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An introduction to 18th-century British theatre

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

The story of British drama in the 18th century is one of dizzying growth: in kinds of entertainment, audience figures, the numbers of theatres and not least in the size of the theatres themselves. When the century began, theatre was largely a metropolitan and aristocratic pastime; by the time it ended, theatre had become a genuinely popular form of entertainment, and barely a British town worthy of the name didn’t boast a playhouse of some kind. But 18th-century theatres offered much more than what audiences saw on stage: sites for socialising and catching up with the latest news and gossip, they were places to see and be seen, no matter your social class. And although Georgian playwrights are comparatively neglected these days – with a small handful of exceptions – the great actors of the age, among them David Garrick, ‘Peg’ Woffington and Sarah Siddons, have gone down in history.

Playbills for performances in London and Bristol, 1774‒77

Playbills for performances in London and Bristol

Playbill for Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s first play, The Rivals (1775). Panned by the critics, the play was quickly withdrawn, rewritten and restaged 11 days later.

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New theatres

In 1700, London had a population of around 675,000; a century later, nearly a million people lived in the metropolis, making it the largest city in Europe and one of the largest in the world. The city’s young and restless inhabitants were hungry for entertainment, which theatre producers – along with everyone else – were only too eager to supply.

Just two venues in the city were allowed to perform spoken drama when the century began. They were known as ‘patent’ theatres – so called because they were sanctioned by royal patents dating from the Restoration of 40 years earlier. One was the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in the heart of the rapidly developing West End; the other was located at Lincoln’s Inn Fields a little further to the east.

Illustration of Drury Lane Theatre

This illustration captures the Drury Lane Theatre as it looked towards the end of actor-manager David Garrick’s career.

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Drury Lane Theatre was built by the theatre manager Thomas Killigrew in 1663, whereupon it promptly burned down and had to be rebuilt. This second building, opened in 1674 and possibly designed by the great architect Christopher Wren, remained in use all the way through the 18th century, first under Killigrew and then under his successor Colley Cibber.[1]

Over at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Cibber’s great rival John Rich had long wanted to find a theatre that would compete with Drury Lane, and after scoring an immense hit with John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in 1728 – it became one of the greatest theatrical successes of the age – Rich finally had the money.

Third edition of The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, 1729

Third edition of The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, 1729

A cast list from The Beggar’s Opera, printed in 1729, a year after the play premiered at the Drury Lane Theatre.

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Playbills for performances in London and Bristol, 1774‒77

Playbills for performances in London and Bristol

This notice announces that a performance of The Beggar’s Opera has unfortunately been cancelled because one of the actors, Mr Thornton, has ‘received so violent a Bruise by a Fall from a Horse, that confines him to his Bed’.

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In 1732, he transplanted his company to Covent Garden, erecting a new theatre on the site of what is now the Royal Opera House, and opened it in grand style with a production of William Congreve’s much-loved Restoration comedy The Way of the World. Sumptuously decorated, featuring the latest stage and scenic technology and boasting pitch-perfect acoustics, Covent Garden Theatre accommodated over 1,000 spectators, ranged between boxes (the most expensive seats), gallery (middle-range) and the pit (cheapest). It was the largest theatre London had yet seen; according to one witness, the place was ‘calculated for splendour and admiration’.[2] By the end of the eighteenth century, following several rebuilds, it could accommodate 3,000 audience members.

Other producers were impatient to get in on the action, and from the 1720s onward more and more theatres were built in London, not only in the West End but far beyond: the Little Theatre in the Haymarket (1720), two new theatres in Goodman’s Fields in east London (1729 and 1732), Sadler’s Wells in Islington (1733), several in Richmond towards the west of London, plus performances at fairs and newly created ‘pleasure gardens’ such as those at Vauxhall and Chelsea.  

