The Theatre Royal, Bridges Street The Duke's Theatre, Dorset Garden The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

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Link to Tennis Court Theatres

"The play is to start soon, please enter the playhouse""Gosh, the old Tennis Court playhouses had nothing on this!"  Please click here for more information."I say dear, this new playhouse is much more sophisticated than the windy old Jacobean houses!"  Please click here for more information
Link to the Inside of the Theatre

The Exterior of The Duke's Theatre, Dorset Garden. Engraving by W. Dolle for Elkanah Settle's The Empress of Morocco.1

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The Theatre Royal, Bridges Street (Opened 7 May 1663)

Please click on the image to see it in greater detail.

Killigrew's King's company was struggling under the fierce competition from Davenant's Lincoln's Inn theatre. This was primarily due to the Gibbons's Tennis Court theatre's lack of perspective scenery. Pepys sums up Killigrew's situation perfectly in his description of Gibbons's theatre in July 1661:

'But strange to see this house that used to be so thronged, now empty since the Opera began: and so will continue for a while, I believe'.2

Here Pepys refers to 'the Opera', by this he means Davenant's production of The Siege of Rhodes with scenes by John Webb.

To remedy this problem of diminishing audience numbers Killigrew set out plans for the construction of the Theatre Royal. This theatre was the first to be constructed as a purpose built playhouse in the Restoration period, but its opening was welcomed with mixed reception. Two foreign visitors give excellent descriptions of the interior and are most complimentary. In May 1663, Monsieur de Maonconys described the theatre as, 'the neatest and tidiest I have ever seen, completely covered in green baize, including the boxes that are also covered with strips of gold-tooled leather. All benches of the pit, where people of rank also sit, are shaped in a semi-circle, each row higher than the next. The scene changes and the machines are most ingeniously thought out and executed.'3 In the same year Samuel Sorbiére described the interior of the theatre:

'...the best places are in the pit, where men and women promiscuously sit, everybody with their company. The stage is very handsome, being covered with green cloth; the scenic area is quite open, with many scene changes and perspective views...'4

However British visitors such as Samuel Pepys are less complimentary and highlight failings in the theatre's construction. On the second day of the theatre's opening Pepys described the playhouse as, 'made with extraordinary good contrivance, and yet has some faults, as the narrowness of the passages in and out of the pit, and the distance from the stage to the boxes, which I am confident cannot hear; but for all other things it is well, only above all, the music being below, and most of it sounding under the stage, there is no hearing of the basses at all, nor very well of the trebles, which sure must be mended...'5 Indeed Pepys final statement was correct, as in 1665-6, while the playhouses were shut because of the plague, Killigrew set about rebuilding the playhouse to resolve some of the faults. Pepys visited the theatre while under construction, he found the playhouse, 'all in dirt, they being altering of the stage to make it wider.'6 Perhaps Killigrew had been too anxious to change and innovative on what had been perfectly successful in its original design at the tennis court theatres.

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The Duke's Theatre, Dorset Garden (Opened 9 November 1671)
Although Davenant was prospering at Lisle's Tennis Court, he was not completely satisfied with the playhouse. It was not, however, until Davenant's death in 1668 that plans for the construction of a new theatre for the Duke's players were put into motion. It was Davenant's widow and leading members of the company that finally saw the construction of the Dorset Garden theatre, which has been ascribed to the architect Sir Christopher Wren. The exterior of the building can be seen in the diagram at the top of the page. There are no contemporary illustrations of the auditorium, but there are several engravings of the stage and scenery used in a production of The Empress of Morocco. The French traveller, François Burnet, visiting the theatre in 1676 describes the auditorium as, 'infinitely more beautiful and well-kept than those in the playhouses of our French actors. The audience is seated in the pit, arranged in the form of an amphitheatre, and there is no noise. There are only seven boxes, holding twenty persons each. There are the same number of boxes up above and, higher still there is the gallery.'7 It is somewhat unusual that there is 'no noise', Restoration audiences were notoriously loud and fidgety, perhaps the French were louder!

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The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (Opened 26 March 1674)
In January 1672 Killigrew's Theatre Royal in Bridges Street burnt to the ground. It is commonly believed that the fire began in an orange woman's store under the stairs at the back of the building. For two years the King's company had to use Lisle's Tennis Court to perform while they waited for the new theatre to be constructed. The new Theatre Royal was built on the site of the old and was designed by Christopher Wren. A design for a playhouse dating back to the Restoration period was discovered and is commonly thought to be the design of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Although the picture is not of a high quality, the rough design can been seen below. This is the design Richard Leacroft used in his scale reconstruction, see Inside a Restoration Theatre.


A Longitudinal section through a playhouse by Christopher Wren.8

Although there is still some controversy over the exact layout of the Theatre Royal, David Thomas describes it as having 'the best features of English theatre traditions with Continental neo-classic theory and practice. Elegant in its simplicity, functionally attractive to both actors and audiences, it provided an effective blueprint for theatre architects in England throughout the eighteenth century.'9
Henri Misson's 1698 visit to the playhouse offers a particularly interesting contemporary view of Drury Lane that describes not only the architecture but the atmosphere of the playhouse too:

'The pit is an amphitheatre, filled with benches with no backboards and adorned and covered with green cloth. Men of quality, particularly the younger sort, some ladies of reputation and virtue, and abundance of damsels that hunt for prey, sit all together in this place, higgledy-piggledy, chatter, toy, play, hear, hear not. Further up, against the wall. Under the first gallery and just opposite to the stage, rises another amphitheatre, which is taken by persons of the best quality, among whom are generally very few men. The galleries, whereof there are only two rows, are filled with none but ordinary people, particularly the upper one.'10

When compared with the earlier description by François Burnet; Misson's view of the theatre shows a great divergence in audience behaviour. This is perhaps explained by the fact that closer to the turn of the century the make up of the Restoration audiences changed and a more varied cross section of society started to attend. In terms of the theatre design the descriptions of Burnet and Misson refer to two different theatres, yet the architectural scene they depict is very similar, Christopher Wren, learning from classical theatre design and from his own success does seem to have been consistent with his basic theatre design.

 

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1 Montague Summers, The Restoration Theatre, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co 1934, plate III, facing p.32.
2
Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, The Globe edition, Macmillian & Co Ltd 1905, p.91.
3 David Thomas, Theatre in Europe: A Documentary: History Restoration and Georgian England1660-1788, ed. David Thomas, Cambridge University Press 1989, p.66.
4 Ibid., p.66.
5 Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, The Globe edition, Macmillian & Co Ltd 1905, p.193.
6 Ibid., p.375.
7 David Thomas, Theatre in Europe: A Documentary: History Restoration and Georgian England1660-1788, ed. David Thomas, Cambridge University Press 1989, p.69.
8 Richard Leacroft, The Development of the English Playhouse, Eyre Methuen Ltd 1973, p.90.
9 David Thomas, Theatre in Europe: A Documentary: History Restoration and Georgian England1660-1788, ed. David Thomas, Cambridge University Press 1989, p.71.
10 Ibid., p.72.