Thursday, February 9, 2017

Theater Choices in Regency London

Theater Royal-Haymarket
London, February 1818
Morgan O’Connell hardly noticed Sophie as she turned her attention from the stage and artfully tossed her head of dark curls, smiling at him from behind her lace-covered fan. He was tired of his companion’s feigned shyness and coquettish glances, just as he was tired of the play they would be seeing. The Merchant of Venice, though just beginning, held little interest for him. Once a favorite, he supposed he’d seen too many bad productions for it to remain so. Still, he liked the ambience of the Theatre-Royal at Haymarket, which seemed the place he most often sought entertainment now that he lived in London. Sophie seemed to be enjoying it, too.
His gaze drifted to the stage where appeared the three chests from which Portia’s suitors must choose, her dead father having left a puzzle to determine which man would gain both his daughter and his wealth. Gold, silver and lead; only one held the prize. And the cost to hazard a guess was high, for those who failed must vow never to wed.
As the play unfolded, Morgan’s eyes soon diverted from the chests to the woman acting the part of Portia. She was beautiful and young, somewhere between nineteen and twenty-one. Though he couldn’t tell if that luxurious long brown hair was the actress’s own, the sixteenth-century gown was most becoming to her curves. Her acting was extraordinary, holding him enraptured and sweeping him into a story he’d thought no longer held any allure. Small movements of her eyes, facial expressions and gestures conveyed much that Shakespeare’s lines did not. If she’d never spoken a word, he would have known Portia’s true heart. When she did speak, he believed in a real Portia of long ago.                    [from The Shamrock & The Rose by Regan Walker]

If you think we have a lot of theater choices for Valentine’s Day, you might be surprised at all the choices Londoners had in the Regency era. More than one theater had Letters Patent, and could, therefore, claim the name “Theatre-Royal.” In addition to those, there were more specialized theaters and smaller playhouses as well.  

From the variety of choices, it would seem that Londoners often enjoyed an evening at the theater with as many as 20,000 attending the theater on any given evening. One could see a drama, perhaps one of Shakespeare’s plays, a light comedy, or an opera, as well as ballet, pantomimes and skits—even a clown! And some of these might be combined into the entertainment for a single evening.

The theaters were lit mostly by candlelight reflected from many chandeliers. Of course, these were not dimmed as the entertainment began, so you could see everyone in the audience as well as the actors on stage. And they could see you! So whatever activities you engaged in while in your box had best be discreet. The use of candlelight (until replaced with gaslights) also posed a fire hazard, as evidenced by the fact several of the theaters burned down and had to be replaced.
The Theatre-Royal, Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House) was rebuilt in 1809 after a fire destroyed it the year before. Holding crowds exceeding 3,000, it became, perhaps, the leading theatre of the time.

The principal performers at Covent Garden between 1809 and 1822 demonstrate the talent assembled there: In tragedy, Messrs. Kemble, Cooke, Macready, Young, Mrs. Siddons and Miss O'Neill. In comedy, Messrs. Liston, Munden, Charles Mathews, W. Farren, Mesdames Jordan, Brunton, Foote, C. Kemble. In opera, Messrs. Incledon, Braham, Pyne, and Mesdames Catalani, Bolton, Stephens, and Tree. "Kitty" Stephens made her first appearance here in 1812; Miss O'Neill, in 1814; Macready, in 1816; and Farren, in 1818. Several of these actresses and singers moved from the stage to the peerage when they married men in the nobility. 

Theater-Royal, Drury Lane

The Theatre-Royal, Drury Lane (mentioned in my story, The Holly & The Thistle as providing seasonal entertainment), was redesigned in 1812 after a fire destroyed it in 1809. That was the fourth theatre to be on the site, the first having been constructed in 1663, pursuant to Letters Patent from Charles II. The Drury Lane Theatre was the first theatre to be entirely lit by gaslight in 1817.

The Theatre-Royal, Hay-Market (also known as Haymarket Theatre or the Little Theatre) is in the West End and dates to 1720. (The Shamrock & The Rose opens with a scene set in this theatre—a scene from The Merchant of Venice.) The Haymarket Theatre was relocated and redesigned by John Nash in 1820. The new theatre was in many ways the same as the one that preceded it with flat sidewalls, tiers of boxes, a back gallery and the pit. However, the new theatre was much more opulent with colors of pink, crimson and gold and a circular vestibule “almost lined” with mirrors. It was the last theatre to be lit by gaslight (in 1843).
 
