A History of a Night at the Theatre

Before 1500

Drama in Britain grew of out church services at Easter from the 10th century onwards. By the 14th century mystery cycles of plays based on the Bible were performed outside the church by members of craft guilds in cities such as York and Chester. Each play was staged on pageant wagons that processed through the streets and stopped to perform at pre-arranged sites. In some towns, however, plays were acted in a set space or ‘place’ surrounded by fixed stages or ‘scaffolds’. By the end of medieval times, many towns had specific public theatre spaces.

1500s

Detail from a painting of Queen Elizabeth at the Globe, David Scott, 1840. Museum no: S.511-1985

Detail from a painting of Queen Elizabeth at the Globe, David Scott, 1840. Museum no: S.511-1985

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries all classes of society (apart from royalty) visited the public theatres. Inn yards with enclosed courtyards were often used as performance spaces, and some were converted into permanent playhouses, such as the Red Bull.

From 1576 indoor as well as purpose-built outdoor theatres started to appear in London. The most famous outdoor theatre was the Globe, built in 1599 by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, whose resident playwright was William Shakespeare. Admission prices ranged from a penny to stand in the yard by the stage to up to sixpence for the most expensive seats.

This 19th-century painting shows Elizabeth I watching a play at the Globe Theatre in around 1600. In reality, Elizabeth never visited a public playhouse. When she wished to see a play, the players would perform for her at one of her Royal residences. The more affluent members of the audience sat in the tiers of covered galleries or on the stage itself (for which they paid extra). The area around the thrust stage, called the yard, or pit, was standing room only; and here the 'groundlings' or 'penny stinkards' could stand and watch a play for a penny.

1600s

British theatres were closed by Parliament in 1642, and did not officially reopen until King Charles II returned to the throne in 1660. Actresses were introduced to the public stage for the first time, and moveable scenery arranged in perspective. Audiences went to the new indoor theatres, initially in converted tennis courts, to meet their friends, show off their clothes, flirt and catch up on the latest gossip. For a few extra pennies they could even sit on the stage.

'La Princesse d'Elide' at Versailles, Israel Silvestre, 1664

'La Princesse d'Elide' at Versailles, Israel Silvestre, 1664

The most lavish 17th-century productions were not open to the public at all. King James I and his son Charles I both commissioned spectacular private performances called masques which involved music, dance, gorgeous costumes and extraordinary scenery and special effects.

They were performed once or twice at one of the Royal palaces and were only seen by members of the court. Such grand court entertainments were fashionable throughout Europe as an expression of princely power.

The ballet 'La Princesse d'Elide' was part of a seven-day fete held in May 1664 at the Palace of Versailles. The festivities celebrated the birth of a son to Louise de La Valliere, mistress of the French king, Louis XIV.

Versailles had no theatre, so temporary stages were set up around the palace and in the gardens. Here the stage has been set up in the grounds with the palace itself visible in the background.

Such lavish celebrations helped impress foreign dignitaries and reinforced Louis' image as absolute ruler. Louis and his courtiers often took part and Louis' nickname, The Sun King, came from his performance as Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, in the 'Ballet de la Nuit' in 1653. In some ways Louis' whole life was a performance, played out on the stage of Versailles: people even watched him get up in a morning and go to bed.

1700s

In order to gain admittance to a popular play in an 18th-century London theatre, it was necessary to arrive at least an hour before the house opened. There were no decorous queues in those days, and no individual numbered seats, so the rush, especially for the cheap bench seats in the pit sometimes resulted in fights and serious injury. Even the more expensive sections were crammed on a good night.

In 1763 Garrick banned audience members from sitting on the stage at Drury Lane and other theatres followed suit. The seating capacity of theatres grew and by 1794 the rebuilt Drury Lane held over 3000. The cheapest seats were in the topmost gallery, known as the ‘gods’, followed by the pit, closest to the stage. More wealthy members of the audience sat in boxes that encircled the pit.

Before the introduction of gaslight in the 19th century, theatres were illuminated by candles and oil lamps and the auditorium was as brightly lit as the stage. This fostered an intimacy between actor and audience, but also encouraged people to chat instead of concentrating on the play. Theatrical entertainments were also a feature of fairs such as Bartholomew Fair.

Lithograph depicting the riot during 'Aterxes', 1763

Lithograph depicting the riot during 'Aterxes', 1763

18th-century audiences were lively. There are occasional reports of riots among the cheap seats (the 'footman's gallery').

Traditionally people could come for half price toward the end of the evening, to see the short after-pieces that followed the main play. In 1763 the management of Covent Garden Theatre announced on the playbills for 'Aterxes' that only full price tickets would be available. The response was an organised riot which destroyed the interior of the theatre and forced the reinstitution of the half price concession.

'Artaxerxes' was Arne's most ambitious opera in the Italian style and was first performed in 1762. The plot revolved around the complicated events following the assassination of Xerxes, King of Persia and the revenge of his son, Artaxerxes. The singers are dressed in conventional opera costume of the period. The men wear generalised 'Eastern' rather than archaeologically correct costume, while the female singer wears a version of fashionable 18th-century dress. Arne was more successful writing light operas and incidental music for Shakespeare's plays. He is best remembered as the composer of 'Rule Britannia', which comes from his opera 'Alfred'.

Box renter's fan, late 18th century

Box renter's fan, late 18th century

The King's Theatre, Haymarket, originally called the Queen's Theatre after Queen Anne, was built by Sir John Vanburgh. It opened in 1705. Handel's oratorio 'Esther' was sung for the first time in England here.

