Performer Catherine Clive of Drury Lane: British Theatrical Stage Actress in London, England

Catherine “Kitty” Clive was a prime audience favorite during her forty years on the British stage.

Catherine Clive was born in London, England in 1711, daughter of William Raftor of Kilkenny, Ireland. The Dictionary of Irish Biography (1988) shows that she was born in Ulster. That is unlikely, however, as her father fled to France after the Battle of the Boyne (1690). He served as captain under Louis XIV, and then returned to London where he married a rich, young widow.

Catherine “Kitty” Clive, Player at Drury Lane

One of many children, Catherine was affectionately known as Kitty. As a child, she delighted family and friends with her singing and comedy. At seventeen, she gained an interview with the manager of Drury Lane Theatre, Colley Cibber. Catherine was hired as a player on the famous London stage for twenty shillings a week.

Following her first performance (as a page wearing boy’s clothing), she received great applause for her singing and winning manner. She appeared in Othello later in 1728, and in 1729, she performed the role of Dorinda in The Tempest.

At the age of nineteen, Catherine married George Clive, a barrister from a prominent family. They parted by mutual consent after only a brief time together.

Performance Praise and Salary Raise

With her 1731 success as Nell in The Devil to Pay, a farce-opera adaptation, she was given a salary raise. Catherine’s reputation as a comic actress and singer was firmly established.

She was described as rather plain, but with a good-humored face and buxom figure. It was her voice, playfulness, and exuberance that made her a prime favorite of the public and management.

Throughout her forty-year career, Catherine Clive had several disagreements with management and some of her colleagues. She firmly believed in fair treatment for herself and for all company members. When their livelihoods were threatened, she publicly denounced the policy of “casting off” some players.

As stated by P. H. Fitzgerald in his book, “The Life of Mrs. Catherine Clive” (1888), “Conscious of the scrupulous fashion in which she did her duty to the public, she claimed that the same regard should be paid to her by her employer”.

Actresses Feud over Select Role

One of her great public feuds occurred over the role of Polly in The Beggar’s Opera. The three-act play written by John Gay satirized opera by use of familiar tunes and characters that the audience could identify. Its story was a satire with the theme of corruption at all levels of society.

The Beggar’s Opera was extremely successful when it opened at Lincoln’s Inn Field Theatre (formerly Duke’s Theatre). At Drury Lane, it was said that Catherine Clive owned the role of Polly. Another actress, Charlotte Cibber coveted the role, and a public struggle ensued.

Eventually, Mrs. Cibber, under the Drury Lane management of David Garrick, portrayed Polly. Mrs. Clive played the role of Lucy which many thought was the better role for her talents.

When David Garrick became the manager of Drury Lane in 1747, Kitty Clive was that theatre’s leading comic. She performed many times with Garrick, including during her farewell performances prior to her retirement at age 57. Catherine portrayed more than 200 characters during her career.

Retirement to Strawberry Hill

Extremely generous, she supported her family financially throughout her lifetime. She retired to a comfortable home at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, which Horace Walpole gave to her years before. Straightforward and honorable of character, she had many friends who visited her.

Writer/physician Oliver Goldsmith, who had seen many performances throughout Europe, paid her the highest compliment. “She has more true humor”, he wrote “than any actress upon the English or any other stage I have seen.” (Fitzgerald).

Catherine “Kitty” Clive died December 6, 1785 at Twickenham. In his book, Fitzgerald wrote that her good friend Horace Walpole placed an urn in his garden to honor her. The last two lines of the inscription are: “The comic muse with her retired, and shed a tear when she expired.”

Sources:

  • The Life of Mrs. Catherine Clive by Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald
  • Memoirs of His Own Life (1790) by Tate Wilkinson

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