Treading The Boards

The Recruiting OfficerNicola here. I’m busy planning a couple of trips to London to the theatre. I was thrilled to see that two of my favourite plays, She Stoops to Conquer, a Georgian comedy by Oliver Goldsmith and the Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer, are on this spring. I love a lot of the 17th and 18th century comedies and thinking about the enduring appeal of the theatre also made me think about the theatre in the Georgian and Regency era and the huge popularity it had. Not only was theatre popular in London, it was also all the rage in the provinces where private theatres as well as public ones sprang up. Theatrical performances were also found in more unlikely places. Apparently The Recruiting Officer was the first play staged in Australia by convicts of the First Fleet in 1789.

 The Work of the Devil

The English Civil War and the Commonwealth that followed dealt a severe blow to the theatre as allDrury Lane playacting was banned as the work of the devil. Theatre started to recover in the reign of Charles II and by the end of the 18th century it was hugely popular with an estimated two thousand people visiting the theatre each night. Most London theatres were not open all the year round. Drury Lane and Covent Garden were the only two that had licences for the whole year. The rest were seasonal; the Haymarket, for example, was a summer house open from April to October. Members of the Ton would subscribe to a theatre or opera box for the season, appear there as part of their policy “to see and be seen” and often talk through the performance. A box cost up to 7 shillings per night to rent. Prices were cheaper for the common man or woman in the Pit and there was also the benefit of ale and oranges on sale as fruit girls and pot boys would circulate between acts, the equivalent of the ice cream vendor today.

Sarah SiddonsThe London playhouses were very large. Drury Lane could accommodate an audience of over three and a half thousand. Plays rarely ran for very long and there was a constant demand for new shows. Over two thousand were produced between 1750 and 1800. Of these only the works of Sheridan and Goldsmith have survived in popularity into the present. One critic referred to the others as “tedious, heavy with sentimentality, middle-class morality and the work ethic.” Some of the actors, though, have gone down in history amongst the all time greats, Edmund Kean and Sarah Siddons for example. The theatre could also be the route to a glittering marriage. The actress Louisa Brunton, who married the 1st Earl of Craven, was said to possess a great deal more beauty than acting talent. 

Theatres had mainly wooden interiors which were always at risk of fire. In 1794 the Drury Lane Theatre, London introduced the first iron safety curtain, which would eventually become a statutory requirement in all large theatres. It also had a large water tank on its roof – a feature that was adopted by other theatres – to extinguish fire in the stage area. Despite this the theatre burned down in 1809.

The formal theatre was only one form of playacting in the capital. There was also comic opera, ballet, puppet theatre, which appealed to both children and adults, and the “theatre of varieties”, the forerunner to 19th century music hall, which was broader and coarser in humour. All these performances contained music in some shape and form and so were not classified as plays.

Pantomime was also coming into vogue. In 1788 The Arabian nights was turned into a drama andArabian Nights performed at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. The popularity of the stories with a Georgian audience was based in part on the way that the lives of ordinary people could be transformed through magic. They contained very contemporary and appealing themes. They were also stories that were full of sexual desire. An eighteenth century audience could deal quite comfortably with this. They were stories for a sophisticated audience who relished sensuality since they contained excess of all sorts, from eating and drinking to orgies!

The Theatre Royal

Out in the provinces every small town had its own elegant theatre. A series of royal patents were granted to certain cities to establish “Theatres Royal.” One of my favourites is the Bath Theatre Royal. It is intimate and elegant and has a very historic atmosphere. Built in 1805, it boasts several ghosts and claims to be the most haunted theatre in Britain. The Grey Lady is the theatre’s most famous ghost. She haunts the boxes and the dress circle corridor and her appearance is accompanied by the scent of jasmine. The phantom doorman appears only to members of the cast and like the Grey Lady is seen wearing Georgian dress.

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds was established in 1819 and recently restored. It is the sole Theatre Royal Bury St Edmundssurviving example of a Regency theatre in England and offers the most wonderful tours and workshops giving an insight into the theatre in the Regency period. Also in the eighteenth century, companies of players began to travel on regular circuits between market towns. Often performances by travelling players would co-incide with other fairs and and events. At Newbury in Berkshire the calendar of race meetings was complemented by a calendar of theatrical entertainment.

Everyone was playacting mad. Grammar schools also put on plays at Christmas for charitable causes. Melodramas were staged in village barns, a practice which sometimes proved fatal as when almost 200 people were incinerated at a performance at Burwell in Cambridgeshire.

 Private Theatricals

In 1770 the Earl of Barrymore spent £60 000 on building his own private theatre to seat 700 people. TheChatsworth Duke of Devonshire had a private theatre at Chatsworth that was modelled on those in various European palaces. The Chatsworth theatre was built in 1830, designed by Wyatville and adorned with a painted ceiling. It had two large boxes for guests and, most democratically, a gallery for the servants.

Elsewhere less well-heeled members of the aristocracy and gentry performed amateur theatricals in their drawing rooms and outbuildings. In Mansfield Park by Jane Austen a great deal of the action centres on the rehearsals for the play Lovers’ Vows. The Austens themselves were a keen acting family and from earliest youth Jane was involved in both the writing and performing of theatricals.

All At Sea

HMS HeclaWhen I was researching Whisper of Scandal I was surprised to discover that the performance of musical plays and the theatre of variety was extremely popular in the British Navy. Nine plays were produced on HMS Hecla during the winter of 1821 whilst it was marooned in the ice on an Arctic expedition. It was one of the ways to keep morale high during difficult voyages. Cross-dressing roles were particularly popular!

I haven’t written about the theatre in any of my books but I know some of the other Wenches have. Is there a book you’ve enjoyed that features theatricals in some way? Or do you have a favourite play from the Georgian era? Or a play you have performed in?