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).