Clive, Kitty (1711–1785)

views updated

Clive, Kitty (1711–1785)

English-Irish actress and leading lady at London's Drury Lane for 40 years, who was particularly noted for her performances in comedy roles, and as a singer. Name variations: Catherine (Kitty) Raftor; Mrs. Catherine Clive. Born Catherine Raftor on November 15, 1711, in London, England; died at Twickenham, near London, on December 6, 1785; daughter of William Raftor (a lawyer) and his wife, the erstwhile Miss Daniel (given name unknown); married George Clive, in 1733; no children.

Became a member of the company of London's Drury Lane Theatre at age 17 (1728); first appeared as Nell in The Devil to Pay, one of her most famous roles (1730–31); publicly defended her right to the part of Polly in The Beggar's Opera (1735–36); joined the Covent Garden company, and published The Case of Mrs. Clive (1744); returned to Drury Lane (1745–46), remaining there until her retirement; made her final appearance on stage, opposite David Garrick, in Lethe (April 24, 1769).

Selected works (published and/or performed):

The Case of Mrs. Clive Submitted to the Public (1744); The Rehearsal, or Bayes in Petticoats (1753); Every Woman in her Humour (1760); Sketch of a Fine Lady's Return from a Rout (1763); The Faithful Irishwoman (1765).

In January 1729, the curtain rose at London's Drury Lane Theatre on the first performance of a new piece. Written by actor-manager Colley Cibber in the currently popular form of ballad opera, Love is a Riddle was an attempt to emulate the spectacular success of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Kitty Raftor, the actress taking the leading part of Phillida, was one of the newest and least experienced members of the company, having joined it only the year before, but she had already achieved considerable popularity with both the public and the critics. On this occasion, however, she faced a daunting prospect, since some of Cibber's rivals, determined to wreck the performance, had whipped up the always volatile audience to a state of extreme hostility. To go on stage at all required considerable courage, to quell the riot appeared impossible. Within only a few moments of her entrance, however, Kitty had succeeded in winning over the audience to her side, and in alarming the instigators of the riot. According to the theatrical historian, William Chetwood, who was acting as prompter, "When Miss Raftor came on … the monstrous roar subsided; a person in the stage-box next to my post called out to his companion in the following elegant style: 'Zounds! You take care, or this charming little devil will save all!'"

In any event, the reprieve was only temporary. The piece was an abysmal failure, closing after only two nights. For Kitty Clive, however, it was only the beginning of a long and triumphant career as the undisputed mistress of English comedy. Having entered a profession that was still widely regarded as disreputable, she compelled respect for her qualities as a woman, her shrewdness, her intelligence, and her strength of character, as well as for the art in which she was acknowledged to be supreme. Even the author of The Rosciad, a savage satire on the theater of the time, made her one of the rare exceptions from his censures.

Original in spirit and in ease,
She pleas'd by hiding all attempts to please.
No comic actress ever yet could raise
On humour's base, more merit or more praise.

According to Kitty Clive's own account, given to Chetwood, her fascination with the stage had begun in childhood, when she and a friend "used to tag after" the famous actor, Robert Wilks, as he strolled through the streets of London, "and gape at him as a wonder." Unlike many of her fellow actors, however, she had not been born into the profession. Her father William Raftor was a lawyer, originally from Kilkenny in Ireland, who in 1690 had taken up arms on behalf of the ousted king, James II. The defeat of the Jacobites forced Raftor into exile, but he later succeeded in obtaining a pardon and settled in London, where he married a Miss Daniel, with whom he had a number of children. In spite of the fact that Miss Daniel is said to have brought "a handsome fortune" to her marriage, the Raftors seem to have been far from prosperous. Kitty's education was probably rudimentary: her later correspondence, while demonstrating wit, a lively intelligence, and a good command of language, also reveals that her spelling was, even by the erratic standards of the time, highly idiosyncratic.

