L.L. Diamond

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The season in Regency England was not just balls and Almacks. The theatre in Regency times was an important place for those who spent the season in London, and those who ventured to the theatre did not attend to simply watch a play. They dressed to the nines and sat in long carriage lines to also see who was in attendance as well as to be seen. In fact, the practice was so common that when Charles Garnier planned the Paris Opera House (1861-1875), he had mirrors placed throughout the lobby because he felt the only performance of the night did not play out on the stage. The spectators were as much a part of the nightly performance as the actors.

So, if you’ve ever wanted to learn about Theatre in Regency England, here is your chance. I’ve compiled these totally random facts that you may or may not wish to know.

♥ In the 18th and early 19th century, a night’s programme at the theatre included a five act play, followed by a farcical afterpiece, which were often pantomimes. The later entertainment was popular since it could be enjoyed by those who arrived late and were admitted at half price.
Wiltshire, John. The Cambridge Edition of Mansfield Park, Cambridge University Press (2005). Pg. 677.

♥ The male nobility who kept their alternative lives away from prying eyes made exceptions for the theater. Cyprians often came face to face with wives and other relations of their male sponsors at the theatre and the opera.
Wilson, Ben. The Making of Victorian Values, Decency & Dissent in Britain: 1789-1837 . The Penguin Press (2007). Pg. 197.

♥ Actors were not much better than servants in the eyes of society, and actresses were nearly prostitutes. A gentleman or aristocrat could set up an actress as his mistress, but heaven forbid, a lady enter into a relationship with an actor! In fact, the Prince Regent’s first mistress was Mary Robinson, an actress at the Theatre Royal. She caused a big stink when he ended the affair because he didn’t pay her the annuity expected at the end of the situation. Instead, she held letters he’d written her for ransom, demanding £5,000 for their return.
Martin, Joanna. Wives and Daughters. Hambledon Continuum (2004). Pg. 39.

♥ There were hundreds of candles that lit the auditorium and the stage during the intermissions as well as the performances (The theatres couldn’t be dimmed during the performance. It was too hazardous and would have been a time-consuming job!). The theatre employed candle trimmers and snuffers to monitor and tend to the candles. If a candle was trimmed too soon the trimmer risked knocking lit candles down and starting fires, but if they were trimmed too late, the audience would complain of hot wax dripping on them from above. (Ouch!)
Kelly, Ian . Beau Brummell, The Ultimate Man of Style . Free Press (2006). Pg. 167.

♥ Renting a subscription box or owning a box was a sign of your social status and fashionable position. Only the most affluent purchased boxes by the season; however, as prices rose, some patrons chose to share a box and others rented their boxes out for individual performances.
Rendell, Jane. The Pursuit of Pleasure: Gender, Space and Architecture in Regency London . Rutgers University Press (2002). Pg. 116.

♥ Shakespeare’s plays were tremendously popular but the actors performed in modern dress rather than the characteristic doublet and hose of the 16th century.
Tapley, Jane. Contrib to Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine. Issue: 17. Pg. 23.

♥ On 24 February 1809, the Theatre Royal burned down and did not reopen until 10 October 1812. The play performed that evening was Hamlet. While the Theatre Royal was being rebuilt, the Drury Lane Company used the Lyceum.

♥ Prior to the Drury Lane Company using the Lyceum, the building hosted a circus produced by Philip Astley, a chapel, and the first London exhibition of Madame Tussaud’s wax sculptures.

♥ Famous courtesan Harriet Wilson had a box at the Opera every Tuesday and Sunday night and a box at the theatre from Thursday to Saturday. Her box was used to flaunt her “attractions” and were for the purpose of soliciting and meeting possible “protectors.”
Kelly, Ian . Beau Brummell, The Ultimate Man of Style . Free Press (2006). Pg. 170.

♥ James Hadfield made an assassination attempt against George III on 15 May 1800 at the Theatre Royal. As the king was announced and God Save the King was played, Hadfield fired two pistol shots from the pit toward the King who stood in the royal box. The performers subdued Hadfield, who had reportedly missed by inches. The King appeared unfazed and requested the play continue as planned.

♥ A spouting club was a meeting of apprentices and mechanics who rehearsed characters, and formed recruits for the strolling companies.
Grose, Captain (Francis).  Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811 edition. Ikon Classics (2004)

♥ Fruit sellers sold their wares throughout the performances, and some had other trades on the side. Members of the audience and people in the boxes conducted business transactions. Theater staff, personal messengers, and footmen couriered gossip, orders for carriages, money, love notes and bills of exchange between patrons for much of the evening.
Kelly, Ian . Beau Brummell, The Ultimate Man of Style . Free Press (2006). Pg. 167.

♥ It was normal and accepted not only for the audience to arrive exceedingly late (sometimes as much as an hour and a half) but also for them talk throughout the entire performance.
Murray, Venetia. An Elegant Madness. Penguin Books (1998). Pg. 220.

So, was Regency Theatre what you expected, better or worse? I find the more I read of it, the more surprised I am by some of the scandals.

4 thoughts on “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Regency Theatre

  1. Glynis says:

    A rather different experience from today’s theatre! I never thought about the candles having to stay lit during the performance? I would have thought this would have prevented back seat canoodling, but apparently not! 😉. It must have been especially hard to be on stage and see most of the audience chatting and more???? I think I definitely prefer our theatres where the only audience participation is during pantomimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Could you imagine? Yup, would be crazy to attend back then. Thanks, Glynis!


  2. deborahanne2 says:

    Wow. Not my type of theatre.


    1. Nope, not mine either 🙂 Thanks, Deborah Anne


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