Samuel Sandford and Colley Cibber: Two Players' Acting Techniques and the Rise and Fall of Restoration Villain Tragedy on the London Stage from the 1670s to the 1730s

By Miyoshi, Riki | Theatre Notebook, October 2014 | Go to article overview

Samuel Sandford and Colley Cibber: Two Players' Acting Techniques and the Rise and Fall of Restoration Villain Tragedy on the London Stage from the 1670s to the 1730s


Miyoshi, Riki, Theatre Notebook


In late December in London 1699, the twenty-eight-year-old comic actor, Colley Cibber, had made a laughing-stock of himself. On the Drury Lane stage the artificially hunch-backed Cibber had disastrously performed the title role in his own adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III. The actor who had recently and triumphantly typecast himself as a player of farcical, flamboyant fops could not convincingly perform the part of the villain. This may have been the occasion on which the disgruntled audience, who had had enough of Cibber's appalling performance, started mercilessly hurling "Oranges, Apples, Turnips [at Cibber's head] from the Galleries, and among the rest of their Artillery a Stone" (Laureat 47). An observer of the debacle commented that Cibber, helplessly paralysed with fear, lapsed into "a sudden Tremor" on stage, which prevented him from "displaying the Heroic Actions of Richard the Third that Night" (Laureat 47). Cibber recollected years later that the play "did not raise me Five Pounds on the Third Day" (Ximena xviii). The curtain fell on the dismal production and it remained un-revived for most of the following decade. However, Cibber's laughable performance as a villain had a more serious and significant consequence than the sad fate of his ego. It affected the fate of an entire Restoration genre.

Villain tragedy, as a genre, has received limited attention by modern critics notwithstanding its popularity on the Restoration stage (Hume, Development 199). J. H. Wilson defined the genre as consisting of "blood and thunder intrigue tragedy" which presents "the rise of a scoundrel to power by means of lies, treachery, seduction, and murder" until the villain finally get his comeuppance but "not until he has worked his bloody will beyond the limits of credibility" (60). While scholars such as Wilson have defined and analysed the genre, they have ignored the impact upon it of the performers.

As of yet, no critical work has ever explored how Samuel Sandford's acting techniques--possibly the greatest villain performer on the Restoration stage--influenced villain tragedy. His name is sometimes mentioned, but merely in passing, in analyses of the genre. For instance, Wilson in A Preface to Restoration Drama overlooks Sandford's contribution (59-66); Robert D. Hume briefly notes that the title role in Thomas Porter's play, The Villain (1662), was "For Samuel Sandford ... a fabulous role" (Development 199); Eric Rothstein linked The Villain and Henry Nevil Payne's The Fatal Jealousy (1672) together when he wrote, "the Machiavellian Jasper" was "played by the famous Malignii, Sandford" (66). Allardyce Nicoll was nearest to the mark when he wrote, "Sandford gave birth to the Machiavellian villains with which Restoration tragedy and tragic-comedy abounds" (69). Even the hitherto solitary full-length article devoted to Samuel Sandford, by Robert H. Ross Jr., overlooks Sandford's influence on the genre.

There are of course many other possible circumstances that may have contributed to the rise and fall of the genre such as audiences' aesthetic change, the effectiveness of advertisement, and the political events of the time. Yet considering the impact of actors and actresses on other Restoration genres it is surprising that no study has investigated how the actors of villainous roles affected the development and the demise of villain tragedy. Elizabeth Howe, for example, demonstrated how the popularity of Restoration actresses such as Elizabeth Barry was vital in the overall movement away from heroic drama to the new establishment of she-tragedy as a newly popular genre on the Restoration stage (108-28). Hume was stupefied that John Harrington Smith's work on the gay couple did not take into account the significant contribution of the players of the genre such as Nell Gwyn and Charles Hart (Theatre History 21). As Peter Holland writes "Nell Gwyn's innate wit and vitality combined with the experience and grace of Hart produced in itself a new form of drama. …

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