Although Clive's first performance, and her subsequent career are well documented, accounts of her entry into acting vary. According to one version of events, she was employed as maidservant to a woman who lived in Church Row, Houndsditch. Singing one day as she washed the doorstep, Kitty was overheard by some members of the fashionable Beef-steak Club, whose meetings were held at the Bull Tavern, just across the street. Impressed by the young woman's talent, they introduced her to the management of Drury Lane Theatre, where she was immediately engaged as a player.

However, Chetwood, who was himself working at Drury Lane at this time, has a different version of events. According to him, the young Kitty was lodging at the same house as himself and the actor, Theophilus Cibber. As Chetwood remembered, "Miss Raftor had a facetious turn of humour and infinite spirits, with a voice and manner in singing songs of pleasantry peculiar to herself. Those talents … we … thought a sufficient passport to the theatre." Chetwood and Cibber recommended her to the latter's father, Colley Cibber, then manager at Drury Lane, who "the moment he heard her sing, put her down in the list of performers at twenty shillings per week," and gave her the minor role of the page, Ismenes, in Nat Lee's tragedy Mithridates.

Despite her inexperience, Clive had an almost immediate success in this, and in the other small parts that Cibber assigned to her. Even at this early stage, her musical skills and her ability to put over a song were apparent, and as Ismenes, Chetwood recorded, her performance won her "extraordinary applause." In the following, 1728–29, season, she began to emerge in more prominent roles in comedy, appearing in January 1729 as Phillida in Cibber's ill-fated Love is a Riddle. Other early parts included Honoria in Love Makes a Man, Rosella in The Village Opera, Bonvira in the History of Bonduca, and Maria in Whig and Tory.

Unlike the great majority of her contemporaries, Kitty did not have to serve a long apprenticeship in provincial theaters or in a "strolling" company and was remarkable in her almost instantaneous success: as Chetwood remarked, "never any person of her age flew to perfection with such rapidity." Although not a beauty, she had a remarkably mobile and expressive face, and an ability to create an immediate rapport with her audience. While appearing in a great range of parts, both in new plays and in established works, her particular forte was low comedy, and one of her most successful parts was as Nell in Coffey's The Devil to Pay, which fully utilized her talents as a singer and comedian. She first played the part in August 1731, and it remained a favorite with her, and with her public, throughout her career. In the 1731–32 season, she took on the role of Polly Peachum in The Beggar's Opera, and began her successful collaboration with Henry Fielding, appearing in his The Old Debauchees, The Covent Garden Tragedy, The Lottery and, in 1732–33, his adaptation of Moliere's The Miser.

In 1733, when she was 22 and already one of Drury Lane's leading ladies, Kitty secretly married George Clive, an apparently undistinguished young man from an aristocratic family. The marriage hardly lasted a year; by 1735, the couple were living separately, although they never divorced, and Kitty retained her husband's surname as her own stage name. Little is known of the Clives' marriage, and nothing of the reason for their separation. However, George Clive's bitterness seems to have lasted longer than Kitty's. When he died many years later, leaving his considerable fortune to his landlady, his widow philosophically noted that "he has not left me even the shilling he has cut me off with."

Throughout her marriage, and afterwards, Kitty remained at Drury Lane, steadily adding to her repertoire, regularly reviving favorite roles, and defending those that she regarded as her own against all rivals. In 1735–36, a public row erupted, when the management attempted to give the part of Polly Peachum in The Beggar's Opera to Susannah Cibber , leaving Clive with the secondary role of Lucy. The affair was delightedly covered in the London journals, in street ballads, and even made its way onto the stage in the form of a farce, The Beggars' Pantomime, or the Contending Columbines, dedicated by the author, Woodward, to the two ladies "who had a violent contention for Polly." As assertive as ever, Kitty went into print to defend herself, alleging, in a letter published in the Daily Post, that "there was a design formed against me, to deprive me by degrees of every part in which I had the happiness to appear with any reputation; and at length, by this method to make me so little useful to the stage, as not to deserve the salary I now have, which is much inferior to that of several other performers."