The fan shows how going to the theatre proved your social standing. 'Subscribers' were people who rented boxes for a season at the theatre and could include society types like Mrs Fitzherbert, mistress of the Prince of Wales, and other important people like the Duke of Gloucester. To prove their right to the box they held ivory discs or tokens which (for this important venue) were obtained from a bank in Pall Mall.

However, things were about to change however. After the theatre was rebuilt following a fire in 1789, a less fashionable season was introduced, where boxes could be purchased by the general public, and seats in the upper tier cost a guinea per person, making them affordable to many more people.

1800s

As theatres increasingly catered for popular taste in the first half of the 19th century, the support of the upper and middle classes declined, although they still attended the opera. Audiences were often noisy and not always well-behaved. If an actor was disliked, insults and/or missiles such as apple cores or bottles were thrown.

By the mid 19th century music hall and circus were in favour with working class audiences. Comic and sentimental songs were popular and the audience joined in the choruses. Acrobats and aerialists provided variation to the night’s programme and music hall was the first place where the flying trapeze was seen. Pierrot shows and Punch and Judy booths entertained at the newly fashionable seaside resorts.

Detail from 'Spectacle Gratis' (free show), G.Engelman, early to mid 19th century

Detail from 'Spectacle Gratis' (free show), G.Engelman, early to mid 19th century

As opera was popular with the upper and middle classes, being appropriately dressed became a condition of entry. Evening dress was obligatory for those sitting in the boxes and the first gallery, known as the 'dress circle'. In the late 19th century the orchestra stalls replaced the pit and became the fashionable place to see and be seen. Although not compulsory, it was considered bad form not to be smartly dressed when sitting in the stalls.

From the mid 19th century the development of theatres in London’s West End with comfortable seating and facilities and a more refined repertory attracted the middle classes back to the wider theatre.

By 1900 most theatres were lit by electricity and the auditorium was darkened during the performance. The stage was framed by the proscenium arch and separated from the auditorium by the orchestra pit.

'Spectacle Gratis' demonstrates how boisterous audiences could get whilst crammed into the seats during performances in the early 19th century. Foreign visitors to the theatre frequently commented on how noisy the audience were, both before and sometimes during performances.

Drury Lane Theatre, John Bluck, 1808

Drury Lane Theatre, John Bluck, 1808

As well as the disruptive elements, there were those who were paid to go and be supportive. The author's friends would applaud everything loudly whether the play were good or bad and hack journalists would be paid to write wonderful reviews, or 'puffs' as they were known.

This image shows the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1808 when it could hold 3,611 people.

These huge theatres affected the acting style as they encouraged loud voices and broad gestures that registered across the huge auditorium. Under these conditions, spectacle and farce were the entertainments that worked best.

This collection of objects represents a lady's evening at the theatre at the turn of the 20th century.

Theatre goer's accessories, early 20th century

Theatre goer's accessories, early 20th century

An Edwardian lady would be expected to wear long evening gloves and would adorn her hair with accessories such as the pearl pin that is pictured. She would carry a pair of opera glasses to look at the performers more closely and would need a fan to cool herself in the heat of the theatre. She might also be given souvenirs of the theatrical event, such as the picture holder and glass jar shown in this selection.

1900s and beyond

20th-century theatre ranged from serious plays and classics to comedies, musicals, opera, comic opera, ballet, music hall, variety and revue. Mainstream theatre was dominated by London productions which toured the provinces.

West End commercialism was challenged by the repertory movement which sprang up to promote drama with social and moral issues, and also by small companies that championed alternative theatre.

Subsidised theatre as we know it today began to flourish after World War II with the founding of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946. This led in 1963 to the creation of the long-awaited National Theatre which opened at the Old Vic before moving to the South Bank in 1976-77.

The second half of the 20th century saw much more experimentation with plays and theatre spaces. World War II changed people’s world view and many writers explored new forms and content, especially after Samuel Beckett’s 'Waiting for Godot' and John Osborne’s 'Look Back in Anger' were staged in London in 1955 and 1956 respectively.

The abolition of theatre censorship in 1968 provided another catalyst for a new wave of political writing that ventilated feminist, gay, lesbian and community theatre issues.

There was a move away from the traditional proscenium arch theatre and companies adopted different forms of stages such as in-the-round, thrust, traverse and site-specific performances. Small fringe theatres sprang up in converted warehouses and pubs.

Pantomime audience, Graham Brandon, 1994

Pantomime audience, Graham Brandon, 1994

Today performances spaces are still evolving and developing, while conventional theatres continue to present plays and spectacular musicals to modern audiences.

This is a picture of an excited audience at 'Dick Whittington', performed at The Palace Theatre, Manchester, in 1994. It starred Ken Dodd, a comedian who is well known for 'getting an audience going'.

'Oh no he's not!'
'Oh yes he is!'
'He's behind you!'

It is generally thought that this kind of audience response and interaction with actors was much more common in early theatre than it is today. Perhaps the only place where we are likely to see audiences speak or shout at shows now is at the Christmas pantomime, which was always expected to be noisy.

International Training Course

The Victoria and Albert Museum welcomes applications for ‘Creating Innovative Learning Programmes’, its new one week intensive course. This is a unique training opportunity for museum professionals from overseas who are interested in attracting and programming for a range of museum audiences.

Find out more

Shop online

Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays (Hardback)

Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays (Hardback)

Published in collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Musuem, Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays explores the best and most influentia…

Buy now

Event - Directors and Directing: History in the Making

Fri 23 January 2015 11:00

FOUR WEEK COURSE: Take an in-depth look at the history and development of directing from the 19th-century to the present day.

Book online