Performance for the nation
The licensing act of 1737 created a two-tier theatre in England, in which licensed plays were separated from all other sorts of performance. London’s spoken drama was conﬁned to two theatres for the rest of the century. But the proliferation of theatre companies and stages in the 1730s had shown a greater public demand for plays than could be met by two licensed companies. The new restrictions meant that the only way the public could be accommodated was by expanding the theatres, which was also the easiest way for the patentees to increase proﬁts. Rich’s Covent Garden, which originally held 1,335 people, was redesigned in 1782 and further expanded by Henry Holland in the 1790s to hold about 3,000 spectators. When it burned down in September 1808 it was replaced by a new building on an even larger site designed by Robert Smirke which had 2,800 seats as well as many private boxes. The Drury Lane Theatre, built by Christopher Wren in 1674 for an audience of less than 1,000, was redesigned by Robert Adam in 1775; in 1791 it was knocked down, and Henry Holland began work on a new auditorium with a capacity of 3,600 which opened three years later. In 1809, the year after Covent Garden burnt down, this Drury Lane Theatre also went up in ﬂames. Its replacement, not completed until 1811, was yet another grand venue. The bigger theatres of the 1790s would probably not have been built if an earlier, even
grander scheme had not failed. In 1778 Thomas Harris, the patentee of Covent Garden, and the playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who had recently bought Garrick’s patent at Drury Lane, jointly purchased the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket; together, therefore, they controlled London’s opera and theatre. In 1784 they launched a plan to develop a new site at Hyde Park Corner to consist of ‘a Theatre with an adjoining Grand Rotunda with contigious [sic] lesser Rooms for Balls, Concerts, etc … surrounded with gardens of great Extent’. This complex would have combined the facilities of the theatre, concert hall and pleasure gardens, creating a major complex for the performing arts. But the plan, though it had been put to the Lord Chamberlain, was abandoned in 1791 for reasons that remain obscure, though they were probably connected to Sheridan’s precarious ﬁnances. Big auditoria were not popular. The travel writer John Byng was one of many who
complained of Drury Lane that ‘The nice discrimination of the actors’ feelings are now all lost in the vast void of a new theatre’. Playwrights and critics thought the vast caverns detracted from the actors and the play. The actors struggled to make their performances accessible to the large, distant audience, and both new theatres underwent several alterations to improve their sight-lines and acoustics. The dramatist Richard Cumberland’s comments were echoed by many others:
Since the stages of Drury Lane and Covent Garden had been so enlarged in their dimensions as to be henceforward theatres for spectators rather than playhouses for hearers, it is hardly to be wondered at if managers and directors encourage those representations, to which their structure is best adapted. The splendor of the scene, the ingenuity of the machinist and the rich display of dresses, aided by the captivating charms of the music, now in great degree supersede the labours of the poet. There can be nothing very gratifying in watching the movement of an actor’s lips when we cannot hear the words that proceed from them, but when the animating march strikes up, and the stage lays open its recesses to the depth of a hundred feet for the procession to advance, even the most distant spectator can enjoy his shilling’s worth of show.