Theatres in London

Despite the enactment of the very repressive Licensing Act of 1737 restricting theatrical performances to the only royal theatres of Drury Lane and Covent Garden ; London playhouses were always full during the whole of the eighteenth century. Londoners, whatever their social class, were fond of theatre and flocked to the playhouses to see the famous actors and actresses of the day on stage: James Quin (1693-1766), Charles Macklin (1697-1797), David Garrick (1717-1779), Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) and her brothers Charles and John Philip Kemble, Dorothea Jordan (1761-1816).

The rivalry between Drury Lane, Covent Garden, the Haymarket and Lincoln’s Inn Fields theatres - to quote only the most popular of them - was very great and drove the directors (often comedians themselves) to be creative in the way they had to attract the audience. The reputation of a theatre depended of course on the plays which were performed, on the talent of the actor or actress who had the leading role, but also on the scenery, on the choice of the costumes and on the lighting of the stage. London audiences were hard to please, became restless quickly and expressed their dissatisfaction in a boisterous fashion.

A different play was offered each day to this demanding public. Forty to seventy plays (old repertory plays and new productions) could therefore be performed during a theatrical season in one playhouse. Advertisements published in the press and playbills posted in taverns and all over the capital aimed to draw as many people as possible.

The theatrical repertoire was rich and varied and was composed of comedies, tragedies, satirical plays and light operas. A playhouse generally opened its doors at 5. 30 p.m. As the curtain only rose at 6. 30 p.m, drinks were offered to the spectators to pass the time, and the orchestra in the meantime played three compositions (overture and sonatas) commonly called “the First, the Second and the Third Music”. Then the prologue, the five-act play itself and the epilogue followed. Singing or dancing entertained the public between each act.. The programme might also include an “after-piece” which was more often than not a farce, a pantomime or a ballet.

Every playhouse had the same interior layout. Aristocrats, bourgeois and critics were seated on the benches of the pit. Upper-class and middle-class ladies occupied the front boxes, the wits and the young men of fashion the side boxes, whereas the less wealthy spectators sat in the galleries. If the auditorium was overcrowded, benches were placed on the stage itself, reducing the comedians’ space for acting. So, during a performance, all the social classes, united by their passion for theatre, shared the same emotions, applauding the incomparable actor Garrick to the echo or being enthralled by the tones of the melodious voice of Sarah Siddons.

The traveller John Macky makes a very interesting comparison between theatres in London and in other foreign cities at the beginning of the eighteenth century in his book A Journey through England in Familiar Letters from a Gentleman Here to His Friend Abroad (London, 1714):

“There are Two very Noble Theatres here [in London], and a Third for a Comedy which is rebuilding. That for Opera’s at the End of the Pall-Mall, or Hay-Market, is the finest I ever saw, and where we are entertained in Italian Music generally twice a Week; that for History, Tragedy, and Comedy, is in Covent-Garden. . . and the other that’s rebuilding is by Lincolns-Inn-Fields, at a small distance from the other. The Theatres here differ from those abroad, in that those at Venice, Paris, Brussels, Genoa, and other Parts, you know are composed of Rows of small Shut-Boxes, Three or Four Stories in a Semi-Circle with a Parterre below, whereas here, the Parterre (commonly called the Pit) contains the Gentlemen on Benches; and on the first Row of Boxes sit all the Ladies of Quality; in the Second the Citizens Wives and daughters; and in the Third the Common People and Footmen; so that between the Acts you are as much diverted by viewing the Beauties of the Audience, as while they act with the Subject of the Play; and the Whole is illuminated to the greatest Advantage: Whereas abroad, the Stage being only illuminated, and the Lodge or Boxes close, you lose the Pleasure of seeing the Company, and indeed the English have reason in this, for no Nation in the World can shew such an Assembly of shining Beauties as here”
(Vol.1, 109-10) .