Sunday, May 26, 2019

Battle of the Juliets

In 1750, the patent theatres at Drury Lane and Covent Garden went head-to-head, producing rival productions of Romeo and Juliet in what came to be known as the Battle of the Romeos. According to Chelsea Phillips' article in the latest issue of Theatre Survey, however, perhaps the incident should be known as the Battle of the Juliets instead.

David Garrick had adapted Shakespeare's play for performances at Drury Lane with Spranger Barry playing Romeo and Susannah Cibber as Juliet. Cibber left the company in 1749, however, giving birth to her last child. When she returned to the stage the next year, it was not to Drury Lane, but to the rival company at Covent Garden, and joining her was none other than Barry.

What made Cibber switch houses? We can't be sure, but Phillips points out that in the spring of 1749 Cibber became ill, possibly as a result of her pregnancy or possibly due to a persistent stomach problem that plagued her until her death in 1766. The playwright Aaron Hill wanted Cibber to play the lead in his new play Merope, and she was a natural choice, since Cibber had launched her career as a tragic actress with Hill's previous play Zara in 1736. Cibber said she wanted the role, but didn't want to perform it until the following season. Garrick, however, scoffed at the idea of a delay, and Hannah Pritchard went on in the title role instead.

Cibber's move to Covent Garden led Garrick to poach another tragic actress from that theatre to join his own company at Drury Lane. George Ann Bellamy had been the leading tragic actress at Covent Garden. In 1749, Bellamy gained notoriety when she left in the middle of a performance to run off to Yorkshire with her lover, George Montgomery Metham. The reason for the flight north might have been Bellamy's own pregnancy, for after her child was born, she returned to Covent Garden, where she played many of the same roles Cibber was known for, including the heroines in Thomas Otway's tragedies Venice Preserved and The Orphan.

With Cibber now at Covent Garden, Bellamy was looking at the prospect of losing some of her choicest roles. She had also recently expanded her repertoire, taking on the role of Juliet at Covent Garden opposite Henry Lee. She had previously played the role in Dublin, but this was the first time the Covent Garden company had mounted Romeo and Juliet, and Bellamy had shined in the play. Now she was facing losing that role to Cibber, too. By July of 1750, both Cibber and Barry were contracted to appear at Covent Garden and Garrick had managed to snag Bellamy for Drury Lane. The two leading ladies had effectively swapped companies, and Cibber had taken her Romeo with her.

Garrick himself took on the role of Romeo opposite Bellamy's Juliet. Though he was considered too short to play such a romantic leading role, he was determined to go head-to-head against the new Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden, which Garrick saw as for all intents and purposes his play. It was his adaptation of Shakespeare's text that they used, and he had personally coached both Cibber and Barry in their roles. Garrick made further revisions to the play, including adding an elaborate funeral procession for Juliet that became a staple well into the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most important addition to Drury Lane's new Romeo and Juliet, though, was Bellamy, who like Juliet had herself precipitously forsaken everything for her lover, as audiences well knew.

After twelve nights of both patent theatres producing rival productions of the same play, Cibber announced she was ill and would not be able to continue as Juliet. Most audiences had already concluded that Drury Lane had the better production, anyway. History has recorded the event as a victory for Garrick, but Phillips hints that the credit might belong more to Bellamy.