An Unknown Pundit Once Added a Twist to a Line From Shakespeare, ‘All the World’s a Stag, Some of Us Just Have Better Seats.’
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Today London’s well-known theaters have much the same configuration as they did back in 1663, when the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, one of the oldest theaters in Europe, opened. Along with its neighbor, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Drury Lane’s history is the story of British theater from the Restoration to today.
Both of these houses were issued royal patents by King Charles II, and were the only places of entertainment allowed to present serious drama. Amazingly, both still operate under that royal document. (A copy of the patent is on display in Drury Lane; the original is just steps away in the Theatre Museum.) Houses that opened later were allowed to perform only musical entertainment.
The infamous Nell Gwynne made her “acting” debut in 1665 at Drury Lane. Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote, “Nell’s ill speaking of a great part made me mad.” She had a long career both as an actress and as a mistress of King Charles II.
Burned down in 1672, Drury Lane reopened in 1674; it caught fire again in 1794, when Richard Brinsley Sheridan managed it. He was an early hyphenate: manager–playwright–member of Parliament. When a messenger delivered the information that his theater was burning, a colleague asked him why he didn’t seem concerned. Sheridan replied, “Can’t a man have a glass of wine by his own fireside?” At the time he was either at the pub across the street from the theater or in the House of Commons, depending on who’s telling the story. Hoping to avoid a repeat inferno when he rebuilt the theater, Sheridan introduced the fire curtain, which is now required at all theaters and must be lowered and raised during the interval to demonstrate that it operates effectively.
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Were Issued Royal Patents by King Charles II.
David Garrick, who managed Drury Lane for more than two decades beginning in 1747, instituted reforms that are still part of the theater today, including concealed lighting and a “natural ” acting style. During his tenure, audience members were no longer allowed to sit on the stage or pay the stage-door man to let them watch the actresses dress or undress.
Outside the theater is a bust of Augustus Harris, whose flair for spectacle included the introduction of music hall performers into the annual pantomimes or “pantos.” Drury Lane continued its reputation for grand productions when Arthur Collins staged Ben Hur there in 1902, complete with a chariot race scene that featured horses running on a treadmill.
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Personally, I Agree With You, But Who Are We Amongst So Many!
Along the Russell Street side of the theater are two doors: one tall and narrow, the other short and squat. They were built for George III and his son, who had had a terrible row at the theater and refused to enter it together or sit on the same side. Despite management’s attempt to ban the royals, there was little they could do to enforce it. Hence, there are separate royal corridors, separate retiring rooms and, to this day, Drury Lane is the only theater with two royal boxes and two royal crescents.
The understage at Drury Lane is unique. Most famous are the hydraulic rams, installed in 1894, which were used during a stage presentation of sinking ships. The large understage lifts were for the 1931 opening of Noel Coward’s Cavalcade; a cast of 400 caused the lifts to break down. A statue of Coward—legs crossed, cigarette in hand—graces the foyer.
The theater became the home of lush, big-name musical productions, instituted by Alfred Butt in the 1920s. From that time to this, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, has presented all the great musicals, from Showboat to The King and I, South Pacific to My Fair Lady and many more. Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Miss Saigon ran for a record 2,282 performances. Today the theater is one of eight owned by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and his Really Useful Theatres.
Another of Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Theatres venues that has reinvented itself over the years is the famous London Palladium. Designed by architect Frank Matcham in 1910, its front is graced by six Corinthian columns. It was the first theater to be carpeted and to feature tip-up seats. Since there are no supporting columns, there are no restricted-view seats.
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For a period in the late 19th century, the site on which the Palladium was built was home to Hengler’s Circus. The current venue was conceived as a music hall and later presented variety shows, so the stage can accommodate a single performer. From center stage, performers feel they can reach out to the people in the audience; they can even see the back of the stalls.
After World War II, manager George Black imported American stars as part of the variety format. Mickey Rooney was the first but did not appeal to British audiences. Danny Kaye, who followed him, was held over for two weeks. Even the royal family arrived unannounced to see his performance. Laurel and Hardy headlined The Royal Variety Show in 1947.
