Colley Cibber was an English actor-manager, playwright and Poet Laureate. His colourful memoir Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber (1740) describes his life in a personal, anecdotal and even rambling style. He wrote 25 plays for his own company at Drury Lane, half of which were adapted from various sources, which led Robert Lowe and Alexander Pope, among others, to criticise his "miserable mutilation" of "crucified Molière [and] hapless Shakespeare". He regarded himself as first and foremost an actor and had great popular success in comical fop parts, while as a tragic actor he was persistent but much ridiculed. Cibber's brash, extroverted personality did not sit well with his contemporaries, and he was frequently accused of tasteless theatrical productions, shady business methods, and a social and political opportunism that was thought to have gained him the laureateship over far better poets. He rose to ignominious fame when he became the chief target, the head Dunce, of Alexander Pope's satirical poem Dunciad.
Cibber's poetical work was derided in his time, and has been remembered only for being poor. His importance in British theatre history rests on his being one of the first in a long line of actor-managers, on the interest of two of his comedies as documents of evolving early 18th-century taste and ideology, and on the value of his autobiography as a historical source.
Cibber was born in Southampton Street, in Bloomsbury, London. He was the eldest child of Caius Gabriel Cibber, a distinguished sculptor originally from Denmark. His mother, Jane née Colley, came from a family of gentry from Glaston, Rutland. He was educated at the King's School, Grantham, from 1682 until the age of 16, but failed to win a place at Winchester College, which had been founded by his maternal ancestor William of Wykeham. In 1688, he joined the service of his father's patron, Lord Devonshire, who was one of the prime supporters of the Glorious Revolution. After the revolution, and at a loose end in London, he was attracted to the stage and in 1690 began work as an actor in Thomas Betterton's United Company at the Drury Lane Theatre. "Poor, at odds with his parents, and entering the theatrical world at a time when players were losing their power to businessmen-managers", on 6 May 1693 Cibber married Katherine Shore, the daughter of Matthias Shore, sergeant-trumpeter to the King, despite his poor prospects and insecure, socially inferior job.
Cibber and Katherine had 12 children between 1694 and 1713. Six died in infancy, and most of the surviving children received short shrift in his will. Catherine, the eldest surviving daughter, married Colonel James Brown and seems to have been the dutiful one who looked after Cibber in old age following his wife's death in 1734. She was duly rewarded at his death with most of his estate. His middle daughters, Anne and Elizabeth, went into business. Anne had a shop that sold fine wares and foods, and married John Boultby. Elizabeth had a restaurant near Gray's Inn, and married firstly Dawson Brett, and secondly (after Brett's death) Joseph Marples. His only son to reach adulthood, Theophilus, became an actor at Drury Lane, and was an embarrassment to his father because of his scandalous private life. His other son to survive infancy, James, died in or after 1717 before reaching adulthood. Colley's youngest daughter Charlotte followed in her father's theatrical footsteps, but she fell out with him and her sister Catherine, and she was cut off by the family.
After an inauspicious start as an actor, Cibber eventually became a popular comedian, wrote and adapted many plays, and rose to become one of the newly empowered businessmen-managers. He took over the management of Drury Lane in 1710 and took a highly commercial, if not artistically successful, line in the job. In 1730, he was made Poet Laureate, an appointment which attracted widespread scorn, particularly from Alexander Pope and other Tory satirists. Off-stage, he was a keen gambler, and was one of the investors in the South Sea Company.
In the last two decades of his life, Cibber remained prominent in society, and summered in Georgian spas such as Tunbridge, Scarborough and Bath. He was friendly with the writer Samuel Richardson, the actress Margaret Woffington and the memoirist–poet Laetitia Pilkington. Aged 73 in 1745, he made his last appearance on the stage as Pandulph in his own "deservedly unsuccessful" Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John. In 1750, he fell seriously ill and recommended his friend and protégé Henry Jones as the next Poet Laureate. Cibber recovered and Jones passed into obscurity. Cibber died suddenly at his house in Berkeley Square, London, in December 1757, leaving small pecuniary legacies to four of his five surviving children, £1000 each to his granddaughters Jane and Elizabeth (the daughters of Theophilus), and the residue of his estate to his eldest daughter Catherine. He was buried on 18 December, probably at the Grosvenor Chapel on South Audley Street.
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