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Behind the curtain of Georgian theatre

Jane Clinton steps back to the 18th century and spends a rowdy night at the theatre

26 September, 2019 — By Jane Clinton

Samuel Alken after Thomas Rowlandson, Audience Scene c1800. © Gerald Coke Handel Foundation

PROSTITUTES were given free tickets to entice men and it was not unusual to get slapped in the face with flying orange peel.

Welcome to theatre in 18th-century Britain.

Going to a show as a pastime became hugely popular in this period. According to one estimate, by 1805 there were more than 280 places of regular theatrical entertainment compared to just a handful a century earlier.

And while today we regularly see stories of actors complaining about noise and eating during theatrical performances, compared to Georgian Britain we are a very quiet lot.

A new exhibition at The Foundling Museum, Two Last Nights! Show Business in Georgian Britain, looks at these issues as well as the mechanics of theatre and concert-going in 18th- and 19th-century England.

Its title, taken from a breathless playbill (one of many on show), announces the scarcity of the tickets for a show: only two more nights left!

Indeed the ability to create a buzz and ultimately sell tickets were, as they are now, a crucial part of marketing a show.

Thomas Rowlanson, John Bull at the Italian Opera, 1805. © Gerald Coke Handel Foundation

The prostitutes mentioned did not only draw in the audiences to attend the theatres; they would also be working in the “pit” while the show was on.

It was not the only example of unorthodox behaviour. There are stories of apple sellers who covertly sold gin at the upper gallery at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1827, resulting in rowdy behaviour. Rioting was not uncommon. And the peel from the oranges consumed was discarded without ceremony – often on the stage so that it had to be swept before the performance could even begin.

Indeed eating during a show was very much the norm. One man recalls a concert at Westminster Abbey where “hard boiled eggs, ham and roast meat” were eaten in the interval. Leaving the church, he remarked how he had to wade through a “mass of eggshells and other rubbish”.

Pantheon Audience 1773. © Private Collection

Theatres were bustling, noisy and teeming with all walks of life. The classes, however, were very much segregated, with the poor unsurprisingly relegated to the worst seats while the rich could afford the best. And this was important for the elite, as the theatre was a place to show off. Something of a fashion parade, satirists had fun pillorying the more extreme vanity on display. There are prints by Thomas Rowlandson and Hogarth lampooning the pomp of the rich at the theatre.

Being seen at the theatre, socialising and people-spotting were often more important than the show itself. Chatter would only pause for the key scenes and songs.

This exhibition looks at the paraphernalia of the theatre: smelling salts (to revive those overcome by the crowded conditions); tickets to the shows; eyeglasses and a rather fantastic ear trumpet.

There is a look behind the scenes, the scenery as well as a model reconstruction of the Georgian Theatre in Yorkshire which is the only complete example of a working theatre from that time.

Then there are the Pleasure Gardens with their night-time illuminations and musical performances. Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens drew huge crowds with their cheap entry price of just one shilling through the century. Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens in Chelsea, however, attracted a wealthier crowd.

A printed advertisement bill from 1833. © Gerald Coke Handel Foundation

The painting Devil to Pay by Francis Hayman (1708-1776) depicts the famous actor Kitty Clive. The picture, which hung in a supper box at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens the 1730s, is on public show for the first time in more than 200 years. This too brings us to the fact that this was the age of the first celebrity actors, including David Garrick, who was mobbed by fans.

The thread running through this exhibition, however, is the importance of the Foundling Hospital’s Chapel as a music venue in Georgian Britain.

The composer George Frideric Handel, as well as Hogarth, were huge supporters of the Found­ling Hospital which took in abandoned children. Handel gave annual benefit concerts of his Messiah in support of it.

Georgian Theatre was ultimately a very lively affair even if the stage performances were lacklustre. So spare a thought the next time you are at the theatre that you are not sitting next to the likes of James Boswell.

The great diarist of the age and biographer of Samuel Johnson was so unimpressed with the play he was watching that he began to moo like a cow to the great amusement of his companions. Quite how the actors coped with this is anybody’s guess.

• Two Last Nights! Show Business in Georgian Britain runs until January 5 at The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, admission £13.20 (with donation); concessions £9.90 (with donation), 020 7841 3600, foundlingmuseum.org.uk

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