‘Theatres Royal’ sprang up in many other English towns, too, among them Bath, Truro, Bristol, Bury St Edmunds, Richmond in Yorkshire and Stockton-on-Tees. According to one estimate, by 1805 there were over 280 places of regular theatrical entertainment in England – massively more than the handful that had existed a century earlier. This new appetite for theatre in the provinces was fed by a network of travelling companies, who brought the latest plays to audiences living far away from the capital, as well as enabling actors to develop experience and hone their skills on the touring circuit.[3]

Playbills for performances in London and Bristol, 1774‒77

Playbills for performances in London and Bristol

Playbill advertising a performance of She Stoops to Conquer at Bristol’s King Street theatre in 1775.

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A Perspective View of Vaux Hall Gardens

A Perspective View of Vaux Hall Gardens

Unlike well-to-do Ranelagh Gardens, however, Vauxhall eventually earned a reputation for late-night drunkenness and the associated scenes of violence that sometimes occurred there.

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In 1737, Robert Walpole’s government attempted to put a halt to this expansion by passing the Licensing Act, which renewed the monopoly of the patent theatres when it came to spoken drama and also insisted that every script had to be approved before performance by the Lord Chamberlain, who was also given the powers to close down shows entirely (Walpole had been particularly offended by a satirical farce of that year called The Golden Rump, which mocked both him and the royal family). Pointedly referring to actors as ‘rogues and vagabonds’ – legal language that dated from the Elizabethan period – the Act sought to clamp down on the activities of theatremakers and effectively made theatre censorship a reality.[4]

When it came to avoiding spoken drama as the law dictated, managers were able to find legal loopholes, keeping their theatres open by offering melodrama, pantomime, ballet, opera and music instead of ‘serious’ drama. But censorship was inescapable. One effect was that rather than taking the risk of staging new plays that might fall foul of the censor, many producers brought classics back into the repertoire – chiefly works from the Restoration era and earlier in the 17th century, most of all Shakespeare.

Stage technology

Alongside the growth in new playhouses, stage technology changed rapidly during this period. Whereas 17th-century indoor theatres were intimate spaces, their Georgian successors were much larger, especially in London, and the scale of staging increased accordingly, with greater emphasis on impressive visual effects. One innovation was the use of ‘flats’ – hard surfaces painted to give the illusion of three-dimensional settings, which could be easily slid in and out to enable changes of scene. Having first been used in Italy in the early 1600s, flats came into common use in British theatres in the 18th century. Another innovation followed: the use of a stage curtain, to hide scene changes (in 1794, Drury Lane became the first British theatre to turn the curtain into a safety feature, using an fireproof ‘iron’ barrier to prevent fires onstage from destroying the rest of the building – an ever-present risk in the era of candlelight).

The artist John DeVoto’s luxurious designs for a pantomime at Goodman’s Fields called King Arthur in 1719 became the talk of the town (they featured accurate views of the Royal Garden at Richmond, as well as other splendid settings), while later in the century the German-born Philip de Loutherbourg produced magnificent designs for Drury Lane, which were even more spectacular. At Rich’s new Covent Garden Theatre, things were also highly impressive, as this 1736 report of the staging for a new opera called Atlanta suggests:

The Fore-part of the Scene represented an Avenue to the Temple of Hymen, adorn’d with Figures of several Heathen Deities. Next was a Triumphal Arch on the Top of which were the arms of their Royal Highnesses, over which was placed a Princely Coronet … At the further End was a View of Hymen’s Temple, and the Wings were adorn’d with the Loves and Graces bearing Hymeneal Torches, and putting Fire to Incense in Urns, to be offered up upon this joyful Union. The Opera concluded with a Grade Chorus, during which several beautiful Illuminations were display’d.[5]

Though candlelight was still the only available lighting technology, producers attempted to flood their stages with as much light as possible via the introduction of footlights and extra sidelights to show off sets and costumes to best advantage. Even more importantly, candles were taken out of auditoriums, leaving the audience area much darker and increasing the contrast with what was visible on stage. And whereas audiences in the Restoration era had been able to sit on the stage, making them as much a part of the show as the actors, the practice began to be frowned upon, and it was banned altogether at Drury Lane when the theatre came under new management in 1747.

