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.
Print of Miss Stanley as Ulin, The Demon of Fire (Print No 32), hand-coloured etching by Piercy Roberts, published by O Hodgson, London, England, early 19th century. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London
The School for Scandal bound manuscript with alterations in Sheridan's hand and a printed playbill, ink on paper, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 1777. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London</p>
This is an early manuscript of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's famous comedy The School for Scandal, written in 1777 alongside the playbill announcing its first performance. Sheridan's first success had been The Rivals, produced in 1775, and its popularity made him determined to be a playwright rather than a barrister as his father had hoped. Sheridan, and the only other great playwright of his generation, Oliver Goldsmith, rebelled against the sentimental comedies that were being churned out at this date, with crisper, socially critical plays inspired by the Restoration dramatists such as Vanbrugh and Congreve. This manuscript is written out by a professional scribe (commonly employed in the days before typewriters or word processors) with amendments in Sheridan's own hand. He never produced a definitive version of the play and continued editing it for years after its first performance. A publisher who wrote begging Sheridan to send him the manuscript received the reply: 'The fact is… I have been nineteen years endeavouring to satisfy my own taste in this play, and have not yet succeeded'.
Figurine of John Liston as Paul Pry, polychromed glazed porcelain, Robert Bloor & Company, Derby, England, about 1830. Museum no. S.2062-1986. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London
This figurine represents John Liston playing the part of Paul Pry in Paul Pry by John Poole at the Haymarket Theatre, London.
Playbill showing Master Betty's first London appearance, Covent Garden Theatre, London, ink on paper, 1804. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London</p>
The late 18th and early 19th century saw a vogue for child stars. In the provinces, children as young as three or four (usually the offspring of company members) appeared on the stage. The great actor Edmund Kean began his career aged nine, billed as The Infant Carey in 1798. The most famous 'infant phenomenon' was William Henry West, known as Master Betty or The Young Roscius and The Wonderful Boy. West was born in Ireland and made his stage debut in 1803 aged 11. A successful tour of Ireland and Scotland followed, and by the time he came to London in 1804 he was already famous. This poster advertises his first season at Covent Garden, and there was such a fierce crush for tickets that the troops had to be called out to keep order.
Hand coloured etching of Sheridan Knowles (1784-1862) as William Tell, paper, ink, tinsel, textile and leather, published by A. Park, London, England, 19th century. Museum no. E.119-1969. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London</p>
This is one of a set of 19 tinsel pictures of stage and theatre scenes. Tinsel prints were created from etched portraits of theatrical stars in popular roles they played on the London stage. They were hand-painted in watercolour and decorated with scraps of material and tinsel. They were popular during the first half of the 19th century and were considered an adult rather than a child's hobby. By the 1830s it was possible to buy the tinsel, leather and feather ornaments to go with each image.
Newspaper cutting showing stage effects, Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, October 1854. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London</p>
These illustrations from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of October 1854 give us, as the caption says, 'a glance behind the curtain' to see some of the early backstage trickery used to create special effects. Most of these are based on simple pulley systems, or offstage contributions by stagehands. Image 10, for instance, shows a very simple but effective method for making a boat appear to travel across the stage, rocking on the waves. The 'waves' scenery disguises the lower part of the boat, so hiding the wheels of what is in fact a little cart. The undulating tracks it runs along make it appear to tip backwards and forwards on its journey. Later in the century, theatre technology would become even more sophisticated, with powerful hydraulic machinery installed in theatres like Drury Lane, which would make possible the great spectacles created by Bruce 'Sensation' Smith and others in the late 19th and early 20th century.