chapter  8
26 Pages

The Georgian stage

At five o’clock on the afternoon of the 14 November 1769 the doors of the Royal Theatre, Drury Lane opened to the public. Passing through streets in a rough neighbourhood full of garrets, brothels, whores and thieves, liveried servants sent to reserve seats and other theatre-goers pushed and shoved their way through the narrow doors to buy their tickets and grab the best places for the evening’s performance (Figures 8.1 and 8.2). The great attraction, listed in the playbills published in the newspapers and ‘puffed’ by the management, was a new performance by the theatre’s proprietor, manager and star actor, David Garrick. The play was to enjoy the longest run of any in the eighteenth century and gave Garrick his most frequently performed role. Critics and raffish young men-about-town paid three shillings each to squash on to a

bench in the pit; honest citizens and visitors to town crammed into two-shilling places in the first gallery; servants and the hoi polloi looked down from the upper gallery, price one shilling, while the whores cruised the upper boxes and orange-sellers offered fruit at exorbitant prices. Shortly before the evening’s entertainment began at six, the richer patrons with reserved box seats began to trickle in. In the green room, immediately to the side of the stage, actors, singers and their invited friends mingled before the performance began. During the hour before the curtain rose the theatre was filled by what a bemused

German visitor, von Archenholz, called ‘noise and bombardment’: the audience chatted, cheered and sang, threw fruit at one another, flirted and preened themselves. A few years earlier James Boswell, waiting with a Scottish friend for a Drury Lane performance to begin, ‘entertained the audience prodigiously by imitating the lowing of a cow.’ As he later proudly remarked, ‘I was so successful in this boyish frolic that the universal cry of the galleries was “Encore the cow! Encore the cow!”’ Drury Lane, London’s oldest theatre, was an intimate space with a capacity of about

1,000. Eager to avoid distractions, Garrick had recently introduced a number of innovations to make the audience focus on the stage. In 1762 he expanded the auditorium and removed spectators from the stage itself, where they had often proved troublesome and obstructive. A clear line was drawn between dramatic action and audience. Three years later he dispensed with the large hooped chandeliers that had illuminated both stage and auditorium, increased the number of footlights, and mounted batteries of light on moving poles with reflectors in the wings. Now the auditorium was darker, the stage brighter and the opportunities for special light effects greater. But the audience needed little encouragement on this November evening to focus on

the stage. They had not come to hear the overture played by the theatre orchestra, or to

hear the main piece of the evening, Elizabeth Griffith’s The School for Rakes. They were there for Garrick’s afterpiece. For Garrick’s most popular theatrical performance was not a Shakespeare tragedy like Richard III or a comedy such as Vanbrugh’s ever-popular The Provok’d Wife but a common play, dreamed up during a conversation with the painter Benjamin Wilson in a coach between Stratford-upon-Avon and London. The Jubilee was a commercial wheeze designed to cash in on the publicity surrounding the Shakespeare Jubilee that Garrick had organized at Stratford the previous summer (Figure 8.3), and to recycle the festival’s expensive costumes and fittings for use on the stage. The plot of The Jubilee – ‘I suppose an Irishman … come from Dublin to See the

Pageant – he is oblig’d to lye in a post Chaise all Night – undergoes all kinds of fatigue & inconvenience to see the Pageant, but unluckily goes to Sleep as the Pageant passes by’ – provided a low comic counterpoint to a glittering procession of nineteen pageants depicting scenes from Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The tableaux vivants were as much an advertisement for Drury Lane productions as for the Bard himself. Actors appeared in the roles for which they were well known. Garrick himself was Benedict in Much Ado about Nothing, his most frequently performed Shakespearean part. The spectacle, with music by the composers Thomas Arne and Samuel Arnold, included popular songs such as ‘Sweet Willy O!’ sung by the fashionable beauty Sophia Baddeley, and ended with Garrick’s ‘Ode to Shakespeare’ and a roistering chorus (Figure 8.4). At the finale, according to the stage directions, ‘Every character, tragic and comic, join in the chorus and go back, during which guns fire, bells ring. &c. and the Audience applaud – Bravo, Jubilee, Shakespeare forever!’ The audience loved it. The diary entry of the Drury Lane prompter William Hopkins

