Today in theatre history (June 10, 1776), the great David Garrick–one of the most celebrated actors of the English stage–performed for the last time. After some 27 years as the leading actor and manager at London’s premiere playhouse, the Drury Lane, Garrick took to the stage for his final performance on this very evening, some 237 years ago, to act the role of Don Felix in Susanna Centlivre’s comedic masterpiece, The Wonder (1714). It was a role that Garrick was especially fond of and for which he received widespread acclaim. The evening’s occasion, appropriately enough, was a benefit performance–not for himself–but for the “decayed actors’ fund.”
The choice of play was a curious one. Some might think it odd that he didn’t choose to do something by Shakespeare or one of the popular writers of that age (Sheridan or Goldsmith, for instance). Instead, he performed a 62 year-old satire of British politics and religion with strong Whig associations. The Whigs, of course, stood in opposition to the developing war in the American colonies. And Garrick had counted among his closest friends staunch Whig supporters like Edmund Burke, Isaac Barre and James Oglethorpe. Could the news of the day have influenced his choice? Or did his circle of friends have something to do with it? We may never know. But the context must have had some effect on Garrick’s farewell performance and the rather unexpected selection of Centlivre’s aging comedy for his final production. Garrick would live another two and half years before dying (most likely from a stroke) on January 20, 1779, and the reasons behind his unusual choice for a final production may well have died with him.