Theatre Choices for Valentine’s Day in Regency London
By Regan Walker
Today, we have a lot of choices for theaters (“theatre” in England) if we’re looking for one for Valentine’s Day, but you might be surprised to know how many theatres Londoners had to choose from during the Regency period.
In researching London theatres in England during the Regency period (1811-1820) for my Valentine’s Day story The Shamrock & The Rose I was amazed to discover the numerous choices that Londoners had on any given night. Many more than we have today in many of America’s cities if we are talking live theatre. From the variety of choices Londoners had, it would seem they frequently enjoyed an evening at the theatre with as many as 20,000 attending on any given evening.
One could see a drama, perhaps one of Shakespeare’s plays, a light comedy or an opera, as well as ballet, pantomimes and skits—even a clown! And some of these offerings might be combined in a single theatre in a single night.
As you can see from the pictures, while the theatres had boxes on the sides for those who could afford them, the majority of people stood in the central area. The theatres were lit mostly by candlelight from a score of chandeliers, and while this might seem romantic, it also presented some issues. First, since this light was not dimmed as the entertainment began, you could see everyone in the audience as well as the actors on stage and they could see you! So whatever activities you might think to engage in while in your private box, they had best be discreet. Second, the use of candlelight also posed a fire hazard, as evidenced by the fact several of the theatres burned down and had to be replaced.
More than one theatre had Letters Patent from the Crown, and could, therefore, claim the name “Theatre-Royal.” In addition to those, there were more specialized theatres and smaller playhouses as well. Here are some of the choices they had:
The Theatre-Royal, Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House) was rebuilt in 1809 after a fire destroyed it the year before. Holding crowds exceeding 3,000, it became, perhaps, the leading theatre of the time. Several of the actresses and singers who performed on this stage married into the peerage, including Mary Bolton, Lady Thurlow, mentioned in my story.
The Theatre-Royal, Drury Lane (mentioned in my Christmas short story, The Holly & The Thistle in reference to its holiday entertainment), was redesigned in 1812 after a fire destroyed it in 1809. That was the fourth theatre to be on the site, the first having been constructed in 1663, pursuant to Letters Patent from Charles II. This was the first theatre to be entirely lit by gaslight in 1817.
The Theatre-Royal, Hay-Market (also known as Haymarket Theatre or the Little Theatre) dates to 1720. (My Valentine’s Day short story, The Shamrock & The Rose opens with a scene set in this theatre.) It was relocated and redesigned in 1820 and the new theatre, while in many ways a reflection of the old one with flat sidewalls, tiers of boxes, a back gallery and the pit, was much more opulent with colors of pink, crimson and gold, and a circular vestibule “almost lined” with mirrors. It was the last theatre to be lit by gaslight (in 1843).
The Sadler’s Wells Theatre in the London Borough of Islington during the Regency featured famous actors, including Edmund Kean and Joseph Grimaldi, who was best remembered for his character “Joey the Clown” with white face and rouge half-moons on each cheek. Sadler’s Wells (also known as “The Aquatic Theatre“) was used to stage sensational naval melodramas, including a recreation of Nelson’s victory at the Nile called Naval Pillars, and a recreation of the Franco-Spanish siege of Gibraltar, which included water and replicas of the fleet of ships, using a one inch to one foot scale, and working miniature cannon.
In addition to the major theatres holding thousands, there were many other options for the theatregoer in the Regency:
The Pantheon, constructed on Oxford Street in 1772, was originally designed for balls and masquerades before becoming an opera house in 1791. It was converted to a theatre 1811-12, but its role in the theatres of London was short lived. Damaged by fire and troubled financially owing to irregularities in its license, it was replaced in 1814 by the Pantheon Bazaar.
The Haymarket (King’s Theatre) Opera House was originally built by the architect and playwright Sir John Vanbrugh in 1705. Destroyed by fire in 1789, it was rebuilt and used extensively for opera.
The Lyceum Theatre first became a “licensed” house in 1809 and was rebuilt in 1816, and renamed The English Opera House. It was famous for being the first theatre in London to feature some gas lighting (1817), and for hosting the London première of Mozart’s Italian opera Così fan tutte.
The Adelphi Theatre was constructed in 1806 by merchant John Scott to showcase his daughter’s theatrical talents, and was given a new facade and redecorated in 1814. It reopened in 1819 as the Adelphi, named after the area of West London built by the brothers Adam from 1768. Among the actors who appeared on its stage was the comedian Charles Matthews, whose work was so admired by young Charles Dickens.
