19th-Century Theatre

The 19th century was the age of a truly popular theatre. New theatres opened to satisfy a demand for entertainment from the workers who flooded into the major cities as the Industrial Revolution took hold.

Early Victorian drama

Hand coloured and tinselled print of Mr Elton as Sir Kenneth of Scotland disguised as the Nubian Slave, paper, paint, ink, foil and fabric, published by J L Marks, London, England, about 1830. Museum no. E.112-1969. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Hand coloured and tinselled print of Mr Elton as Sir Kenneth of Scotland disguised as the Nubian Slave, paper, paint, ink, foil and fabric, published by J L Marks, London, England, about 1830. Museum no. E.112-1969. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

In the early years of the 19th century, restrictions of the Licensing Act allowed plays to be shown at only two theatres in London, at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Their programme was predominantly Shakespearean although some contemporary writers like Sheridan, who managed Drury Lane until 1809, were also popular.

To escape the restrictions of the royal patents, non-patent theatres interspersed dramatic scenes with musical interludes. Melodrama and burlesque, with their short scenes and musical accompaniment, were popular at this time. Indeed, melodrama was so popular that it was also produced in the patent theatres.

The huge growth in demand for theatrical entertainment in the early 19th century made the patent theatres' system unworkable. Theatres had sprung up across London and the boundaries between what was allowed in the patent theatres (legitimate drama) and what was presented in other theatres (illegitimate theatre) had become blurred.

In the 1830s J R Planché, a writer of burlesques and later famous as a Pantomime writer, created a sketch starring the characters of Mother Drama, and her two sons, Legitimate Drama and Illegitimate Drama. This burlesqued the Licensing Act and coined the terms
legitimate and illegitimate drama. In 1843 the Licensing
Act was dropped enabling other theatres to present plays.

The old price riots

The most famous theatrical riots were the old price riots of 1809. After the Covent Garden theatre burnt down the management decided to raise the prices from six shillings to seven shillings for the boxes and three and six to four shillings for the pit and the third tier. The gallery price remained the same, but the new gallery was so far up and the rake so steep that the audience - crammed into so called 'pigeon holes' - could only see the legs of the performers.

After the singing of the national anthem on the first night, the audience began shouts of 'Old Prices! Old Prices!'. This continued with cat-calling throughout the performance of Macbeth and the noise was so bad that soldiers were sent up to the gallery to restore order.

This rioting continued every night week after week. The audiences carried banners and placards with slogans written on them. They brought pigs, rattles, trumpets, bells and whistles into the theatre. People wore badges with 'OP' embroidered on them and released pigeons into the auditorium. Audiences also started to dress up wearing false noses and some men wore drag. Such was the furore that eventually people came to see the riot rather than the play.

After three months of rioting the manager John Philip Kemble accepted the demands of the rioters and made a public apology from the stage.

The Kemble family

John Philip Kemble (1757-1823) as Richard III by William Shakespeare, William Hamilton RA, oil on canvas, England, after 1788. Museum no. DYCE.75. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

John Philip Kemble (1757-1823) as Richard III by William Shakespeare, William Hamilton RA, oil on canvas, England, after 1788. Museum no. DYCE.75. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

At the turn of the 19th century the Kemble family dominated the London stage. Actor John Philip Kemble was said to be the finest actor in England and his sister, Sarah Siddons, was regarded as one of the greatest ever tragedians. Their parents had been strolling players and John had earned a similar living on the road and in provincial theatres. Their younger brother Charles Kemble and his daughter Fanny were later stars of the London stage in the 1820s.

Sarah Siddons was first introduced to David Garrick when nearing the end of his career. He brought her to London in 1775, but she failed to make an immediate impression on the public.Siddons returned to London six years later, with Drury Lane under the management of playwright Richard Sheridan. She played 80 times in seven different parts in her first proper London season, inducing faintings and hysterics amongst her audiences.

John Philip Kemble made his debut on the London stage in 1783 as Hamlet. His acting style was static and declamatory, with long sweeping lines and a detached grandeur. He excelled in tragic Shakespearean roles. One critic said he was 'absolutely electrified' by the actor's transition as Romeo from gallant lover to anguished avenger, and Kemble's style became the style of London for three decades. However he was not a natural comedian or suited to romantic leads.

