Search this blog

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Drury Lane Theatre in Regency London

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, from The Microcosm of London (1808)
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, from The Microcosm of London Vol 1 (1808)
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was one of the two theatres with a patent to perform plays in Georgian London. The other was the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. The Haymarket Theatre could also put on plays, but only during the summer.

Early history

The first theatre (1663-72)

The first theatre on the Drury Lane site opened in 1663. It was built by Thomas Killigrew on an area known as the Riding Yard but seems to have had no particular name at this time, being variously referred to as the King’s Theatre or the King’s House or, confusingly, the Covent Garden Theatre, as it was in the neighbourhood of Covent Garden. It burnt down in 1672.

The second theatre (1674-1791)

Killigrew rebuilt the theatre on the same site and it opened in 1674 as the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. According to Old and New London, this new theatre was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, but this claim was based on slim evidence and is now thought to be unlikely.

From 1747, the theatre was managed and part-owned by the actor David Garrick, and on his retirement in 1776, it passed into the joint ownership of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Thomas Linley and Doctor James Ford. Sheridan pulled down the theatre in 1791 in order to build a larger one, during which time the company performed at the Haymarket Theatre.

Drury Lane Theatre in 1775 from Shakespere to Sheridan by A Thaler (1922)
Drury Lane Theatre in 1775 from Shakespere to Sheridan by A Thaler (1922)
Sheridan’s theatre (1794-1809)

The third theatre was designed by Henry Holland. It opened for the first time on 12 March 1794 with ‘a grand selection of sacred music, from the works of Handel’1 rather than a play, because it was Lent.

The exterior of Sheridan’s theatre

The Microcosm of London described the outside of the theatre:
The buildings which surround the theatre are faced with Portland stone, but will be finished with balustrade. The theatre, which rises above them, is cased with plaister in imitation of stone, and finished with a balustrade. Through the roof rises a turret, making a large ventilator. On the summit is placed a figure of Apollo, more than ten feet high; but this is to be removed to the west front when finished, and replaced by one of Shakspeare.2 
Drury Lane Theatre burnt down in 1809  from The Beauties of England and Wales by EW Brayley et al (1810)
Drury Lane Theatre burnt down in 1809
from The Beauties of England and Wales (1810)
The stage

The new theatre was much bigger than the previous one. The Microcosm of London wrote:
The accommodations for the stage are upon a much larger scale than those of any other theatre in Europe. The stage is 105 feet in length, 75 wide, and 45 feet between the stage-doors.
In the roof of the theatre is contained, besides the barrel-loft, ample room for scene-painters, and four very large reservoirs, from which water is distributed over every part of the house, for the purpose of instantly extinguishing fire in any part where such accident is possible.

Over the stage is a double range of galleries, called flies, containing machinery, and where the greatest part of the scenery is worked; but which, from the number of blocks, wheels, and ropes crossing each other in every direction, give it very much the appearance of a ship's deck.3
The Picture of London for 1809 wrote:
To facilitate the working some scenery, and light machinery, there is a stage about ten feet below the upper one, where the carpenters attend either to raise ghosts, pantomime demons, or to obey the magic wand which consigns them to oblivion. Under this second stage there is a depth of about forty feet, furnished with various mechanical engines, requisite for raising the splendid and massy pillars, temples, &c. which enrich the scenery, and contribute so essentially to the effect produced by the grand ballets and pantomimes exhibited at this theatre.4
The Microcosm of London added:
There are two green-rooms, one for the use of chorus-singers, supernumeraries, and figurants; the other for the principal performers: the latter of which is fitted up in the first style of elegance, and occasionally visited by persons of the highest distinction.5
The interior of Sheridan’s theatre

Inside Drury LaneTheatre in 1804 from Old and New London (1873)
Inside Drury Lane Theatre in 1804 from Old and New London (1873)
According to The Microcosm of London:
The audience part of the theatre is formed nearly on a semi-circular plan. It contains a pit, four tiers of boxes on each side of the house, and two galleries, which command a full view of every part of the stage.6
The Picture of London for 1809 stated that there were also 'a number of private boxes, ranged on each side the pit, and constructed so as to afford a perfect view of the stage, and yet conceal the occupiers from observation.'7

The Microcosm of London continued:
The pit is 54 feet in length, 46 in breadth, has twenty-five rows of benches, and contains eight hundred persons. The benches are so well constructed, that those next the orchestra command an uninterrupted view of the whole stage, and the avenues to it are very commodious and safe.

