The Theaters of Regency London by Regan Walker
While researching the Theatres-Royal during the Regency period (1811-1820) for my new Valentine’s short story, The Shamrock & The Rose, I found a wealth of information on the choices available to theatergoers in London at that time. More than one theatre had Letters Patent, and could, therefore, claim the name “Theatre-Royal,” and in addition to those, there were more specialized theatres and smaller playhouses as well.
From the variety of choices, it would seem that Londoners often enjoyed an evening at the theatre with as many as 20,000 attending the theatre on any given evening. One could see a drama, perhaps one of Shakespeare’s plays, a light comedy, or an opera, as well as ballet, pantomimes and skits—even a clown! And some of these might be combined into the entertainment for a single evening.
The theatres were lit mostly by candlelight reflected from many chandeliers. Of course, these were not dimmed as the entertainment began, so you could well see everyone in the audience as well as the actors on stage. And they could see you! So what activities you engaged in while in your box had to be discreet. The use of candlelight (until replaced with gaslights) also posed a fire hazard, as evidenced by several of the theatres burning down.
The Theatre-Royal, Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House) was rebuilt in 1809 after a fire destroyed it the year before. Holding crowds exceeding 3,000, it became, perhaps, the leading theatre of the time. The principal performers at Covent Garden between 1809 and 1822 demonstrate the talent assembled there: In tragedy, Messrs. Kemble, Cooke, Macready, Young, Mrs. Siddons and Miss O’Neill. In comedy, Messrs. Liston, Munden, Charles Mathews, W. Farren, Mesdames Jordan, Brunton, Foote, C. Kemble. In opera, Messrs. Incledon, Braham, Pyne, and Mesdames Catalani, Bolton, Stephens, and Tree. “Kitty” Stephens made her first appearance here in 1812; Miss O’Neill, in 1814; Macready, in 1816; and Farren, in 1818. Several of these actresses and singers moved from the stage to the peerage when they married men in the nobility.
The Theatre-Royal, Drury Lane (mentioned in my Christmas short story, The Holly & The Thistle as providing seasonal entertainment), was redesigned in 1812 after a fire destroyed it in 1809. That was the fourth theatre to be on the site, the first having been constructed in 1663, pursuant to Letters Patent from Charles II. The Drury Lane Theatre was the first theatre to be entirely lit by gaslight in 1817.
The Theatre-Royal, Hay-Market (also known as Haymarket Theatre or the Little Theatre) is in the West End and dates to 1720. (My Valentine’s Day short story, The Shamrock & The Rose opens with a scene set in this theatre.) It was originally constructed in the late 18th century and relocated and redesigned by John Nash in 1820. The new theatre was in many ways the same as the one that preceded it with flat sidewalls, tiers of boxes, a back gallery and the pit. However, the new theatre was much more opulent with colors of pink, crimson and gold and a circular vestibule “almost lined” with mirrors. It was the last theatre to be lit by gaslight (in 1843).
The Sadler’s Wells Theatre in the London Borough of Islington during the Regency featured famous actors, including Edmund Kean and Joseph Grimaldi. Grimaldi, though a dramatic actor, is best remembered for his character “Joey the Clown” with white face and rouge half-moons on each cheek. Because the period was characterized by public drunkenness, the rural location led the management to provide escorts for patrons so they could safely return to central London.
Sadler’s Wells (also known as “The Aquatic Theatre“) was used to stage sensational naval melodramas, including a recreation of Nelson’s victory at the Nile called Naval Pillars, and a recreation of the Franco-Spanish siege of Gibraltar, which included replicas of the fleet of ships, using a one inch to one foot scale, and working miniature cannon.
The Theatres-Royal in Drury Lane and Covent Garden confined their season to the autumn and winter. Sadler’s Wells filled the gap with their shows during the spring and summer. From the playbills I reviewed, the Theatre-Royal at Haymarket seems to have operated nearly year round.
In addition to the major theatres holding thousands, there were many other options for the theatergoer in the Regency:
The Haymarket (King’s Theatre) Opera House was originally built by the architect and playwright Sir John Vanbrugh in 1705. It was destroyed by fire in 1789, and re-built and used extensively for opera.
The Lyceum Theatre first became a “licensed” house in 1809 and was rebuilt in 1816, and renamed The English Opera House. It was famous for being the first theatre in London to feature some gas lighting (1817), and for hosting the London première of Mozart’s Italian opera Così fan tutte.
The Pantheon, constructed on Oxford Street in 1772, was originally designed for balls and masquerades before becoming an opera house in 1791. It was converted to a theatre 1811-12, but its role in the theatres of London was short lived. Damaged by fire and troubled financially owing to irregularities in its license, it was replaced in 1814 by the Pantheon Bazaar.
The Adelphi Theatre was constructed in 1806 by merchant John Scott to showcase his daughter’s theatrical talents, and was given a new facade and redecorated in 1814. It reopened in 1819 as the Adelphi, named after the area of West London built by the brothers Adam from 1768. (The name “Adelphoi” in Greek means “the brothers.”) Among the actors who appeared on its stage was the comedian Charles Matthews, whose work was so admired by young Charles Dickens. Most of its patrons were the salaried clerks of barristers and solicitors.
The Olympic Theatre was a playhouse built from the timbers of the French warship “Ville de Paris” (the former deck serving as the stage). It opened as the “Olympic Pavilion” in 1806. After financial losses, in 1813, it was sold to Robert William Elliston, who refurbished the interior and renamed it the “Little Drury Lane” by virtue of its proximity to the more established patent theatre. It was rebuilt in 1818.
The Royalty Theatre was opened in 1787 by the actor John Palmer in defiance of the 1737 patent monopoly act and featured as its first production As You Like It. Without a proper license it was forced to close–and Palmer was arrested. Under the management of William Macready, the Royalty struggled with pantomimes and burlettas (comic opera). In 1816, it was renamed the “East End Theatre,” and continued to offer entertainment until it was burned down ten years later.
Article by Regan Walker. Visit Regan at www.ReganWalkerAuthor.com