William John Lawrence.

The Elizabethan playhouse and other studies online

. (page 11 of 22)
Online LibraryWilliam John LawrenceThe Elizabethan playhouse and other studies → online text (page 11 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the other night to the play with an aunt of mine, a well-bred
woman of the last age, though a little formal. When we sat down
in the front boxes we found ourselves surrounded by a parcel of
the strangest fellows that ever I saw in my life; some of them
had those loose kind of greatcoats on which I have heard called
wrap-rascals, with gold-laced hats, slouched in humble imitation
of stage-coachmen ; others aspired at being grooms, and had dirty
boots and spurs, with black caps on, and long whips in their hands;
a third sort wore scanty frocks, with little, shabby hats, put on one
side, and clubs in their hands. My aunt whispered me that she
never saw such a set of slovenly, unmannerly footmen sent to keep
places in her life, when, to her great surprise, she saw those fellows,
at the end of the act, pay the box-keeper for their places.

By way of keeping a check on the box-keeper, the office
of "the numberer " was instituted. In the larger theatres
a stage box was assigned to this worthy, and from this coign
of vantage he had to take stock of the boxes. Thomas Arne,
who held the post at Drury Lane in 1735, was one of the
principal witnesses at the trial of Charles Macklin for the
murder of Thomas Hallam, his fellow-player. 1 In his
Reminiscences 2 Henry Angelo writes :

Before Old Drury Lane was rebuilt, the last box next to the
stage, of the very upper boxes, on the prompter's side, was called
the numberer's box; it projected out from the others like a tub.
There, old Hardham, who kept the snuff shop in Fleet-street,
and was famous for his thirty-seven (snuff), previous to the half
price and after, used to number the audience. When a boy, many
an evening, being a favourite of the old man, I was welcome there,
when I used to meet Mrs Barry (afterward Mrs Crawford), Mrs
Abingdon, and Miss Young (late Mrs Pope), with their long black
veils, incog.

Necessity rather than mere matter of custom preserved
the Elizabethan practice of charging advanced prices on
the first nights of a new play until the meridian of the

1 E. A. Parry, Charles Macklin, p. 27.

2 Vol. ii. 233. Drury Lane was rebuilt in 1789.


114 Early Systems of Admission

eighteenth century. There was little grumbling over this,
as it was felt that the players had a right to recoup them-
selves for the extra outlay on new scenery and dresses. But
with the vogue of pantomimes towards the close of the
second decade of the century, and the keen rivalry between
the patent theatres in exploiting the new "entertainment",
as it was called, the question of finance became more serious.
One must recall that the primeval pantomime was not identi-
fied with any particular season. As an afterpiece to the play
it could be produced at any time or, like an ordinary drama,
revived at any time. Its attractions lay in magic and marvels,
in comic surprises and bustling dumb show. To produce it
adequately made a severe draft on the managerial exchequer,
as much as a thousand pounds having, on occasion, to
be expended on the elaborate trick scenery and general
mechanical equipment. Under these conditions it was not
surprising that a more frequent demand came to be made
on the playgoer's pocket, as it was necessary now not only
to charge advanced prices on the early nights of a new
play, but during the first run of a new pantomime. The
public grimly bore the infliction ; but there was a limit to
its endurance, and snapping point was reached in November,
1744, when Fleetwood, the Drury Lane manager, had the
audacity to raise the prices on reviving an old pantomime of
no particular merit. The result was rioting in the theatre,
followed by a temporary closure. People of taste gave
expression to the opinion that pantomimes were a degrada-
tion of the stage and refused to be mulcted on their account ;
but Fleetwood, in an address to the public made in The
General Advertiser, urged the prime necessity to draw the
crowd, arguing (what many later managers found to be a
truism) that without the funds provided by pantomimes it
would be impossible to pay much attention to the claims
of the poetic drama.

At length, on the suggestion of Theophilus Cibber, a
compromise was arrived at. It was arranged that during
the run of a pantomime full prices should be paid at the
doors, but that those who did not care to stop for the

Early Systems of Admission 115

afterpiece should secure a ticket on entering, by returning
which before the pantomime began they could obtain a
refund of the excess. An announcement to this effect was
regularly printed at the bottom of the bills, but the curious
thine was that the concession led to no serious diminution


of the receipts. Theophilus Cibber, who was in a position
to know, questioned if there was a demand in all for ^20
in the course of the succeeding decade. l

The duration of the custom thus established is impressed
upon us by a metaphorical allusion to it made some seven-
teen years later by Sterne, in Tristram Shandy: 2

My Uncle Toby and Yorick made the obeisance which was
proper; and the Corporal, though he was not included in the
compliment, laid his hand upon his breast, and made his bow at
the same time — The Company smiled — Trim, quoth my father,
has paid the full price for staying out the entertainment. He did
not seem to relish the play, replied Yorick.

