Old and New London: Volume 3. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
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DRURY LANE THEATRE.
The Original Playhouse in Covent Garden—The Players Imprisoned in the Gate House—The Cockpit Theatre—Killigrew's Theatre in Drury Lane—Betterton's Early Triumphs—The Players first styled "His Majesty's Servants"—Testimonial to Mrs. Bracegirdle—Lovely "Nancy" Oldfield—Colley Cibber as Manager and Dramatist—Garrick at Drury Lane—Kitty Clive, the Comic Actress—A Batch of Fortunate Actresses—Edmund and Charles Kean—Mrs. Nisbet, Macready, and Madame Celeste—Anecdote of Madame Malibran—Michael Balfe, and the Statue erected to his Honour—Salaries of Celebrated Players—Changes and Vicissitudes of "Old Drury"—The New Theatre closed by Order of the Lord Chamberlain—Mrs. Siddons' Début—The Kembles—Sheridan's Habit of Procrastination—The Theatre again destroyed by Fire—Coolness of Sheridan—The "Rejected Addresses"—Mr. Whitbread and the Colonnade—Rebuilding and Opening of the New Theatre—Its subsequent Vicissitudes—Van Amburgh and his Wild Beasts—The Theatre opened as an Opera-house.
In speaking of Drury Lane Theatre there arises a frequent source of confusion in the fact that it had no especial name till the middle of the eighteenth century; being in the neighbourhood of Covent Garden, where the quality then resided, it was often styled "The Covent Garden Theatre." Thus Pepys, writing under date 1662: "To Lincoln's Inn Fields, and, it being too soon to go to dinner, I walked up and down, and looked upon the outside of the new theatre building in Covent Garden, which will be very fine." The late Mr. Richardson, of coffee-house celebrity, was in possession of a ticket inscribed, "For the Music at the Play House in Covent Garden, Tuesday, March 6, 1704"—nearly thirty years before Covent Garden Theatre, properly so called, was opened. It was also styled "The King's Theatre," and "The King's House;" Killigrew and his company being "His Majesty's Servants," while Davenant and his rival company were known by the name of "The Duke's Servants."
Guest writes, "I have not met with any play which is said on its title-page to have been acted in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane till after the division of the company in 1695; nor am I aware that the theatre is called 'Drury Lane' in any preface of the time. Even in 1704, Love the Leveller is said on its title-page to have been acted at the Theatre Royal in Brydges Street, Covent Garden. In 1719–20, an order from the Lord Chamberlain's office is addressed to 'The Managers of the Theatre in Drury Lane, in Covent Garden.'"
It is worthy of note that, although there were other theatres in London at an earlier date, there was, according to Guest, in the time of Shakespeare one at least outside the walls—namely, the Phœnix or Cockpit, on the eastern side of Drury Lane, the site of which is still defined by the name of Pitt Court—formerly Cockpit Alley. The company who acted there were styled "The Queen's Servants." In 1647, when an act was passed for the suppression of stage plays, the Cockpit was converted from the error of its ways into a school-room, but, in spite of the supremacy of the Puritans, its existence as a seat of learning was brief; it backslided, and again became a place of profane amusement, until in 1649, when the Puritan soldiers broke into the playhouse during a performance, routed the audience, and broke up the seats and stage. Nor was this all. Dr. Doran says that "the players, some of them the most accomplished of their day, were paraded through the streets in all their stage finery, and clapped into the Gate-house and other prisons, whence they were only too glad to escape, after much unseemly treatment, at the cost of all the theatrical property which they had carried on their backs." They had already experienced similar treatment in 1617, in a popular outbreak, when their clothes and properties were torn up by the mob, for what cause is not apparent.
Subsequently, after General Monk's arrival in London, the theatrical standard was raised again, and the drama commenced its new career at the Cockpit, with Rhodes for its "master"—managers being not then known—and Betterton as his pupil and apprentice.
Pepys thus writes in his "Diary," November 20th, 1660: "This morning I found my lord in bed late, he having been with the king, queen, and princesses at the Cockpit all night, where General Monk treated them, and after supper a play." It may be added that the original name of the "pit" in our theatres was the "cock-pit"—a word strongly corroborating the fact that our earliest places of such entertainment were used for lower sports before being applied to the purposes of the dramatic muse.
