by M.M. Bennetts
Imagine it. Outside the temperature had dropped so low that the Thames was freezing; hoar frost had coated, white and deep, the red-tiled roofs of London's houses and churches. It was so bitter that even the city's notorious foists had taken the night off--perhaps their fingers were too stiff with cold for pinching purses?
Yet from through the large windows of one building at least--Covent Garden--a mellowed golden light shone out into the night and the sounds of a packed house of some 3000 people, all laughing, rose and fell. For inside, the cold forgot, the atmosphere rich with the smell of orange peel and burning wax, the crowd were entranced by the new pantomime they'd all come to see--Harlequin Asmodeus or Cupid on Crutches.
Nor was it the first of that evening's entertainments on Boxing Day 1810.
To begin there had been a performance of Shakespeare's As You Like It. Then they had been treated to a tragedy, a dismal thing called George Barnwell. (The critic Hazlitt called it "a piece of wretched cant.") And now, six hours into the evening's entertainment, now, out came the clown they'd all been waiting for--Grimaldi, known to them all as "Joe"--about to fight a bout of fisticuffs with a pile of animated vegetables...or rather a pile of vegetables which he had assembled into a kind of person which then, somehow, at the tap of a sword, had come to life.
And the night was still young. For after the mock fight which would see Grimaldi chased off the stage by the vegetable man, would come the pantomime, Harlequin Asmodeus, with its traditional story--generally speaking, two lovers kept apart, usually by unspeakable rivals or cruel parents, but who find happiness in each others' arms after the completion of a quest--and an equally traditional cast--Harlequin and his love, Columbine, and their enemies, the elderly miser Pantaloon and his servant Clown.
It would be explicit, satirical, and energetic, and set against a background that would feature many of the common sights of the metropolis itself, all of which would be transformed by a touch of Harlequin's wand into something different (by means of ingenious stagecraft)--just like the vegetable man--a sedan chair into a prison, for example.
Welcome to a night out at the theatre, Regency style.
London, during the early years of the 19th century, had three main theatres, Drury Lane, Covent Garden and Sadler's Wells in Islington. And during that period perhaps as many as 20,000 Londoners attended the theatre every night.
That number doesn't include the various concert halls or pleasure gardens, such as Vauxhall Gardens, either. The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane and Covent Garden confined their 'seasons' to the autumn and winter. Sadler's Wells filled in the gap during the spring and summer.
Long programmes, as described above, especially those with grand jaw-dropping spectacles--plays starring dogs, elephants, children, the lines between comedy and tragedy blurred---were the order of the day. And ever since war had broken out with France, there'd been a kind of national fervour on which the theatres played.
Reenactments of sea battles were especially popular--this was the day of the great hero, Lord Nelson, and all of England was navy-mad--so Sadler's Wells staged a recreation of Nelson's victory at the Nile called Naval Pillars. Later, they put on a recreation of the Franco-Spanish siege of Gibraltar--and for this, the management converted the theatre's cellars and stage into a vast water-tank and had the replicas made of the fleet of ships, using a one inch to one foot scale, and working miniature cannon.
Nor were grand tableaux all that drew the oohs and ahs of the packed houses, all sitting there amid the atmosphere of orange-peels and smoke, heckling, cat-calling and flirting, as other play-goers drifted in and out of their boxes or pushed onto the benches of the pit, all chatting and laughing during the long evenings' performances.
Among the other great draws was William Betty, a thirteen year old boy, also known as Master Betty or the "Child of Nature" (he was very beautiful), who made his debut at Covent Garden on 1 December 1804 in the happily forgotten drama, Barbarossa. (He was paid fifty guineas a performance.)
Tickets for that first performance were sold out in seven minutes, the cavalry were called out to lift fainting women from the crowd in the Piazza and carry them to safety, and in the hours before his first entrance, the audience had been roaring. Then he came on and an absolute hush fell over the auditorium.
Master Betty appeared at both Covent Garden and Drury Lane, went on to play Romeo, then Richard III and even Hamlet, and the audiences were wild for him with women fainting and crying...All of which lasted until his voice broke a couple of years later. (The tragedienne, Sarah Siddons, managed to be out of town or otherwise engaged for most of his London run.)
The downside to all this excitement, of course, was fire.
In the early hours of 20 September 1808, smoke and flame were seen coming from the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden. But by the time the Phoenix Fire Company arrived, the interior was already destroyed. 23 people died in the fire, many of them the firefighters, and the adjacent homes were also destroyed. John Philip Kemble, its owner, had lost everything.
But raising money, Kemble saw the foundation stone for a new Theatre Royal laid by the Prince Regent in December and the theatre reopened on 18 September 1809. To riots.
For Kemble and his financiers had decided that in order to pay for the rebuild, they'd put up the price of seats. Until after two months of riots--where insignias marked with OP for Old Prices were worn by growing numbers of Londoners--they gave way and brought back the lower fees.
But not far away, Drury Lane was levelled by fire on 24 February 1809 while its proprietor, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, watched from the window of the House of Commons. The theatre where Mrs. Siddons had captivated audiences was no more. And because of his own financial instability, Sheridan was unable to raise the funds to rebuild, so it didn't reopen for another three years...
And theatre itself was in a kind of a revolution, as the stilted declamatory style and tragic poses of 18th century actors gave way to a more natural, more intimate performance, such as that of Edmund Kean, changing old style caricatures into authentic credible characters. Kean opened his London stage career on 26 January 1814, playing Shylock to a packed house at Drury Lane and doing nothing as it had been done for the past hundred years.
Kean's Shylock was a human being, a man of genuine emotion--the critics were wowed, the audience stunned. His subsequent performances as Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear transformed performance. Previously, many of these Shakespearean tragedies had only been performed in their Bowdlerised versions--think King Lear with rhyming couplets and a happy ending.
And in between the tragedies featuring Kean, or the comedies which showed off a long-legged Mrs. Jordan in breeches-roles, the entr-acte ballets with their lovely limbed female dancers drew the young men of the pit, all ogling and hoping for more than a glimpse of ankle or perhaps a tryst arranged in the Green Room.
All this, and Grimaldi's antics too--a walking, tumbling, leaping, bawdy animated version of a Rowlandson or Gilray cartoon.
It's no wonder that, come rain, fog or frost, many Londoners, Beau Brummell among them, went to the theatre every night, now is it?
M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth-century British and European history, and the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Find out