Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Playing the Provinces: 18th Century Actors on the Move, Part 2 (York, Bristol & Bath)

by Margaret Porter
This is the second part of Playing the Provinces. Follow this link to Part 1, featuring the provincial theatres of Liverpool & Manchester.




Tate Wilkinson
This city's Theatre Royal (patented in 1759) was managed by Tate Wilkinson, who left behind verbose and entertaining memoirs of his theatrical career and the personalities he encountered. He was an actor, but as mentor he nurtured the talents of many of the era's greatest players--and never failed to take credit for it. He was proprietor not of a single theatre, but of an entire circuit that included lesser Yorkshire theatres: Leeds, Hull, Wakefield, Doncaster, and Pontefract. He had an interest in the Edinburgh theatre as well, and his company also performed in Halifax, Beverley, Sheffield, and Newcastle. His 'theatrical army' as he termed it, in the 1770s and '80s included Sarah Siddons, John Philip Kemble, Stephen Kemble, Frances Kemble, Elizabeth Kemble, Dorothy Jordan, Elizabeth Inchbald, Dicky Suett, and Mrs Baddeley. Eventually he surrendered them to the Theatres Royal in London, but occasionally they returned for special engagements.

The York circuit followed the racing calendar, performing during the race week in its various towns. Wilkinson prided himself on his ability to offer actors year-round employment, rather than only for a summer season as at other provincial theatres, e.g. Liverpool. Among the London acts he lured to York 1785 was Signior Scaglioni, who, 'with his dancing dogs from Sadlers Wells, performed seven or eight nights at York theatre, and were really followed, and brought full houses...I can with truth say they entertained me, and I laughed immoderately at almost the whole of their performances: Indeed I received double entertainment to any other spectator, for I not only was pleased with the dogs in the theatre, but had my bow for the money they occasioned into my pocket before supper.'

Kemble rejoined the York company for a week in the summer of 1791, for which he received
£150, in today's currency about £8700 or $12,600. He re-visited York in 1799.



Bath's theatre was located in Orchard Street, dating from 1750. It lacked dressing rooms for the actors until expansion in 1767, and the following year its proprietor obtained the third royal licence in existence, after Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and the very first issued to a provincial theatre. Further enlargement took place in 1774. 

Orchard Street Theatre, Bath
In 1783 a performer connected to Bath declared that its theatre 'boasted the Best company out of London....The Bath audience had long maintained being the most elegant and judicious in the kingdom.' Some of that audience would have been local, but Bath's reputation as a fashionable watering place, especially in winter months, ensured that many theatre attendees were the same aristocratic and wealthy patrons of London's Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

A performance in the Orchard Street Theatre

During the 18th century, Bristol's hot wells made it a popular resort, and the Jacob's Well Theatre opened in 1729. In 1766 the King Street theatre opened, and in 1778 received its royal licence. John Palmer, the Bath proprietor, negotiated a lease of the Bristol theatre in 1779, and the relationship between the two sites continued until 1817. The design of the Bristol theatre copied London's Drury Lane.

The popular Hotwells social season was in summer, which complemented Bath's winter one. Also advantageous, these two theatres were geographically close and could be yoked. In September and October the company played in Bristol for three nights, and in Bath on Saturdays, and Mondays in Bristol. According to Tate Wilkinson, 'The Bath company perform at Bristol every Monday evening, from November till the end of May.'  Palmer, instrumental in developing the Royal Mail system, devised a lengthy 'caterpillar' coach that could carry twelve persons and their luggage, and these conveyed the players back and forth. Regular members of the company received a salary and a benefit night in each location if desired.

Sarah Siddons as The Grecian Daughter
In autumn of 1778, after her Liverpool, Manchester, and York years, and her recovery from her humbling Drury Lane failure, Sarah Siddons was engaged at the Orchard Street Theatre. She became a sensation--attendance at Thursday night balls suffered as fashionable society was drawn instead to the theatre to see the remarkable young actress. She performed at Bath and Bristol for a further three seasons, playing over 100 characters. It was there she encountered the budding artist Thomas Lawrence. At that time he worked in pastels, and in later years he often painted her portrait, and her brother's--and caused two of her daughters much romantic strife.

Sarah's ghost is said to haunt the theatre in Bristol, where she first appeared in March of 1779.

As at other provincial theatres, London actors performed in Bath and Bristol with regularity. In the summer of 1777, many members of the Drury Lane company performed at Bath. Other celebrated visitors included Signora Anna-Selina (Nancy) Storace, known as 'Mozart's Muse'; and George Frederick Cooke. John Philip Kemble, who appeared in Bath in 1799 and 1807, gave a farewell performance in Bristol in January 1817, prior to his retirement from the stage in June of that year.

With the construction of Bath's new (and current) Theatre Royal in Beaufort Square in 1805, the Orchard Street venue was abandoned; it served as a Roman Catholic chapel and lately as a Masonic Hall and museum.

Orchard Street Theatre today

Original columns and sole remaining box

Bristol's Theatre Royal is the longest continually running theatre in Britain, and houses the Bristol Old Vic company. In 1972 the theatre incorporated the adjacent Cooper's Hall, now serving as the iconic entrance to the refurbished 18th century space.

The Bristol Old Vic



Certainly there were other provincial theatres and circuits, but here I have presented the primary ones. Benefits to a player of performing outside of London were several. First and foremost, smaller theatres provided income at times of year when Drury Lane and Covent Garden were closed. Additionally, these places were already familiar to those who began careers in the provinces, who had previously established a relationship with the local audiences.

The theatres were more compact, the spectators closer to the stage, allowing greater intimacy. In London the major theatres had expanded to truly massive proportions, accommodating grand spectacles and visual effects but inhibiting their actors. Of necessity the performing style grew broader, resulting in the loss of nuance in voice and gesture. It must have been a relief to act in smaller venues, although of course the dressing rooms and green room spaces were cramped.

Another consideration: at a distance from the metropolis there were far fewer newspapers and critics, of which London had so many. Interest in theatrical matters--on stage and off--was high in all parts of Britain. Surely when performing at the lesser theatres the players appreciated the absence of the journalists who carped at any deficiencies in production!

For these reasons, and more, former provincial players who achieved a lasting reputation in London returned frequently to the places where they gained crucial experience as neophytes.


Margaret Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of twelve period novels, whose other publication credits include nonfiction and poetry. A Pledge of Better Times, her highly acclaimed novel of 17th century courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans, is her latest release, available in trade paperback and ebook. Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.

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