MJP: The amazing Margaret Evans Porter is back with us today, this time with a marvelous overview of British theatre, along with lots of interesting tidbits and mini-bios. (I love the bit about the sailors. <G>)
She’s also going to give away a book to one lucky person who leaves a comment her between now and Thursday midnight. It’s a double volume containing two of her Signet Regencies, Dangerous Diversions and Toast of the Town. Both have theatrical settings, one featuring an actress heroine and one an opera dancer. What could be more appropriate? <g> And now over to you, Margaret!
A Love for Theatre Lore
MEP: I first appeared onstage before I was born—when my mother, a few months pregnant, was in a play. As a child I did community theatre, in my teens I trained for the stage. At college one of my several major subjects was theatre—performance and history—and I especially enjoyed acting in 17th and 18th century plays. After leaving the stage I moonlighted as a theatre historian, very useful when writing Regencies and historicals set in the theatre world. I’m delighted to be invited back by the Word Wenches to discuss theatre history, a topic about which I can be very passionate! (MJP: That’s Margaret onstage on the right.)
After the gloom and doom imposed by Oliver Cromwell in the middle of the 17th century, Londoners were delighted by the resurgence of playhouses with the Restoration. Then, as in Elizabethan times, theatres operated under the patronage of the monarch and the nobility. King Charles II was patron to one company of players and his brother James, Duke of York, to another. The repertory consisted of Shakespeare and Jonson and Marlowe, but new playwrights—commoners, gentry and aristocrats—took up their quills.
Lively Margaret “Peg” Hughes is credited with being the first female actress, appearing as Desdemona. (She inspired the character in the film Stage Beauty—recommended—portrayed by Clare Danes, less dark and voluptuous than Peg!) Peg might have slept with Charles II and was Nell Gwyn’s close friend. Her most devoted protector was Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a cousin of King Charles II, to whom she bore a daughter, Ruperta. When Peg was in dire financial straits, Nell purchased her necklace of “fifty pearls, evenly matched” for over four thousand guineas. Nell, in a similar situation, later sold it to the Duke of Rutland, who presented it to his third wife.
Some Restoration actresses were as famed for their artistry as their amours. Mrs. Bracegirdle was bred to the theatre, performing as a child. She possessed great talent but only moderate beauty, and was praised for her virtue. There was much speculation about whether her private reputation matched her public one, for then, as now, people gossiped about the sexual liaisons—real or imagined—of celebrities. Bracegirdle created several of the best-known roles in Restoration comedy, particularly those written by Congreve. She also performed tragic roles.
William Mountford was a gentleman turned actor, from a good Staffordshire family. According to Colley Cibber, “Of Person he was tall, well made, fair and of an agreeable Aspect, His Voice clear full and melodious. In tragedy he was the most affecting Lover within my Memory. In comedy he gave the truest Life to what we call the Fine Gentleman, his spirit shone brighter for being polished with Decency.” In 1686 he married the budding actress Susanna Percival, daughter of a minor actor. Mountford had an illegitimate child “by a lady of high rank,” brought up by his wife with their own children. He was stabbed to death in the street by Captain Hill, who believed jealously and probably erroneously that Mountford was Mrs. Bracegirdle’s lover. Over a thousand people attended Mountford’s funeral, the King’s choristers from Whitehall sang and the royal organist, Henry Purcell, played.
The theatre in Drury Lane, designed by architect Christopher Wren, dates from the 17th century. The original structure survived until condemned in 1793, when reconstruction began on a building that burned in 1809. Three years later a new theatre opened, with a seating capacity of approximately 3175 persons if pit, boxes and gallery were full.
The first playhouse of the 18th century (by John Vanbrugh, completed 1705) was situated in the Haymarket and home to Thomas Betterton’s players. Called the Queen’s Theatre to honour Queen Anne, it was afterwards known as the King’s Theatre. Late in the century and well into the Regency it housed the highly fashionable Italian Opera.
Covent Garden opened in 1732 and plays were performed there till 1847, when it became the Royal Italian Opera House. It burned to the ground in 1808 and opened a year later—with much protest and rioting, because of a rise in ticket prices. Each night 270 wax candles lighted the crystal chandeliers!
In the 18th century London had many theatres. Some operated only in summer, when Drury Lane and Covent Garden were closed. Whenever those theatres suffered the seemingly inevitable fire, the lesser theatres provided temporary performance space.
Every provincial city had its theatre. So did market towns but instead of a resident company of players, a single locally-based company would travel a circuit from town to town. In summer, the premier London performers visited the population centres to perform their most famous parts. And to scout fresh talent!
The 18th century was the Age of Garrick, who had been Dr. Samuel Johnson’s pupil. In his day Garrick was at the centre not only of theatrical but of literary society. He revered Shakespeare and in 1769 organised a great Jubilee at Stratford commemorating the Bard. Garrick discovered Sarah Kemble Siddons as a young and struggling actress, and as most of you know, she went on to become the great tragedienne of the late Georgian and Regency era. Her success enabled her ambitious brother, John Philip Kemble, to become the greatest actor of his age and, with Thomas Sheridan, a manager of Drury Lane. Between 1783 and 1802, when he became manager at Covent Garden, Kemble performed 120 roles.
