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NEW MONTHLY MAGAZINE.
THE METROPOLITAN THEATRES. A Chronological History of their Origin and Progress. The only object of this sketch is to present the reader with a chronological arrangement of facts, (without entering into particular details,) so as to offer a succinct account of the origin, growth, and progress of theatrical representations in this metropolis.
For this purpose it might be sufficient to commence this sketch with the reign of Charles II., at which period were granted the patents under which the two winter theatres for a long time claimed the exclusive privilege of amusing the town with dramatic performances of every class, —from stately tragedy to broad farce,-from gorgeous spectacle to comic pantomime. But it will be as well to premise that, previously at least to the reign of the first Charles, it does not appear that the monarch had any notion that the theatres were within the legitimate sphere of his prerogative, or that he had any right to interfere with the regulation of dramatic more than with any other species of amusement to which the people were for the time addicted : nor indeed, looking to the nature of the regal prerogative in England, does it seem that such matters are by law under its influence; for stage-plays in England, like the comedies and tragedies of Greece, had their rise from religious festivities,-from the mysteries (rude dramatic representations of scriptural subjects) sprang the moralities, in which was wrought up something more of a mundane character. Of these, at least of the former of them, the monks and unbeneficed clergy were, for the most part, the actors and managers, -whether stimulated by the pure desire of thus giving popular notoriety to their doctrines, or by the less disinterested motive of rendering the amusement of the people subservient to their own gain, it would be useless to discuss: certain, however, it is, that the prerogative of the crown was never intended in any case to control such exhibitions.
In this rude and indigested state stood theatrical representations at the period of the Reformation in this country; about which time we perceive indications of the rise of a more legitimate species of drama, though still involved with much low buffoonery,--as the drama in all countries ever has been, both at its rise and decline. But as there is no evidence, and, indeed, from the nature of things, it seems impossible that, before this time, the kingly power was ever exercised in the regulation of theatrical affairs, so neither does it appear that, in its somewhat bettered state, they were as yet subjected to its influence. Henry VIII., who arrogated to himself no small share of temporal and spiritual authority, neither as hereditary monarch of the realm, nor as assignee of the papal power, ever exercised this subsequently discovered privilege. His daughter Elizabeth, who assuredly inherited a fair share of her
Nov.-VOL. XXXVIII. NO, CLV.
father's high notions of regal power, (witness her frequent declarations to her parliaments that “ they ought not to deal, nor to judge, nor to meddle with her majesty's prerogative royal,”) yet at a time when the English drama was too obviously at its most flourishing height to allow of a supposition that it could escape from its insignificance, neither did this Queen practise or assume any right of controlling the theatres. Nor is it alone from such negative premises that we are entitled to draw the conclusion that in law no such right ever did exist in the crown, for there are these positive facts—1st. That by far the greater portion (if not all) of the companies of players at this time formed each a portion of some nobleman's retinue, and they were, in fact, his hired servants, although their representations were chiefly for the public gratification and their own emolument. 2d. When, at length, it became the practice for bodies of players, together with minstrels, fencers, bear-wardens, &c. &c. to stroll about the country, giving out that they were the company of some nobleman, and, from their generally bad and dissolute character, it was considered advisable to put a stop to these proceedings,--this was effected, not by exercise of the royal prerogative, (which, if constitutional and recognized, would have been the simplest and shortest method,) but by an act of the legislature itself, (39 Eliz., cap. 4,) which enacted that all such persons should be punished as vagrants and vagabonds, with the exception of such players as could authenticate their pretensions, by the production of an authority to act, under the hand and seal of their alleged patrons.
But although this royal privilege appears either not to have existed or to have been so long wholly unused, there is no doubt that it was soon exercised in a most vigorous manner; and though the courts of law have since decided that this prerogative could not legally be enforced to the full extent to which it had been attempted, in the very teeth, too, of an existing statute, (that of Monopolies, 21 Jac. I. cap. 3,) yet still the legislature has, in some measure, by a recent statute, (25 Geo. II. cap. 36,) sanctioned this branch of the prerogative; and, therefore, though it may not have been idle to have so far discussed this matter, it clearly would be so to deny that, at the present day, at least within the limits of Westminster, the crown has a regulating jurisdiction over theatres.
To return to the immediate subject of this sketch, the chronology of the two so-called patent theatres :
1638. (14 Car. I.)—It appears from the letters patent granted by King Charles II. to Sir William Davenant and Thomas Killigrew, bearing date the 15th of January, 1662, that his father, Charles I., “ of glorious memory," on the 26th of March, in the fourteenth year of his reign, (1638,) had granted a patent to the said Sir William Davenant, (then simply gentleman,) his heirs, &c., a license to new build a theatre behind the Three Kings Ordinary, in Fleet-street, or elsewhere, “wherein plays, musical entertainments, scenes, or other the like presentments, might be presented." There was also a power to Sir William Davenant to collect and regulate a company for this purpose, and to receive money from the public,
Whether this was the first patent of the kind ever granted, or whether there is any other copy of it extant beyond this recital, I am not aware: *
* In 1603, (1 Jac. I.,) a license was granted under the privy seal to Shakspeare, Fletcher, and others, to act plays at the Globe, in Bankside, as well as in any other part of the realm, during the King's pleasure,
it might be difficult, perhaps, to conjecture what the object was of this grant, as there is no indication of any intention to erect a monopoly upon it, nor anything from which it can be gathered that the new theatre was to be exclusively under his Majesty's protection. The probability is, that this was merely a license to the King's company to act for the public amusement, and receive money for their own private emolument.