Despite her complaints, Clive was now a celebrated figure in London theatrical and intellectual circles and a leading member of the Drury Lane company. Off stage, her strong will and her temper were legendary: as Samuel Foote tactfully expressed it in 1747: "This lady has now and then perhaps … expressed herself behind the scenes in too loud and forcible a manner." In fact, Clive's tirades were notorious, allowing her to overawe even her most celebrated colleagues, and giving her a voice in a profession in which women had traditionally had little influence. Moreover, as Foote admitted, her tantrums were commonly "owing to an earnestness for the success of the business," that is, to her sense of duty towards her audience and her art. According to her colleague, Tate Wilkinson, Clive "was … passionate, cross and vulgar," but he, too, went on to acknowledge her supreme skills as an actress, as well as her generosity and her common sense. Her wit and intelligence were as evident in private life as in the theater, and enabled her to mix on equal terms with the most gifted personalities of her time, among them Dr. Samuel Johnson who, according to Boswell, "had a very high opinion of Mrs. Clive's comic powers, and conversed more with her than any of the actresses. He said 'Clive, sir, is a good thing to sit by; she always understands what you say.'" Kitty reciprocated his compliment, declaring that "I love to sit by Dr Johnson; he always entertains me."

Cibber, Susannah (1714–1766)

English singer and actress. Born Susannah Maria Arne in London, England, in February 1714; died at Westminster, on January 30, 1766; buried in Westminster Abbey; daughter of a Covent Garden upholsterer; sister of the composer Thomas Arne; married Theophilus Cibber (1703–1758, an actor-manager), in 1834 (divorced); children: two who died in infancy.

An eminent actress and singer, Susannah Cibber made her debut at age 18 at the Haymarket in the opera Amelia by Lumpé. In 1834, she became the second wife of the notorious Theophilus Cibber, an actor-manager and son of Colley Cibber. Theophilus directed her in her first success as a tragic actress in Voltaire's Zaïre, which opened in 1736. Theirs was a miserable marriage: their two children died in infancy and Theophilus claimed all her wages. It is said he also encouraged an affair with William Sloper, so that he might sue for damages to pay his debts. In 1739, Theophilus brought an action against Sloper for £5,000. In the sensational trial, the jury gave their opinion of the cuckolded husband by awarding him £10. When Susannah continued to live with Sloper, Theophilus brought another action against the man for detaining his wife. This time, he was awarded £500 in damages. Four letters from Theophilus to Susannah and Sloper, relating to the divorce case, were published, as well as Tryal of William Sloper Esq. for Criminal Conversation with Mrs. Cibber (London, 1739). All the notoriety put Susannah's career on hold for 14 years. Returning to the theater in 1753, she became Garrick's most famous partner at the Drury Lane and was truly mourned at the time of her death in 1766. (Theophilus had drowned in 1758 while crossing the Irish sea to fulfill an engagement in Dublin.)

Almost as noteworthy was her exemplary private life, in an era when women players were popularly regarded as little better than prostitutes, and when the parts that they played were generally written to exploit their sexuality. Despite her separation from her husband, she never became an object of scandal, and indeed made something of a parade of her virtue, particularly in disputes with her rival, Peg Woffington , who was reputed to have had numerous lovers. Clive also had a strong sense of family loyalty, and from an early age she supported her father and other relatives, including her brother Jemmy, whom she assisted in a generally unsuccessful stage career, and who lived with her for most of her life. As her friend Fielding wrote to her, "Great favourite as you are with your audience, you would be much more so were they acquainted with your private character … did they see you, who can charm them on the stage with personating the foolish and vicious characters of your sex, acting in real life the part of the best wife, the best daughter, the best sister, and the best friend."

