The David Garrick Monument, Westminster Abbey

David Garrick monument, Westminster Abbey
Image | © Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Contributor: Terry F. Robinson

Location: Westminster Abbey, London, UK

Description: In 1797, a marble monument to David Garrick was erected in Westminster Abbey on the west wall of Poets’ Corner. Charles Lamb encountered the monument in 1811 and became so rankled by it that he authored, in protest, one of the signature critical essays of the Romantic period: “On Garrick, and Acting” (1811), better known by its revised  title “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare: Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Representation” (1818). Lamb’s essay—famous for its claim that to stage Shakespeare’s plays is to alter and diminish them—not only opposes assertions such as Denis Diderot’s that “A play is not so much to be read as to be performed” (Entretiens sur Le Fils naturel, 1757) but also objects to the cultural elevation of the art of acting that the Garrick monument symbolizes. Just years after Garrick monument was installed in the Abbey, Lamb marshaled a set of arguments against it: for book over body, poetic vision over theatrical spectacle, and individual readership over audience membership. Seen through Lamb’s eyes, the Garrick monument appears as a vulgarising throwback, and its monumental continuity actively counter-Romantic.

The installation of the monument, made possible by Garrick’s friends the solicitor Albany Wallis and statesman Edmund Burke, testified to the actor’s enduring fame. Although Garrick had died nearly twenty years earlier in 1779 (at age 63), his celebrity status endured, and his acting style (the “Garrick school”) served as a benchmark against which the performances of his successors Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble (the “Kemble school”) were measured. Like many memorials, the Garrick monument commemorates an iconic and influential figure by enabling an reflective encounter with loss and preservation, in which a mournful recognition of death also becomes a bittersweet occasion to keep the memory of a notable person alive through the relative material permanence and fixity of stone. But Webber’s monument achieves something even greater: the augmentation of an otherwise bi-directional movement between loss and preservation in the visibly animated statue of Garrick, who emerges triumphally from below a medallion portrait inscribed “Shakspeare.” Thrusting apart curtains with the fabric of his clothes twisting and pulling, Garrick moves energetically as if through a proscenium arch, from backstage to forestage, from the past into the present, and from the tomb into life.

Below the spirited form of Garrick is a gravestone-shaped tablet flanked by the muses of Tragedy and Comedy and engraved with a poem by Samuel Jackson Pratt:

To paint fair Nature, by divine command,
Her magic pencil in his glowing hand,
A Shakespeare rose: then, to expand his fame
Wide o’er this breathing world, a Garrick came.
Though sunk in death the forms the Poet drew,
The Actor’s genius made them breathe anew;
Though, like the bard himself, in night they lay,
Immortal Garrick call’d them back to day:
And till Eternity with power sublime
Shall mark the mortal hour of hoary Time,
Shakespeare and Garrick like twin-stars shall shine,
And earth irradiate with a beam divine.

These lines claim that Garrick’s acting revived Shakespeare’s words, giving them renewed expression and, further, that Garrick survives, joined together with Shakespeare in celestial effulgence. The monument, the statue and poem attest, is more than a tribute to a man, more than a recognition of loss and a desire for preservation, it is an affirmation of the power and potential of theatrical performance to reanimate and illumine, to make what was once “sunk in death” live again.

The monument irked Lamb, an avid theatregoer, sometime playwright, and author of prologues and epilogues. For one, he “was not a little scandalized” by a memorial to a purveyor of “juvenile pleasure” in a place “set apart to remind us of the saddest realities” and adjacent to sober monuments honoring Geoffrey Chaucer, John Milton, and Thomas Gray. Nor was he a fan of Pratt’s writing; in 1798, he pronounced Pratt’s Gleanings through Wales, Holland and Westphalia (1795) “A wretched assortment of vapid feelings.” This poetic performance was no better; in Lamb’s words, it was a “farrago of false thoughts and nonsense.” To claim that Shakespeare’s “forms,” his words and characters, would be dead without Garrick to revive them—“to ma[k]e them breathe anew”—was bad enough. To suggest that Garrick’s acting placed him on par with the Bard as an immortal “twin-star” was worse. In short, Pratt’s poem bothered Lamb because it asserted that without Garrick’s acting the world would not know Shakespeare and, more fundamentally, that dramatic poetry requires performance to enliven it and elevate it to sublime heights.

