Weaver’s Theatre World

The theatre world of 18th-century London was very different from ours today. There were only two theatres allowed by law to perform plays, an arrangement that went back to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. By 1717, one of these playhouses was Drury Lane (on the same site as the present theatre, but much smaller) while the other was Lincoln’s Inn Fields (demolished in 1848, but on a site now occupied by the Royal College of Surgeons of England). There was also the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket (on the site now occupied by Her Majesty’s Theatre) which presented only Italian opera. The most capacious of the three (at least when it was full to bursting) was Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which could hold some 1400 people. Drury Lane and the King’s Theatre could each seat around 800 – 1000 patrons.

Drury Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields were both wholly commercial ventures and thus dependant on paying audiences for their survival. They were, of necessity, rivals. Dancing was a key element in their struggle to fill their auditoriums each night. Most dancing, at both houses, took place in the entr’actes, i.e. between the acts of the plays which were the main part of the bills. John Rich, manager of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, was well aware of the popularity of dancing and made it an important feature as soon as he took over the theatre in 1714.

lincolns-inn-fields
John Wykeham Archer, Building formerly Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, 1847. © British Museum

At Drury Lane, the actor-managers Colley Cibber, Robert Wilks and Barton Booth, together with their fellow manager Sir Richard Steele, favoured drama – not least because they had the best actors in London. Despite their serious intent, they were forced to try and emulate Rich as his success drew away their audiences.

old-drury-lane-1794
View of the Drury Lane Theatre (Bridges Street front by Robert Adam), c1794? © British Museum

This was the world within which John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus was first produced.

 

 

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