As an actress, Clive was outstanding in comedy. According to Thomas Davies, who saw her often, "a more extensive walk in comedy than hers cannot be imagined…. To a strong and melodious voice, with an ear for music, she added all the sprightly action requisite…. Her mirth was so genuine, that … her audience was sure to accompany her." Fielding agreed with this assessment, drawing a parallel between the real woman and the actress when he declared that "Mrs Clive is esteemed by all an excellent comic actress; and as she has a prodigious fund of natural spirit and humour off the stage, she makes the most of the poet's on it. Nothing, though ever so barren … can be flat in her hands." Her comic and singing talents were combined in one of her most popular pieces, her "mimic comic opera song," in which she imitated the performance of some of the leading prima donnas of the time, whom she allegedly described as "a set of Italian squalling devils who come over to England to get our bread from us." Songs were often introduced into her plays in order to exploit her popularity as a singer, but she was reportedly as effective in the works of great composers such as Purcell and Handel as in more ephemeral works, and, in 1743, she was chosen by the latter to sing Dalila in his oratorio Samson.

She did, however, have her weaknesses: as The Dramatic Censor summed it up, "Mrs Clive, peculiarly happy in low humour … was always the joy of her audience when she kept clear of anything serious and genteel." Her Ophelia was comprehensively damned, as was her Portia in The Merchant of Venice, in which she appeared for the first time in 1740–41. Nevertheless, the critics noted with disgust that her faithful public was amused by her interpretation of the part. According to The Censor, "The applause she received … was disgraceful both to herself and the audience," and Benjamin Victor deplored the "comic finishings" that she added to the courtroom scene, while admitting her power to entertain even in such a performance. Characteristically, Kitty refused to admit defeat and, braving unanimously unfavorable reviews, revived the part on a number of other occasions.

In summer 1741, Clive visited Dublin for the only time in her career, appearing at the Aungier Street Theatre, to great acclaim, as Lappet in The Miser. Back in London, she fell ill, and at one stage it was reported that "her life has been despaired of," but shortly afterwards she was back on stage, apparently fully recovered. In 1743–44, she was once more involved in controversy when she was among the leading players, including Charles Macklin and David Garrick, who seceded from Charles Fleetwood's Drury Lane to set up a new company at the Haymarket. This venture was not a success, and shortly afterwards she moved to Covent Garden, where she remained for just two seasons. The period was a troubled one in the London theatrical world, with actors attempting to assert their rights against the powerful theater managers, and, in October 1744, Clive made her own contribution to the debate. In The Case of Mrs. Clive Submitted to the Public, she accused Fleetwood and John Rich, the manager of Covent Garden, of uniting in a cartel to keep down actors' salaries. While confidently leaving her audience to judge her performances, she nevertheless put forward a strong justification for her own claims, and incidentally offered an insight into the heavy demands made on even the leading actresses of the time.

I may venture to affirm that my labour and application have been greater than any other performer on the stage. I have not only acted in almost all the plays, but in farces and musical entertainments; and very frequently two parts in a night, even to the prejudice of my health. I have been at great expense in masters for singing … [M]y additional expenses in belonging to the theatre amount to upwards of one hundred pounds a year in clothes and other necessaries; and the pretended great salaries of ten and twelve pounds a week … will, upon enquiry, appear to be no more than half as much; since they performed last season, at the theaters, very seldom above three or four days a week.

Aware that there would be those who considered the affair to be trivial, and her own stance unduly assertive, she reminded her readers that, "however trifling such things may appear to them, to me, who am so much concerned in 'em, they are of great importance, such as my liberty and livelihood depend on."

With the resignation of Fleetwood from Drury Lane, the way was open for Clive's return there for the 1745–46 season. Opening in The Merchant of Venice, to the usual adverse critical reaction, she went on to play some of her more popular parts, such as Lady Fanciful in The Provok'd Wife and Hoyden in The Relapse. She also finally relinquished the part of Polly Peachum in The Beggar's Opera, coaching her replacement in the role and appearing herself as Lucy. For the remainder of her career, Kitty was to remain at Drury Lane, which from 1747, under the management of David Garrick, achieved a new distinction and dynamism. Clive's relations with Garrick were always stormy, and he frequently felt the force of her spectacular temper, as she asserted her rights against both real and imagined slights. On the other hand, she could not fail to respect his genius as an actor. Her conflicting feelings are well represented by an eyewitness account of a performance of King Lear, in which Garrick acted the king. According to John Taylor, Clive "stood behind the scenes to observe him, and in spite of the roughness of her nature, was so deeply affected, that she sobbed one minute and abused him the next, and at length … turned from the place with the following … tribute: 'D—n him, I believe he could act a gridiron.'" Garrick, for his part, admired both Clive's artistry and her wit: it is said that a whispered remark from her, during a performance of Arthur Murphy's The Way to Keep Him, reduced him to hilarity and forced him to leave the stage—the single occasion in his career on which he laughed out of his part.