The principal actors at the Cockpit were Betterton and the beautiful youth, Edward Kynaston, who generally performed women's parts, before female actresses were permitted on the stage. Of Kynaston Pepys writes, Aug. 18: "Capt. Ferrers took me and Creed to the Cockpitt play—the first that I have had time to see since my coming from sea. The Loyall Subject, where one Kynaston, a boy, acted the duke's sister, but made the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life." "Jan. 7. Tom and I and my wife to the theatre, and there saw The Silent Woman. Among other things here Kynaston, the boy, had the good turn to appear in three shapes: first as a poor woman, in ordinary clothes, to please 'Morose;' then in fine clothes, as a gallant, and in them was clearly the prettiest woman in the whole house; and lastly as a man, and then likewise did appear the handsomest man in the whole house."
Pepys tells us that the old actors were in possession of the Cockpit in August, 1660; also that
he saw The Cardinal acted there, October 2, 1662;
but the theatre was small, and seems to have soon
been superseded. At all events, nothing further is
known of its history. There is a chance allusion
to it in The Muse's Looking-glass of Randolphe,
wherein the following dialogue occurs:—
"Mrs. Flowerdew. It was a zealous prayer
I heard a brother make concerning playhouses.
Bird. For charity, what is it?
F. That the Globe,
Wherein (quoth he) reigns a whole world of vice,
Had been consum'd; the Phœnix burnt to ashes."
We hear very little of the other actors of the Cockpit, save that one Allen became a major in Charles's army, and acted as quartermaster-general at Oxford; and that two others, named Perkins and Sumner, finding their occupation gone, "kept house together at Clerkenwell, where they died some years before the Restoration."
Soon after the Restoration Thomas Killigrew, Page of Honour, and subsequently Master of the Revels, to Charles I., purchased from the Earl of Bedford a lease for forty-one years of a piece of ground situated in the two parishes of St. Martin'sin-the-Fields and St. Paul's, Covent Garden. On this site, until then known as the "Riding Yard," he erected, we are told, at a cost of £1,500, a theatre, the dimensions of which were 112 feet by 59 feet, and which was opened in 1663. The following is a copy of the first playbill issued:—
"By His Majesty his company of Comedians, at the New Theatre in Drury Lane. This day, being Thursday, April 8th, 1663, will be acted a comedy called The Humorous Lieutenant. The King, Mr. Wintersell; Demetrius, Mr. Hart; Seleucus, Mr. Burt; Leontius, Major Mohun; Lieutenant, Mr. Clun; Celia, Mrs. Marshall. The Play will begin at Three o'clock exactly. Boxes, 4s.; Pit, 2s. 6d.; Middle Gallery, 1s. 6d.; Upper Gallery, 1s."
This comedy (by Beaumont and Fletcher) is mentioned in Pepys' "Diary," in the following terms:—"To the King's House, and there saw The Humorous Lieutenant—a silly play, I think—only the spirit in it that grows very tall, and then sinks again to nothing, having two heads breeding upon one, and then Knipp's singing, did please us. Here, in a box above, we spied Mrs. Pierce; and going out, they called us, and so we staid for them; and Knipp took us all in, and brought us to Nelly, a most pretty woman, who acted the great part, 'Cœlia,' to-day, very fine, and did it pretty well. I kissed her, and so did my wife; and a mighty pretty soul she is."
Of Killigrew it is recorded by Pepys that "when a boy he would go to the 'Red Bull,' and when the man cried to the boys, 'Who will go to be a devil, and he shall see the play for nothing?' then would he go in, and be a devil on the stage, and so get to see plays." It may here be remarked by way of parenthesis that the "Red Bull" which stood at the end of St. John Street, Clerkenwell, was, according to tradition, the playhouse before which Shakespeare held gentlemen's horses.
Dr. Doran writes:—"In December, 1661, there is a crowded house at the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, to see young Mr. Betterton play the Dane's part in Hamlet; charming Mistress Saunderson acting 'Ophelia.' Old ladies and gentlemen flock in crowds to witness it, and the streets are fairly blocked with the lumbering carriages; among the carriage folk being Mrs. Palmer, destined to become, next year, Countess of Castlemaine." "It's beyond imagination," whispers Mr. Pepys to his neighbour, who answers only with a long-drawn "Hush!" "Mr. Betterton," rejoins Pepys, in the complacent tone of one qualified to judge, "is the best actor in the world, and Miss Saunderson is the best lady on the stage. It is a pity they are not married."