The prevailing colours of the boxes are blue and white, relieved with richly fancied embellishments of decorative ornament. The compartments into which the front of each tier is divided, have centrally a highly finished cameo, the ground of cornelian-stone colour, with exquisitely drawn figures, raised in white; the subjects are chiefly from Ovid, and painted by Rebecca. The stage-boxes project about two feet, and have a rich silver lattice-work, of excellent taste and workmanship. The boxes are supported by cast-iron candalabras, fluted and silver-lackered, resting on elegantly executed feet; from the top of each pillar a branch projects three feet, from which is suspended a brilliant cut-glass chandelier. A circular mirror, about five feet diameter, is placed at each end of the dress-boxes, next the stage, that produces a pleasing reflected view of the audience.8
The Royal Box
On the nights when this theatre is honoured with their Majesties presence, the partitions of the stage-box are taken down, and it is brought forward nearly two feet, a canopy is erected superbly decorated with crimson velvet, richly embroidered with gold, and adjoining them sit the princesses. Their box is usually lined with light blue satin, fancifully festooned and elegantly decorated with silver fringe and rich tassels.9
The entrance

Front of Old Drury Lane Theatre from Old and New London (1873)
Front of Old Drury Lane Theatre from
Old and New London (1873)
There are three entrances to the boxes, two to the pit and galleries. The one in Brydges-street leads to a saloon 75 feet by 21, called the Egyptian Hall. Sixteen pillars, of the Doric order, beautifully painted, in imitation of porphyry, are at once a splendid ornament, and support the back boxes, to which a flight of stairs at each end leads.
At the back of the front boxes there is a semi-circular saloon 41 feet long, containing, at a proper elevation, a handsome statue of Garrick, between the tragic and comic muse. In this place proper persons attend with refreshments. Over this there is a smaller one for the same purpose.10
There are also large saloons on the north and south sides of the theatre, and handsome square rooms, one of which is intended for the use of his Majesty, and the other for the Prince of Wales.11
Visiting the theatre

The seating capacity was around 3,950 in total. The Picture of London for 1809 stated the capacities and prices as follows:

Prices and capacities for Sheridan's Drury Lane Theatre

The 1,960 people in the boxes included the free list, but excluded private boxes.

The Microcosm of London stated the capacities somewhat differently – 675 in the two-shilling gallery and 308 in the one-shilling gallery, with 3,611 spectators in total.

The doors opened at 5.30 pm and the performances started promptly at 6.30 pm. Half-price tickets were available for entry after the third act of the play, usually around 8 o’clock. Boxes could be reserved by paying a shilling to the box office on the morning of the performance.

A sad end to Sheridan's theatre

The Microcosm of London claimed that:
This magnificent structure unites a splendid combination of taste, grandeur, and elegance, which renders it a monument of fame to Mr. Holland, the architect, and when its exterior is completely finished, it will be a national ornament.12
Alas! The theatre never was completely finished. Despite its elaborate fire precautions, this theatre burnt down on 24 February 1809, less than 6 months after its rival at Covent Garden had suffered the same fate. The fire ruined Sheridan who had borrowed heavily to finance his new theatre. The ownership passed into the hands of a committee headed up by the brewer, Samuel Whitbread, who forbade Sheridan to take any part in the management going forward.

Whilst the theatre was, yet again, being rebuilt, the Drury Lane Company performed at the Opera House and then at the Lyceum.

The Regency theatre (1812-present)

Drury Lane Theatre from Leigh's New Picture of London (1827)
Drury Lane Theatre from Leigh's New Picture of London (1827)
The fourth Drury Lane Theatre was designed by Benjamin Wyatt and opened on Saturday 10 October 1812 with a production of Hamlet and an address written by Lord Byron.

The Green Room at Drury Lane (1822) by G Cruikshank  from Life in Regency and Early Victorian Times by EB Chancellor (1926)
The Green Room at Drury Lane (1822) by G Cruikshank
from Life in Regency and Early Victorian Times by EB Chancellor (1926)
The Picture of London for 1813 stated:
The stage is about thirty-three feet wide, the proscenium nineteen and a half. The part usually appropriated to doors, is judiciously occupied by two magnificent lamps, with tripods on triangular pedestals. This theatre is altogether a master-piece of art, and an ornament of the metropolis. Its coup d’oeil is delightful beyond the power of description.
The grand entrance to this theatre is from Brydges-street, through a spacious hall, leading to the boxes and pit. Three large doors lead from this hall into the house, and into a rotunda of great beauty and elegance. On each side of the rotunda are passages to the great stairs, which are peculiarly grand and spacious.

