Today I want to celebrate the opening, in 1663, of the first theatre to be built at Drury Lane in London. I say the first theatre, because it has been demolished once and burned down twice but it is the oldest theatre site in London which is still in use.
Following the execution of Charles I, the Puritans had banned all theatre because they were a serious bunch and thought it was all a bit too frivolous. They called playhouses ‘idle places of intercourse’ and declared all actors to be ‘rogues and vagabonds’. If they were caught acting they could be whipped for a first offence, and for the second treated as ‘an incorrigible rogue’, whatever that means. Charles II loved the theatre and he granted licenses to two acting companies. One of these was led by Thomas Killigrew, whose acting troupe were named the ‘King’s Company’. You can find out more about him, and what he has to do with Ken Russell’s film ‘The Devils’ here.
It was under Killigrew’s direction that the theatre, then called the ‘Theatre Royal on Bridges Street’, was built. Sadly, there is no picture of it, so we don’t know exactly what it was like. The drawing above is of the second theatre, which was opened in 1674. We know that it was a wooden building with semi circular tiered benches in the stalls, three semi circular galleries around the walls, a lot of green baize and it could hold at least 700 people. It had scenery which could be changed by sliding it off into the wings and sliding another into place, which was then a very new thing. Performances happened in the afternoons and it had a glazed dome to let in the light. It was not entirely weather-proof though. We know this because Samuel Pepys tells us that he and his wife were once forced to leave because of a hail storm.
Many of Killigrew’s troupe were seasoned actors. Charles Hart and Walter Clun had acted in the ‘King’s Company’ (Shakespeare’s old company) prior to the closing of the theatres in 1642. It was through this connection that Killigrew claimed the sole right to perform all of the plays that had belonged to that company which, of course, included all of Shakespeare’s plays. Much of what we know about theatre in the 1660s comes from the diaries of Samuel Pepys and we know that he didn’t care for Shakespeare. He called ‘Romeo and Juliet: “the worst that I ever heard in my life” and Midsummer Night’s Dream: “the most insipid ridiculous play”. He loved Macbeth though. Pepys was also rather impressed by an actor called Edward Kynaston, who was well known for playing both male and female roles. He said Edward was ‘the loveliest lady that I ever saw in my life”. Kynaston’s ambiguous sexuality made him very popular. Ladies enjoyed taking him out in their carriages after the performance whilst he was still in costume.
The age of acting being a men only career was coming to an end though, and Drury Lane Theatre became one of the first to employ female actors. The rumours of Kynaston continuing his female role playing away from the stage was one of the things that led the king to allow female roles to be played by female performers. Nell Gwyn, who later became the kings mistress, acted there, as did Pepys friend Mary Knep. Also Margaret Hughes and Anne Marshall, both of whom have been named the first actresses on the English stage. Killigrew even staged an all female production there of his own play ‘The Parson’s Wedding’. In fact women playing male roles became terribly popular but mainly because men liked to look at their legs.
The theatre was closed, along with all other forms of public entertainment, during the time of the Great Plague in 1665 but reopened in 1666. It survived the Great Fire of London but was burnt down in 1672. Killigrew rebuilt it, bigger and better two years later. In the following years, the theatre faced a lot of upheaval. Some of it political, some of it just mismanagement. But one of Drury Lane’s actors, Charles Macklin, became very famous in 1741 after appearing as ‘Shylock’ in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. His naturalistic style was much admired and he later tutored other actors. One of his students was Samuel Foote, who I’ve mentioned elsewhere because he was a terribly interesting fellow. Another was David Garrick, who I’ve only mentioned in passing because, although he is extremely famous, he was relatively dull. He took over the theatre in 1747 and, in 1776, sold it on the Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
Sheridan employed a lot of child actors, including a young Joseph Grimaldi, who made his debut there in 1780. Grimaldi was, of course, the man who popularised the role of clown, but unfortunately you won’t find him here either as his life was rather sad and difficult. In 1791 Sheridan had the theatre demolished and rebuilt again. It was enormous. There were three tiers of galleries. In fact, it was so big that people sometimes found it rather difficult to hear what was going on and productions tended to lead heavily on visual spectacles. In 1794 there was a play that featured real water pouring down a rocky stream into a lake which was large enough to row a boat on. The water came from huge tanks in the attic that were installed at the same time as an iron safety curtain as a precaution against fire.
In the year 1800, the theatre saw an assassination attempt on King George III by a man named James Hadfield. James was not a well man at all. He believed that he could help bring about the second coming of Christ by shooting the King. In 1809, despite the safety precautions, the theatre was, once again, burned down. Sheridan was found out in the street with a glass of wine in his hand, watching it burn. When asked about it, he said: “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.” The theatre was rebuilt for a fourth time in 1812 and still stands today.
So, with such a long history, you might not be surprised to learn that the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane has more than its fair share of ghosts. Both Macklin and Grimaldi have been seen at the theatre. But its most famous ghost is the ‘Man in Grey’, a gentleman dressed in 18th century costume complete with powdered wig, tricorne hat and a sword. He usually appears in the fourth row of the upper circle and proceeds towards the royal box. In 1848, a skeleton was found in a walled up passageway near the box. There was a knife in his ribs.