Colley Cibber, as can probably be deduced from his portrait shown here, was a flamboyant, often eccentric character whose lifetime ambition was to be a great actor/manager in the London theatres as well as being a well-regarded poet and playwright. He certainly made for himself a theatrical career though it could not always be said that it was a successful one. His attempts at serious acting often prompted ridicule from his contemporaries. He tried his hand at every form of acting imaginable and received praise more for his comedic roles than those of a more serious nature. He was a playwright and took on the management of other actors (he was one of the first to carry out such a role). His poetry, like his acting, received mixed reviews, most of them not complimentary. Despite this he held the post of Poet Laureate for many years despite being considered inferior to more deserving poets. It was suggested that Cibber’s social and political opportunism were the main reasons that he enjoyed the privilege of the laureateship.
Cibber was born in November 1671 to well off parents living in Bloomsbury, London. His father was of Danish origin, and a sculptor while his mother came from a noble family in the Midlands county of Rutland. He was privately educated in Grantham but did not succeed in his attempt to gain admittance to Winchester College, as his family had expected. He entered the world of the London theatres, securing a number of minor acting roles. Eventually he became established in the profession and decided to try the management of actors as well as performing on stage himself.
He took on the management of a theatre group in Drury Lane in 1710 and made a reasonable living from it. All the time he was writing poetry and was made Poet Laureate in 1730, an appointment that was not popular. Another famous poet, Alexander Pope, wrote a satirical poem called Dunciad and Cibber was openly cited as “the Head Dunce” in the poem. His own poetry was simple, uncomplicated verse as seen in the following example called The Blind Boy:
In his private life Cibber enjoyed gambling and took what was probably the biggest gamble in his life when he invested in the doomed South Sea Company. He married and had twelve children, although half of them died in infancy. He was always a popular figure around London society, despite being the subject of scorn in some areas. In later life, as was fashionable then, he would spend lazy summer days in Georgian spa towns such as Bath, Tunbridge Wells and Scarborough.
He was still treading the boards at the age of 73 and appeared in one of his own productions called Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John. His health was not good though and he only just survived one serious illness in 1750, living for a further seven years.
Colley Cibber died suddenly at home in London on the 11th December 1757. He was 86 years old.