Colly Cibber's
The Tragical History of Richard III

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David Garrick first made his fame in the role of Richard III and it remained the character for which he was most reknowned. The backstage blessing, "Break a leg!" is attributed by some to a Garrick performance as the hunch-backed villain during which the actor was so transported by the role that he did not notice he had suffered a fracture. Yet Garrick never spoke the lines modern readers most readily associate with the play, "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York." Like virtually all other Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century actors Garrick performed not Shakespeare's script but the adaptation premiered in 1700 by Colly Cibber. This version cut the opening lines of Richard's most famous soliloquy.

When Macready tried in 1821 to reintroduce more of Shakespeare's text critics and audiences expressed their disappointment. He bowed to the outcry and returned to Cibber's familiar "improved" script. A similar attempt by Samuel Phelps at Sadler's Wells in 1845 met with a mixed reception. As late as the turn of the century Samuel French distributed Cibber's rewrite, as performed in a New York staging of the 1840's, as the "acting version" of Richard III.

In our century critical and audience opinion has reversed. The once despised original now rules the stage unchallenged and Cibber's version, which was the most oft-produced "Shakespeare" play in nineteenth century America, is relegated to the research stacks. Though Olivier preserved a couple of Cibber's best known lines, "Off with his head! So much for Buckingham," and "Richard's himself again," in his classic film version, few other directors dare brave the rath of "traditionalists" standing guard against vandals who'd tinker with the "genuine" text. Given Cibber script's long and distinguished stage history it is hard to understand what "tradition" these guardians so fiercely defend.

Though Shakespeare's original is not so unstageable as Cibber and his contemporaries thought, neither is Cibber's play so unworthy as our century has concluded. Cibber was not a poetic genius, his widely ridiculed appointment as Poet Laureate notwithstanding, but he was a skilled craftsman who understood how to make the theatrical conventions of his age work effectively on stage almost as well as Shakespeare knew the tricks of late Elizabethan theater. If his text didn't work well in performance it would not have outlived all other Restoration adaptations as long as it did.

Though this text will interest curious scholars I hope it also draws the attention of directors and performers. A theater company planning a season might consider surprising its subscribers with a "Shakespeare" they are certain never to have seen before. A director who is staging Shakespeare's version might consider adding a little Cibber to the mix or trying some of Cibber's cuts and doubling to reduce the often unwieldy size of Shakespeare's cast or to tighten up the action. Richard's murder of Henry VI in Cibber's first act or his brutal treatment of Ann in the third could be added to an otherwise "traditional" production. The former is, after all, mostly Shakespeare's, and the scene with Anne, though entirely Cibber's invention, is in keeping with Richard's character as limned by Shakespeare, and, though not immortal verse, is excellent melodrama.

For this etext edition I relied on the 1700 text, but I have noted some additions made to the text and to the cast list in the 1718 version. The later edition omitted Cibber's "Epistle Dedicatory" and "Preface" and did not identify which lines were Cibbers and which Shakespeare's.

As ASCII does not have an italicized font I have marked the lines Cibber identified as Shakespeare's by enclosing them in %'s. I have substituted ASCII's (') for Cibber's reversed mark to identify the lines he claimed were "generally [Shakespeare's] thoughts," trusting readers to cope with the occaisonal initial "'Tis" or "'Twere." All others I left unmarked, tacitly accepting Cibber's claim they are "intirely my own," even when, in cases like, "I would not pass another hour so dreadful / Though 'twere to buy a world of happy days," I have my doubts. I have tried to reproduce the stage directions in their full variety, some centered, some flushed right, some bracketted, others with a parenthesis. The only change I have made in the original's layout is to center the speaker's name in the line before each speech to make the text more useful as a performing script. Both the 1700 and 1718 editions divide the play into five acts and, though scene changes are noted, they are not numbered.

Alert readers will spot lines not only from Cibber's primary sources, RIII and 3HVI, but also from 1&2HIV, HV, and 1&2HVI. Tables tracking the number of these borrowed lines appear in Furness' New Variorum and the appendix to Five Restoration Adaptations of Shakespere. They differ slightly. Tom Dale Keever tdk3@columbia.edu

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