The Aims and Genre of Colley Cibber's Apology (1740)

Robert D. Hume

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An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian, has almost always been viewed as a conceited and vainglorious self-celebration of the prominent, highly successful, and much-hated actor, playwright, and manager (1671-1757). It has been variously read as a confessional baring of his soul, denounced for failing to reflect Cibber's "inner life," treated as a "fabrication of a role" (with much difference of opinion as to what that role is), and praised for its contribution to our knowledge of theater personnel and management in Cibber's time. The book actually tells us little about Cibber. By my count, of the 592 pages in the standard Lowe edition (1889) only 17% are "personal" and 83% "impersonal," and I classify only 30 pages (5%) as strictly biographical. About two-thirds of the "personal" material occurs in the first three chapters (of sixteen total). The subtitle, suppressed in modern editions, is a truer indication of the point of the enterprise: With an Historical View of the Stage during his Own Time. Regarded analytically, what seems chatty and wandering is actually a carefully organized account of theater in London from 1690 to 1734, with detailed commentary on principal performers, discussion of good and bad management, and assessment of regulatory issues-a radically original enterprise unprecedented in English. In the generic terms of the time, it is part "secret history" and part "history with a design." Cibber believes in the cultural importance of theater, and in its potential force for moral good. He documents the rising social and economic status of actors and presents a case for "Good Practice" in management and regulation. Why then open with outrageously provocative flaunting of his pseudo-Foppingtonian self? I suggest that Cibber knew the book would be attacked by Fielding, Pope, and a host of others. So he created a diversionary target which duly got savaged from all sides. The history that was his real point turns out to be remarkably accurate insofar as it is checkable. The Apology is nothing like an autobiography in the modern sense, but it is a work of something like genius that makes a huge contribution to our knowledge of theater and performers in Cibber's time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)662-695
Number of pages34
JournalStudies in Philology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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