Fifty years after these early triumphs Mr. and Mrs. Betterton, having made their fortune as well as their fame, are living in Great Russell Street, Covent Garden, in a well-appointed house. In April, 1710, the former retired from the stage, fixing the 13th as his benefit-night at the Haymarket Theatre, then newly built. He died within fortyeight hours afterwards.
Actors were first known as "His Majesty's Servants" in 1603, having been previously styled "The Servants of the Lord Chamberlain." It may be mentioned here that as "His Majesty's Servants" the actors were entitled to wear, and did wear, the royal livery of scarlet. The last actor who wore it was Baddeley, who gave the annual "cake" to the green-room of Drury Lane. He was, we believe, the original "Moses" in The School for Scandal. A portrait of Baddeley, in his red waistcoat, used to be seen in poor old "Paddy" Green's collection at "Evans's." At this period dramatic entertainments began at one and terminated at three o'clock in the afternoon.
In 1663, as we see by the playbill before quoted, fashion had altered the hour of commencement to three p.m.; in 1667 it had crept on to four o'clock, until by degrees the evening came to be recognised as the most appropriate time for such amusements. Mohun and Hart had both held commissions in the army, and excelled in tragic and heroic parts. The former was a boon companion and favourite of Rochester. "Becky Marshal" is frequently mentioned by Pepys, and always with praise, as also is Mrs. Knipp, of whom Killigrew told him, "Knipp is like to make the best actor that ever come upon the stage, she understanding so well, that they are going to give her thirty pounds a year more."
Time and space alike, however, would be wanting to enumerate all the dramatic celebrities who have immortalised themselves upon the boards of "Old Drury;" their name is "Legion." As they pass in review before our imagination we can only briefly particularise a few of the most remarkable.
Here Thomas Betterton, who, as we have seen, served his apprenticeship at the Cockpit, and was long the chief attraction of the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, took a farewell benefit in 1709, preliminary to the one before mentioned, being then in his seventy-fifth year. As admirable in his private as in his professional character; a devoted husband to a wife who, although an actress, was as virtuous as she was beautiful; generous and charitable to excess to his poorer "brethren of the buskin;" the son of the cook of Charles I. fairly earned the universal esteem in which he was held, and which procured him a royal funeral in Westminster Abbey. Here Mrs. Bracegirdle, equally celebrated for her beauty and her coldness, drove troops of scented fops to distraction.
There seems little doubt of her attachment to the unfortunate Mountford, who acted "Alexander" to her "Statira," and who was murdered by Captain Hill, one of her many rejected suitors. Hill and Lord Mohun having made an abortive attempt to carry off Mrs. Bracegirdle, the former (as we have seen) vowed vengeance upon Mountford, whom he regarded as the cause of the lady's coldness. He accordingly laid wait for the actor in the street, and struck him. Mountford demanded "what that was for;" upon which (according to the dying man's deposition) Hill drew his sword and ran it through the actor's body.
At Drury Lane flourished the lovely "Nancy" Oldfield, who quitted the bar of the "Mitre" for the stage, and whose notorious intimacy with General Churchill, cousin of the great Duke of Marlborough, obtained for her a grave in Westminster Abbey. Persons of rank and distinction contended for the honour of bearing her pall, and her remains lay in state for three days in the Jerusalem Chamber!
Here, too, Barton Booth stimulated the rival parties of Whigs and Tories in Addison's famous tragedy of Cato. Of this piece Johnson remarks, in his "Life of Addison:" "The whole nation was at that time on fire with faction. The Whigs applauded every line in which liberty was mentioned as a satire, on the Tories, and the Tories echoed every clap, to show that the satire was unfelt. The story of Bolingbroke is well known. He called Booth to his box, and gave him fifty guineas for defending the cause of liberty so well against a perpetual dictator."
Is not Drury Lane Theatre also intimately associated with the name of Colley Cibber, successful
manager and dramatist, and for twenty-seven
years Poet Laureate? His annual birthday and
New Year odes, all religiously preserved in the
Gentleman's Magazine, are so invariably bad that
his friends asserted that he wrote them as so many
jokes. The London Magazine for 1737 contains
the following epigram:—
"ON SEEING TOBACCO-PIPES LIT WITH ONE OF THE LAUREATE'S ODES.