The Olympic Theatre was a playhouse built from the timbers of the French warship “Ville de Paris” (the former deck serving as the stage). It opened as the “Olympic Pavilion” in 1806. After financial losses, in 1813, it was sold to Robert William Elliston, who refurbished the interior and renamed it the “Little Drury Lane” by virtue of its proximity to the more established patent theatre.
The Royalty Theatre was opened in 1787 by the actor John Palmer in defiance of the 1737 patent monopoly act and featured as its first production As You Like It. Without a proper license, however, it was forced to close, and Palmer was arrested. Under the management of William Macready, the Royalty continued on, struggling with pantomimes and burlettas (comic opera). In 1816, it was renamed the “East End Theatre,” and continued to offer entertainment until it was burned down ten years later.
About The Shamrock and the Rose
A stint playing Portia at the Theatre-Royal at Haymarket in London, a dropped valentine and a dangerous desire lead gentle-born Rose Collingwood into the arms of a handsome Irish barrister whose love will hazard all she is.
“Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
—from The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
London, February 1818
Morgan O’Connell hardly noticed Sophie as she turned her attention from the stage and artfully tossed her head of dark curls, smiling at him from behind her lace-covered fan. He was tired of his companion’s feigned shyness and coquettish glances, just as he was tired of the play they would be seeing. The Merchant of Venice, though just beginning, held little interest for him. Once a favorite, he supposed he’d seen too many bad productions for it to remain so. Still, he liked the ambience of the Theatre-Royal at Haymarket, which seemed the place he most often sought entertainment now that he lived in London. Sophie seemed to be enjoying it, too.
His gaze drifted to the stage where appeared the three chests from which Portia’s suitors must choose, her dead father having left a puzzle to determine which man would gain both his daughter and his wealth. Gold, silver and lead; only one held the prize. And the cost to hazard a guess was high, for those who failed must vow never to wed.
As the play unfolded, Morgan’s eyes soon diverted from the chests to the woman acting the part of Portia. She was beautiful and young, somewhere between nineteen and twenty-one. Though he couldn’t tell if that luxurious long brown hair was the actress’s own, the sixteenth-century gown was most becoming to her curves. Her acting was extraordinary, holding him enraptured and sweeping him into a story he’d thought no longer held any allure. Small movements of her eyes, facial expressions and gestures conveyed much that Shakespeare’s lines did not. If she’d never spoken a word, he would have known Portia’s true heart. When she did speak, he believed in a real Portia of long ago.
Ignoring his female companion, Morgan leaned forward. “A superb Portia, Roger, would you not agree?”
“She’s captured my attention,” his friend whispered, likely so Judith Seaton sitting next to him would not hear. Judith was a new love interest, and Roger had been trying to impress her. “I’ve heard she is fresh to the stage but already drawing many compliments.”
“Remind me who she is,” Morgan said in a voice too low for Sophie to hear.
“Lily Underwood, as I recall the playbill.”
Morgan nodded and sat back, relieved that Sophie had again taken up her study of the audience below. It was clear she was more a follower of the haut ton than a devotee of Shakespeare.
From his box above the stage, Morgan could see well the actors moving about below. His eyes lingered on the woman portraying Portia, the one he now knew as Miss Underwood. She had a compelling voice, one that deepened as the character she portrayed donned the guise of a man to adroitly argue the points of law that would save her lover’s friend while cleverly entrapping the moneylender who demanded Antonio’s flesh.
Leaning forward, he listened as she spoke the lines that were his favorites:
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
Portia was the kind of woman Morgan wanted: brave, forthright and intelligent, a woman whose spirit was equal to his own. Unfortunately, these were not qualities he’d find in an English actress, however comely. And though he might consider a tryst with such an actress, his Irish family would only be satisfied with an Irish bride.
About the Author
Bestselling author Regan Walker loved to write stories as a child, particularly those about adventure-loving girls, but by the time she got to college more serious pursuits took priority. One of her professors encouraged her to pursue the profession of law, which she did. Years of serving clients in private practice and several stints in high levels of government gave her a love of international travel and a feel for the demands of the “Crown” on its subjects. Hence her romance novels often involve a demanding sovereign who taps his subjects for “special assignments.” In each of her novels, there is always real history and real historic figures.
Regan lives in San Diego with her golden retriever, Link, whom she says inspires her every day to relax and smell the roses.