The first of a long line of 19th century actor-managers, Kemble took over management of Covent Garden in 1803, but his tenure was not a happy one. The theatre burnt down in 1808 and when it was rebuilt the following year Kemble raised prices to cover costs resulting in the now infamous old price riots.

Portrait of Sarah Siddons

Edmund Kean

The popular actor Edmund Kean replaced Kemble as the darling of the London stage after making his Drury Lane debut as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in 1814. The critic William Hazlitt wrote of this performance:

'For voice, eye, action and expression no actor has come out for many years at all equal to him. The applause from the first scene to the last was general loud and uninterrupted.'

Kean was one of the few actors who could fill the vast Drury Lane theatre to its capacity of 3,000. His natural passion and fiery spirit suited a melodramatic style of acting but he made his name playing in Shakespeare, particularly as Macbeth, Iago and Richard III.

He was said to be at his best in death scenes and scenes that required intensity of feeling or violent transitions from one mood to another. Another famed role was as Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts.

Kean's private life was full of scandal and heavy drinking. He was the father of actor-manager Charles Kean and died shortly after they had appeared together on stage as Othello (Edmund) and Iago (Charles) in 1833.

Melodrama

Advertising card for The Streets of London, Princess Theatre, coloured ink on paper, published by Concanen, Lee & Siebe, London, 1864. Museum no. S.2520-1986. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Advertising card for The Streets of London, Princess Theatre, coloured ink on paper, published by Concanen, Lee & Siebe, London, 1864. Museum no. S.2520-1986. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Melodrama became popular from the 1780s to 1790s and lasted until the early 20th century. The first drama in Britain to be labelled a melodrama was Thomas Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery in 1802.

Melodrama consisted of short scenes interspersed with musical accompaniment and was characterized by simple morality, good and evil characters and overblown acting style. Characters in melodrama were stereotypical - there was always a villain, a wronged maiden and a hero. The emotions of the actors were played out in the music and accompanied by dramatic tableaux. Because of these musical interludes melodrama was not considered a 'play' and thus evaded the monopoly of the patent theatres stipulated in the Licensing Act.

Early melodrama

Early melodrama aimed to appeal to a working class audience. Indeed the heroes and heroines were nearly always from the working class and the baddies were aristocrats or the local squire. Melodrama often had romantic settings; ruined castles and wild mountains, reflecting the Romantic movement's obsession with the wilds of nature and exotic travel.

In the 1820s and 30s there was a craze for domestic melodrama and for real life horror stories. 'Maria Martin or Murder in the Red Barn' was based on a true story of the murder of a young girl. Popular novels were also turned into melodramas. 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' tells the story of the slave Uncle Tom, and the cruelties and harshness of his life. It was the first famous abolitionist work of fiction, and became a stage play in 1852. After its American success, the play opened at London's Adelphi Theatre.

Later melodrama

Melodrama became synonymous with spectacle and remained popular until the early 20th century. Charles Kean's The Corsican Brothers was a hit with Queen Victoria in 1856. William Terriss presented successful melodramas at the Adelphi Theatre between 1885 and 1887 including Seymour Hicks's One of the Best which George Bernard Shaw declared was One of the Worst. Terriss himself came to a melodramatic end - he was assassinated at the stage door of his theatre in 1897.

Melodramas at Drury Lane were truly spectacular productions, designed to show off the new technology of the theatre. The Whip and Ben Hur were designed by Bruce 'Sensation' Smith and stage effects included train crashes, boats sinking and chariot races.

Photograph of Maud Jeffries as Mercia

Pictorial drama

Portrait of Charles Kean as Richard II and John Ryder as Bolingbroke in Richard II by William Shakespeare, hand coloured photograph, Princess's Theatre, London, 1857, Guy Little Collection. Museum no. S.139:831-2007. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Portrait of Charles Kean as Richard II and John Ryder as Bolingbroke in Richard II by William Shakespeare, hand coloured photograph, Princess's Theatre, London, 1857, Guy Little Collection. Museum no. S.139:831-2007. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

From the middle of the 19th century the theatre began to take on a new respectability and draw in more middle class audiences. They were enthralled by the historical accuracy and attention to detail that was becomingly increasingly influential in stage design. Pictorial drama placed great emphasis on the use of properties, and carefully studied costume detail and reflected a fashionable interest in archaeology and history. The inevitable long and complex scene changes meant that the plays, especially those by Shakespeare had to be cut. This use of historical detail gave the theatre a sense of learned respectability.