"While the soft song that warbles George's praise
From pipe to pipe the living flame conveys,
Critics who long have scorn'd must now admire;
For who can say his ode now wants its fire?"
Drury Lane at this time exhibited a perfect constellation of talent. Quin, Macklin, Garrick, Mrs. Clive, and Mrs. Pritchard, with others of subordinate merit, formed a company which has rarely been equalled. It must have been a cruel blow to Quin, long the favourite tragedian of the town, to see himself rivalled by Macklin, and subsequently surpassed by Garrick. In spite of the contempt with which he affected to regard the latter, he expressed his own secret misgivings in his first burst of indignation at the rapid success of the rising actor:—"If this young fellow be right, then we have all been wrong."
From 1747 to 1776 Drury Lane owned the sway of David Garrick, the English Roscius, of whom Horace Walpole says: "All the run is now after Garrick, a wine-merchant who is turned player. The Duke of Argyll says he is superior to Betterton." This, however, was not the opinion of the cynical Horace, although Alexander Pope's verdict on Garrick was, "That young man never had his equal as an actor, and he will never have a rival." And Dr. Johnson awarded him a still higher meed of praise in saying: "Here is a man who has advanced the dignity of his profession. Garrick has made a player a higher character."
Drury Lane made the fortune of the ugly, witty,
and most popular comic actress, Kitty Clive, thus
celebrated by Horace Walpole—
"Here liv'd the laughter-loving dame—
A matchless actress—Clive her name;
The comic muse with her retir'd,
And shed a tear when she expir'd."
To which Peter Pindar (Dr. Wolcot), who was a devoted admirer of Mrs. Jordan, retorted—
"Know Comedy is hearty—all alive;
Truth and thy trumpet seem not to agree;
The sprightly lass no more expir'd with Clive
Than Dame Humility will do with thee."
Here the silver-toned Mrs. Billington appeared in the opera of Rosetta. Haydn the composer, who admired this lady greatly, observed of Sir Joshua Reynolds' celebrated picture of her—where she is represented as "St. Cecilia" listening to the heavenly choir—"It is a very fine likeness, but there is a strange mistake in the picture. You have painted her listening to the angels; you ought to have represented the angels listening to her."
Old Drury witnessed the farewell performance of Miss Farren (Countess of Derby) in 1797, just before she exchanged the buskin for a coronet; witnessed, too, the first appearance of Harriet Mellon, in 1795, and her last, in February, 1815—for in the previous month she had wedded Mr. Coutts, the banker. In 1827, Mrs. Coutts having been then five years a widow, married the Duke of St. Albans, at that time in his twenty-seventh year. Drury Lane saw the rise of the long and devoted attachment of the Duke of Clarence to Mrs. Jordan, and the short-lived passion of George, Prince of Wales, for the lovely Mrs. Robinson, better known as "Perdita," the character in which she appeared on the evening when she captivated her royal admirer.
Here, in the present century, Edmund Kean ran his brilliant but erratic career, and his more estimable, although less highly gifted, son Charles made his début as "Young Norval." Here, in 1828, Joe Grimaldi, prince of clowns and of good fellows, took his farewell of the stage, where, the following year, Mrs. Nisbet (subsequently Lady Boothby), made her first curtsey to a London audience; and there for several years the imperious Macready rode roughshod over supers, brother-actors, and managers, until, after a personal assault upon the lessee, he transferred his services to the rival house. Neither must the name of Madame Celeste be omitted from the list; for, although it was not Drury Lane Theatre to which she owed her reputation as an actress, it was nevertheless there that she made her first appearance in London, in the ballad of La Bayadere in 1830. This lady may fairly be ranked among the wonders of her age, for in 1874 we find her performing the part of the Indian huntress in The Green Bushes with all the vigour and pathos and much of the freshness of her youth. During those four-and-forty years generations of great actresses have arisen, shone as stars for a score of years, and passed away into oblivion, marriage, or death; but Celeste still survives, still flourishes—forty-four years after her début—bidding defiance alike to old Time and new fashions, as if warranted, like Tennyson's "Brook," to "go on for ever."
