The theatre, as with literature, flourished in the 18th century, but drama was seriously affected by the Licensing Act of 1737. This Act necessitated that all dramatic performances pass the scrutiny of a censor and required a license to be issued by the Lord Chamberlain before the drama could be performed.
Only two theatres in London, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, were licensed as legitimate theatres. These two theatres catered to huge audiences the seating capacity of Covent Garden was increased in 1793 to about 3000 and in 1794 Drury Lane was rebuilt to accommodate more than 3600. By 1800 London was the worlds largest city with a population of over one million and the working classes began to attend the theatre in large numbers for the first time and to exert important influences on it.
Minor theatres were opened, the first licensed in the 1780s by magistrates outside the city of Westminster. The patent or major theatres increased their offerings of minor drama and in seeking to cater to all tastes, the evenings bill was extended until it lasted five or six hours. Sometimes as many as three plays were performed on the same evening; a bill comprised two full length plays, an afterpiece, and numerous variety acts were not unusual. The minor theatres however could not play regular drama. Consequently they sought loopholes in the licensing act which would allow them to compete more effectively with the major theatres. Melodrama provided one such loophole and even Othello was performed as a melodrama with the compulsory addition of music being represented by a chord struck on the piano every five minutes!
While most of the major English poets of the early 19th century wrote plays, few of their works were intended for production, and few had any success when presented. Most of the plays presented between 1800 and 1850 treated historical themes, and sought to recapture Shakespeares glory.
Between 1800 and 1817 the English theatre maintained its stability largely because of the work of John Philip Kemble (1757-1823). In 1803 he took over the management of Covent Garden and during his tenure, Covent Garden became the leading theatre of the English-speaking world.
On 12 September 1808, a new season of Macbeth opened at Covent Garden, with a return of the great actress, Mrs. Sarah Siddons with her brother, John Philip Kemble. Eight days later, at 4am the theatre was destroyed by fire. Most of the theatres scenery, wardrobe, manuscripts and records were burned. The loss was estimated at over £150,000 and only a small part of this was met by the insurance companies. For Kemble, at the age of 51 it seemed a disaster after only five seasons his theatre was destroyed and he had to start all over again from scratch.
Immediately following the destruction of Covent Garden, a public subscription headed by King George III and the Duke of York was launched, with the Duke of Cumberland (one of Kembles admirers) contributing £19,000.
The new Covent Garden opened on 18 September 1809. The cost of this vast theatre was so high that the management decided to raise the prices: from six shillings to seven shillings for the boxes; from 3 shillings and 6 pence to 4 shillings for the pit; the third tier, usually reserved for the public, was converted into private boxes at the rent of £300 a year.
The gallery price was left unchanged, but the new gallery was so far up and the slope so steep that only the legs of the performers could be seen by the spectators.
On the night of the opening, audience and actors stood loyally to sing the national anthem, but, the moment it was ended, pandemonium broke loose. As Kemble stepped forward proudly on to the stage of this new theatre, he was greeted with a tempest of hissing, shouting and whistling which continued throughout the performance of Macbeth which followed.
Reiterated shouts of Old prices Old prices greeted both Kemble and Mrs. Siddons each time they appeared on stage. The noise was such that 500 soldiers were dispatched to the gallery, but the rioters climbed down to the lower galleries, the sight of the soldiers merely increasing the antagonism of the house.
It was a noble sight said the Times, to see so much just indignation in the public mind. Most of the women in the private boxes left early in the evening. The shouting rioters stood with their backs to the stage, while the actors continued doggedly with their performance of Macbeth. When the programme was over and the audience still refused to leave, Kemble sent for the police (Bow Street being opposite the theatre). This aroused the rioters to even greater protest so that the constables tactfully withdrew. It was not until two in the morning that the audience finally dispersed.
Night after night, week after week, the old price riots continued, except that after the first night, the rioters only came in at half price time. The inside of the theatre resembled a fairground with its banners and placards painted with slogans. Protests were made nightly against the exorbitant salaries received by the Kembles and the clothes on the backs worth £500 said the Times.
Magistrates appeared on stage to read the Riot Act while lawyers addressed the house from the boxes, encouraging the rioters. A coffin was carried in, inscribed here lies the body of new price, who died of the whooping cough 23 September, 1809, aged 6 days. The rioters continued to whoop it up for another 64 days.
Unlike earlier riots, however, no damage was done to the theatre and the whole affair was, in fact, conducted in a spirit of fun, the combatants declaring they would obtain their end by perseverance. After almost 3 months of rioting, Kemble was finally obliged to accept the Old Price terms and to make a public apology from the stage. He was greeted by loud applause. Thus ended the famous Old Price War.