Sadler's Wells Theater
The Sadler’s Wells Theatre in the London Borough of Islington featured famous actors, including Edmund Kean and Joseph Grimaldi. Grimaldi, though a dramatic actor, is best remembered for his character "Joey the Clown" with white face and rouge half-moons on each cheek. Because the period was characterized by public drunkenness, the rural location led the management to provide escorts for patrons so they could safely return to central London.

Sadler’s Wells was also known as The Aquatic Theatre for its sensational naval melodramas, including a recreation of Nelson's victory at the Nile called Naval Pillars, and a recreation of the Franco-Spanish siege of Gibraltar, which included replicas of the fleet of ships, using a one inch to one foot scale, and working miniature cannon.

The Theaters-Royal in Drury Lane and Covent Garden confined their season to the autumn and winter. Sadler's Wells filled the gap with their shows during the spring and summer. From the playbills I reviewed, the Theatre-Royal at Haymarket seems to have operated nearly year round.

In addition to the major theaters holding thousands, there were many other options for the theatergoer in the Regency:

The Haymarket (King's Theater) Opera House was originally built by the architect and playwright Sir John Vanbrugh in 1705. Destroyed by fire in 1789, it was rebuilt and used extensively for opera.

The Lyceum Theater first became a “licensed” house in 1809 and was rebuilt in 1816, and renamed The English Opera House. It was famous for being the first theater in London to feature some gas lighting (1817), and for hosting the London première of Mozart’s Italian opera Così fan tutte.

The Pantheon with its large rotunda

The Pantheon, constructed on Oxford Street in 1772, was originally designed for balls and masquerades before becoming an opera house in 1791. It was converted to a theatre 1811-12 and was the setting for the great Commemoration of Handel performance in 1784, which will be seen in Echo in the Wind. But the Pantheon's role in the theatres of London was to be short lived. Damaged by fire and troubled financially owing to irregularities in its license, it was replaced in 1814 by the Pantheon Bazaar. 
 
The Adelphi Theatre, originally named The Sans Pareil, was constructed in 1806 by merchant John Scott to showcase his daughter's theatrical talents, and was given a new facade and redecorated in 1814. It reopened in 1819 as the Adelphi, named after the area of West London built by the brothers Adam from 1768. (The name "Adelphoi" in Greek means "the brothers.") Among the actors who appeared on its stage was the comedian Charles Matthews, whose work was so admired by young Charles Dickens. Most of its patrons were the salaried clerks of barristers and solicitors.

Olympic Pavillion

The Olympic Theatre was a playhouse built from the timbers of the French warship "Ville de Paris" (the former deck serving as the stage). It opened as the "Olympic Pavilion" in 1806. After financial losses, in 1813, it was sold to Robert William Elliston, who refurbished the interior and renamed it the "Little Drury Lane" by virtue of its proximity to the more established patent theatre. It was rebuilt in 1818.

 

The Royalty Theatre was opened in 1787 by the actor John Palmer in defiance of the 1737 patent monopoly act and featured as its first production As You Like It. Without a proper license, however, it was forced to close. Palmer was arrested. Under the management of William Macready, the Royalty continued on, struggling with pantomimes and burlettas (comic opera). In 1816, it was renamed the "East End Theatre," and continued to offer entertainment until it was burned down ten years later.

 

So, as you can see, the people in Regency London were definitely fond of their entertainment. And with thousands enjoying the theatre each evening, they were fond of the stage!

 

 

A stint playing Portia at the Theatre-Royal at Haymarket in London, a dropped valentine and a dangerous desire lead gentle-born Rose Collingwood into the arms of handsome Irish barrister, Morgan O’Connell, whose love will hazard all she is.

The Shamrock & The Rose is guaranteed to put you in the Valentine's Day mood... and you can read it again for St. Patrick's Day! 99¢ on Amazon

And see it on my website

"A great short story of suspense and romance; I loved it and can't wait to read more by Ms. Walker." 
                ~ Sinfully Tasty Reads

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