Even writing a 10,000-word short story seems to require extensive research—or maybe I just prefer digging through old books to actually setting rear in chair and writing. Anyway, I’ve been burying myself in early 19th century English theater lore (I obsess over whether to use theatre or theater and decided I'm American, so unless it's an official title, I'm going with theater), finding facts I’ll never use except here.
Did you realize that Covent Garden and Drury Lane were the only theaters in London with a royal patent to perform Shakespeare in the early 1800s? And they basically only ran during the winter months? Haymarket was licensed for the summer but none of the smaller venues were allowed to perform the great bard. Without Shakespeare, it was almost impossible for a smaller theater to survive.
Performers could apply their Shakespearian talents outside the city, but not in London—which is where the audience and money was. Astley’s circus (the barn on the right) and the Old Vic were large enough to only be warned off if they ventured too far against the royal patent, but smaller places would be summarily closed if they infringed on the crown’s monopoly.
So small theaters struggled until the authorities finally permitted “burletta” licenses. These licenses allowed theaters to create their own melodramas and burlesque—short scenes with musical accompaniment. Playwrights would steal situations from the day’s news (shades of Saturday Night Live?), basing drama on real life horror stories. Or they’d plagiarize novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The performance needed to be loud and lively to survive the rowdy audiences roaming the floors to see and be seen, shouting at acquaintances in the back seats, and drinking and laughing at all the wrong things.
I’m not certain if it was the rowdy audiences, or just plain bad luck with all those oil lamps illuminating the
stage, but theaters burned down with the same regularity as they went bankrupt. (image is the ruins of the Pantheon from 1792) But I found the information I was really looking for when I uncovered the tidbit about Madame Vestris taking over Astley’s bankrupt investment in The Olympic Theatre in the Strand. In 1830, she became the first female manager in the history of London theater.
A famous opera singer, Lucia Elizabetta Vestris, used the fortune gained from her years of performing to lease the Olympic. With her experience in acting and singing, she had the knowledge to choose the best playwrights, ones who could produce the burlesques and dramas most likely to attract large audiences. She insisted on real props and historically accurate costuming which set new standards in stage design. She also knew how to command respect and didn’t allow anything behind the scenes that wouldn’t pass muster in a drawing room. My heroine! Given the drunken, litigious company operating most theaters, she was a model of business acumen, par none.
For a more detailed description of Madame Vestris, her accomplishments, and London theaters, here’s an old book (I don’t see a date) by Charles Pearce, MADAME VESTRIS AND HER TIMES which tells you as much about the theater as it does the lady. Despite opening with pages of useless chapter descriptions, it sucked me in. I may not emerge to write this story I’m supposed to be working on for another day or two. . .
Are you a fan of the theater? I developed an early love of musicals from the movies, before I knew theater existed. But now that I’m able to attend stage productions regularly, I’ve learned to adore live performances. Maybe this story needs to be longer. . . What do you think, would you read a book about actors?
(And just in case you haven't read my WICKED WYCKERLY, it's free at all your favorite e-retailers for the next week or so!)