One of the main exponents of pictorial drama was Charles Kean (son of Edmund Kean). Charles Kean made painstaking research into historic dress and settings for his productions at the Princess's Theatre in Oxford Street during the 1850s. Kean was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and his passion for historical accuracy was lavished on the sets and costumes for his productions (which were then explained in detail on his lengthy playbills). He spared no efforts to ensure the absolute accuracy and historical correctness in the design of Shakespeare's plays and he employed the best designers of the day.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were ardent theatregoers and great admirers of Mr Kean. Queen Victoria saw The Corsican Brothers four times and Ken organised private theatricals at Windsor Castle. The Theatre Museum holds a letter written by Queen Victoria
to Kean's widow lamenting his death.

Actor-managers

Caricature of Henry Irving. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Caricature of Henry Irving. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

19th century theatre was dominated by actor-managers who ran the theatres and played the lead roles in productions. Henry Irving, Charles Kean and Beerbohm Tree all created productions in which they were the star. Henry Irving at the Lyceum dominated the London stage for over 25 years and was hero-worshipped by his audiences. When he died King Edward VII and the President of the United States sent their condolences.

Shakespeare was the most popular writer for these actor-managers. It became fashionable to give Shakespeare's plays detailed and historically realistic sets and costumes. The stage spectacle was often more important than the play, and texts were cut to allow time to change the massive sets and to give maximum exposure to the leading role.

Many actor-managers instigated reforms of one sort or another. William Charles Macready who managed both patent theatres in his career introduced proper rehearsals. Prior to this the main actor would rarely rehearse with the rest of the cast. Edmund Kean's famous stage direction to his supporting cast was simply 'stand upstage of me and do your worst'. Macready, who was a rival to Edmund Kean, was an excellent Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear but had a wild temper and made many enemies. He retired in 1851.

Other actor-managers included John Martin Harvey who took over from Henry Irving at the Lyceum in 1899. His acclaimed roles included Oedipus in 1912 directed by Max Reinhardt and Pelléas in Pelléas and Mélisande at the Prince of Wales Theatre with Mrs Patrick Campbell. George Alexander was actor-manager at the St James's Theatre and was responsible for finding new work by British dramatists, particularly Oscar Wilde and Arthur Pinero. Both Martin Harvey and Alexander acted with Henry Irving's company at the Lyceum.

By 1914 most of the actor-managers were growing old or had died. Irving died in 1905 and Tree in 1917.

Women managers

Eliza Vestris as Don Felix in The Alcaid by James Kennedy, engraving, ink on paper, published by J Cumberland, London, England, 1824, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.2681-2009. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Eliza Vestris as Don Felix in The Alcaid by James Kennedy, engraving, ink on paper, published by J Cumberland, London, England, 1824, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.2681-2009. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The first woman actor-manager in London was Eliza Vestris who managed the Olympic Theatre in 1830. Famous for her shapely legs, she was a singer and dancer of some repute. At the Olympic she presented a programme of Burlesques (many starring herself in breeches roles) written by J R Planché (who later made his name as a writer of pantomimes). Vestris encouraged the use of historically correct costumes and of a box set complete with a real ceiling.

Other women managers in the 19th century included Madge Kendal and Sarah Lane at the Brittania Theatre, Hoxton.

One of the most influential woman managers of the 19th century was Marie Bancroft who introduced a new form of drama to the London stage - 'drawing room drama'. Bancroft later managed the Haymarket Theatre with her husband Squire Bancroft. The refurbishment of the Haymarket and programme of 'drawing room drama' attracted a very middle class audience.

South of the river Thames Emma Cons was committed to using the arts to improve the quality of life for the poor. In 1880 she took over the management of the Royal Victoria Coffee Music Hall and provided a programme of variety entertainment, concerts, educational and temperance lectures. The committee running the theatre was mainly made up of philanthropists and social reformers.

'Unless recreation of intellectual and artistic merit be brought within the reach of the mass of the people (many of whom are fully able to appreciate it) and their intelligence and love of beauty, harmony and order for its own sake are used, they will speedily reduce these new and improved dwellings to the filth and squalor of the old.' (Emma Cons)

From 1912 her niece, Lilian Baylis, took over the management of the Old Vic. Baylis was to become the most influential woman manager in the 20th century, turning the Old Vic into a quasi-national theatre.