The grand saloon is eighty-six feet long, circular at each extremity, and separated from the box-corridors by the rotunda and grand staircase. The ceiling is arched, and the general effect of two massy Corinthian columns of verd antique at each end, with ten corresponding pilasters on each side, is grand and pleasing. The rooms for coffee and refreshments at the ends of the saloon are convenient.

The body of the theatre presents nearly three-fourths of a circle from the stage. The color of the interior is gold upon green, and the relief of the boxes is by a rich crimson. There are three circles of boxes, each containing twenty-four boxes.13 
Some alterations were later made to the design. The Picture of London for 1818 stated that there were 26 boxes in each circle and complained that the grand saloon had been 'converted into what is called a Chinese temple, with two holes for staircases from the hall below. It is impossible to say whether the man who planned this ridiculous alteration, or the architect who executed it, has shewn most want of taste.'14

Kean as King Richard; Royalty in the box (1823) by W Heath  from Life in Regency and Early Victorian Times by EB Chancellor (1926)
Kean as King Richard; Royalty in the box (1823) by W Heath
from Life in Regency and Early Victorian Times by EB Chancellor (1926)
 Visiting the theatre

The seating capacity of this theatre was around 2,810 – still large, but some 1,000 seats less than the 1794 theatre that it replaced. The Picture of London for 1813 stated the terms and capacities as follows:


Prices and capacities for the 1812 Drury Lane Theatre

In 1813, the season was advertised to run from September to June; in 1818, it was advertised to run until July. Around 1818, the performances moved from a start time of 6.30 pm to 7 pm in order to accommodate later dinner hours.

Behind the scenes

The Picture of London for 1818 stated:
The details of the business of this Theatre present a system worthy of imitation in all similar concerns, of which a competent judgment can alone be formed by persons, who on formal application, for the purpose, obtain permission to see the vast interior in the day-time. The wardrobe, the painting rooms, the machinery above and below the stage, the provisions for preventing and extinguishing fire, all excite the just admiration of those who have the opportunity of beholding them.15
After the Regency

Drury Lane Theatre (2017)
Drury Lane Theatre (2017)
The Drury Lane Theatre today is still the 1812 building, though various alterations and renovations have been made over the years. The Doric portico in Catherine Street was added in 1820, and ‘the interior of the house … was entirely rebuilt in 1822.’16 The colonnade along the side of the building in Little Russell Street was added in 1831.

Drury Lane Theatre (2015)
Drury Lane Theatre (2015)
The colonnade, Drury Lane Theatre (2017)
The colonnade, Drury Lane Theatre (2017)
In 2013, the theatre underwent major renovations and the front of house areas were returned, as far as possible, to their original 1812 design. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane continues to be a thriving part of the West End theatre scene.

Notes
1. From The Times, 12 March 1794, The Times Digital Archive. The Microcosm of London stated that the new theatre opened on 13 March 1793 but The Times Digital Archive advertised its opening on 12 March 1794.
2. From The Microcosm of London Volume I.
3. From The Microcosm of London Volume I.
4. From The Picture of London for 1809.
5. From The Microcosm of London Volume I.
6. From The Microcosm of London Volume I.
7. From The Picture of London for 1809.
8. From The Microcosm of London Volume I.
9. From The Microcosm of London Volume I.
10. From The Microcosm of London Volume I.
11. From The Microcosm of London Volume I.
12. From The Microcosm of London Volume I.
13. From The Picture of London for 1813.
14. From The Picture of London for 1818.
15. From The Picture of London for 1818.
16. From Leigh’s New Picture of London (1830).

Sources used include:
Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
Brayley, Edward Wedlake, Nightingale, J and Brewer, J, et al, The Beauties of England and Wales(1810-16)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1807 (1807)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1809 (1809)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1813 (1813)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
Leigh, Samuel, Leigh's New Picture of London (1827)
Leigh, Samuel, Leigh's New Picture of London (1830)
The Gentleman’s Magazine (1809)
Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1873, London) Vol 3

Photographs © Regencyhistory.net

3 comments:

  1. very useful and informative, thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wonderful post, thank you! What a history it had!

    I love the little snippet I read somewhere, about Sheridan rushing from the Houses of Parliament to his burning theatre to discover it was a lost cause. So he goes to watch the fire from a nearby coffee-house and when a friend asks him what he is doing there he replies something along the lines of 'What? Can't a man have a glass of wine at his own fireside?'

    ReplyDelete
  3. I really enjoyed this. It must have been a hazardous job being a theatre manager, though. Not only was there the ever-present threat of fire, not to mention debt, but you could also lose a leg - as poor Samuel Foote did.

    ReplyDelete