Despite being born in Hereford, on February 19, 1717, pioneering actor David Garrick still qualifies as a local hero in Staffordshire – having been raised in his mother’s home town of Lichfield, where he was educated at Lichfield Grammar School and, later, at Dr Samuel Johnson’s Edial Hall School nearby.
From those early years in Staffordshire, David Garrick went on to become an actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer who revolutionised acting and pioneered Shakespearean theatre.
One of Lichfield’s most famous sons, his story began in Staffordshire, but ended with him headlining some of London’s biggest plays and inventing many of theatre’s current traditions.
Having become great friends with Samuel Johnson – himself born and brought up in Staffordshire – they travelled to London together, virtually penniless, where both later found fame. Johnson’s dictionary was published in 1755, 14 years after Garrick shot to fame on the stage.
But his acting career only came about because of a failed wine merchant’s business. Following his father’s death shortly afterwards, David and his brother George received a £1,000 legacy from an uncle in Lisbon and they set up a wine merchant’s business with bases in Lichfield and London. George ran the Staffordshire branch, while David remained in London.
The venture failed, but Garrick had succeeded in making a number of friends in acting circles – amongst them, Charles Fleetwood, the (then) owner of the famous Drury Lane Theatre. He gave him his first stage work, setting him up for a career breakthrough six months later with his performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III.
Garrick’s association with the theatre was to last more than 30 years. During his time there, he became the first person to use period-style costumes and props in the theatre. He also pioneered the ideas of refusing backstage entry, reducing fees for those leaving early or arriving late and positioning the orchestra in front of the stage.
By the 1750s, Garrick was at the peak of his acting career and had made the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane the most popular in London. He retired in 1776, having produced 24 Shakespeare plays and portrayed at least 17 different Shakespearian characters.
Unfortunately, it was a fairly short retirement. The kidney problems that had plagued his acting career became worse, and he died in 1779. He was buried in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, having left his considerable collection of plays and literature to the British Museum. The final resting place of his lifelong friend Dr Johnson, who died in 1784, is also in the Abbey.
Garrick’s name also lives on at The Garrick Theatre, in the West End, named after him when it opened in 1889, while his lasting legacy is commemorated in Staffordshire too. The David Garrick Memorial Theatre in Bore Street, Lichfield was pulled down in 1953, but after four decades as the Lichfield Civic Hall, a second Garrick Theatre opened to the public in July 2003.