Since Fleetwood's concession was virtually the accept-
ance, at certain periods, of half price for the first part of the
evening's entertainment, one is naturally disposed to think
that it led to the immediate establishment of half price
for the second part, that longevous principle known in
the beginning as "Half price after the third act," and
considerably later as "Second Price at nine o'clock." On
further examination, however, it would appear that half
price, in the regulation sense of the term, had been
established in the London theatres some little time before
the riot at Old Drury over Fleetwood's innovation. When
the new Capel Street Theatre in Dublin was opened on
17 January, 1744-5, with The Merchant of Venice^ the
newspaper announcement of the event concluded with the
intimation, "No odd money taken till after the third act." 3
That half price was then taken in all the Dublin theatres is
shown by the fact that when the pantomime of Harlequin
Doctor Faustus was revived at the Aungier Street Theatre on

1 Fitzgerald's Neiv History of the English Stage, i. 43 1 . For fuller details concerning
the riot, etc., see Victor's History of the Theatres of London and Dublin, i. 43~7» an d
Dutton Cook's Book of the Play, Chap. xx. 2 Book v, Chap. 30.

3 Vol. of Faulkner s Dublin Journal for 1745 in the Departmental Library, Dublin Castle.

n6 Early Systems of Admission

2 1 March following, it was notified in the advertisements
that, on account of the great expense, "no odd money" would
be "taken in any part of the House during the whole per-
formance." If the principle of half price had not been estab-
lished in London before December, 1 744, we should hardly
find it existing in Dublin a month later. Nor does it seem
feasible to suppose that it had originated in Dublin, despite
the fact that the Dublin theatres of the period had a few
distinctive customs of their own. Unless imported, it could
only have arisen there through popular demand, but as a
matter of fact, the system was so little taken advantage of,
that it had become obsolete by the middle of the century. 1
Dawson revived it at the new Capel Street Theatre in
November, 1773, when the bills announced, "Half price
after the third act as in London. No money returned after
the raising of the curtain." But again it died out, only to
be revived again with more acceptance seventy years later.
Under whatever conditions it had originated in London,
whether voluntarily or under pressure, the managers soon
grew to look askance at " Half price after the third act."
So many exceptions were made to the rule that none but
constant playgoers could say when it applied. It was not in
force during the first nights of new plays and new panto-
mimes, or on benefit nights. On any occasion when there
was likely to be a full house the managers arbitrarily notified
the public that " nothing under full prices would be taken."
In process of time a sense of grievance sprang up, and early
in 1763 this was adroitly taken advantage of by an elegant
man about town and "amateur of the theatre" (as the old
phrase went), to arouse antagonism against Garrick, whom,
for divers reasons, he owed a grudge. This Mr. Fitzpatrick,
who was a man of parts, for all the mud that has been flung at
him by Garrickolaters, began by circulatingin the taverns and
coffee houses on the morning of 25 January an anonymous
handbill 2 complaining of the conduct of the managers in

1 Cf. John O'Keeffe's Recollections, i. 286.

2 Printed in extenso in The Gent's Magazine for 1763, p. 31, where some account of
the disturbance is also given. For other details see Murphy's Life of Garrick, Chap, xxx;
Davies' Life of Garrick, Chap, xxx $ and Dutton Cook's Book of the Play, Chap. xx.

Early Systems of Admission 117

restricting the rights of playgoers so far as half price was
concerned, and suggesting that vigorous action should be
taken. A cabal, headed by Fitzpatrick, had already been
formed, and the same evening the conspirators attended a
performance at Drury Lane of Victor's recently produced
adaptation of The Two Gentlemen of Verona^ announced as
for the benefit of the author. The players in those days
were voted fair game by the mob, and when Fitzpatrick
harangued the audience concerning the mooted grievance,
public opinion ranged itself on his side. When Garrick
came on to argue the point, the house was in no mood for
casuistry and proceeded to smash things. By way of indirect
punishment for his maltreatment of Shakespeare, Victor's
benefit proved the worst on record, for all the money had
to be returned.