The two first operas of Michael Balfe—The Siege of Rochelle and The Maid of Artois—were produced at Drury Lane in 1835–6. The gifted and ill-fated Madame Malibran sustained the principal part in The Maid of Artois a few months before her premature death. In Bunn's "History of the Stage" we are told an amusing anecdote of the famous vocalist in this character. She was supposed in the last act to be perishing with thirst in the desert; the scene was long and exhausting, the lady in delicate health. She therefore proposed to Bunn that he should somehow convey a pint of porter to her in the desert, promising him in that case an encore to the finale. "So," says Bunn, "I arranged that behind the pile of drifted sand on which she sinks exhausted a small aperture should be made in the stage, and through that aperture a pewter-pint of porter was conveyed to the parched lips of this rare child of song, which so revived her, after the terrible exertion of the scene, that she electrified the audience, and had strength to repeat the finale." Bunn having paid Malibran £125 for each of fifteen performances in one month, she, after much persuasion, consented to sing for him throughout the next month for the sum of £1,000, but added, "For goodness' sake, do not let any one know I am singing on such terms!"
The name of Balfe, pre-eminent among our English composers, is intimately associated with Drury Lane, from the time of the young Irishman's unassuming début in the orchestra to his subsequent triumphs as a successful composer of English, French, and Italian opera. The works of Michael Balfe are appreciated not only in England, but in France, Germany, and Italy. The statue lately erected to his honour in the vestibule of this temple, where so many of his triumphs have been achieved—a memorial to which numbers of the most distinguished patrons and professors of music, literature, and the drama, both native and foreign, have added their quota—will be a lasting proof of the estimation in which he has been held both at home and abroad.
It is worth while to notice how the salaries of actors have been steadily rising during the last two centuries. We have Pepys' authority that Mrs. Knipp, "who was like to make the best actor of her time," had her salary increased £30 a year. A century later Garrick, as head of his company, drew the highest salary—i.e., £16 16s. a week. Yet fifty years, and Miss Farren, "the Oldfield of her day," is receiving £31 10s. a week, while scarcely a decade afterwards we find Edmund Kean drawing double that sum nightly.
It was remarked about forty years ago by a wellknown writer "that Malibran drew five times the salary of the Colonial Secretary, the President of America was not so well paid as Ellen Tree, or the Premier of Great Britain as Mr. Macready. What would he have said in 1874, when Madame Christine Nilsson received £200 a night at Drury Lane, and Madame Patti demanded and was paid £800 for singing six songs at the Liverpool Musical Festival?
"Old Drury," viewed simply as a building, has experienced many changes and vicissitudes. In 1672 it was burnt to the ground, and the company migrated to the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, until the completion of a new building, designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
The new theatre was opened in 1674, with a prologue and epilogue by Dryden, who, as shown by Mr. R. P. Collier, in Vol. IV. of the Shakespeare Society's Papers, was joined with Killigrew, Mohun, &c., in the speculation of what was then colloquially termed "the New Play House."
In 1707 this theatre, of which Christopher Rich was then the patentee, was temporarily closed, by order of the Lord Chamberlain, in consequence of the violent quarrels between the proprietors and the actors. It subsequently passed into the hands of Willer, Dogget, Cibber, and Booth. In 1714 a life patent was granted to Sir R. Steele, which five years afterwards was revoked. In 1747, when Lacy and Garrick entered into partnership, the latter revived here the performance of Shakespeare's plays; the prologue on that occasion being written, as every Englishman knows, by Dr. Johnson.
In 1780, during the Gordon Riots, a "No Popery" mob got up a row in the theatre, to which they did considerable damage. The objects of their fury were "the papists and Frenchmen" whom Garrick had engaged to dance in a grand spectacular piece entitled The Chinese Festival. His Majesty George III., who happened to be present the night of the riot, seemed, it is said, rather amused than otherwise!
In 1775 the afterwards famous Mrs. Siddons, then in her twentieth year, made her first appearance at Drury Lane, in the character of "Portia," in The Merchant of Venice. She seems to have excited but little notice at this time, and retired to the provinces the following year. It was not until 1782, when her performance at the Bath Theatre had excited general admiration, that she obtained a re-engagement at Drury Lane—which she used often to call "the wilderness"—and where her brother, John Kemble, made his début as Hamlet, in 1783. In 1776, when Garrick retired from the profession, Messrs. Sheridan, Linley, and Ford became the proprietors of the theatre which he had rendered so justly celebrated. It was pulled down in 1791, and rebuilt, the company meanwhile performing at the Haymarket. In 1794 the new theatre—which was designed by Mr. Holland, and is said to have been a model of elegance and beauty—opened, with every prospect of a long and brilliant career. For some years subsequently the gifted Kemble family—John and Charles, with their unapproachable sister, Mrs. Siddons—were the principal attraction at Drury Lane, and the fortunes of the theatre were seriously affected by their withdrawal, in 1803.