Lamb’s 1811/1818 essay opens with this critique of Pratt’s poem and argues that actors do not vitalize the dramatic text but radically transform it: “I am not arguing that Hamlet should not be acted, but how much Hamlet is made another thing by being acted.” Only in the act of reading, Lamb insists, can one appreciate Shakespeare’s plays fully. “What we see upon a stage is body and bodily action; what we are conscious of in reading is almost exclusively the mind, and its movements.” To translate poetry into physical movement, the intellectual into the corporeal is to incur a loss: “we find to our cost that instead of realising an idea, we have only materialized and brought down a fine vision to the standard of flesh and blood.” For Lamb, poetry is the only medium through which to articulate the drama of the inner life, and this is because, in the very act of stimulating the imagination, it transcends the sensual. “The state of sublime emotion into which we are elevated” by dramatic works, he writes, belongs to “poetry alone.”

The idea that Garrick’s acting revivified Shakespearean poetry was not altogether novel. In 1770, James Boswell wrote that a player such as Garrick “animates the paintings of Shakespeare,” and in 1776, Hannah More affirmed that Garrick, as Hamlet, “filled the soul of the spectator, and transcended the most finished idea of the poet.” How Garrick achieved such seeming  transendence was a key question of the age, and one that Diderot took up in Observations sur une brochure intitulée, Garrick, ou, les acteurs anglais (1770)—an essay that formed the basis for his Paradoxe sur le Comédien (composed 1773, published 1830). Lamb, who never saw Garrick perform, denounces him as a “harlequin figure,” performing “low tricks upon the eye and ear.” Diderot, who did see Garrick act, praises the actor’s expressive skill, arguing that his talent in exhibiting the passions placed him above all others: “One can put on the right face with more or less accuracy according to whether one is or is not Garrick.” In Diderot’s estimation, convincing acting, truthful acting—”putting on the right face”—is neither low nor deceitful; it requires acute awareness and polished expertise.

The Garrick monument serves as a foil against which Lamb articulates the aesthetic superiority of poetry and of the visionary imagination over acting—an expressive form inherently visual and embodied. During the Romantic period, opposition to the stage and to theatricality was variously expressed, and the notion persists that critical sentiment proclaiming the deficiency of theatrical expression underpinned the spirit of the age. The fact, however, that the Garrick memorial was erected in 1797 during the very same age—a time when actors had substantial drawing power, so much so that the period has also been deemed “the age of the actor”—suggests that Lamb’s take on the limitations of stage performance should not be considered definitive. Turning our attention back to the Garrick monument, to Pratt’s poem, and to Diderot’s assessment of Garrick in the Paradoxe can help us see how Lamb’s essay participates in a broader, impassioned contest in the period over the animating power of performance, the creative relation between author and actor, and the actor’s claim to artistic invention and legacy.

Date: 1797

Creator: Henry Webber

Subject: David Garrick (1717-1779); Charles Lamb (1775-1834); Denis Diderot (1713-1784); Edmund Burke (1729-1797); Albany Wallis (1713-1800); Henry Webber (1754-1826); William Shakespeare

Media rights: Image | © Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Object type: sculpture

Format: white and gray marble

Language: English

Related Objects: Thomas Banks, Shakespeare between the Dramatic Muse and the Genius of Painting, 1789; Harlequin’s Invasion, 1803; Shakespeare’s Chair and the Polish Princess; Byron’s Decoupage Screen

Publisher: Westminster Abbey, London, UK

Digital collection record: Westminster Abbey:


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