On the following night the cabal attended in full force.
Garrick, who had meanwhile taken counsel with his partner
Lacy and been over-ruled by his opinion, was at once
called for. On making his appearance he was heckled by
Fitzpatrick, who curtly demanded, "Will you, or will you
not, allow admittance at half price after the third act of
every piece, except a new pantomime, during its run in
the first winter ?" Little Davy meekly answered "Yes",
and victory lay with the cabal.

What was in the beginning a conspiracy against Garrick
had now developed into a public issue. The victory was
only half gained, for Garrick could only answer for Old
Drury, and Covent Garden remained unassaulted. On the
following night, 1 when the opera of Artaxerxes was in the
bill at the other house and Beard the manager had thrown
down the gage of defiance in announcing that nothing
under full price would be taken, Fitzpatrick and his allies
turned their batteries in that direction, only to meet with
determined opposition. Beard made a vigorous speech, and
wound up by saying "No". The only possible rejoinder
on the part of the cabal was to tear up the benches, demolish
the scenery, and smash the chandeliers, and this they did

1 Genest says on 24 February, but his dating is clearly wrong.

1 1 8 Early Systems of Admission

completely to their satisfaction. Not yet defeated, Beard
haled Fitzpatrick and a few of his cronies before the Lord
Chief Justice, who duly admonished them. This led to
a change of tactics, but after the Covent Garden players
were disturbed for several nights with cat-calls, and other
annoyances, Beard ate the leek, and peace was declared. 1
Thus was gained, in the words of Davies, "the wonderful
privilege of seeing two acts of a play at half price, and
the exalting of pantomime to a rank superior to tragedy
and comedy."

Relics of one or two time-honoured customs lingered
in the boxes of Old Drury until the great success of Mrs.
Siddons' epoch-marking engagement of 1782-3 created
a revolution in the outworn system of admission. Owing
to the steady demand for seats, it was then arranged that
places in the boxes could be secured beforehand on paying
half the price of admission and securing a ticket. The other
half had to be paid on entering the theatre, otherwise the
deposit was forfeited. This, of course, was not a system
of advance booking, because nobody had as yet hit upon
the simple expedient of numbering seats. But only as
many people were supplied with tickets for any particular
night as the boxes would hold. Those who wished to secure
good seats had to go early and bribe the boxkeeper.

To the superior merits of this new system a writer in
1788 bore significant testimony: 2

The regulation of detaining all money paid at the door has
been found of good effect to the audience. It completely excludes
temporary loungers who kept up a continued noise by peeping into
the boxes for the purpose of shewing their own persons, and having
gained their end, drew their money and retired.

Of a surety Sir Novelty Fashion was not lacking in lineal
descendants !

1 I base here on the accounts of Charles Dibdin (as cited in Mr. H. Saxe
Wyndham's Annals of Covent Garden Theatre, i. I 54-5), and of Thomas Davies, loc.
cit. Murphy, whose memory evidently betrayed him, says per contra, "Covent Garden
was at liberty to proceed on the old system, while Garrick, the great patron of the
drama, was obliged to submit to the law of the conquerors."

2 Walker's Hibernian Magazine, 1788, p. 565. Evidently a reprint from some London

The Origin of the English Picture-Stage

The Origin of the English Picture-Stage

Bating some excellent pioneer work done during the last
few years, and that mostly by foreigners, English theatrical
history has been, on the whole, indifferently written. Time-
honoured fallacies have been again and again complacently
endorsed, and for the most part there has been a sedulous
avoidance of the drudgeries of research. To think of
certain unexplored tracts in English theatrical history is to
recall that our historians with their feeble searchlights have
only rendered the surrounding darkness more visible. By
their muddled methods they have succeeded in obscuring
from view the fact that the Civil War delayed the regular
employment of successive scenery in the English theatre for
fully a score of years. One says, " the regular employment ",
not the introduction, because there are sound reasons for
believing that some tentative use had been made of movable
scenery in the private theatres about the period of 1 63 7-40. *
In the first case we know positively that Nabbes' masque of
Microcosmus had been "presented with generall liking" (as
the title page states) at Salisbury Court in 1637, and nowhere
else. And we know also from the book that this masque —
which, unlike its court analogues, was divided into acts — had
a special proscenium arch and five sets of scenes. Of the
arch, or " front ", we are told that it was " of a workmanship
proper to the fancy of the rest, adorn'd with brass figures of
Angels and Divels, with Severall inscriptions, the Title in
an Escocheon supported by an Angell and a Divell. Within
the arche a Continuing perspective of ruines which is drawne
still before the other scenes whilst they are varied."