We are told in the "Memoirs" of Sheridan that his translation of The Death of Rolla, under the title of Pizarro, brought him in £25,000 in five weeks. The Era Almanack mentions a curious instance of Sheridan's inveterate habit of procrastination:—"At the time the house was overflowing, on the first night's performance of Pizarro, all that was written of the play was actually rehearsing; and, incredible as it may appear, until the end of the fourth act, neither Mrs. Siddons, nor Charles Kemble, nor Barrymore, had all their speeches for the fifth. Mr. Sheridan was up-stairs in the prompter's-room, where he was writing the last part of the play while the earlier parts were acting, and every ten minutes he brought down as much of the dialogue as he had done, piecemeal, into the green-room, abusing himself and his negligence, and making a thousand winning and soothing apologies for having kept the performers so long in such painful suspense."
In 1809 Drury Lane Theatre was again destroyed by fire. Sheridan, at the time of the conflagration, was at the House of Commons, which voted an immediate adjournment when the disastrous news arrived; though Sheridan himself protested against such an interruption of public business on account of his own or any other private interests. He went thither, however, in all haste, and whilst seeing his own property in flames, sat down with his friend Barry in a coffee-house opposite to a bottle of port, coolly remarking, in answer to some friendly expostulation, that it was "hard if a man could not drink a glass of wine by his own fire!"
The fire which burnt down "Old Drury" was not altogether profitless to the world of poetry, though so heavy a blow to the dramatic muse, for it proved the immediate cause of the appearance of the "Rejected Addresses"—the joint production of Horace and James Smith—one of the most popular contributions to modern light literature. The history of the book was as follows:—In the month of August, 1812, there appeared in the daily newspapers an advertisement to the effect that the committee for rebuilding Drury Lane Theatre were anxious to promote a "free and fair competition" for an address to be spoken upon the re-opening of the theatre on the 10th of October ensuing, and that they had therefore announced to the public that they would be glad to receive such compositions, addressed to their secretary. Some hundred and twelve compositions were sent in—good, bad, and indifferent; and the two Smiths, seizing on the occasion, put together and published in a small volume twenty-one such imaginary addresses or prologues, imitating in the most delicate and graceful manner the styles of the chief writers of the day. The book, as soon as published, sold like wild-fire, and ran through very many editions before the end of the year, and soon established itself as an English classic. Among those writers who were thus travestied were Lord Byron, Scott, Crabbe, Wordsworth, Thomas Moore, Dr. Johnson, "Monk" Lewis, Fitzgerald, William Cobbett, and Samuel T. Coleridge. Of all the imitations, however, that of Sir Walter was universally pronounced the best; and as it contains a vivid description of the scene of conflagration, though in mock-heroic style, we may be pardoned for drawing upon it here rather largely.
First we have a picturesque description of London
in darkness; next, we are thus introduced to the
outbreak of the fire in the early morning—by a
poetical licence, of course, since it happened, in
fact, in the evening:—
"As Chaos, which, by heavenly doom,
Had slept in everlasting gloom,
Started with terror and surprise
When light first flashed upon her eyes:
So London's sons in nightcap woke,
In bedgown woke her dames;
For shouts were heard 'mid fire and smoke,
And twice ten thousand voices spoke—
'The Playhouse is in flames!'
And, lo! where Catherine Street extends,
A fiery tail its lustre lends
To every window-pane;
Blushes each spout in Martlet Court,
And Barbican, moth-eaten fort,
And Covent Garden kennels sport
A bright ensanguined drain."
Then follows the description of the arrival of the
fire-engines, quite in the style of Sir Walter Scott in
"Marmion" or "The Lady of the Lake:"—
"The summoned firemen woke at call,
And hied them to their stations all;
* * * * *
The engines thundered through the street,
Fire-hook, pipe, bucket, all complete,
And torches glared, and clattering feet
Along the pavement paced.