Among the major American stars to play the Palladium was Judy Garland, who appeared several times. In fact, the climactic scene in her final film, I Could Go on Singing, was filmed at the theater in 1962, with 1,000 fan club members as the audience. Louis Armstrong, Jack Benny, Shirley MacLaine, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Liberace have all graced the Palladium’s stage. Today, this historic theater continues with major musical productions.
Just around the corner from Drury Lane is the other theater that was granted a royal patent in the late 17th century: Covent Garden. With profits from a production of The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay at his theater in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, John Rich built a new theater on the site of a former convent garden. It opened in December 1732 with The Way of the World by William Congreve, and the following four-week run of The Beggar’s Opera was said to have made “Gay rich and Rich gay.”
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Disaster struck in 1808 when the theater burned, as did so many of its contemporaries due to the use of candles for lighting. In a matter of three months, the foundation stone was laid for the new house, and just a year later, it was completed. When it reopened in September 1809, the management raised prices to cover the cost of rebuilding, which precipitated the Old Price Riots. After two months of audiences banging sticks and hooting, the former prices were restored.
Following a masked ball in 1856, the theater burned down again. The graphic description of this last event at the second theater was referred to in the London Journal as “a mass of demonry and dissipation quite dreadful to contemplate…. [They uttered] the most depraved language in the metropolis.º The third, and current, theater was completed in May 1858 and became the Royal Opera House in 1892.
During World Wars I and II, the Royal Opera House was used as a furniture storehouse and a dance hall. It reopened with a performance of The Sleeping Beauty (which led to the formation of what is now the Royal Ballet), but it soon returned to its roots with a presentation of Henry Purcell’s opera The Fairy Queen. Today, after a more than £200 million upgrade, it is the most famous opera house in England, and arguably all of Europe. Operas are sung in their original languages with surtitles. The theater has its own costume and scenery workshops, as well as upgraded technical aspects. The auditorium still maintains its classic horseshoe shape, decorated gold, cream and burgundy, as well as its double sconces, which give the space a special royal glow.
The Playhouse, near Charing Cross station on Northumberland Avenue, has a very different history. According to Patrick Loomer, box office manager and unofficial archivist, “This theater has a history of managers who had an unclear idea about what it takes to run a theater.”
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The original site owner, one Sefton Parry, bought the land late in the 19th century hoping that Charing Cross rail station would expand and his property would be a necessary purchase. To that end, he built a theater; commercial property was more valuable than housing for resale purposes.
The then-named Royal Theatre opened in 1882 and was moderately successful as a light opera house. George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man premiered there in 1894. Loomer relates an anecdote about opening night: “At the end of that performance, the audience called for the author to appear on stage. Everyone was cheering except for one man in the Upper Circle who booed the playwright.” Shaw purportedly replied, looking up at the dissenter, “Personally, I agree with you, but who are we amongst so many!”
By 1905 Parry had gone broke waiting for the train station to expand and sold the theater to actor Cyril Maude, who completed an innovative rebuilding of the house. There were tragic consequences. Part of Charing Cross station collapsed and broke through the theater’s roof, killing six workmen and destroying one side of the auditorium and most of the stage. With the compensation from the railroad, Maude funded the remaining renovation and produced shows for two seasons. It was at this time that the name was changed to The Playhouse.
After World War I, Gladys Cooper and Frank Curzon took over management. Later, Cooper became the sole actress-manager until 1933, one of the few women actor-managers. She premiered Somerset Maugham’s The Letter and had enough cachet within the theater community to bring Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey and Noel Coward to her stage.
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By 1950 the theater was in the hands of the BBC and was no longer a playhouse. It became famous for radio broadcasts, including Dad’s Army and The Goon Show. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who recorded there, some in front of live audiences. It wasn’t until 1987 that The Playhouse became a playhouse again, seating an intimate 800. The most fascinating part of the house is the understage area with its maze of passages and the original sound effects “machine,” which produced sounds of thunder and cannon balls.
