Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Itch for Acting

by Maria Grace

Home Theatricals—The Itch for Acting

Britain has a long theater tradition, including both public and private, professional and amateur efforts. In the 10th century, dramas appeared in church services. By the 12th century British Crusaders brought back traditions from other cultures which led to religious drama being performed outside of the church. Secular groups and guilds gradually took control over these presentations. By the end of the medieval period, secular dramas became more prevalent than religious ones, with schools and universities adding studies of these plays to their curricula.

The Renaissance period saw the establishment of large outdoor (public) theaters like Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, which could hold a thousand or more patrons. Smaller, indoor (private) theaters like the New Blackfriar’s in 1596 also flourished, having the advantage of allowing performances to take place in the winter.

Not surprisingly, the Puritan Revolution of 1642 marked a brief period of decline for the theater—all those immoral non-Puritan values, you know. But, by the 1660’s the lighthearted theater productions of the Restoration theater reflected a society recovering from years of division and unrest. The famous Drury Lane and Covent Garden theaters were officially licensed at this time.
By the early 18th century, other forms of theater developed including ballad opera, farce and pantomimes. Theaters might also host acrobatic displays, ballets, and musical performances. Huge crowds flocked to see the first ‘celebrity’ performers. (Hudson, 2015)

The rise of amateur theater

Private amateur theater also thrived during this period. One of the first recorded forerunners to the Georgian home theatrical occurred in 1623 in Sir Edward Dering’s country home, in Kent. Amateur players performed an original adaptation from a combination of Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts one and two. The 1634 premier performance of Milton’s Comus, staged at Ludlow Castle in Wales, and given in honor of John Egerton, first Earl of Bridgewater, also helped lead the way for the private theatrical craze. Three of Egerton’s children performed in the piece—and who doesn’t love to see their little darlins on stage? (Haugen, 2014)

These performances helped set the stage, as it were, for the ‘itch for acting’ to sweep through British society—including the aristocracy, the provincial gentry and the middle class. The craze extended from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries, hitting its peak between 1770 and 1810 and led to a plethora of amateur theatrical performances.

Makeshift theatre mushroomed all over England from drawing room to domestic buildings. At the more extreme end of the theatrical craze, members of the gentrified classes and the aristocracy built their own scaled down imitations of London playhouses. The most famous was that erected in the late 1770s by the spendthrift Earl of Barrymore, at a reputed cost of £60,000. Barrymore’s elaborate private theatre was modeled on Vanburgh’s Kings Theatre in the Haymarket. It supposedly seated seven hundred. (Byrne, 2007) Similarly, theatricals at Richmond House, home to the Duke of Richmond, proved extremely expensive to stage.

(Just a note to give a frame of reference here: £250 was considered a livable middle-class salary for a family of four.)

Some aficionados of this art form would go so far as to import professional actors bolster the sometimes-meager skills of the local amateur participants. Actresses might also be brought in to preserve the reputations of young ladies who might otherwise be called upon to play parts unseemly in polite society.

Great houses could accommodate substantial audiences, 150 or more were not uncommon. (Imagine hosting an audience of 150 in your living room! The mind boggles!)

But theatrical endeavors did not require lavish structures. Town houses, country estates, assembly rooms, even military encampments and ships hosted performances. Even kitchens, barns and greenhouses could be pressed into service when nothing else would suit.

Preserving the distinction of Rank

Licensing Theaters

Despite the expenses incurred to stage amateur theatricals, these performances could not charge their audiences admission. Unlicensed paid public performances were illegal according to the Licensing Act of 1737.

Enacted by Robert Walpole’s government, the Licensing Act increase the government’s control over public theaters. As a result, spoken drama could only be performed legally at The Theater Royal in Covent Garden and The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the two theaters holding royal patents. (Moreover, “All new plays, additions to old plays, prologues, and epilogues performed by these theatres had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain fourteen days before the performance, and he had the power to refuse to allow the performance of any play. His decision was final and there was no possibility of an appeal.”(Haugen, 2014) But that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.)

