The prettiest and most elegant theatre that London could ever boast', wrote a
reporter in 1785 of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. But in this fascinating and
scholarly work by Dr. Sheppard and his colleagues we go behind the scenes.
From the opening night in 1663 of the first little playhouse, licensed by letters patent from
Charles II, right up to the present day, we learn of the disputes and intrigues, the bankruptcies and successes.
The ubiquitous Pepys saw the smart theatre boxes dressed with bands of gilt leather,
while he sat with his wife on the second night of the very first production, The Humorous
Lieutenant. He also rather acidly commented, on a later visit, that rain and hail, as well as
light and air, came into the auditorium.
The dreaded Plague closed the first theatre in 1665. It reopened, but we hear later of
plays banned by the Lord Chamberlain, of endless arguments over the patents, of squabbles
By 1743 the famous David Garrick was the rising star at Drury Lane. Thirty-two years
later Robert Adam transformed the theatre, but in 1794 Henry Holland designed not only
a brand new theatre but a surrounding complex of taverns, shops and coffee-houses. He
shared some of the problems of our own times. A strike, of carpenters, which Sheridan
settled by giving them a barrel of ale. When the theatre was finished the Prince of Wales's
box gleamed in blue and silver, the King's box was furnished in crimson and gold; and
Rudolph Cabanel, machinist, of Lambeth, had worked 'Nine clear and compleat days and
nights . . .' to fix the stage machinery needed for Macbeth.
But after only fifteen years this splendid theatre was destroyed by fire. The present
building by Benjamin Dean Wyatt—its original auditorium now completely reconstructed
—followed in 1812, and Crabb Robinson 'went to Drury Lane to see the house, not the
performance'. Perhaps he was right, since the opening night had been an extraordinary
mixture. An address written by Byron, then Hamlet, followed by a musical farce—The
Devil to Pay.
You will find all these intriguing touches in Dr. Sheppard's amazingly detailed survey,
but although loath to leave Drury Lane, I was especially interested in the history of The
Royal Opera House.
John Rich was the most successful theatre manager of the eighteenth century and it was
he who opened the theatre at Covent Garden in 1732. Built by Edward Shepherd, its
patrons later saw the first production of She Stoops to Conquer, and Sheridan's The Rivals.
It was, alas, burnt down, and in 1809 Sir Robert Smirke built the second theatre. In the
old accounts I noticed that he paid over £6,000 to a plasterer, Francis Bernasconi. I
wonder how many English houses and public buildings would have been the plainer, and
sadder, without the talents of Italian craftsmen.
By the 1820's Covent Garden was in low water. Charles Kemble complained that 'the
late hours of dining take away all the upper classes from the theatre'.
In 1856 it was leased for six weeks, perhaps out of desperation, to a conjurer, J. H.
Anderson, known as the 'Wizard of the North'. He already had the dubious distinction
that two theatres had burnt down over his head. He organized a masked ball at Covent
Garden, and during this party, unbelievably, added the third.
The following year E. M. Barry started to build the Royal Opera House which we
know today. I have been there so often. To Galas—to hear Callas, unforgettable as Floria
Tosca, to hear Christoff, magnificent as Boris Godunov, to performances where those
dreaded slips fell from the programme to announce the tenor's illness, or to take my small
daughter to see The Sleeping Beauty. I have so often gazed at the beautiful aquamarine
ceiling; a piece of Fabergé made for a Giant. I am always impressed by the grandeur of the
red velvet curtains and the symmetry of the mermaid-angels whose lights adorn tier upon
tier of seats.
The Royal Opera House has neither the exquisite beauty of the Cuvilliés Theater in
Munich, nor the charm of the opera house in Parma, but it has great drama and a feeling of
occasion which is essentially British.
Dr. Sheppard tells me that this book could not have been written without the great kindness of the Trustees of the Bedford Settled Estates in allowing access to their archives, and
to them the Greater London Council is enormously grateful. I, as chairman, and all the
members of the Historic Buildings Board do want to thank Dr. Sheppard especially, and all
those other wonderful people who have so generously given their time and ability to ensure
that this record of two famous theatres will be available to scholars and historians of our
own and future generations.
Chairman, Historic Buildings Board
of the Greater London Council