In the late 18th century, theatres were at the very heart of the bustling cultural and social life of fashionable British towns. These playbills were used to advertise the evening’s entertainment at some of the hottest venues in London and Bristol.
In the mid 1770s, there were two leading playhouses in London ‒ Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Both were known as the Theatre Royal, after being granted a much sought-after royal licence to show spoken-word plays. In Bristol, the theatre on King’s Street took the risk of showing plays before it received its licence in 1778.
These theatres staged an eclectic range of comedies, tragedies and musical entertainments, some of which are still hugely popular today. There were comedies of manners – She Stoops to Conquer (1773), The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777) – that mocked the airs and pretensions of different social classes. There were also revivals of reliable crowd-pleasers such as The Beggar’s Opera (1728), as well as versions of Shakespeare’s plays adapted to 18th-century tastes.
What are playbills?
Playbills are cheaply produced posters that were handed out or posted on walls to announce the latest shows and performers. They outlined the evening’s programme, which usually started with a two- or three-hour main piece followed by a shorter, often comic, after-piece. The audience could stay for the whole show, or they could sometimes pay half-price to arrive after the main piece. At times the bills warned viewers of last-minute cast changes, with detailed explanations of actors’ illnesses or mishaps.
This collection was put together by the Reverend Charles Burney, the classicist, book lover and brother of the novelist Frances Burney.
Which playbills are shown here?
- Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy She Stoops to Conquer was shown at Covent Garden on 21 September 1774. Actor John Quick – who appears on both She Stoops to Conquer playbills digitised here – became famous throughout England for his portrayal of Tony Lumpkin, the practical joker and comic country bumpkin.
- Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s first play, The Rivals, opened at Covent Garden on 17 January 1775. It was panned by the critics, and the play was quickly withdrawn, rewritten and restaged 11 days later. This playbill for 18 January 1775 advertises a performance that may never have happened.
- Before the evening’s performance of John Hoole’s tragedy Cleonice at Covent Garden on 4 March 1775, ‘Mr Barry was suddenly attacked with a severe Fit of the Gout’. The valiant ‘Mr. Hull’ agreed ‘at a few hours’ notice, to get through Mr. Barry's character of Artabasus’.
- She Stoops to Conquer was staged at the theatre on King’s Street in Bristol on 23 August 1775.
- In 1775, Mr Thornton was confined to his bed after suffering a violent ‘Bruise by a Fall from a Horse’. This gave the other actors ‘an excuse for playing The Beggar’s Opera’, a bawdy, witty comedy, in place of the tragedy Matilda. John Gay’s ballad opera was the most successful drama of the 18th century – a reliable backup in emergencies like this.
- Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s father, Thomas Sheridan, was an actor. On 29 December 1775 (when he was about 56 years old), Mr Sheridan starred in Hamlet at Covent Garden Theatre. He had some successes but he never achieved the stardom of his friend and rival actor, David Garrick.
- When Garrick retired in June 1776, audiences flocked to see his emotional farewell shows at Drury Lane, where he was also the manager. For the final month, he alternated between comedies and tragedies. This playbill advertises ‘the last time of his appearing’ in the role of King Lear on 8 June 1776.
- When Garrick stepped down, Drury Lane was sold to a group of new co-owners including R B Sheridan. It reopened under new management on 21 September, with an ‘occasional prelude call’d New Brooms’. This was written by George Coleman especially for the occasion and included flattering tributes to both Sheridan and Garrick.
- While at Drury Lane, Sheridan staged his own new comedy The School for Scandal, which opened to great acclaim on 8 May 1777.
- The run continued for 20 nights, and 45 more the next season, with a different playbill to promote each new performance and its particular after-piece.