Henry Irving

Henry Irving (1838-1905) as Mephistopheles in Faust, watercolour on paper, London, England, about 1885. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Henry Irving (1838-1905) as Mephistopheles in Faust, watercolour on paper, London, England, about 1885. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Henry Irving (1838-1905) was one of the great actor-managers of Victorian theatre. His work helped increase the status of theatre amongst the middle classes and he raised the theatrical profession to new heights of acceptance.

Lyceum first nights became a must in the social, literary and artistic calendar of London. In 1895 Irving was awarded the first theatrical knighthood and by the time he died in 1905, you could refer to acting as 'a profession'. He was accorded an almost state funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey.

Irving became an overnight star as Mathias in The Bells at the Lyceum Theatre in 1871. In 1878 he took over the management of the Lyceum and for the next 25 years dominated the London stage with his leading lady Ellen Terry in a repertory of Shakespeare and romantic melodrama.

Irving's theatre was characterised by overblown emotion, high drama, spectacular settings and flamboyant acting. The Lyceum became famous for its scenic effects and Irving was meticulous about every aspect of the production, combining the various elements into a single vision: the design, the use of gaslight and limelight, the music and the acting. Irving was also quick to grasp the possibilities of new technology and use it to heighten dramatic effect. In the 1885 production of Faust in which Irving played Mephistopheles, electricity was used to create real sparks during a sword fight.

Irving had a fanatical dedication to the theatre, regarding it almost as a religion - he called the Lyceum his 'Temple of Art'. At this time links were being forged between the worlds of art and theatre. Among others, Irving commissioned the artist Edward Burne-Jones to design King Arthur.

Ellen Terry and Henry Irving were complete opposites on stage. She was all quicksilver, speed and instinct, whilst Irving was intellectual, slow and more pedantic with oddities of pronunciation and movement. But he was a mesmeric, almost hypnotic, actor. He would never perform fast enough for Terry who would whisper on stage 'Oh come on get a move on'.

Photograph of Ellen Terry

Herbert Beerbohm Tree

Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917) as Sir Mervyn Ferrand in Dark Days, Guy Little Theatrical Photograph, 1885. Museum no. S.145:463-2007. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917) as Sir Mervyn Ferrand in Dark Days, Guy Little Theatrical Photograph, 1885. Museum no. S.145:463-2007. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Tree was an outstanding character actor. One of his great roles was Svengali the hypnotist. Tree loved makeup and he would thickly plaster his somewhat plain face and bedeck himself with crepe hair and wigs.

At Her Majesty's, Tree presented spectacular productions with detailed and realistic settings and huge crowd scenes. Real rabbits allegedly ran about the wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream; real grass grew on the stage in Twelfth Night and he presented such a realistic shipwreck in The Tempest with water washing over the deck that many in the audience felt slightly queasy.

Like other Victorian actor-managers he cut Shakespeare's text to allow for additional stage spectacle. Antony's return to Alexandria in Antony and Cleopatra became a surging crowd scene with processions of priests and military marchers, strewn flowers and clashing cymbals and dancing women. The audience sat through long intervals whilst massive sets were changed and Shakespeare's text was rearranged to prevent too many scene changes.

Tree also commissioned new plays to exploit his love of spectacle and show off the expertise of the stage technicians. In Nero Rome burned so realistically that the more nervous among the audience got ready to leave, whilst in Joseph and His Brethren the entire fauna of Palestine was represented including camels, oxen, sheep, asses, goats - none of which helped the aroma backstage. But audiences loved it.

As an actor, Tree was at his best concealed in makeup - he had one of those nondescript faces without dominating features that take makeup well and was never happier than when he was smothered in crepe hair and Leichner greasepaint. It was metamorphosis rather than active and so thrilling that as one observer wrote: 'Even when he was hopelessly miscast, Tree's acting was so clever, so inventive, so varied, so intensely interesting, that for unalloyed entertainment one would rather see him in a bad play than anyone else in a good one.'

Tree produced plays not only by Oscar Wilde but also Ibsen at a time when Ibsen's work was very unfashionable, and considered morally deranged. In 1914 Tree was the first Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. Eliza was played by the celebrated Mrs Patrick Campbell. Tree almost abandoned the script and introduced the hint of a happy ending by throwing a bunch of flowers to Eliza between the end of the play and the fall of the curtain 'My ending makes money, you ought to be grateful' said Tree to Shaw.

