In The Loves of Mars and Venus; or, Mr. Weaver’s Dramatick Entertainment, our playwright Stephen Wyatt tries to give a sense of what it was like to go to the theatre in the 18th century. Seeing a play at Drury Lane in the 1710s was nothing like our experience today. The auditorium would remain brightly lit throughout the show and the audience would be noisy and tightly-packed.
More than that, the entertainment on offer would have been far more varied than it is now. What might you have seen if you went to the Drury Lane Theatre in 1717?
On 2 March 1717, the evening began with Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy. This revenge tragedy dates back to the Jacobean period. It had been successfully revived after the Restoration and remained popular even 100 years after its first performance. It and the new afterpiece The Loves of Mars and Venus were the only offerings that day.
We cannot be sure whether the newspaper advertisements list everything that audiences would have seen at individual performances, but there were regularly three elements to the bill.
- The Mainpiece: the principal tragedy or comedy, offered first and the longest work;
- The Afterpiece: a shorter play or musical entertainment, often a comedy or a farce, given after the mainpiece;
- Entr’acte Entertainments: music, singing, dancing or speciality acts performed between the acts of the mainpiece and sometimes at the end of the afterpiece
Sometimes the mainpiece was given alone, and sometimes with one or both of the other elements.
On the previous evening, 1 March 1717, Drury Lane had offered John Crowne’s Restoration comedy Sir Courtly Nice, with ‘a new Concerto by Paisable [Jacques Paisible] and others’ as well as dancing by Dupré, Boval, Mrs Santlow and Miss Younger. All of the dancers would appear in The Loves of Mars and Venus the following day. On 5 February 1717, the bill had included Aphra Behn’s 30-year-old mainpiece farce The Emperor of the Moon, followed by John Gay’s new afterpiece farce The What D’Ye Call It. At some point, there was a ‘Mimic Night Scene, after the Italian Manner, between Harlequin, Scaramouche and Dame Ragonde’, an entr’acte entertainment which was a precursor to the pantomimes that would sweep the London stage a few years later.
Such evenings were common. Going to the theatre in 18th-century London was rather like simultaneously visiting our Royal Opera House, Royal National Theatre and the London Palladium (on Royal Variety Show night)!