The London Theatre around 1800

The London Theatre around 1800

Mona Mohajer

The London theatre around the 1800's was highly influenced by many different environmental factors. Most scholars of theatre divide the London theatre's history two distinct eras; one lasting from 1660 to 1800 and the next, named the Victorian Age, from 1800 well into the 1900's. It is during the Victorian Age that the London theatre saw great changes, faced many challenges and experienced great progress.

The London theatre can be divided into several distinct categories, the audience, the theatre itself, management and law, and the performances/writers; all of these subdivisions highly influenced the state of the London theatre. Although the last two categories are the most important and most pertinent to our course of study, an understanding of all is necessary.

The theatre was extremely class conscience. So much so that the auditorium itself was organized to minimize the upper class's association and contact with the lower classes who were also attending the productions. Separate entrances and a hierarchical division of the auditorium into boxes, the pit and gallery were common. This class division was a characteristic of the Victorian age during which London was quickly becoming urbanized as it grew into the heart of the nation with its expansion of commerce. The theatres however, saw this increase in the working class as a means for increasing profit and in no wise saw a need to exclude them. As the working class began settling into East London, theatres were built in the East End to accommodate them. Interestingly there existed contempt for such theatres by both the upper and lower classes and the West End theatres were still preferred by the majority.

Attendance to the theatre fluctuated and was rather unreliable. Interestingly during an 1832 Select Committee haring regarding the causes of such instability, reasons put forth included social causes such as the later dinner hour which had become fashionable, the habit of reading at home, prostitutes in the theatres, and religious convictions. Many people dismissed the theatre on the basis of corruption. More interesting is that these accusations were aimed not towards the dramas themselves, but the buildings that bred different immoral behavior.

The theatre itself and its design were of great importance. The enjoyment of the plays and the theatre experience were based on the intimate relationship created between the actors and the audience by the shape of the horseshoe auditorium. The audiences was seated in a raked pit was surrounded by an audiences seated in boxes. Above the box audience sat more spectators in shallow balconies which were also divided into boxes or galleries. The auditorium was rectangular, fan-shaped or U-shaped. The auditorium was either lit by candles or by gas but was never dark. This was due to the reason that people got dressed up to come to the theatre and this outing acted as an intense social Galilee. Very similar to today, the theatre provided the means of showing-off and of observing others.

The theatre was governed in an interesting way during the Victorian age. The manager was the center, often playing many roles and taking on many responsibilities, including acting. The Victorian theatre received no governmental or municipal subsidy. Thus the manager financed his operation himself or from borrowed money. The manager usually leased the theatre from the owner of the building. In addition to financial obligations to the landlord, the manager had to run his company and put on plays. He cast the actors and selected key administrators, such as backstage and front-of-house staff. He chose the plays and scheduled them, and often cut and rearranged text to suit the exigencies of production and acting capabilities. Usually, the manger would hire help including a business manger and similar positions.

Many laws also existed regulating theatres and their productions. Their were two categories of theatres up to this point, the "majors" and the "minors," with the majors having certain privileges due to their holding of letter patents from the crown. In 1943 the Theatre Regulation Act finally abolished the privileged position of the majors and allowed all theatres the opportunity of performing the so-called 'legitimate' drama: farce, tragedy and comedy.

A major component of theatres were the writers of the plays performed. Their role is also made more interesting by the laws or lack of laws governing their status. At the end of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth a dramatist with an established reputation was financially secure. However with the end of the Napoleanic War in 1815 the nation also faced economic hardships which caused the theatres to face financial insecurity. This in turn led to a reduction in the writers' pay. In addition to this the copyright value of published plays had been reduced to nothing by the beginning of the Victorian period. At this point published works that appeared in cheap and nasty acting editions designed for amateurs were used as opposed to the well-printed plays. The publishers of these editions paid authors very little money for a copyright and then collected the performance fees for the plays on their lists. Interestingly the writers were continuously exploited during the early 1800's. Up until 1833 there was no copyright in performance. Once a play was printed it could be freely acted with the author receiving nothing. The Dramatic Copyright Act of 1833 finally brought some relief to the authors. This act gave the writer sole property of an unpublished work and exclusive rights of representation. Soon a Dramatic Authors' Society was founded to protect the interests of dramatist, collect their fees and fight against loopholes in the law. Loopholes were common in the law, such as The Act of 1833 which was interpreted to mean that a publisher who held a copyright could still collect performance fees that were due the author.

The playwrights' plight was not only financial in nature; they also faced legal restrictions. In this case the law took the form o the Examiner of Plays, an official who exercised power of censorship on behalf of the Lord Chamberlain. The Lord Chamberlain also acted as a licenser of theatres and licenser of dramas. With the introduction of the Regulation Act of 1843 superseding the Licensing Act of 1737, which abolished monopolies and privileges granted Drury Lane (a highly established and famous theatre) and giving all theatres the freedom to play any kind of drama, censorship was also tightened. Under these laws any piece wanting to be performed had to receive the approval of the Lord Chamberlain, who had the right to forbid the performance of the entire or any part of the play. The Examiner of Plays exercised the Lord Chamberlains' authority in matters of religion and politics. The free expression of sexual problems and the use of sexual humor were not part of the Victorian novel and in general the public taste, which was very conservative in these matters, and so such topics were also absent from the stage. With religious and political controversies existing in the limelight during the Victorian period English dramatist if allowed would most probably have expressed them in their pieces. This legal exclusion of politics and religion from the stage made many feel that the drama was trivial and isolated from mainstream English life. It was not until the 1890's that the Lord Chamberlain was challenged.

The theatre played many different roles during this time in London. Politics and economics were a driving force behind the existence of the actual theatres themselves and the dramas that were performed. Interestingly, it could be argued that early Hollywood went through a similar period of definition, during which it was highly influenced by audiences, money and politics.