The pit door at Drury Lane Theatre, 1784

Description

This vivid print depicts the chaos of buying tickets at the pit door of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The theatre was a popular pastime for all levels of society in Georgian Britain and demand for tickets was high, especially at London’s two leading playhouses in Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

Within the scene, bonnets, buckles, shoes and even someone’s dinner are lost as the crowd surges forward trying to gain entry to the theatre.

Make or break

The figure in the doorway is Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816), the renowned playwright and proprietor of Drury Lane during this period. He is examining a coin, alluding to the commercial profitability of his industry – which, by extension, made it highly competitive. A playwright’s livelihood and reputation depended entirely on the fickle London audiences. The reaction to a play on opening night was crucial: if a play flopped it was immediately cut, jeopardising the career of its author in the process.

Oliver Goldsmith (1728?–1774) took a huge risk with his play She Stoops to Conquer (1773) because it disregarded the public taste for sentimental comedy in favour of a different style of ‘laughing comedy’ that focussed on verbal wit and physical humour. However, his gamble paid off and the play was a resounding success precisely because of its fresh approach.

Celebrity crush

By the mid 18th century the theatregoing public were in thrall to the cult of celebrity. The print’s artist, Robert Dighton (1751–1814), reflects this phenomenon by drawing in a playbill advertising performances of The Grecian Daughter with Sarah Siddons and Hamlet with Siddons’s brother John Philip Kemble. Siddons and her brother were the brightest stars of their generation and their presence on stage commanded huge audiences. Despite Drury Lane having space for around 2,000 spectators, the demand for tickets often exceeded capacity, and citizens would crush together at the pit door in an attempt to witness their performances.

Dighton has also cleverly incorporated two faces within the crowd – the fainting lady and vomiting man – that parody the characters of horror and despair in Sir Joshua Reynolds’s painting, Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1784).

Full title:
The Pit Door. La Porte du Parterre.
Published:
1784, London
Format:
Print / Image / Mezzotint engraving
Creator:
Carington Bowles, Thomas Dighton
Copyright:
© Trustees of the British Museum
Usage terms
British Museum Terms of Use
Held by
The British Museum
Shelfmark:
1935,0522.1.41

Related articles

An introduction to She Stoops to Conquer

Article by:
Diane Maybank
Themes:
Politeness, sensibility and sentimentalism, Theatre and entertainment, Gender and sexuality

Oliver Goldsmith published several critiques of audiences and playwrights before writing a laughing comedy that was the triumph of its season and that continues to be performed today. Diane Maybank introduces She Stoops to Conquer, which uses satire to explore divisions between city and countryside, men and women, and rich and poor.

Sentiment and sensibility: Sheridan and The School for Scandal

Article by:
Andrew Dickson
Themes:
Politeness, sensibility and sentimentalism, Theatre and entertainment, Satire and humour

Andrew Dickson introduces Richard Brinsley Sheridan and his most famous play, The School for Scandal.

An introduction to 18th-century British theatre

Article by:
Andrew Dickson
Theme:
Theatre and entertainment

Andrew Dickson charts the growth of 18th-century theatre, looking at the new venues, stage technology, audiences, playwrights and great actors of the age.

Related collection items

Related people

Related works

She Stoops to Conquer

Created by: Oliver Goldsmith

She Stoops to Conquer (1773) overview Kenneth Tynan wrote that ‘English drama is a procession of glittering ...

The School for Scandal

Created by: Richard Brinsley Sheridan

The School for Scandal (1777) overview  The critic and essayist William Hazlitt called Richard Brinsley ...