actor like Garrick. Covent Garden had been the arena of her earliest triumphs ; but she joined Garrick at Drury Lane in 1763, and remained there till her death. They were so like each other that it was said they might have been brother and sister. Under his influence she threw off some of the mannerisms of her earlier stvle ; but they were never wholly got rid of, and a critic writing soon after her death (Dramatic Censor, 1770), while admitting that 'in grief and distraction no idea could go beyond her execution,' says that 'after all she had a relish of the old ritum-ti, which often gave us offence.' By the year 1760 she had attained such excellence that in a eulogium, enthusiastic yet discriminating, Churchill speaks of her as
Form'd for the tragic scene, to grace the stage
With rival excellence of love and rage.
Mistress of each soft art, with matchless skill,
To turn and wind the passions as she will ;
To melt the heart with sympathetic woe,
Awake the sigh and teach the tear to flow ;
To put on phrenzy's wild distracted glare,
And freeze the soul with horror and despair.
Churchill notes in strong terms her failure in comedy, for which she mistakenly thought she had a gift. Her sense of humour, obviously great and often flashing out in her letters, was greater than her power of expressing it upon the stage. Garrick*s gaiety and brilliancy of spirits in society delighted her. Garrick, she writes to her brother, has been here' (Woodhays, Sloper's house) 'this three weeks, in great good humour and spirits, and, in short, we are all as merry as the day is long.' Garrick was apparently in the habit of taking Sloper*s house at Woodhays on his way in his frequent visits to take the waters in Bath ; and in a letter to him in November 1766 she speaks of having 'lost some happy laughing days by your Bath expedition not taking place.' She had some of his vivacity as a letter-writer, and in the letter just quoted, after mentioning that their friend. Dr. Banr, had sent her a small account of (Garrick's 'theatrical stud and the ponies that run,' this, she adds, had determined her 'to enter my favourite mare Belvidera six or seven days after I come to London. She is an old one, but I believe she will still beat the fillies, as she is sound, wind and limb, has never yet flung her rider, and will take care not to come in on the wrong side of the field.* Her health had, however, for some years been precarious, and within little more than two months after this letter was written the voice of the Bel videra, Constance, Alicia, who was so confident of her own strength, was hushed in death. After a short illness she died on 30 Jan. 1766 at her house in Scotland Yard, Westminster, and was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. When Garrick heard of her death, he exclaimed, 'Then tragedy is dead on one side,' and in his prologue to his own and Colman's 'Clandestine Marriage,' produced in 1766, he paid a grateful tribute to her memory, coupling it with that of Quin, who had died only nine days before her. She appears in the list of dramatic writers as the authoress of a comedy in one act, called 'The Oracle,' produced in 1752.
[Biographia Dramatica; Charles Dibdin's Professional Life; Victor's History of the Theatres of London; Memoirs of Tate Wilkinson; Dr. Burney's Memoirs; Genest's History of the English Stage; Davies's Life of Garrick and Dramatic Miscellanies; The Dramatic Censor; Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians.]