The role of the audience

That isn’t to say that spectators sat timidly by. Audiences in Georgian England were fully and noisily engaged in the show, creating a carnivalesque atmosphere that must have resembled a 21st-century football or boxing match. Favourite performers or roles were wildly cheered, villains and bad performances were noisily heckled (sometimes by claques paid to do so), alcohol and snacks were consumed in prodigious quantities, and playgoers chatted among themselves, read scripts during the performance, or simply got up and walked out, meaning that actors had to fight for their attention. Sometimes there were even riots, as occurred at Covent Garden in 1763 when the management ended a deal whereby audiences could pay half price to sneak in for the second half of the show (ticket prices were also the cause of the most infamous theatre riots in English history, which happened in 1809, again at Covent Garden).[6]

The pit door at Drury Lane Theatre, 1784

Satirical print of the pit door at Drury Lane Theatre, 1784

This vivid print depicts the chaos of buying tickets at the pit door of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. 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.

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The Citizen of the World; or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, 1762

The Citizen of the World; or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, 1762

The Citizen of the World is a collection of letters written by Oliver Goldsmith from the perspective of the fictional Lien Chi Altangi, a Chinese philosopher living in London. In this letter, Altangi observes and describes a theatre audience.

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Above all, British theatre in the 18th century was socially inclusive: although they sat in different parts of the auditorium, according to wealth and social status, people from all walks of life attended, from workers and servants to merchants and society ladies, right up to grand aristocratic families. Theatres were places where you could hob-nob, gossip and catch the latest news as well as see a show. To get into the auditorium, you would have had to squeeze past prostitutes touting for business; once inside, you might get a glimpse of a famous lord or even royalty. All this added to what one critic called the ‘drama of the audience’s self-presentation’.[7]

The birth of stars

Above all, the 18th century was the age of the actor, as performers vied with each other – and, of course, the audience. The first great star (indeed, the very first person of whom the word ‘star’ was used in a theatrical context) was David Garrick, who emerged from provincial obscurity to become the brightest talent on the London stage. Brought up in Lichfield, Garrick had come to London desperate to make his name in the theatre; he was struggling to break through when, one night in 1741, he came on stage at Goodman’s Fields as Shakespeare’s Richard III. The performance rocketed him to overnight success, and by the following year he was a regular at Drury Lane. By 1747, he was running the building. For the next three decades, Garrick remained the most important figure in London theatre, not only as an actor but one of the first ‘actor managers’ – producer, playwright/adapter and remarkably energetic impresario. As well as becoming enormously wealthy, Garrick did much to make the theatrical profession socially respectable.[8]

David Garrick as Richard III, by William Hogarth

David Garrick as Richard III, by William Hogarth

In this painting by William Hogarth, David Garrick is shown as Richard in his tent just before the Battle of Bosworth, haunted by the ghosts of those he had murdered.

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Letters from Frances Burney to Samuel Crisp, one defending the single life and the other describing Samuel Johnson

Letters from Frances Burney to Samuel Crisp, one defending the single life and the other describing Samuel Johnson

In this letter from March 1777, Frances Burney relays Samuel Johnson’s comments on David Garrick: ‘“Garrick never enters a Room, but he regards himself as the Object of general attention, from whom the Entertainment of the Company is expected, – & true it is, that he seldom disappoints them; for he has infinite humour…’.

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Around Garrick – and often in competition with him – moved a constellation of other luminaries, among them the superlative comedienne Margaret ‘Peg’ Woffington, Garrick’s Shakespearian rival Charles Macklin, the charismatic leading man Spranger Barry, the versatile Colley Cibber (like Garrick, an actor/adapter/manager), and the satirist playwright-actor Samuel Foote.