Apart from this bold attempt to adapt the court masque to
the uses of the stage as a substantive entertainment, we have

1 Fleay finds earlier indications but, irrespective of his confused method of argu-
ment, the evidence is too slender to be relied upon. (Biog. Cbron. Eng. Drama under
Pallantus aud Eudora and Loves Mistress). At present I prefer to choose as starting
point a period where the foothold is firmer.

122 The Origin of the English Picture-Stage

also some evidence indicating that one or two plays written
by courtiers were either originally acted at court with scenery
and afterwards at the private theatres with the same trap-
pings, or vice versa. In the prologue to Brome's comedy, The
Antipodes, as spoken at Salisbury Court in 1 638, we read :

Opinion, which our Author cannot court,

(For the deare daintinesse of it) has, of late,

From the old way of Playes possest a sort

Only to run to those, that carry state

In Scene magnificent and language high ;

And Cloaths worth all the rest, except the Action.

And such are only good those Leaders cry ;

And into that beleefe draw on a Faction,

That must despise all sportive, merry Wit,

Because some such great Play had none in it.

The reference here, more especially the "and Cloaths
worth all the rest," is clearly to Sir John Suckling's tragi-
comedy Aglaura, which had first been produced at Black-
friars in the Christmas of 1637, and was shortly afterwards
acted at court. 1 Of this play, Aubrey, in his account of
Suckling, writes, " he had some scenes to it, which in those
days were only used at Masques." Moreover, in a letter
from Mr. Garrard to Lord Strafford, under date 7 February,
1637-8, we read :

Two of the king's servants, privy chamber men both, have writ
each of them a play, Sir John Sutlin and Will. Barclay, which have
been acted in court, and at the Blackfriars, with much applause.
Sutlin's play cost three or four hundred pounds setting out ; eight
or ten suits of new cloaths he gave the players; an unheard of
prodigality. 2

Another item of evidence is presented in the prologue to
Brome's comedy, The Court Beggar, the first edition of which
was issued in 1653, and bears on its title page the erroneous
statement that it was "acted at the Cockpit by his Majesty's

1 For evidence as to the sequence, see the "Prologue to the Court" in the quarto
of 1694, described on title page as "presented at Court by His Majesties Servants."
A second quarto of the play issued in the same year is described as "presented at the
Private House in Black Fryers by His Majesties Servants," and has a different last act.
These are the only copies of Aglaura in the British Museum.

2 Strafford's Letters, ii. 150.

The Origin of the English Picture-Stage 123

servants, anno 1632." Seeing that reference is made in
Act iii. 2, to Massmgers King and Subject, licensed on 5 June,
1638, and in the epilogue to The Antipodes, the production
of the play may be safely assigned to 1638. Can it be then
that in the prologue Brome again girds at Aglaura ?

We Ve cause to fear your's or the Poet's frown,

For of late days (he knows not) how y' are grown

Deeply in love with a new stray ne of wit

Which he condemns, at least disliketh it,

And solemnly protests you are to blame

If at his hands you doe expect the same.

He'll treat his usual way, no gaudy scene

Shall give instructions what his plot doth mean ;

No handsome love-toy shall your time beguile

Forcing your pitty to a sigh or smile,

But a slight piece of mirth, yet such were writ

By our great Masters of the Stage and Wit,

Whom you approv'd : let not your sufferage then

Condemn 't in him, and prayse 't in other men.

Troth, Gentlemen, let me advise yee, spare

To vex the poet full of age and care,

How he might strive to please yee, and beguile

His humerous expectation with a smile,

As if you would be satisfyd, although

His Comedy contained no Antique Show.

Yet you to him your favour may express

As well as unto those whose forwardness

Makes them your Creatures thought, who on the way

To purchase fame give money with their play.

Yet you sometimes pay, deare for 't, since they write

Lesse for your pleasure than their own delight,

Which if our Poet fayle in, may he be

A scene of Mirth in their next Comedy.

