Restoration & 18th-Century Studies in English at Western
UC Western Tower

 

London ca. 1676

Restoration Theatres

With the Restoration in 1660, the London theatre scene, which had been discouraged if not actually suppressed during the Interregnum, became once again an important component of literary life in the capital. The new King was an enthusiastic patron of drama, and he and many of his court were eager to introduce onto English stages many of the innovations to which they had been exposed during exile on the Continent. There was little delay, then, in issuing two patents for new theatre companies, the Duke's Company and the King's Company, to Sir William Davenant and Thomas Killigrew respectively.

 

 

Two important challenges faced the new patentees, however. Firstly, the old Jacobean theatres, closed down in 1642 and unused for nearly two decades, were in a state of terrible disrepair and no longer fit for use. Secondly, both patentees needed to find venues that would allow them to introduce the new Continental style of theatre, utilizing stages with proscenium arches, and set back deeply so that movable scenery and "flats" could produce spectacular three-dimensional effects.

For practical purposes, then, Davenant and Killigrew were starting from scratch, and it was this that gave them opportunity to remake the London theatre. A vitally important decision was made early on: the theatres must be relocated from Southwark and the margins of the City, where they had largely been seated before the Civil War, to the growing Town in Westminster, which was the new seat of fashion. In choosing the area of Westminster between Whitehall, to the southwest, and the City, to the east, both patentees astutely made their productions convenient to Court, Town, and City. In recognition, too, of the new nature of the period's drama, and the importance of the beau monde as influential members of the audience, it was decided to keep the theatres small and intimate: the Restoration theatres held only about 500-800 people. These factors, in combination with the new stage designs and innovations in dramatic form itself, ensured that the theatre-going experience would, in 1660, be unlike anything London audiences had ever seen before.

Cockpit Theatre
The Duke's Company, under the newly-appointed Poet Laureate, Sir William Davenant, began its operations by taking over an older Jacobean theatre, the Cockpit or Phoenix Theatre. These venue had, before the Civil War, possessed something of an ill reputation as a place for cheap and "vulgar" entertainments, but Davenant had himself employed it in 1658 for the "private" staging of his "musical entertainment" or "opera," The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru. Following the licensing of his company, Davenant took possession of this theatre from a group of unlicensed players who had been trying to establish themselves there. The Cockpit was used by the Duke's Company until 1662, when the company relocated to Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Lincoln's Inn Fields
Although it was nearly two years before Davenant's company was able to move out of their temporary base at the Cockpit, the new theatre at Lincoln's Inn Fields was not, in fact, a purpose-built facility for drama, but had, instead, been converted from Lisle's Tennis Court on Portugal Street. It opened in 1662, and was employed by the Duke's Company until it was superseded by the newy-constructed Dorset Gardens Theatre in 1671, at which time the theatre became, once again, a tennis court. The association of Lincoln's Inn Fields with the London theatre was not, however, yet over; the tennis court was again appropriated and reconverted into a theatre in 1695, when a new company led by Thomas Betterton, William Congreve and others, set up operations there. This version of the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre was, by all accounts, rather small and poorly furnished. In 1714, therefore, the theatre impresario Christopher Rich had a new theatre built on the spot; it was this venue that would, in 1727, host the first and enormously successful staging of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. The Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre was finally abandoned in 1732 when the company, now led by Christopher Rich's son John (a famous and very successful pantomime actor), relocated to the newly build Covent Garden Theatre.

Theatre Royal (Drury Lane)
First opened by Thomas Killigrew for the King's Company, in May of 1663, at a cost of l. 1,500, the Theatre Royal at Drury Land was widened in 1665, but gutted by fire in 1672 (fire being a perennial threat to indoor theatres in this period). A new theatre was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and opened in March 1674, at a cost of l. 4000. When, in 1682, the Duke's and King's Companies responded to shrinking audiences and financial hardship by amalgamating into the United Company, it was the Theatre Royal that they chose as their home.

The Theatre Royal has, in its many incarnations, played an enormously important role in the history of English theatre; indeed, it has figured somewhat in English political history. It was here that an assassin attempted to kill the Prince of Wales (future George II) during a performance in 1716; coincidentally, an attempt was to be made on the life of this prince's grandson, now George III, in 1800, once again in the Theatre Royal. Wren's theatre was in active service for a full century, in a more or less unchanged state; it was redesigned and refaced in 1773 by Robert Adam, but this building was in turn demolished in 1791 to make way for a new and much larger theatre, capable of seating 3,611 people, designed by Henry Holland. This Theatre Royal was burned down in 1809, at which time a new theatre, which still stands today, was erected in its place.

Dorset Garden
The Dorset Garden Theatre was built by Thomas Betterton, the leading actor of the Duke's Company, in 1671. Betterton had assumed control over the company from Sir William Davenant's widow, and he wanted a new and magnificent building to replace the converted tennis court in Lincoln's Inn Fields that was his companies current home. The resulting building, which received its name by virtue of having been erected upon the former grounds of Dorset House, was magnificently ornate, and had been specifically designed for the staging of expensive and spectacular productions. Its acoustics, however, were not the best, and the new theatre was, despite its magnificence, thought by most to be an inferior venue to the Theatre Royal. For this reason, Dorset Garden was abandoned for the latter when, in 1682, the Duke's and King's companies combined. Dorset Garden was thereafter relegated to the staging of popular entertainments, wrestling contests, and musical competitions. It was finally demolished in 1720.



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