Later in the century, the brother-sister duo of John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons came to dominate the London scene. Kemble was acclaimed for his statuesque performances, especially in Shakespearian tragedies such as Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, and separately managed both Drury Lane and Covent Garden, introducing to the London stage for the first time live animals and aquatic effects. Siddons’s reputation as an actor was even higher: both glamorous and imperious, she was regarded as the greatest tragedienne of the age, excelling at roles such as Lady Macbeth and Belvidera in Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d, and was applauded for the intense seriousness of her approach. In the words of one eyewitness, ‘when Mrs Siddons quitted the dressing-room, I believe she left there the last thought about herself’.[9]

Portrait of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by George Henry Harlow, 1814

Portrait of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by George Henry Harlow

Sarah Siddons was the first woman ever to play Hamlet, but was best-loved in her portrayal of Lady Macbeth.

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Performers such as Garrick, Siddons and John Kemble were the first actors to become genuine celebrities, not only in Britain but far beyond. Their private lives and loves were the focus of obsessive public interest and they were the subjects of paintings and broadsides – even novelty merchandise.

Mixed bills

To get a sense of what it would have been like to attend the theatre in the 18th century, you only have to glance at a playbill of the time. Playbills were cheaply printed adverts-cum-descriptions that were circulated widely to drum up business. As well as proclaiming the star wattage of the cast, they would list which plays were on offer, highlighting any eye-catching ‘alterations’ or ‘additions’ (it was common practice to alter scripts to suit contemporary taste; Garrick famously tweaked the ending of Romeo and Juliet to give the lovers one final embrace, and condensed The Taming of the Shrew into a three-act version called Catharine and Petruchio).[10]

Playbills also reveal that many performances were so-called ‘mixed bills’, with a serious, full-length main play followed by lighter fare such as farces, pantomimes, ‘burlettas’ (burlesque operettas) and the like. So it was that a classic such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest (featuring a ‘Grand Dance of Fantastic Spirits’ and ‘a Pastoral Dance proper to the Masque’) would be followed by Edward Rooker’s pantomime The Harlequin Ranger; or Beaumont and Fletcher’s Jacobean comedy Rule a Wife and Have a Wife would include a ‘New Sailor’s Dance’ and be followed by a two-act farce called The Apprentice (to choose just two Drury Lane playbills from the 1750s).[11] At other theatres, entertainment could be even more varied. The German writer Sophie von la Roche, who visited London in 1790, describes seeing a ballet, a rope-walker, a strong man and an operetta on offer at Saddler’s Wells.[12]

Illustration of Sadler's Wells Theatre

Illustration of Sadler's Wells Theatre

Sadler’s Wells Theatre offered a variety of entertainments. This early 19th-century illustration appears to depict a scene from Greek myth – on stage is Poseidon, god of the sea, earthquakes and horses, accompanied by a live orchestra in the pit.

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Poster advertising a variety of theatre entertainments, 1787

Poster advertising a variety of theatre entertainments, 1787

This theatre poster advertises a range of intriguing acts and entertainments, including ‘horsemanship’, ballet, ‘rope dancing’ and ‘wire dancing’.

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The slapstick genre of pantomime – a homegrown English version of the Italian commedia dell’arte – was pioneered by John Rich at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where it quickly became an annual tradition after 1716. Another pantomime, Lewis Theobald’s Harlequin Sorcerer, was performed no fewer than 337 times at Covent Garden between 1747 and 1776, making it one of the greatest commercial hits of the era.

Leading playwrights

While no one could claim that the 18th century was a golden age for playwrights in Britain, certainly in comparison with the Continent, it wasn’t devoid of talent. Though written at the beginning of the century, George Farquhar’s lively, warm-hearted comedies – notably The Recruiting Officer (1706) and The Beaux’ Stratagem (1707) – stayed in the repertoire, as did William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700). So-called ‘sentimental dramas’ also gained in popularity, partly in reaction to criticism from commentators that theatre was inherently immoral. Generally set in a middle-class environment, they showed characters undergoing a series of moral trials on the path to virtue; perhaps the most famous example is Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers (1722), which portrays a penniless heroine triumphing against the odds.

The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar

The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar

Dramatis personae – a list of the play’s characters – from the first print edition of The Recruiting Officer.