Now in her middle years, and with her standing as an actor unassailable, Clive expanded her sphere of activity by turning author. Her farce, The Rehearsal, or Bayes in Petticoats, was included in the 1749–50 season, with Clive in the title part. The role was a "breeches" one, not a genre in which she had ever excelled, and her performance was poorly received. Unlike Woffington, who scored her most brilliant successes in male roles, Kitty was physically unsuited to such parts, "the concealing petticoat," as Fielding put it, "better suiting her turn of make than the breeches." However, she did go on to produce three more farces, Every Woman in her Humour, Sketch of a Fine Lady's Return from a Rout, and The Faithful Irishwoman, none of which received good reviews. Indeed, her final attempt, The Faithful Irishwoman, produced in 1764–65, had only one performance, and of her works, only The Rehearsal was actually printed.

By now, Clive was playing fewer new characters, although in 1757–58 she appeared for the first time as Lady Wishfort in William Congreve's The Way of the World, a role that was to be one of her most celebrated and frequently revived. In 1761–62, she played Lady Beverly, a part that had been specially written for her, in William Whitehead's The School for Lovers, and, in 1763–64, she appeared as Mrs. Friendly in Frances Sheridan 's The Dupe. Other notable performances were her Widow Blackacre in The Plain Dealer, Mrs. Heidelberg in The Clandestine Marriage, Lady Fuz in Garrick's A Peep behind the Curtain, and, in 1768–69, Mrs. Winifred in Elizabeth Griffith 's The School for Rakes. According to her friend Griffith, Clive was unwell at the time and agreed to undertake the part only out of "kindness to the author, and attention to the public"; nonetheless, the play was a great success, due in no small part to her own performance.

Griffith, Elizabeth (c. 1720–1793)

British-Irish playwright and novelist. Born in Glamorganshire, Wales, around 1720; died in Millicent, Nass, County Kildare, Ireland, on January 5, 1793; daughter of Thomas Griffith (a well-known Dublin actor-manager) and Jane (Foxcroft) Griffith (daughter of a Yorkshire cleric); married Richard Griffith, around 1752; children: two.

Born in Wales, brought up in Ireland, Elizabeth Griffith was educated and trained by her actor-manager father for the theater. Five years after his death in 1744, she made her debut as an actress with Thomas Sheridan's Dublin company. In 1753, a now-married Griffith moved to London and minor roles at Covent Garden. When her husband's linen factory failed in the 1750s, Griffith determined to support the family by writing and published her courtship letters by subscription. The success of A Series of Genuine Letters between Henry and Frances, published in 1757, gave impetus to her continued writings. Her first comedy, The Platonic Wife, an adaptation of a play by Marmontel, ran for six nights at the Drury Lane in 1765. The School for Rakes, an adaptation of Beaumarchais' Eugénie, written at the urging of David Garrick, opened at the Drury Lane with Kitty Clive in the lead in February 1769. Griffith's next play, 1772's A Wife in the Right, was a failure, owing to the drunkenness of her lead actor. Her last, The Times, opened at the Drury Lane in 1779. Elizabeth Griffith also wrote three successful novels.

suggested reading:

Eshelman, D. Elizabeth Griffith: A Biographical and Critical Study, 1949.