Those in violation of the act would face a fine of £50 to each person acting for hire, gain or reward in a theatrical performance not licensed by the Lord Chamberlain. (Just a note to give a frame of reference: £50 would have been considered the equivalent of a year’s wage at a minimum wage job today.) That might not have been a lot to the wealthy peers, but for a more modest family, like say Jane Austen’s, it was a hefty amount.

Paid admission might be the biggest detail that set these endeavors apart from professional theater. In most other ways, they emulated professional (paid) theater. Frequently a mainpiece and an afterpiece and entre-act entertainments were performed. Prologues and epilogue—sometimes written by the players might frame the play. Some amateur theatricals even publicized their performances with newspaper reports (and were reviewed by the same—one shudders to think on the sort of things that might have been said) and even printed playbills. Plays performed might range from classical and Shakespearean to popular contemporary works, to amateur works written locally.

Preserving the Distinction of Rank

Marc Baer (1992) suggests many of the upper class might have preferred the relative isolation of the home theatrical setting. Several factors could have contributed to that preference.  Audiences’ behavior in the era could range from noisy and rude to outright dangerous.

“Theatre patrons consumed large quantities of alcohol and food, and people arrived and left throughout the performance.  Audiences chatted among themselves, and sometimes pelting actors with rotten fruit and vegetables if dissatisfied with the performances.  At other times, audiences demanded that popular tunes or popular scenes be played repeatedly.  James Boswell, the 18th century diarist, described mooing like a cow during one particularly bad play, to the great amusement of his companions.  Rioting at theatres was also not uncommon…rioting destroyed the Drury Lane theatre in London on six occasions during the century.
In general, audiences were a mix of rich and poor: boxes placed along the stage seated ‘persons of quality,’ while ) working-class men and women squeezed into hot and dirty galleries.  Down below in front of the stage, young men would drink together, eat nuts, and mingle with prostitutes in the notorious pit. (Hudson, 2015)
Moreover, with the rise of the merchant class, the theater was becoming increasingly plebian. How better to preserve the distinction of rank than by attending a private, rather than a public, event?
“The rise of the private theatrical allowed aristocratic participants to choose plays that appealed to them, subverting this growing tendency toward commercialization by reclaiming the theatre from the marketplace and using sociability as the currency instead of money.” (Haugen, 2014) It also permitted them to be showcased themselves.

Changes in the nature of seating and lighting in theaters meant that high status persons would not be as visible as they once were: moving from on-stage seating to seats in expensive boxes; and foot lights and sidelights in the theater itself to better illuminate the stage and focus attention on the actor instead of the audience. A private theater offered the aristocracy a much better venue in which to see and, perhaps more importantly, be seen while preserving the distinction of rank by keeping out the lesser classes.


Baer, Marc. Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London. Clarendon Press. 1992
Byrne, Paula.  Jane Austen and the Theatre. Bloomsbury Academic. 2007
Collins, Irene. Jane Austen, the Parson's Daughter. London: Hambledon Press, 1998.
Fullerton, Susannah. Jane Austen and Crime. Sydney: Jane Austen Society of Australia, 2004.
Gisborne, Thomas. An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. London: Cadell and Davies, 1797.
Haugen, Janine Marie, “The Mimic Stage: Private Theatricals in Georgian Britain.” (2014). English Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 68.
Hudson, Chuck. “Theater in Georgian England.” The Historic Interpreter. March, 16, 2015.   Accessed July, 2, 2019.
Laudermilk, Sharon H., and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.
Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and Leisure. London: Hambledon Press, 1999.
Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.
Wakefield, J. F., “Jane Austen: Fanny Price and Private Theatricals.” Austen Only. June 6, 2010.   Accessed June, 2, 2019.

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.


  1. Excellent post! Private theatricals seem to come back around from time to time. From the scandalous "Lovers' Vows" in MANSFIELD PARK, I come to "The Winning Widow", a 2-act play from a catalog put out by T.S. Denison & Co of Chicago in the early 20th century (my grandmother's copy). It seems a fun way to spend time to me.


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