Tree died in 1917.

19th century spectacle

The Whip, mansion interior, photograph, Drury Lane, London, September 1909. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The Whip, mansion interior, photograph, Drury Lane, London, September 1909. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The sophisticated technology and machinery of the late 19th century stage produced a succession of 'sensation' dramas in which special effects became the principal attraction. Scene painters working with expert technicians produced realistic reproductions of the natural world. Using ropes, flats, bridges, treadmills and revolves, they could produce anything from a chariot race in Ben Hur to a rail crash and the running of the Two Thousand Guineas in The Whip.

One of the greatest designers of such scenes was Bruce 'Sensation' Smith of Drury Lane, the theatre which, with the introduction of hydraulic stage machinery in 1894, became the acknowledged home of such drama. Because of their reliance upon visual spectacle, many of these dramas provided excellent material for the developing silent cinema.

The Whip at Drury Lane in 1909 told the story of a plot to kidnap a racehorse (The Whip) on a train journey to Newmarket where he is a dead cert for the Two Thousand Guineas. Such was the tension of the tunnel scene that the audience would shout advice as the deafening sound of the train came closer and closer and desperate attempts were made to free the horse from the crash.

The Whip, produced in 1909 at Drury Lane, was a tale of love and skulduggery among the aristocracy. The plot itself was slim, no more than a framework on which to hang the scenes of spectacle and special effects so beloved of audiences.

Falconhurst, seen here, is the seat of the Marquis of Beverley, grandfather to Lady Diana Sartorys. This is the great hall in a setting from Act II designed by R.McCleery. Lady Diana is devoted to sport and a keen rider of her grandfather's horses, including The Whip, favourite for the 2000 Guineas.

The plot revolves around the attempted sabotage of the horse's chances in an 'accidental' train crash. The horse obviously played a major part in the action, and The Sketch published a feature about Jessie Bateman, who played Diana, and the horse (which shamefully got no billing in the programme, although we are told the horses were 'fed on Molassine Meal'). The article also pointed out that 'it will be seen that Miss Bateman has adopted the up-to-date method of riding - that is to say, she sits astride'.

Other designs by 'Sensation' Smith included an underwater scene where the illusion of a diver descending into the sea was created by raising a boat into the flies. Behind a gauze real fish swam in tanks to create the image of an undersea world.

Cup and saucer drama

Marie Wilton introduced a new young playwright, Tom Robertson. He had devised a new kind of play which became known as 'problem play' because it dealt seriously and sensitively with issues of the day.

Robertson's work was considered so revolutionary in style and subject that no established management would touch him. 'Danger' said Mrs Bancroft 'is better than dullness' and she went on to produce a string of successful and profitable hits by Robertson, such as 'Society', 'Ours', 'Caste', 'Play' and 'School'.

Caste was about marriage across the class barrier and explored prejudices towards social climbing. People talked in normal language and dealt with 'ordinary' situations and the performers didn't 'act' but 'behaved' like their audience - they spoke, they didn't declaim. In Ours a roly poly pudding was made on stage and this caused a major furore as people were not used to seeing such realistic tasks in a stage setting. In The Vicarage the characters shocked the audience by making tea (hence the reference to 'cup and saucer dramas').

The Bancrofts were also responsible for making fashionable the 'box set' which Eliza Vestris had first used at the Olympic in the 1830s. They constructed rooms on stage which they dressed with the care of an interior decorator with sofas, curtains, chairs, carpets on their stage floors. Instead of painted flats they had real doors with real door handles and the actors wore well-made fashionable dress not the trappings of a dusty theatre wardrobe.

The drawing-room drama became much loved by the Victorian educated middle classes and the Bancrofts redesigned the theatre to suit their audience. The cheap benches near the stage, where the rowdiest elements of the audience used to sit, were replaced by comfortable padded seats, carpets were laid in the aisles and the pit was renamed the stalls.

The Bancrofts encouraged ensemble acting. Though they were the stars they employed talented actors realising that their own talents would shine better in a strong cast. They paid their actors well and took the wages to the actors rather than have them queue up like factory workers. They lavished considerable funds on their productions, risked new plays, and yet in 1885, after only 20 years in management, they retired with a fortune.

While the Bancroft's revolutionised the style of presenting social dramas, Robertson's plays ultimately affirmed the social order. It was left to writers such as George Bernard Shaw to challenge it.

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