When, at the beginning of the next season, Kemble tried to break his promise by maintaining half the number of private boxes, the riots began again and he swiftly withdrew.
|A theatre riot in 1762, when the management of the Covent Garden Theatre threatened to raise seat prices. Note the stage lighting, and the boxes overlooking the stage. Picard, Dr Johnsons London, 2000, p 266-7.||
Although programmes could be very long, Jane Austen took the opportunity whenever in London to attend the theatre. In April 1811 she was looking forward to seeing Sarah Siddons, then nearing the end of her acting career, as Constance in King John, but at the last moment, to Janes disappointment, there was a change of plan when Covent Garden substituted Hamlet as the evenings entertainment. On consulting with Henry, it was decided that they should change their plans and go to the theatre two nights later to see Mrs Siddons as Lady Macbeth, her most famous role; however, they were again disappointed as she did not appear that evening either.
In March 1814 on another visit to Covent Garden she saw the play The Devil to Pay with Dorothea Jordan. Mrs Jordan was then coming to the end of a highly successful career on the London stage that had lasted nearly 30 years. As well as being a great actress Mrs Jordan was greatly admired by the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) to whom she had ten children.
Drury Lane also suffered a devastating fire in this period. On the night of 24 February 1809, despite having been built with tanks of water in the roof to prevent its destruction, the Drury Lane theatre burned to the ground.
It was a shattering blow for the then manager, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, for whom the theatre represented well over a quarter of a million pounds worth of his and his partners capital, especially as it had been insured for only about a quarter of that sum.
In 1810, a company headed by Samuel Whitbread, was formed by order of parliament, to rebuild Drury Lane by subscription. The new theatre opened on 10 October 1812 but the expensive rebuilding had made the management almost bankrupt.
From its declining fortunes Drury Lane was to be rescued, briefly, by the arrival of Edmund Kean, the most fiery and thrilling actor of his day. His passionate and naturalistic approach to Shakespeare gave audiences a sense of excitement that they had never had from the noble performances of the Kembles. At the age of 20 he had played leading parts with Mrs Siddons, who, though she recognised his ability, disliked him, describing him as a horrid little man, and saying that there was too little of him to make a great actor.
He had been touring the country getting work where he could when he was brought in by the Drury Lane management simply because he would not have to be paid too much, yet his debut on 26 February 1814 is one of the great legendary nights in the history of British theatre. The play was The Merchant of Venice and the obscure provincial actor audaciously playing Shylock in a black wig instead of the traditional red one, took the house by storm. By the time he reached the great rhetorical scene in Act III If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? the audience were on their feet to respond to each passionate question with roars of approval and at the end of the performance it was clear that a great new star had risen on the London stage.
A theatre critic of the day wrote for voice, eye, action and expression, no actor had come out for many years at all equal to him.
Jane Austen saw Edmund Kean a little more than a month after his astonishing first night and he was very much the talk of the town. Such was his popularity that Henry could get only a third and fourth row (though in a front box). Jane thought that it would be a good play for Fanny and that her young niece would not be much affected. Her reaction in a letter to Cassandra the next morning was one of measured enthusiasm.
We were quite satisfied with Kean. I cannot imagine better acting, but the part was too short and excepting him and Miss Smith and she did not quite answer my expectation the parts were ill filled and the play heavy. I shall like to see Kean again excessively and to see him with you too, it appeared to me as if there were no fault in him anywhere and in his scene with Tubal there was exquisite acting.
The plan to take Cassandra seems to have come to nothing probably due to the difficulty of obtaining seats. In November of this same year (1814) Jane Austen saw the actor Charles Young in Richard III when he appeared with the young actress Eliza ONeill in David Garricks Isabella. Eliza ONeill did not come up to Jane Austens expectations and she seems to have felt that nobody could any longer:
This is the last time that we know Jane Austen attended the theatre.
Edmund Kean restored the fortunes of the Drury Lane theatre. In quick succession he played Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, Iago and in 1816 he persuaded Drury Lane to put on a new play, Massingers A New Way to Pay Old Debts in which he played the villain Sir Giles Overreach. The sense of evil in his performance was so disturbing that many present at the first performance had to be removed in hysterics, Lord Byron had a convulsive fit, while many of Keans fellow actors were terrified. He was to triumph there for several years until eventually his new found success and prosperity, acting on an unstable and anguished personality, tragically led him to drink and to run up large debts.
By 1817 England, as a result of the Napoleonic wars, was in a financial crisis that was to last until 1840. Scarcely a theatrical management escaped bankruptcy between 1817 and 1843. Some of the difficulties during these years is explained by the greater financial outlay required by the increasingly elaborate spectacle. In the new Covent Garden the distance from the stage to the back of the upper gallery was 104 feet and at the new Drury Lane only slightly less. Such size coupled with the growing interest in melodrama, local colour and history encouraged greater emphasis upon the visual elements. By the 1830s it was assumed that each theatre would prepare a number of handsomely mounted products each season. The increased financial outlay meant, that longer runs were required to justify the investment. Consequently, from this time the trend toward long runs accelerated, although it was not to be widely exploited until after 1850.
29 January 2004