This edited article about theatre in the 17th century originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 919 published on 1 September 1979.
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“Clear the auditorium!” ordered Cromwell’s soldiers as they smashed seats and seized props and costumes. All the actors, including Shakespeare’s godson William Davenport, were thrown into prison. Under Cromwell’s puritan reign, acting was completely banned.
For nearly 20 years, the London theatres were closed to the public, but in 1660, when King Charles II at last returned from exile in Europe, the theatre started up again.
The new King enjoyed theatre and he issued a licence re-opening the theatres the moment he was back in England. One such licence went to William Davenport, who opened a theatre at Covent Garden, and another went to Thomas Killigrew, who opened a theatre not far away in Drury Lane.
Mrs Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough. Siddons was one of first female actresses welcomed on to the public stage. Famous for her performance as Lady Macbeth, she became known as ‘The Queen of Tradegy’
Both theatres were designed in the latest Italian style. Although they still had the Elizabethan apron stage which jutted out into the audience, they now had a “proscenium arch”.
This was an arched wall which framed the stage and separated it from the audience by means of a curtain. Overhead chandeliers with wax candles provided the lighting, and shutters at the back of the stage opened and closed to allow changes of scenery.
Because of the high cost of renovating old theatres or building new ones, theatre tickets gradually became more expensive, until only the wealthy could afford to go.
The theatre became a place to be seen. People went not to watch the play but to talk to their friends. Some of the audience sat on the stage itself obscuring the view of others, and interrupting the performance with their loud remarks.
When the audience grew bored, eggs, tomatoes and rotten fruit were hurled at the actors. Fights sometimes broke out, too – even amongst the privileged people sitting on the stage.
The famous diarist, Samuel Pepys, made a series of interesting notes in his journal on the theatres he visited. He tells us that the seats were never numbered and that there was always a great rush as soon as the doors opened. The very rich, he wrote, used to send their servants to reserve seats for them.
Most of the plays performed were bawdy and badly written. Even Shakespeare’s plays were adapted to suit popular taste. In one version of Macbeth, witches danced across the stage singing delightful, rather sweet songs. What was once a tragedy had been turned into a comedy.
Nor was the acting anything like it is today. In Restoration times, actors strutted about the stage and recited lines in a most unnatural way. They used exaggerated, dramatic movements to show the audience when they were to be happy and when they were to be sad.
Now, for the first time in England, women were allowed to act on stage. Nell Gwynne, a former orange seller, became one of the first actresses. She first went on stage when she was fifteen years old – but her career was short-lived, for in 1669 Charles II saw her acting at Drury Lane and immediately fell in love with her. She gave up acting soon afterwards.
In time, certain actors and actresses became very popular with the public, and they began to attract their own “fans”. Two popular “stars” of the 18th century were Sarah Siddons and David Garrick.
Mrs. Siddons came from a theatrical family. Her brother was John Kemble, a well-known actor, and her father was Roger Kemble, an equally famous theatre manager. Sarah Siddons became known to her audience as the “Queen of Tragedy”.
David Garrick was famous for his “natural” style of acting. He studied people closely and acted on stage in the way he saw people behaving in real life.
Garrick played a brilliant King Lear after spending hours watching a madman who had accidentally killed his two-year-old daughter by throwing her out of a window.
Garrick was not only the greatest actor of his day; he also helped manage the theatre at Drury Lane. Later, he became sole manager and introduced some interesting new reforms. He insisted on regular rehearsals for the actors and encouraged them to act less stiffly on stage. He introduced concealed lighting and had audience seating removed from the stage. To keep order in the auditorium he employed armed guards.
The quality of plays soon improved. Whereas in the past an audience had been content to watch badly written comedies and rewritten Shakespearian plays, they now preferred more polished plays written by new playwrights. William Sheridan’s School for Scandal and Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer were particularly popular. They were written in natural speech, and contained more than a touch of clever wit.
But in September, 1808, a fire destroyed the theatre at Covent Garden, and it was burnt to the ground. Five months later, Drury Lane was destroyed in the same way.
The two theatres which replaced them catered for a new kind of audience and a different form of theatre. The time had come for the Victorians to take the stage.
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