And one, the leader of the band,
From Charing Cross along the Strand,
Like stag by beagles hunted hard,
Ran till he stopped at Vinegar Yard.
The burning badge his shoulder bore,
The belt and oilskin cap he wore,
The cane he had his men to bang,
Showed foreman of the British gang.
His name was Higginbottom: now
'Tis meet that I should tell you how
The others came in view:
The Hand in Hand the race begun,
Then came the Phœnix and the Sun,
The Exchange, where old insurers run,
The Eagle, where the new."
And then we have the fire itself brought before
us in all its sensational details:—
"A sadder scene was ne'er disclosed;
Without, within, in hideous show,
Devouring flames resistless glow,
And blazing rafters downwards go,
And never halloo, 'Heads below!'
Nor notice give at all.
The firemen, terrified, are slow
To bid the pumping torrent flow,
For fear the roof should fall.
Back, Robins, back! Crump, stand aloof!
Whitford, keep near the walls!
Huggins, regard your own behoof!
For, lo! the blazing, rocking roof
Down, down, in thunder, falls.
An awful pause succeeds the stroke,
And o'er the ruins volumed smoke,
Rolling around its pitchy shroud,
Concealed them from the astonished crowd.
At length the mist awhile was cleared,
When, lo! amidst the wreck upreared,
Gradual a moving head appeared,
And Eagle firemen knew
'Twas Joseph Muggins—name revered!—
The foreman of their crew.
Loud shouted all, in signs of woe,
'A Muggins! to the rescue, ho!'
And poured the hissing tide.
Meanwhile, Joe Muggins fought amain,
And strove and struggled, all in vain,
For, rallying but to fall again,
He tottered, sunk, and died."
Of the brothers Smith, the authors of these charming parodies, we have already spoken in our description of Craven Street, Strand. It will be therefore enough to add here the fact that, having shone as wits in London society for more than a quarter of a century, they died, James in 1839, and Horace ten years later. Lord Byron himself, in spite of being one of the authors so pleasantly satirised in the volume, called the "Rejected Addresses" by far the best thing of the kind since the "Rolliad." Slight and small as was the volume, it was reviewed at considerable length by Lord Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review, while the Quarterly criticised it in company with forty of the "Addresses" which had really been "rejected" on the occasion, pronouncing it a model of "humour, good-humour, discrimination, and good taste." It may be of interest, and an encouragement to young authors, to learn that the copyright, which in the first instance Murray refused to buy for twenty, was sold by the brothers for upwards of a thousand pounds! The book has been republished in America, and is read with delight wherever the English language is known. The imitations of Wordsworth ("The Baby's Début"), Cobbett ("The Hampshire Farmer's Address"), Southey ("The Rebuilding"), Coleridge ("Play House Musings"), Crabbe ("The Theatre"), Lord Byron (the first stanzas of "Cui Bono?"), the songs entitled "Drury Lane Hustings" and "The Theatrical Alarm Bell" (imitations of the then editor of the Morning Post), and the travesties of Macbeth, George Barnwell, and The Stranger, were all written by James Smith; the rest, including the parody of Sir Walter Scott, by Horace.
The present edifice—the fourth erected on the
site—modelled upon the plan of the great theatre
at Bordeaux, by Mr. Wyatt, the architect, was
opened in 1812, with a prologue written by Lord
Byron. In 1831 the Doric portico in Catherine
Street, and the colonnade in Little Russell Street,
were added to the structure. It is not a little
singular that the necessity of such a colonnade had
been thus humorously brought under the notice
of the Building Committee as far back as the year
1812, in one of the "Rejected Addresses," in the
following lines, in imitation of S. T. Coleridge:—
"Oh, Mr. Whitbread! fie upon you, sir!
I think you should have built a colonnade.
When tender beauty, looking for her coach,
Protrudes her gloveless hand, perceives the shower,
And draws the tippet closer round her throat,
And ere she mount the step, the oozing mud
Sinks through her pale kid slipper.
On the morrow
She coughs at breakfast, and her gruff papa
Cries, 'There you go! this comes of playhouses!'
To build no portico is penny wise;
Heaven grant it prove not in the end pound foolish!"