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Later in the century two stellar talents did emerge, both Irish-born, both writers of comedy: Oliver Goldsmith (1722–1774) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816). Goldsmith’s most famous play, She Stoops to Conquer (1773), takes aim at the pieties of sentimental comedy; a tale of mistaken identity set partly in a pub, it features a vivacious heroine who poses as a maid to win her bashful lover’s heart. Sheridan, who took over from Garrick at Drury Lane from 1776, helped revive the comedy of manners, producing a string of hits that satirised the morals and mores of polite society, notably The Rivals (1775) and his masterpiece, The School for Scandal (1777), whose ferocious wit and whip-smart repartee made it one of the most popular plays of the 18th century.

Playbills for performances in London and Bristol, 1774‒77

Playbills for performances in London and Bristol

This playbill advertises a performance of She Stoops to Conquer in its second run of the year.

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Engraving of the screen scene from Sheridan's The School for Scandal

Engraving of the screen scene from Sheridan's The School for Scandal

This print depicts the climactic moment when Lady Teazle is revealed behind the screen in Joseph Surface’s library.

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Female playwrights emerged in greater numbers than ever before, too – yet another way in which British theatre expanded during the 18th century. Having run away from home, Susanna Centlivre (1669–1723) made a name for herself as an actor-writer in Bath and then in London, excelling in comedies, including The Busy Body (1709), A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718) and The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret (1714); the latter gave Garrick one of his best roles, as a jealous husband.

The Irish-born Elizabeth Griffith (1727–1793) made her name in London with The Double Mistake (1766), the success of which encouraged her to approach Garrick, who produced her most successful comedy, The School for Rakes (1796). Yet another Garrick protégée was Hannah Cowley (1743–1809), who authored the much-loved hit The Runaway (1776) and the riotous The Belle’s Stratagem (1780) – the latter a fittingly witty response to Goldsmith that suggested women, not men, were really in charge of their romantic destinies.

Footnotes

[1] A thumbnail history of the multiple theatres to have existed on the site of the current Theatre Royal – along with descriptive details of their design – is available at the Theatre.eu website.

[2] Cited in Arthur H Scouten, The London Stage 1729–1747 (Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), p. xxxi.

[3] Iain Mackintosh, Introduction, The Georgian Playhouse: actors, artists, audiences and architecture 1730–1830 (Arts Council of Great Britain, 1975).

[4] The full wording of the statute is available online at: [http://umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/early_theater/license.html].

[5] Scouten, The London Stage, p. cxxiii.

[6] On the so-called ‘O.P.’ (old price riots) 0f 1809, see Jacqueline Mulhallen, ‘The Old Price Riots of 1809: Theatre, Class and Popular Protest’, Counterfire, 12 November 2012 [http://www.counterfire.org/history/16136-the-old-price-riots-of-1809-theatre-class-and-popular-protest].

[7] Gillian Russell, ‘Theatrical culture’, in Thomas Keymer and John Mee, The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1740–1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 100–19, 100.

[8] The best short account of Garrick’s life is Peter Thomson’s 2004 article for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Available online (with subscription) at: [oxforddnb.com].

[9] Cited in A M Nagler, A Source Book in Theatrical History (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1959), p. 415.

[10] See Peter Holland, ‘The Age of Garrick’, The Oxford Illustrated History of Shakespeare on Stage, ed. by Jonathan Bate and Russell Jackson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 69–91.

[11] Images at: [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Drury_Lane_Playbill_-_The_Tempest.jpg] and
irnatural [https://jhuptheatre.org/theatre-journal/online-content/issue/volume-68-number-4-december-2016/archives-numbers-meaning].

[12] See an illustration of Sadler's Wells Theatre.

  • Andrew Dickson
  • Andrew Dickson is an author, journalist and critic. A former arts editor at the Guardian in London, he writes regularly for the paper and appears as a broadcaster for the BBC and elsewhere. His book about Shakespeare's global influence, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe, is out now in paperback. He lives in London, and his website is andrewjdickson.com.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.