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
A cross-post from The Regency Redingote:
I must admit, I purloined that delicious phrase from the title of a brief article in The Republican, written by Richard Carlile, about Thomas Bowlder. In fact, it is a very apt description of what he did to some well-known books. His expunged editions of various books remained popular through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Bowdler’s name eventually came to be the source of a verb indicating expurgation.
But was Thomas Bowdler the lone "expunger of naughtiness" in the family?
A cross-post from The Regency Redingote:
The theatres of the Regency did not only glitter with the talents of the great actors who trod their boards. They also glittered with the presence of the many members of the beau monde who flocked to the nightly performances during the season. But more germane to the subject of this article, they glittered with light, all the time. The house lights were never dimmed during a performance in any theatre auditorium in Regency England.
Despite the many instances in scores of Regency romance novels I have read over the years in which the theatre house lights dim and some form of seduction ensues in the darkness, it could not have happened. It was physically and technically impossible to dim the house lights of any theatre auditorium during the years of the Regency. And theatre-goers would have been appalled at the very notion. They came to the theatre to see and be seen. The play itself was secondary to the performances going on in the stalls and private boxes.
Oooh, anyone who loves Regency history will want to go to Drury Lane Theatre and go
by Kristine Hughes and Victoria Hinshaw
Through the Stage Door is the UK’s first Interactive Theatre Tour at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Directed by Andrea Brooks with three professional actors, the history of The Theatre Royal Drury Lane is brought to vivid life as key characters, writers and actors from the theatre’s 300 year old past take you back through time as you look around this famous theatre. Since its construction in 1663 the theatre has triumphed over tragedy, fire, bankruptcy and even murder.
The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane opened in 1663, soon after the Restoration when Charles II returned to the throne. This ended Parliament’s puritanical rule which had seen all theatres in England closed, and the destruction of Shakespeare’s Globe. Now in a new and more fun loving age, Thomas Killigrew formed the Kings Company and built the first Theatre Royal Drury Lane, an important symbol of Britain’s theatrical reinvigoration following the barren years of puritan rule.
Since that first theatre there have been three more theatres built on the site of the original, in 1674, 1794 and 1812. The 1794 theatre was built by dramatist and radical MP Richard Sheridan. This was the biggest of all the Drury Lane theatres. It was in this theatre that an assassination attempt was made against George III . James Hadfield fired two shots at King George who was sitting in the royal box. Both missed their target. The would-be assassin was arrested, and George ordered the performance to continue. The 1794 theatre burned down in February 1809, a disaster which ruined Sheridan. There is a well known and oft told anecdote regarding Sheridan and the night of the fire, the following account is from The Lives of Wits and Humourists by John Timbs:
“On the night of the 24th of February, 1809, while the House of Commons was occupied with Mr. Ponsonby’s motion on the conduct of the War in Spain, and Mr. Sheridan was in attendance, with the intention, no doubt, of speaking, the House was suddenly illuminated by a blaze of light; and the debate being interrupted, it was ascertained that Drurylane Theatre was on fire. A motion was made to adjourn; but Mr. Sheridan said, with much calmness, that “whatever might be the extent of the private calamity, he hoped it would not interfere with the public business of the country.” He then left the House, and proceeding to Drury-lane, witnessed, with a fortitude which strongly interested all who observed him, the entire destruction of his property. . . It is said that as he sat at the Piazza coffee-house, during the fire, taking some refreshment, a friend of his having remarked on the philosophical calmness with which he bore his misfortune, Sheridan answered, `A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.’
“Among his losses on the occasion there was one which, from being associated with feelings of other times, may have affected him, perhaps, more deeply than any that were far more serious. A harpsichord that had belonged to his first wife, and had long survived her sweet voice in silent widowhood, was, with other articles of furniture that had been removed from Somerset House, (Sheridan’s official apartments,) to the theatre, lost in the flames. The cost of building of this vast theatre had exceeded 150,000 pounds; and the entire loss by the fire, including that of the performers, musicians, etc., was estimated at 300.000 pounds.”
Theatre Royal Drury Lane is now owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Company, and is used to stage musical theatre. The tour lasts approximately one hour, during which participants will meet characters such as the playwright Richard Sheridan, the great clown Grimaldi, the celebrated actress/mistress Nell Gwynne and many others who played an important role in the theatre’s history.
Tour Times: 10.15am and 11.45am – Wednesday and Saturday
2.15pm and 4.15pm – Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday