18th-Century Theatre

Engraved print of The Beggar's Opera by William Blake after Hogarth, London, England, about 1729

Engraved print of The Beggar's Opera by William Blake after Hogarth, London, England, about 1729

18th-century plays

The 18th century saw the flourishing of theatre as a popular pastime and many theatres were enlarged and new playhouses built in London and the provinces.

One of the most successful shows on the London stage in the early part of the 18th century was the ballad opera The Beggar's Opera. John Gay recycled popular songs of the day and wrote new lyrics that were humorous and satirical. Despite the attempt to suppress it via the 1737 Licensing Act, satire remained popular, such as those staged by Samuel Foote at the Haymarket Theatre.

This engraving shows a performance of The Beggar's Opera from about 1729. This comic opera was first produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre by the father of pantomime John Rich in 1728.

Engraved print of John Gay, London, England, about 1730

Engraved print of John Gay, London, England, about 1730

It was a huge success and was regularly revived throughout the century making (as was noted at the time) 'Rich gay and Gay rich'.

At this time, it was still common for members of the audience to pay a little extra to sit on the stage itself. This ensured that everyone in the house could see their fine clothes, hear their witty comments and the young gallants could get close to the actresses. When an actor had a benefit performance, they would squeeze as many seats as they could on to the stage in order to maximise their profit. The actors barely had enough room to perform and were subject to interference from the spectators.

John Gay, born in 1688, is most famous for his ballad opera The Beggar's Opera,  first produced in 1728.

This wasn't his first attempt at writing for the stage. He had tried satire, comedy and pastoral, including The Mohocks in 1712 and The What d'ye Call It in 1715. He had also written some poetry. However, none of these works had gone down particularly well with audiences. The Beggar's Opera took the town by storm. Gay himself seems to have been a charming man but quite shy.

Lavinia Fenton as Polly Peachum in The Beggar's Opera, mezzotint print by John Faber (the Younger) after John Ellys, London, England, 1728, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.3769-2009

Lavinia Fenton as Polly Peachum in The Beggar's Opera, mezzotint print by John Faber (the Younger) after John Ellys, London, England, 1728, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.3769-2009

He presented himself to the world as a simple countryman, but the modesty hid a sharp eye and a sly sense of humour.

The portrait captures these qualities, as does the epitaph he wrote for himself. He worked and was friends with many of the great writers of his day, such as Alexander Pope, to whom this plate is dedicated.

Furthermore, one of the most famous satires of the time was Lilliput based on Jonathan Swift's book Gulliver's Travels which was performed on stage in 1756 with a cast of children.

Cartoons about current social or political events were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

As well as mocking individuals, they often featured symbolic figures representing a type of person (John Bull, for eample, was the archetypal Englishman).

The below cartoon is satirising the fashion for child actors that swept the country in the late 19th century, the most famous of whom was William Henry West or Master Betty.

His success led to The Glasgow Roscius and The Little Siddons, named after Sarah Siddons. The children announcing their identities in this toy theatre take no notice of each other, and all appear to be costumed for a different play.

Coloured print entitled John Bull in Lilliput or Theatricals for the Nineteenth Century, published by S W Fores, London, England, February 1805, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.4651-2009

Coloured print entitled John Bull in Lilliput or Theatricals for the Nineteenth Century, published by S W Fores, London, England, February 1805, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.4651-2009

The Laughing Audience by Edward Matthew Ward (1816-1879) from an etching by William Hogarth (1697-1764) made in 1733, watercolour, pen and ink, England, 19th century, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.4207-2009

The Laughing Audience by Edward Matthew Ward (1816-1879) from an etching by William Hogarth (1697-1764) made in 1733, watercolour, pen and ink, England, 19th century, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.4207-2009

Shakespeare in the 18th century

Shakespeare's plays became increasingly popular during the 18th century but were reworked to suit the tastes of the day. His style was still felt to be too erratic and poets such as Alexander Pope carefully tidied up any uneven verse lines. Shakespeare's ending to King Lear was felt to be too distressing and Nahum Tate's revised version (where Cordelia and the King survive) was preferred to the original.

David Garrick rewrote the end of Romeo and Juliet so that the lovers speak to each other before dying in the tomb and turned the Taming of the Shrew into a farce. However, Garrick was also responsible for restoring much of Shakespeare's original text to other plays.

The 18th century saw the development of Shakespeare as a national symbol.