A friend and frequent houseguest of lords and politicians, Kemble was devoted to historical truth in stage costume and pageantry—ever seeking realism and romanticism—but apparently didn’t always succeed. His version of Coriolanus offered up “a pretty exact representation of Hanover Square, and some very neat Bond Street shops appeared two, or three times, as parts of Rome.”
When dressing for Shakespeare comedies, up to the time of Garrick, players wore fashionable modern dress, apart from stock characters like Falstaff or Shylock, who had their own particular garb. Characters in tragedy wore selected elements of classical attire—breastplates and helmets for warriors—to accessorise contemporary fashion. Mrs. Siddons once appeared as the Grecian Daughter in “piles of powdered curls, with a forest of feathers on top of them, high-heeled shoes, and a portentous hoop.” Even if a lead actor’s costume copied history, this fellow players would probably not be so appropriately dressed because they supplied their own garb. Tragedy queens wore black velvet, sometimes white.
In the late Georgian/Regency era there arose a mania for private theatricals. Mounted at great expence in aristocratic households, these productions featured amateur players who were coached in their roles by the famous London performers. In Mansfield Park, Mr. Rushworth is very particular about his costumes for the role of Count Cassel, coming in “first with a blue dress, and a pink satin cloak…afterwards…another fine fancy suit by way of a shooting dress.” Jane Austen and her family members were fond of playacting.
The counterpoint to the Kembles’ seriousness was Joseph Grimaldi, England’s first clown. He performed in the popular pantomimes at the Sadlers Wells theatre from Eastertide through summer and at Drury Lane at Christmas. His long career began when he was little more than an infant. Beloved by audiences, he was greatly over-worked by the management.
The Royal Amphitheatre at Westminster Bridge, operated by Philip Astley in the late 18th century into the Regency, was the forerunner of the circus, with “pantomime, buffoonery, and riding. The house is very splendid, and the scenery, decorations, and machinery are in a style of very uncommon elegance.”
Stagecraft was advancing. Flats were moved into place with ropes rigged from the rafters and by unseen scene-shifters. Sailors and former sailors, accustomed to working with ropes, made the best scenery men. Wrote one playgoer in 1817, “Covent Garden Theatre …was shewn to us by Carpenter. He told us that…the expence of preparing a new Pantomime is something more than 7000 pounds and that to work the machinery of a Pantomime employs 170 persons, who act under the direction of one person who is called Captain.” Exactly like a ship!
Stage lights consisted of panels of oil lamps for footlights, which might be raised and lowered from below, tripods to provide side-lights from the wings, and reflectors to enhance light, shutters or sliding doors to block light when necessary.
During performances the auditorium was completely illuminated, chandeliers raised high to cast their light upon the full auditorium, with lighted sconces positioned at intervals throughout the house. This was not the case at European theatres, and incited much commentary by foreign visitors. Gas lighting for the auditorium was a Regency innovation.
In romance fiction, an actress, dancer or opera singer (I’ve used all three types as heroines in my novels) will eventually win a nobleman’s heart and hand. Did this actually occur? Most definitely! (MJP: Margaret is at the left, looking very like a Regency heroine!)
Lavinia Fenton married the Duke of Bolton (as his second wife). Eliza Farren left the stage to become Countess of Derby, and was received at Court. When Louisa Brunton married Lord Craven (courtesan Harriette Wilson’s first protector) her actor father gave her away and her bridegroom “settled 5000 pounds a year upon her.” Catherine “Kitty” Stephens, a singer much admired by Jane Austen, wed the Fifth Earl of Essex by special licence. He was past 80 and desperate for an heir before he died—she was 44. He survived their scandalous union only a year and a nephew inherited the title. Lord Thurlow married the singer Mary Catherine Bolton. After being kept by several prominent men and bearing Colonel Berkeley’s two children, actress Maria Foote married Lord Harrington. Previously he was Lord Petersham—close friend of Beau Brummell, the snuff- fancier of Georgette Heyer’s novels. Doubtless because of Maria’s dubious past, society shunned this couple and they retired to the countryside.
The greatest achiever at marrying-up was Harriot Mellon. First she married the rich banker Coutts. As a wealthy, old and very large widow she snagged the young, slender, impoverished Duke of St. Albans, himself a direct descendant of Charles II and Nell Gwyn.
Oh, mustn’t forget those charming actors! William O’Brien eloped with Lady Susan Fox-Strangways, Lord Ilchester’s daughter. William “Gentleman” Smith married Lord Sandwich’s sister—and abandoned her to chase after an actress!
Leave a comment between now and midnight Thursday for a chance to win a signed copy of Margaret’s double volume of Signet Regency theatre stories. And tell us how you feel about stories built around theatres and actors!