Brome's attempts to resist the encroachments of a flood
of dilettanteism, which was bidding fair to swamp profes-
sional authorship, serves to emphasize the fact that these
sporadic introductions of scenery into the private theatre
were not due to the initiative of the players, who could not
hope to recoup themselves for any such outlay, but to the

124 The Origin of the English Picture-Stage

epicurean tastes of a group of courtier-wits, who, instead of
looking for some pecuniary return for their work, gave
money and rich attire with their plays. As a matter of fact,
one of the prime results of the regular employment of
scenery at the Restoration period was a considerable advance
in the prices of admission, a course authorized by a clause in
the new patents. 1

A third item of evidence testifying to the use of scenery
in the private theatres before the Civil War is to be found
in the prologue to The Country Captaine y a comedy by the
Duke of Newcastle, published anonymously in 1 649. This
play was produced at the Blackfriars, probably in April or
May, 1 640. That it was written after June, 1 639, an allu-
sion in it to the Treaty of Berwick shows. 2 The prologue
begins :

Gallants, I'le tell you what we do not meane
To shew you here, a glorious painted Scene,
With various doores, to stand instead of wit,
Or richer cloathes with lace, for lines well writ;
Taylors and Paynters thus, your deare delight,
May prove your Poets only for your sight.

The allusion here is undoubtedly to William Habington's
tragi-comedy, The Queen of Arragon^ which was first played
before the King and Queen at Whitehall by amateurs on
9 April, 1 640, and, after a second performance there, was
given at the Blackfriars by the regular players. According
to Sir Henry Herbert, his cousin Habington's play was
presented at Court at the instance of the Lord Chamberlain.
" It was performed by my Lord's servants out of his owne
family, and his charge in the cloathes and sceanes, which
were very riche and curious." 3 The allusion in the Duke
of Newcastle's prologue to "a glorious painted scene with
various doors" apparently points to the fact that the scene
referred to was of the type long known in France as "palais
a volonte" or "chambre a quatre portes". 4 Considering

1 For the clause, see Percy Fitzgerald, A Neiv History of the English Stage, i. 75.

- Fleay, Biog. Chron. Eng. Drama, i. 48.

3 Collier, Hist. Eng. Dram. Poetry (1831), ii. 98-9.

4 Cf. The Elizabethan Playhouse and other Studies (First Series), p. 167.

Frontispiece to T. Corneille's comedy, Don Bertrand de Cigaral (1650), from
the Amsterdam edition of 1718.

The Origin of the English Picture-Stage 125

its continental vogue at this period it is not surprising to
find that the "chambre a quatre portes" had already been
introduced into England. It came to stay, for one finds
traces of it in Restoration times.

Indisposed as were the players to make any change, the
tide of public opinion was now running strongly in favour of
the regular employment of scenery. One far-seeing courtier-
poet had already decided to take it at the full. Opera of a
highly elaborate pictorial order was now all the rage in Italy,
more especially in Venice, and William D'Avenant made up
his mind to introduce the new entertainment into England.
This practically meant the building of a new theatre on a
somewhat imposing scale, the old houses not being adapted
for the accommodation of the Italian system of scenery and
machinery. Accordingly, in the spring of 1639, tne King
encouraged the project by granting D'Avenant a patent to
build a theatre behind the Three Kings ordinary in Fleet
Street. It was to be furnished "with necessary tiring and
retiring rooms, and other places convenient, " and in area
was to be " forty yards square at the most." * The patentee
was authorised to

entertain, govern, priviledge and keep such and so many players
and persons to exercise action, musical presentments, scenes, dancing,
and the like, as the said William Davenant, his heirs, etc., shall think
fit and approve for the said house, and such persons to permit and
continue at and during the pleasure of the said William Davenant,
his heirs, and from time to time to act plays in such house so to be
by him or them erected, and exercise musick, musical presentments,
scenes, dancing, or other the like, at the same or other houses at
times, or after plays are ended, etc., etc. 2

Malone and Collier, in assuming this to be a licence for an
ordinary playhouse of the conventional type, have failed to
grasp the significance of the stress laid on "musick, musical
presentments, scenes, dancing, or other the like," the neces-
sary concomitants of contemporary opera. Malone, indeed,

1 Evidently a large theatre was projected. The first Fortune, a commodious public
playhouse, was only 80 feet square, and the Theatre Royal, Bridges Street, the second
house of the picture-stage order, measured no more than 112 feet by 59 feet.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryWilliam John LawrenceThe Elizabethan playhouse and other studies → online text (page 11 of 22)