swells with pride when he describes The Jubilee’s reception: ‘It was received with bursts of Applause the Procession of Shakespeare’s Characters &c. is the most Superb that ever was Exhibited or I believe ever will be, there never was an Entertainment produc’d that gave so much pleasure to all degrees Boxes pit, and Gallery.’ As Garrick wrote to friends, ‘the world is mad after it … [it has] more success than any thing I Ever remember – it is crowded [in] 15 minutes after the Doors are open’d.’ At a time when a run of more

than a dozen nights was considered a success, The Jubilee ended the season after ninety performances. The Drury Lane company was a sizeable business, owned by a group of shareholders,

employing about 150 people, including eighty actors, spending as much as £40,000 a year and making a net profit, if Garrick’s experience as manager is anything to go by, of between £3,000 and £6,000 a year. Drury Lane had to be commercial because, unlike many of its counterparts on the continent, it received no royal subsidy. As one of the two theatres licensed to perform spoken drama in London (the other was at Covent Garden), it was officially a royal theatre, but crown control never extended to financial support. Publicity and profit were therefore crucial. The costs of the Jubilee celebrations at Stratford alarmed Garrick’s partner, James Lacy, but they were subsequently more than recovered, thanks to the extensive publicity they gave to Garrick and the Drury Lane company. Though the ostensible star of the Stratford Jubilee was the Bard himself, the

press paid far more attention to Garrick and his company for propagating the virtues of England’s first playwright. The Drury Lane audience was well primed when the curtain rose in November 1769; it would have been a surprise if The Jubilee had not been a hit. A commercial theatre must appeal to a broad audience, in this case one almost as

socially diverse as the nation itself. Drury Lane and Covent Garden had a joint monopoly on spoken drama in London, but they could never have survived on a repertory of comedy and tragedy: music, spectacle and entertainment were essential too. An evening’s performance ran for three or four hours and usually consisted of an overture played by the theatre’s orchestra, a main piece – a play, musical or opera – followed by an interlude (perhaps music or dance) and then a second shorter afterpiece. Afterpieces and interludes were at best comic, often farcical, and sometimes included stage-tricks and special effects (Figure 8.5). They ranged from such comedies as Samuel Foote’s enormously popular satire of high and low life, The Mayor of Garratt, to light opera like Samuel Arnold’s The Agreeable Surprise. It was generally said that the main pieces, especially tragedies, were for the quality and the afterpieces for the common people. Certainly, the upper galleries of the theatre often filled up after the main performance, when late-comers could gain admission at half price. Many of the century’s most popular plays and entertainments, including The Jubilee, were afterpieces, and many were also performed at aristocratic amateur theatricals. Garrick wanted to be known for staging the great works of British drama, of course,

and above all to be remembered as the interpreter of William Shakespeare. He worked tirelessly to link his own reputation to the Bard’s, but he could not avoid the commercial pressures to offer lighter fare to the public. Early in his career as a manager he had been appalled by the prospect of mounting stage-tricks and pantomimes, with their acrobatics, dance-routines, music and song: ‘I … dislike … Maddox’s rope-dancing upon our stage.

I cannot possibly agree to such a prostitution upon any account; and nothing but downright starving would induce me to bring such defilement and abomination to the house of William Shakespeare.’ (Garrick got his way: Maddox never appeared at Drury Lane (Figure 8.6).) But like every other manager, Garrick soon tempered his high-minded ideals, hired dancers, singers and musicians, and mounted spectacles. His ill-fated Chinese Festival of 1755 was a ballet and pantomime of European dancers brought from Paris, which a chauvinistic audience, incensed by the employment of French performers, drove from the stage. For more than a decade until his retirement in 1776 he put on masques and musicals, pastorals, interludes, pantomimes and farces, staging nearly twice as many afterpieces as his rivals at Covent Garden. He seems to have pursued a conscious plan of mixing a repertoire of classical drama with more popular material. The Jubilee epitomizes this strategy. Its serious and high-minded purpose was the promotion of Shakespeare as the greatest British dramatist, but its presentation was deliberately undemanding: a farce, a spectacle, a musical show, closer to what we would think of as music-hall.