The new building was pronounced by the imitators of Mr. Cobbett, in the "Rejected Addresses," "not a gimcrack palace, not a Solomon's temple, not a frost-work of Brobdingnag filagree, but a plain, honest, homely, industrious, wholesome, brown-brick playhouse"—a "large, comfortable house, thanks to Mr. Whitbread." The theatre, in 1818, was under a committee of noblemen and gentlemen, among whom were Lord Yarmouth (afterwards Marquis of Hertford) and Lord Byron, the latter of whom, however, soon after being appointed, left England, never to return.
For many years after that date the great national
theatre ran an erratic and, for the most part,
disastrous career, having been not inaptly compared to a syren luring adventurous lessees to ruin
and bankruptcy. In the agony of desperation it
has worn "motley," caught eagerly at every bizarre
attraction, and been—
"Everything by turns, and nothing long;"
a monster concert-hall, a French hippodrome, and even an arena for the sports of Van Amburgh and his wild beasts, with spasmodic intervals of pantomime and legitimate drama. Sad to relate, we have it on the authority of Mr. Bunn, the lessee, that Van Amburgh was a greater success, in a pecuniary point of view, than Mr. Macready.
For several seasons it was the home of English opera, a class of entertainment which has never been appreciated as it deserves among our countrymen, though frequent attempts have been made to give it a position equal to that enjoyed by Italian opera. It may be observed here that Clara Novello, now the Countess Gugliucci, made a brilliant début at Drury Lane, in 1843, as "Sappho."
Since the destruction by fire of Her Majesty's Theatre, in 1867, "Old Drury" has risen greatly in the social scale, having been advanced to the dignity of the opposition opera-house to Covent Garden. This, which was supposed to have been only a temporary arrangement until the new operahouse should be built, now appears likely to be a permanent one, in consequence of circumstances to be hereafter mentioned in connection with Her Majesty's Theatre; and the two great playhouses of Covent Garden and Drury Lane are once more rivals—as in former times, in the days of Garrick and Rich.
The general form of the edifice is that of a parallelogram; its extent from north to south being 131 feet, and from east to west 237 feet, independently of the painting and scene-rooms, which are partially detached, extending 93 feet further eastward. The chief entrance is approached by a flight of steps, protected by a porch. The entrancehall communicates, eastward, with the rotunda and the staircases to the boxes; on the north and south, with the pit-lobbies; and from the latter, by circuitous passages, with the pit itself. The rotunda and grand staircase form very beautiful portions of the theatre. The rotunda, 30 feet in diameter, is surrounded by a circular gallery, and crowned by an elegant dome. Here, among other statues of famous poets and actors, is the bust of Balfe already alluded to.
The auditory has a most imposing effect, and is built nearly in the form of a horse-shoe; it is 46 feet wide at the stage, 52 feet across the centre of the pit, and 48 feet from the front of the stage to the centre of the dress-circle. The height from the floor of the pit to the ceiling is 47 feet. There are three tiers of boxes, and an upper and lower gallery; and the house is calculated to accommodate upwards of 3,000 persons.
The proscenium, being as it were the portico of the stage, has less of imitative art in its decoration than the other parts of the house. On each side are two demi-columns of the Corinthian order, supporting a rich entablature, a coved ceiling, and, spanning the stage, an elliptical arch, the whole richly gilt upon a white ground. Down to about the year 1860, when the theatre underwent extensive renovation, the proscenium bore above it the royal arms, together with the well-known classical motto "Veluti in speculum." In its original state the interior of the theatre was circular, but it was altered to its present form during the management of Mr. Elliston, at a cost of about £21,000. The whole of the interior has undergone renovation at different periods; it is very effectively decorated, gold being extensively used in the embellishment.
The stage is of great extent, being 96 feet from the orchestra to the back wall, and upwards of 77 feet in width from wall to wall. The manager's room, actress' dressing-rooms, and various other apartments, are on the north side of the stage; and on the south are the green-rooms, the prompter'sroom, the actors' dressing-rooms, and a range of stabling for twenty horses. Above the auditory are the carpenters' shops and store-rooms; whilst the gas-fitters' and property-rooms are in the immediate vicinity of the stage. The painting-room is over the eastern extremity of the stage, and measures nearly 80 feet in length by 36 in height and width. An opening has been made through the original back wall of the stage, whereby the space below the painting-room can be made available for scenic effects, thus giving to the stage an entire depth of 125 feet, the largest of any stage in Europe.