Actors of late 17th and early 18th century began to develop specific character roles--Colley Cibber was a famous fop and John Verbruggen played mostly high-standing gentlemen and rakes (an immoral man, frequently a gambler, who used a sharp wit and a keen mind to seduce women). In order to satisfy audience expectations and exploit the strengths of each actor, playwrights often wrote plays with specific actors in mind.
Actors of this time, especially the popular ones, wielded power in the theater. They negotiated their salary, rebelled against unjust management, and some of them like Cibber, Doggett, and Wilks at Drury Lane, even took over management. Although actors were criticized and persecuted for their lewd roles on stage, they influenced the decision of the playwrights and theatre managers and were by no means powerless in London theater.
Towards the latter end of the 17th century, a new character form emerged into the comedic tradition of the London stage, the fop. The character was typically a man who pursued fashionable dress and manners, particularly those brought overseas from France. He was also vain to the point of narcissism, while simultaneously being incompetent in the all-important art of wit. The comedy of his character existed in his inability to subscribe to the fashions of the day, while also logically pursuing his own endeavors. In the end, and at the beginning, a fop's only motivation was to remain fashionable.
The role existed primarily as a foil to the rake. While the fop was rarely meant to be the protagonist within plays, the popularity of the role with audiences placed great importance on the successful acting of this character form.
The most famous iterations of the character include: Lord Foppington in The Relapse, Sir Fopling Flutter in Man of Mode, and Sir Novelty Fashion in Love's Last Shift.
Additional characters included: Sparkish in The Country Wife, Novel and Plausible in The Plain Dealer, Sir Courtly in Sir Courtly Nice, Witwoud in The Way of the World, and Dapperwit in Love in a Wood.
Cibber started acting around 1690 but was not doing so well until 1695 when he was given the role of Fondlewife in The Old Bachelor. Although the play was a success and Cibber gained acclaim for his foppish character, managers offered him no more such parts.
However, Cibber paved his way by writing plays with parts “suited to his growing talent for playing fops.” Cibber’s first and very successful play, Love’s Last Shift (1696), established him as a popular fop actor and a budding playwright.
Although Cibber attempted numerous roles during his career as an actor, he was most well-received in fop roles. In fact, when he tried acting tragic roles—like Richard III in his adaptation of Shakespeare’s play—“virtually everyone…of sense…thought he was dreadful.” As audience continued to find Cibber’s foppish characters humorous, Cibber kept appearing in similar roles. Lord Foppington in The Relapse (1696), the sequel to Love's Last Shift, was a part written especially for him by John Vanbrugh and Cibber’s own comedies like The Careless Husband (1704) included fop characters played excellently by the playwright.
Although John Verbruggen's name first appeared on cast lists around 1690, it is presumed that he performed in the 1680s as well, under the name Alexander. A minor actor at first, his first major roles included Ambrosio in D'Urfey's The Comical History of Don Quixote (1694).
In 1695, the United Theater split with the formation of Thomas Betterton's Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre. As many senior actors moved to the new theater, Verbruggen suddenly became a much more significant player. In an attempt to keep him from switching to Lincoln's Inn Fields, Drury Lane's manager Christopher Rich doubled Verbruggen's salary, making him on par with the remaining lead actor. It was during this period that Verbruggen first started to perform the major roles he became well-known for. These included the leading character Oroonoko in Thomas Southerne's popular 1695 tragedy and heroic drama Oroonoko, as well as the emperor in Mary Pix's Ibrahim. The split of the theater catapulted Verbruggen into stardom, and he performed it well.
In 1696, internal conflict at Drury Lane led Verbruggen to leave by the end of the year. At Lincoln's Inn Field, he continued to perform major roles. He starred, for instance, in two of William Congreve's popular plays, The Mourning Bride (1697) and The Way of the World (1700). Verbruggen's roles were usually quite similar; he played leading male roles, gentlemen of high standing, even rakes. He represents the evolution of the actor as a specific character role, with each actor having a specific character type he plays best and is most associated with by the public.
In 1693, the acclaimed Irish actor John Wilks moved from Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre to London, where he joined the still-united Drury Lane company led by Christopher Rich. There he stayed before returning to Dublin briefly in 1698, from which – accordingly to popular rumors at the time – he had to flee because the second duke of Ormond issued a warrant to prevent Wilks (and his talent) from leaving Ireland.
Nonetheless, Wilks returned to the Drury Lane stage in November 1699, where he performed Sir Harry Wildair in George Farquhar’s The Constant Couple. Wilks and Farquhar met several years earlier at the Smock Alley Theatre, where the latter was also a struggling actor, and they remained good friends until Farquhar’s death in 1707. In addition to a sequel to Constant entitled Sir Harry Wildair, Wilks debuted as the leading man in a number of Farquhar plays, including The Recruiting Officer and The Beaux’ Stratagem.
Following accusations that Rich was embezzling money from the Drury Lane actors, Wilks joined a number of players that left for the newly-opened Haymarket Theatre. Wilks continued to act, and in 1709, he joined with Cibber, Thomas Doggett, Anne Oldfield, and the original manager Owen Swiny to oversee the Haymarket. The companies later reunited at Drury Lane in 1710, and Wilks, Cibber, and Doggett took over joint management of the theater following Swiny’s return to the Haymarket. Under this triumvirate of actor-managers, Drury Lane flourished for many years.