Susannah Arne was born into a musically gifted family in Covent Garden, London, in 1714. Her father and grandfather were upholsterers, but her siblings and she excelled at musical studies and carved themselves successful careers in that business. The first Arne to be noticed was her older brother Thomas. Very skilled at composition, he attracted the attention of Michael Festing, a famous composer, who became his mentor.
Susannah, instead, was noticed for her beautiful voice. Initially a soprano, it soon lowered to that of a contralto. The young girl made her debut on the London stage in the title role of John Frederick Lampe’s setting of Henry Carey’s Amelia in 1732, and the following year she starred in Rosamund, her brother’s play. She was a huge access. Although, as some critics pointed out, she lacked a polished technique, “by a natural pathos, and perfect conception of the words, she often penetrated the heart, when others, with infinitely greater voice and skill, could only reach the ear.” Among her admirers was Handel, who wrote several parts for her, including a contralto aria in the Messiah and the role of Mica in Samson. Susannah couldn’t read music, so Handel taught her her parts note by note.
But if her career was going well, her love life was a disaster. In 1734, Susannah married Theophilus Cibber, a talented actor who worked at the Drury Lane. At first, the marriage helped her career, as she became a regular performer at that theatre. Her father-in-law, recognizing her potential, also started training her to become a tragic actress, something that would serve her well in the future. But Thomas was making her miserable. He had a penchant for spending more than he earned and, to pay his debts, he sometimes sold some of his wife’s belongings.
He also decided to take on a tenant, William Sloper. Soon, he and Susannah became lovers. At first, Theophilus seemed to encourage the relationship. But then, in 1738, he pressed crim con (adultery) charges against Sloper. A trial ensued. No one talked of nothing else, especially because this wasn’t your usual crim con case, where a scorned husband looked for compensation and even divorce for an adultery tort. The evidence seemed to point to something more salacious: the three of them may have been involved in a menage a trois. Some rumours went even further and suggested that Cibber pointed a gun at Susannah to force her to have sex with Cibber. The jury wasn’t impressed. Cibber was still awarded damages, but only £10. He had been expected £5.000.
When the trial was over, Susannah and William eloped, and had a child together. But they weren’t free of Cibber just yet. Furious, he filed a counter-suit. This time, he was awarded £500, a more generous sum but a pittance compared to the £10000 he had expected. His reputation was completely in tatters too. Susannah’s reputation had suffered as well, but she still enjoyed a successful career. She briefly moved to Dublin, where, waiting for the gossip to die down, she performed at the Aungier Street Theatre. She also sang in the premiere performance of Handel’s Messiah on 13 April 1742. According to legend, Dr Patrick Delany, the chancellor of St Patrick’s Cathedral, when hearing her sing, exclaimed: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”
Later that year, she returned to London, where she was engaged by Handle for his oratorio season. But she also started adding many tragic roles to her repertoire and, in 1744, she was back at the Drury Lane, starring alongside David Garrick, one of the most talented British actors of all times. Susannah too became one of the most talented dramatic actresses of her time, and the best paid too. Around this time, she also took care of her young nephew, Michael Arne. Her brother Thomas was too busy with his career and his wife Cecilia too poorly to take proper care of him. With his aunt’s help, Michael made his acting debut at Drury Lane, aged only 10 years. He would later become a composer, like his father. Susannah died in 1766 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. When he heard of her death, Garrick exclaimed: “Then tragedy dies with her”.