AN early admirer of the acting of David Garrick -- outstanding figure of English drama in the 18th century -- wrote to him: ``I was charmed in particular with your sudden starts into passion, and quite in raptures at your fine recovery out of it. But you are not made for tragedy only: the sock becomes you as much as the buskin.'' The ``buskin'' was the high, thick-soled boot worn by actors in ancient Athenian tragedy; the ``sock'' was a light, low shoe worn by comedians. Thus the phrase ``sock and buskin'' came to mean the complete art of acting.
Garrick was as adept at comedy as tragedy. He astonished his contemporaries with his portrayal of Shakespeare's ``Richard III,'' and the fury he brought to King Lear's madness became famous. But he also acted and wrote comedy and farce. He shone as Benedick in ``Much Ado About Nothing.''
One of his own farces, based on a French original, was ``Miss in her Teens,'' first performed in January 1747. Mrs. Mary Delany left an account of it in her letters: ``. . . I went to . . . the new farce . . . composed by Garrick; nothing can be lower, but the parts he acts in it himself he makes so very ridiculous that it is really entertaining. It is said he mimics eleven men of fashion.''
Garrick was a persistent champion of Shakespeare (himself, of course, master of both comedy and tragedy) in an age still not completely convinced of his incomparable qualities as a dramatist. Pushing his claims for the Bard's greatness, Garrick reintroduced and popularized a number of his forgotten plays.
But detractors -- particularly Voltaire and his followers in France -- maintained that although Garrick was doubtless something of a ``powerful magician'' on stage, bringing Shakespeare vividly to life, his reputation would simply ``return into the night'' as soon as Garrick stopped acting his plays.
Garrick hoped to convert even Voltaire to some degree; he was up against it, though, with a man who maintained that the author of ``Hamlet'' and ``As You Like It'' was no more than ``a savage with imagination,'' and who went on dismissively: ``He wrote a lot of pleasant verse, but his plays can only please in London or Canada. It is not a good sign for the taste of a nation when that which it admires only succeeds on home ground.''
If he failed to persuade Voltaire, it must nevertheless be admitted that Garrick can now be seen to have been nearer right about Shakespeare's future than the great French philosopher-writer. And he certainly made his own contribution to his hero's established position of preeminence in world literature.
Garrick also did much to improve the social status of his profession. He aimed for ``sense'' and ``nature'' in acting, rather than mere show and pomp. Burke wrote that ``he raised the character of [acting] to the rank of a liberal art.'' Alan Kendall, in his readable biography of Garrick, quotes a contemporary who had seen the actor perform in a play where the other actors still retained the ``old style.'' When Garrick came on stage, ``alive in every muscle and in every feature . . . it seemed as if a whole century had been stept over in the transition of a single scene.''
Dr. Johnson told Mrs. Thrale that Garrick looked older than he was ``because his face has had double the business of any other man's. It is never at rest.'' The actress Kitty Clive is supposed to have stood in the wings one night and exclaimed admiringly that Garrick ``. . . could act a gridiron.''
It is small wonder, then, that such a student of facial expression as Joshua Reynolds would be fascinated by Garrick. He was by no means the only painter of the time to portray the actor; indeed, Garrick seems to have been well aware of the good publicity afforded by portraiture. But ``Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy'' is more than a portrait. It might be called a Humorous Mythology. Art historians have found precedents for the form of the picture (it is not known if it was Reynolds's or Garrick's idea) in such earlier painting-subjects as ``The Judgment of Hercules,'' ``Lot and his Daughters,'' and even ``Drunken Silenus.'' But the picture is essentially inventive and original. Reynolds, like Garrick, defended Shakespeare's mixture of comedy with tragedy, and it is clearly the predicament of a man caught between these two states or conventions that intrigued him. Shakespeare could turn such a dramatic dilemma toward either insufferable tension or laughter. Reynolds and Garrick, working in concert to devise this picture, saw its funny side.
The severe personification of Tragedy is far less attractive to the not-particularly-heroic actor than the mischievously knowing figure of Comedy. Garrick -- acting himself -- feels he should make a gesture of excuse to the statuesque and peremptory Tragic Muse but the Comic Muse is far more winning.
David Mannings, in the catalog to the Reynolds Exhibition recently shown in Paris and London, writes that this privately owned picture ``was never meant to be taken too . . . solemnly. It is a joke, essentially a parody. . . .'' Its popularity led to its being reproduced in a number of prints. Some pirated versions even found their way into the print shops of Voltaire's France. But here the painting was miscalled ``L'Homme entre le Vice et la Vertu'' -- a grave and moralistic interpretation that neither Reynolds nor Garrick could possibly have intended.