David Garrick, George III, and the Politics of Revision

Article excerpt

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A previously neglected manuscript of David Garrick's 1762 interlude, The Farmer's Return from London, provides fresh insight into the subtle pressures exerted upon theatre practitioners by the raging political climate of the 1760s. The Larpent Collection contains an uncompleted manuscript, the "Farmer's Return," dated only "1762," which Garrick submitted to the Lord Chamberlain's office.(1) There is no evidence of official censorship of the skit, yet the play, when staged at Drury Lane on 20 March 1762, was markedly different from the manuscript, having been cleansed of any references that might be considered offensive to the new King, as well as to the clergy and the theatre audience. The "Farmer's Return" is the only manuscript submitted by Garrick to the Lord Chamberlain that is unlike the printed version of the play.

The image of David Garrick created by biographers and commentators is that of an extraordinarily gifted, though vain, actor; of a successful theatre manager who demanded of his company the hard work and fierce dedication he himself possessed; of a careful and astute businessman; and of a clever and facile playwright.(2) The unifying characteristic in his varied activities was his finesse, a well-honed ability to communicate easily with people of all classes without risk of offending them.

The records of his professional life corroborate his sterling reputation. Of the forty-nine plays he either authored himself or adapted, mostly social satires and farces, none ran amok of the Examiner of Plays in the Lord Chamberlain's office. The playwright's voice is gently satiric, and the objects of his ridicule are type characters, such as Fribbles, country bumpkins, and unmarried conniving females. But the manuscript of The Farmer's Return from London, a skit depicting the reunion of a north country farmer with his affectionate family after a trip to London to witness the coronation of George III, challenges the widely accepted image of David Garrick. In the manuscript submitted to the Lord Chamberlain, Garricks farmer has a seemingly negative view of the coronation. More importantly, Garrick takes three unusual and uncharacteristic positions: (1) he is harshly satiric towards audiences and critics; (2) he makes derisive political references to the French, a sensitive political subject since the English were then battling them in the Seven Years War; and (3) he satirizes members of court, poking fun at a Bishop too young to have grown a beard, and mocking a Bishop and a Queen for their drunkenness.

When The Farmer's Return from London was staged at Drury Lane on 20 March 1762, fully six months after the coronation of George III, free of the uncharacteristically negative passages, it emerged principally as a character sketch of the country farmer, who, stupefied by the wonders of the capital, relates the details of Coronation week in leisurely style to his approving family. In performance, The Farmer adds new material; John recounts, in particular, his experiences with the Cock Lane ghost, a phenomenon which had recently captured the attention of Londoners, and he uses the story to tease his wife affectionately.

The wide disparity between the manuscript submitted to the Lord Examiner and the printed and performed versions of the play generates a number of interesting questions: What was Garrick's motivation in injecting offensive material into the play? What was his relationship to the royal family? To London clerics? What was Garricks involvement with the recent coronation of George III? When did he send the play to the Examiner of Plays? Did the political ferment of the early 1760s have any impact on the decision to recast the play? Finally and most important, who made the decision to censor The Farmer's Return from London?

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As The Farmer's Return was designed as an interlude to be performed at a benefit performance for Hannah Pritchard, one of Garrick's leading actresses, the theme of the recent coronation of George III seemed appropriate, perhaps even ingenious. …