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Famed 18’th-century thespian became first self-publicist through secret media manipulation, new book reveals

January 28, 2019

He was the legendary 18’th-century actor and manager who, as a national icon and one of theatre’s first celebrities, could draw audiences from far and wide.

But, hundreds of years before selfies, instant fame and stars with armies of publicists, David Garrick was also the original self-publicist, secretly manipulating the media, a new book reveals.

Garrick used his part-ownership of newspapers and the Drury Lane Theatre to gain unparalleled media exposure, including self-authored reviews, according to Professor Leslie Ritchie, who has uncovered more than 11,000 mentions of Garrick’s name in London newspapers published between his stage debut in 1741 and his death in 1779.

Such is the scale of Garrick’s media coverage and “his constant negotiation” of representations of himself and his playhouse that she describes him as “the ?rst actor to exploit the power of the press in the production and mediation of celebrity”.

Ritchie, associate professor of English at Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada, observes that audiences who flocked to Drury Lane could see a play written or adapted by Garrick, with a prologue or epilogue penned by Garrick and a cast that included Garrick:

“That playgoer had likely been enticed to go to the play by an advertisement, puff or review written by Garrick, placed in a newspaper partly owned by Garrick.”

She told the Sunday Telegraph that the public remembers Garrick today as the star who could act both tragedy and comedy, who championed ‘natural’ vocal delivery, and who brought Shakespeare into greater popularity than ever before: “What they don’t know is that Garrick’s manipulation of the media behind the scenes was equally masterful...

“The story here is one of media convergence and social influence used to produce celebrity, long before the selfie era.

“Today’s stars have agents and public relations teams to hone their public images and to present consistent messages about their identity. Garrick did most of that work for himself, hundreds of years ago.”

From 1741, after his sensational interpretation of Richard III, Garrick dominated London theatre.

Ritchie believes that scholars have been so dazzled by his extraordinary talent that they have “tended to downplay the extent to which his carefully-crafted pu?s… enabled public perception of his stature as a dramatic innovator”.

By poring over contemporary newspapers, as well as their financial records and business minutes, Ritchie realised the extent of Garrick’s links to them.

His closest newspaper association was with the St. James’s Chronicle, a thrice-weekly newspaper, in which he secretly acquired a share in 1762 and to which he was a frequent anonymous contributor, she said: “Garrick used his interest in [it], not just for advertisements, but to publish his poetry, prologues, epilogues, and self-authored reviews of shows in his theatre… Modern ethical considerations of neutrality and objectivity were never the objectives of those writing and printing newspapers at this period.”

In one report, the Chronicle applauded a performance in which “Mr. Garrick” was “most extraordinarily accurate in every syllable which he uttered”. Other pieces praised his “truly affecting” performance and “the Exertion of his Talents”.

In The Public Advertiser, a daily sheet in which Garrick also had shares, Garrick’s marketing extended to preparing and managing audience responses, Ritchie said.One article for his new adaptation of Hamlet told the audience that it was exactly what “the best Critics and warmest Admirers of Shakespeare have long wished”.

Ritchie’s research appears in her forthcoming book, titled David Garrick and the Mediation of Celebrity, published by Cambridge University Press this month [Jan].She writes: “What happens when an actor owns shares in the stage on which he performs and the newspapers that review his performances? Celebrity that lasts over 240 years.” —Courtesy The Telegraph