Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

"The Quality of Mercy" in the Eighteenth Century; or, Kitty Clive's Portia

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

"The Quality of Mercy" in the Eighteenth Century; or, Kitty Clive's Portia

Article excerpt

On the night of 14 February 1741, Charles Macklin performed Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice for the first time; if for none of his other work, he will always be known for recreating "the Jew that Shakespeare drew." On stage with him, as Portia, was the actress Catherine (Kitty) Clive. While Macklin's performance has entered the history books as a huge critical success, Mrs Clive's representation of Portia was, according to her friends, critics, and biographers, one of her greatest failures. Despite constant criticism, however, Kitty Clive persistently performed the role during her career. It is fascinating that such variant levels or degrees of comic and tragic performance, as we are told were produced by Macklin and Mrs Clive together on the Drury Lane stage in the trial scene on that and subsequent nights, did not result in a critically disastrous production as a whole. In an attempt to determine why her portrayal of Portia was deemed so unsuccessful or, indeed, why she retained die role in her repertoire, I shall trace briefly her participation, as well as that of other actresses, in the eighteenth-century stage history of what has certainly become one of Shakespeare's problematic comedies.

Kitty Clive's various encounters with the role began, as A Biographical Dictionary informs us, "on the same night that Charles Macklin revived Shakespeare's original for the first time in the century, and offered his fierce new Shylock. Kitty's interpretation of Portia, which involved a take-off of the mannerisms of Justice Mansfield, earned her more hostile criticism than anything she ever did. Characteristically, she ignored the strictures" (Highfill et al 3: 348). Mrs Clive was not only renowned for her comic touch, but had also earned, early in her career, a reputation for being stubborn and difficult. Percy Fitzgerald, in The Life of Mrs Catherine Clive (1888) puts it this way:

All through her course, our actress showed herself combative and even contentious, whenever she fancied that 'her rights' were encroached upon. Conscious of the scrupulous fashion in which she did her duty to the public, she claimed that die same regard should be paid to her by her employers; and when these attempted to take advantage of her good nature, she was as spirited in resisting such encroachments as me most troublesome of her sex. We find her almost from me commencement, engaged in some conflict with managers, or else in vigorously resisting the attempt of some ouier performer to encroach upon her privileges. But when she came to be enlisted under me fair, firm, and equitable rule of Garrick, we hear no more of diese troubles, and she settled down into die painstaking, conscientious actress, minking only how she could best perform her duties to die public, to me dieatre, and to herself. (16)

Her fight with Susannah Cibber, regarding the role of Polly in The Beggar's Opera in 1736, offers a prime example of how hard Kitty Clive fought for her rights. At that time, Mrs. Clive, Fitzgerald tells us, "was 'in possession' of die part" of Polly; and even tiiough, in his opinion, her style of playing was unsuitable for the role, she was determined to hold onto it: "The whole cast of die character is sad and touching. . . . There could have been little of this kind of sympatiiy furnished by die vivacious Kitty, who would naturally emphasize, in her way, die more farcical portions" (17). However, Mrs Clive proved she was also capable of sacrifice when a warranted occasion arose. On 17 September 1747, Mrs Cibber played Polly to Kitty Clive's Lucy; Kitty also played Lucy to Mrs Mozeen's Polly, and without demur she let Mrs Pritchard play Lucy to Mrs Cibber' s Polly. As Fitzgerald affirms: "No better proof could be given of die complaisance of this worthy actress, whenever die interests of die theatre called for it" (23).

Mrs Clive's contemporary admirers and detractors alike commented on her comic ability, tiiough few disagreed on die kind of comedy towards which her natural talent leaned: light, low and often burlesque. …

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