An evening at the theatre in the Georgian era was more like attending a football match today – no frills and often raucous, finds Nick Smurthwaite, as all classes joined together under the same roof to be entertained
Theatregoing in the Georgian era was far from the genteel experience it is today. Smelly, noisy and hot, a visit to the theatre was anything but relaxing, according to a new exhibition at London’s Foundling Museum.
It was also riven by class divisions, with separate entrances for the toffs and the plebs. There were even separate outlets for ticket sales. The box office was reserved for those who could afford to book a box for a whole season, while those who could only afford the cheaper seats – one shilling for the upper gallery – lined up at the pay booth or bought their tickets in a nearby coffee house.
On a visit to the Haymarket Opera House in 1772, the astronomer Edward Piggott noted that “the common people throw peels of oranges [from the upper gallery] on to the stage before the play begins”.
Another eyewitness account recorded: “I was in the pit [later renamed the stalls], which gradually rises, amphitheatre-wise, from the orchestra, and is furnished with benches. Often and often whilst I sat there, did a rotten orange or pieces of peel, fly past me, or past some of my neighbours, and once one of them actually hit my hat, without my daring to look round, for fear another might then hit me on the face.”
Clearly audience comfort was a challenge. Theatres lacked ventilation or temperature control. Only people in the best boxes had chairs, those in the pit were seated on benches. A German visitor to the Haymarket noted that “the heat, the exhalations and the audience were not the most agreeable”.
The challenge of temperature control was evident in advertisements of the time, where managers would claim their theatre was “the coolest in town” or conversely assure the public that the auditorium “will be warm and fires will be lit”. In the beautiful Georgian Theatre in Richmond, Yorkshire, the fireplace at the back of the stage – designed to keep the musicians warm during winter performances – is still visible.
Audiences were a lot more vocal in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, closer to a football crowd today, sometimes engaging with the performers. Some managements installed spikes along the edge of the stage to prevent drunken punters from climbing on the stage.
Half-price tickets would be issued for those attending only the second half of a performance, a practice that was seen to encourage heavy drinkers to wander in and disrupt the performance. When theatre managers announced that they were withdrawing the popular offer in 1763, riots ensued.
Later, in 1809, a hike in ticket prices at the newly opened Covent Garden Theatre – a forerunner of what is now the Royal Opera House – caused such outrage and disruption that the actor-manager John Kemble had to lower the prices and offer a public apology to his patrons.
On display at the exhibition are caricatures and engravings by distinguished artists of the day such as William Hogarth and Francesco Bartolozzi, and some beautifully preserved playbills, advertisements and posters.
The show also invites visitors to step back in time with some interactive special effects, such as shaking a big sheet of metal to produce thunder, and operating a pulley to simulate a boat in a rough sea. Some of the venues in those days could go further – Sadler’s Wells, for example, boasted real water effects using water from the wells below the theatre. In the candlelit interiors of Georgian theatre there was no lighting distinction between stage and audience. This allowed the audience to be seen as well as to see. In a later development, candles were placed on a plank at the front of the stage, becoming early footlights. The lighted plank was raised for the performance and lowered at the end, hence the phrase “lights up”.
Performances would often last several hours without intervals, yet the toilet provision was virtually non-existent. The earliest record of facilities is 1732 when three “privies” were provided in a yard outside the Covent Garden Theatre.
The first indoor loos were installed in 1782 at the Opera House, Haymarket – three sit-down toilets to serve a capacity of 1,800. While the ladies in boxes were provided with chamber pots by their servants, most ordinary folk had to find somewhere to relieve themselves outside.
Toilet paper goes unmentioned in any surviving accounts, but it has been suggested that the lack of surviving theatre programmes from the Georgian era could be due to their being put to other uses.
Two Last Nights! Show Business in Georgian Britain is at the Foundling Museum, London, until January 5
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