The Stratford Jubilee of 1769, organised by Garrick, celebrated 200 years since Shakespeare's birth. A wooden octagonal playhouse was constructed beside the river at Stratford-upon-Avon but no work by Shakespeare was performed. A planned procession of characters from Shakespeare's plays was postponed due to terrible weather and eventually re-enacted on the stage at Drury Lane in London where it proved an enormous hit.

David Garrick

Garrick was one of Britain's greatest actors and the first to be called a star. From 1741 until his retirement in 1776, he was a highly successful actor, producer and theatre manager. He wrote more than 20 plays and adapted many more, including plays by Shakespeare.

His sellout performance as Richard III at Goodman's Fields Theatre caught the eye of the patent theatres. In 1742, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane hired him and he began a triumphant career that would last for over 30 years. Within five years, he was also managing the theatre.

Garrick changed the whole style of acting. He rejected the fashion for declamation, where actors would strike a pose and speak their lines formally. Garrick preferred a more easy, natural manner of speech and movement. The effect was a more subtle, less mannered style of acting and a move towards realism.

One of Garrick's most famous roles was Hamlet. He allegedly had a special wig that made Hamlet's hair stand on end. This he used to dramatic effect in the scene where the ghost of Hamlet's father appears. Whilst modern audiences would probably laugh at the sight of the hair on an actor's wig standing on end, such was the force of Garrick's performance in the scene where Hamlet meets his father's ghost that audiences were filled with absolute terror.

Garrick also became a hugely successful manager after taking over Drury Lane theatre in 1747. He made several major changes and ended the tradition of having audience members sitting on the stage, where they often interfered with the action.

No other actor has been painted as many times as Garrick. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Venice Preserved, engraved print, Drury Lane Theatre, London, England, mid 18th century

Venice Preserved, engraved print, Drury Lane Theatre, London, England, mid 18th century

The tragic Venice Preserved was written by Thomas Otway in 1682, and became a favourite at Drury Lane for much of the 18th century. David Garrick and Susannah Cibber (1714-1766) regularly appeared in it from 1744 to 1763 playing the leads Jaffier and his wife, Belvidera.

This engraving is after a painting by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810) made in 1763, the last year that they undertook the roles. The character of Jaffier is drawn by his friend Pierre into a plot to overthrow the Venetian government. His virtuous wife persuades him to reveal the plot and save the senators, which he does. When he is pardoned and Pierre sentenced to death, he carries out a death pact with his friend, stabbing Pierre to prevent him being tortured, and then himself with the same knife. The role of Jaffier was demanding, but also well suited to Garrick's talents. It was a psychologically complex part, the character tormented by conflicting emotions. 'Mr Garrick ... beggars description, by an amazing variety of transitions, tones and picturesque attitudes ...'

Stage censorship

Hogarth, Strolling Actresses in a Barn, 1738. Museum no. E.1273-1990

Hogarth, Strolling Actresses in a Barn, 1738. Museum no. E.1273-1990. This engraving, one of a series of prints published under the title of 'Four Times of the Day', shows a group of actresses getting ready for their final performance before their company is disbanded as a result of the Licensing Act of 1737.

The Licensing Act of 1737 was to have a huge impact on the development of theatre in Britain. It restricted the production of plays to the two patent theatres and tightened up the censorship of drama, stating that the Lord Chamberlain with his Examiners of Plays must vet any script before a performance was allowed.

The act was put in place by Prime Minister Robert Walpole who was concerned that political satire on the stage was undermining him and the authority of the government. A production of The Golden Rump enabled Walpole to push the case for banning obscene drama from the public arena. The play scandalously suggested that the Queen administered enemas to the King. Henry Fielding, author of a number of successful satires, and others were suspicious that this play had been engineered by Walpole himself.

Over the next 100 years the restrictions of the Licensing Act contributed to the popularity of certain styles of theatre. Non-patent theatres produced melodrama, ballad opera and burlesque which incorporated music between short scenes and thus were not classed as plays. The act was responsible for dividing British theatrical performance into what became known as legitimate and illegitimate theatre.

The huge growth in demand for theatrical entertainment in the early 19th century made the dominance of the patent theatres unworkable. In 1843 the Patent Act was dropped, enabling other theatres to present drama. However, the Lord Chamberlain's censorship of plays remained in place until 1968. One of the last play to be censored was Edward Bond's production of Saved in 1965.

Before 1968 the Lord Chamberlain's blue pencil marks were struck through lines in literally hundreds of plays including classical works such as Lysistrata by Aristophanes, George Bernard Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession and Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. In the 1930s club theatres in London managed to avoid censorship by admitting 'members' and presented new and controversial works, including many plays by foreign writers.

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