Now 57, Kitty was as confident as ever of her powers against the challenge of the new generation: as she assured Garrick when he fretted about the onset of old age, her audience "had rather see the Garrick and the Clive at a hundred and four, than any of the moderns; the ancients, you know, have always been admired." However, she had already decided to retire, perhaps feeling that it would be more dignified to do so while her reputation was at its height than to risk decline and obscurity. Her final benefit was held on April 24, 1769, the bill announcing that it would be "the last time of her appearing on the stage." The plays were The Wonder, in which she played opposite Garrick, and Garrick's own Lethe, with Clive reviving her celebrated "Fine Lady," and closing with an epilogue written for her by her friend, Horace Walpole. The occasion was a suitably triumphant farewell performance, with two of the greatest figures of the 18th-century theater playing together for the last time on the stage that Kitty had graced for so long.

For about 30 years, Clive had been engaged in an intimate platonic friendship with the author, wit and connoisseur, Horace Walpole, who in 1748 had bought a "country box," beside the Thames at Twickenham, which he named Strawberry Hill and transformed into "a little Gothic castle." Kitty visited him there often, and while she was still acting had written to him that "tho' I am now representing women of quality and cobblers' wives etc. etc. to crowded houses, the character I am most desirous to act well is a good sort of country gentlewoman at Twickenham." Her wish was realized when she accepted Walpole's offer of a cottage, moving there sometime before her retirement in 1769. Little Strawberry Hill, as her house became known, was "a little box, contiguous to Mr Walpole's garden, and close almost to the chapel," and there was constant movement between the two houses, with Clive and Walpole spending much of their time together, gossiping, playing cards, and entertaining a constant stream of visitors. As Clive wrote to her friend, the actress Jane Pope : "I have ten times more business now than I had when I played the fool as you do. I have engagements every day of my life. Routs, either at home or abroad every night…. I am in such good health, and such fine spirits that it is impossible for any one to be happier."

In later years, the attacks of illness to which she had always been subject became more frequent, and according to Walpole she was sometimes "extremely confused." Kitty Clive died on December 6, 1785, and was buried in Twickenham churchyard. Walpole set up a memorial to her in the garden beside her house, with his own verse engraved on it.

Ye smiles and jests still hover round!
This is mirth's consecrated ground.
Here lived the laughter-loving dame,
A matchless actress, Clive by name;
The comic muse with her retired,
And shed a tear when she expired.

Pope, Jane (1742–1818)

English actress. Born in 1742; died on July 30, 1818; daughter of a London theatrical wigmaker.

Actress Jane Pope began her career in a Lilliputian company for David Garrick in 1756, at age 14, then quickly shifted into ingenue roles. She originated the part of Mrs. Candour in The School for Scandal in 1777 and thereafter tackled many other important parts. A lifelong friend of Kitty Clive , Pope erected the monument at Twickenham to Clive's memory. She was not only an admirable actress, but, like her friend Clive, led an irreproachable life, for which she was praised by all the literary critics of her day.

Clive would almost certainly have mocked such hyperbole, but in her own time she was, indeed, incomparable, the supreme comic actress of her generation, described by Tate Wilkinson as "a diamond of the first water." For Victor, she was "this laughter-loving, joy-exciting actress" and "a true comic genius," while Chetwood, in his General History of the Stage, considered that "of all actresses who have appeared in the comic vein, Mrs. Clive's superior talents have always been pre-eminent." While those talents disappeared with the woman herself, Clive's professionalism, her energy and obvious intelligence, and her fearless independence can still excite admiration in generations for whom the magic of her performances must be only hearsay.


Fitzgerald, Percy. The Life of Mrs. Catherine Clive. London, 1888.

Fyvie, John. Comedy Queens of the Georgian Era. London: Archibald Constable, 1906.

Highfill, Philip H., Kalman A. Burnim, and Edward A. Laughans, eds. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses … and other Stage Personnel in London, 1660–1800. IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975.

Parsons, Mrs. Clement. Garrick and his Circle. London: Methuen, 1906.

suggested reading:

Ferris, Lesley. Acting Women: Images of Women in Theatre. London: Macmillan, 1990.

Howe, Elizabeth. The First English Actresses. Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Rosemary Raughter , freelance writer in women's history, Dublin, Ireland