A bust of Cyril Maude’s son looks down on the foyer. Supposedly, if he’s smiling, the production will be a success; if he’s not….
On the other hand, Lilian Baylis, founder of what became the English National Opera (ENO), glowers at patrons from her portrait in the foyer of the Coliseum, the largest theater in London, with 2,358 seats on four levels. This house has the widest proscenium arch in London and was one of the first theaters equipped with electric lighting.
Prior to ENO purchasing the freehold in 1992, the Coliseum was home, at one time or another, to variety shows (featuring acts from animals to arias), a music hall, a wartime canteen, a ballet and a cinema. It eventually presented musicals and finally became a full-fledged opera house. It recently underwent a refurbishment in celebration of its centenary.
“When I was in Kiss Me, Kate,” remembers Patricia Morison, who starred in the musical in 1951, “the back door of the Coliseum opened onto a street that looked like a set of a Sherlock Holmes movie, gas lamps and fog swirling.” She recalls, “Heat wasn’t put on in the theater until the audience came in. During rehearsals, you could see the dancers’breath. It was that cold. This was not long after World War II, and electricity was at a premium.” The gas lamps are long gone and fog is essentially a thing of the past.
The Coliseum’s most outstanding exterior feature is the famous revolving globe, which towers above St. Martin’s Lane. Inside, the triple concentric revolve is the theater’s most famous piece of stage equipment, though it is hardly used now. To make opera accessible to a wider audience, 100 tickets are available on the day of the performance for as little as £5; top prices for weekends are £70.
“I want to recapture the thrill of going to the theater that I had when I was a kid,” says Sir Cameron Mackintosh, owner-producer of the Prince of Wales Theatre. “Attendance at the theater should begin at the entrance, continue into the foyer, and into the theater itself, with the production culminating the experience. ” His point is that he “wants the theater to be glamorous, but not so glamorous you can’t relax and enjoy yourself.”
The Prince of Wales features a seven-story tower above Coventry Street, and meets all Sir Cameron’s criteria. He recently returned it to its former 1937 art deco glory. (There has been a theater on the site since 1884, when it was called The Prince.) It was originally planned as a huge theater by Robert Cromie, the architect of the current facility. However, Cromie was unable to purchase the hotel property nearby, so the theater sits on an island with traffic on three sides and an alley along the back.
“There was no sense of glamour about it when Mackintosh took over in 1992,” comments Peter Roberts, head of Theatre Development of the Delfont Mackintosh Theatre Group. “Repairs and maintenance simply wouldn’t do; it needed a really good renovation.” After the theater closed for 28 weeks of refurbishment, at a cost of £7.5 million of Mackintosh’s personal money, it reopened in 2004 with, appropriately, the Prince of Wales in attendance.
The theater’s history is displayed in a collection of playbills and costume sketches from the past. A program cover from the 1930s is reproduced as a mural; the screens with silver surrounds in the foyer Mackintosh found “from the same period when the theater was built, and it turned out to be a motif for radiator covers and grill work within the theater,” Roberts says. The fret cut panels give the house a shimmering effect, and the staircase resembles that of a 1930s ocean liner.
Roberts points out that in order to refurbish the Grade II–listed building, they had to obtain approval from the Building and Planning Commission and English Heritage. One of the conditions of the re-do of the auditorium was to retain the old plasterwork under the new. “So if someone in 50 years asks, ‘Where’s the original?’ it’s all there. We reproduced much of the old work to match,” he says.
Seating 1,100, the Prince of Wales boasts a roster of the most important theatrical names: Lillie Langtry, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Marie Tempest, Noel Coward, Ivor Novello. Although he never thought he’d be a theater owner, Mackintosh feels he has an obligation “to leave the theaters in a state where I can say, ’They’ll be all right for another 100 or 200 years before someone else comes along and reinvents them.’”
More than a century ago, Oscar Wilde, whose plays premiered at the still-extant Theatre Royal, Haymarket and the demolished St. James’s, said, “The stage is not merely a meeting place of all the arts, but it is also the return of art to life.” He was so right.
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