This fact, however, matters but little; for during the immediately succeeding years of the commonwealth, theatrical amusements were wholly discountenanced, and fell into disuse, and almost oblivion.
1659. (10 Car. II.)-On General Monk's march to London in this year, one Rhodes, a bookseller, at Charing Cross, and formerly wardrobe keeper to the King's company of comedians at the Blackfriars, obtained a grant from the ruling powers to set up a company of players at the Cockpit in Drury Lane, which was an old play-house. There were, in this year, three play-houses :
1. The above-mentioned one of Rhodes's at the Cockpit.
3. One under William Bastus, in Salisbury Court. · 1660. (11 Car. II.)-On the 15th November, Sir William Davenant's company commenced playing at the house in Salisbury Court; and played there till the sth of April, 1662.
Killigrew's company played in Gibbon's Tennis Court, in Vere Street, during this year and till the 8th of April, 1663.
1662. (14 Car. II.)-In this year the patent, dated 15th January, was granted by Charles II. to Davenant and Killigrew. After reciting as above the former one, it further recites that, in the preceding May, (1661,) it was exemplified, and that this patent and exemplification were now both surrendered to be cancelled.
The second patent then proceeds to make a similar grant to Sir W. Davenant, of a license to erect a new theatre in any place in London, Westminster, or the suburbs, to be assigned and allotted out by the surveyor of the royal works, “wherein tragedies, comedies, plays, operas, musical scenes, and all other entertainments of the stage whatsoever may be shewn and presented;" and to gather together and regulate a company to act either “ within the house in Lincoln's Inn Fields," or elsewhere; that this company shall be the servants of the King's brother, the Duke of York. Then, after some unimportant clauses with regard to the receipt of money and the regulation of the company, follows the important passage by which it has been contended a monopoly was created : it premises that divers companies have acted in London, Westminster, and the suburbs, “ without any authority for that purpose,” and proceeds thus:-,
“ We do hereby declare our dislike of the same, and will, and grant that only the said company erected and set up, or to be erected and set up, by the said Sir William Davenant, his heirs and assigns, by virtue of these presents, and one other company erected and set up, or to be erected and set up, by Thomas Killigrew, Esq., his heirs or assigns, and none other, shall from henceforth act or represent comedies, tragedies, plays, or entertainments of the stage within our said cities of London and Westminster, or the suburbs thereof; which said company to be erected by the said Thomas Killigrew, his heirs or assigns, shall be subject to his and their government and authority, and shall be styled the company of us and of our royal consort." Then follow regulations for the preservation of “ amity and corre
spondence betwist the said companies, and that the one may not encroach upon the other by any indirect means,” and for the acting of women's parts by the proper sex, and the patent concludes with the following clause :
“ That these our letters patent, or the enrolment thereof, shall be in all things good and effectual in the law, according to the true intent and meaning of the same, anything in these presents contained, or any law, statute, act, ordinance, proclamation, provision or restriction, or any other matter, cause, or thing whatsoever to the contrary in any wise notwithstanding."
Under this patent Davenant opened his house in the Tennis Court, Portugal Street, Lincoln's Inn, on the 8th of April.
On the 25th of April, in the same year, other letters patent were made out, precisely similar to those last set forth, except that the recital of the patent granted in Charles I.'s reign is omitted, and the grant to Killigrew precedes that to Davenant.
It would be difficult, perhaps, to ascertain the intention of this latter patent so soon after the former one, for if that were inoperative from being illegal, this must have been equally so: if the first were valid, the second would have been a nullity. It is only necessary further to add, that the latter has no expressed reference whatever to the former.
1663. (15 Car. II.)-On the 8th of April, Killigrew opened the theatre which he had built in Drury Lane.
On the 28th of April an order was issued by the said Chamberlain commanding the King's company of players to submit to Killigrew's authority; which indicates an early disagreement between the new (patent) managers and their companies.
1668. (20 Car. II.)-Davenant died.
1671. (23 Car. II.)-A new house was opened in Dorset Gardens, Salisbury Square, under the management of Lady Davenant, (relict of Sir William,) but it did not answer.
1672. (24 Car. II.) – In January the house in Drury Lane was burnt.
1682. (34 Car. IT.)-By order of the 4th of May, Killigrew's patent was united to Davenant's patent, “ from thenceforth to be as one, and so for ever after continue."
It appears the two companies acted together both at Dorset Gardens, (the house belonging to Davenant's company,) and at Drury Lane.
There is some confusion as to the date of this transaction. That, here given is from an abstract of the report of the case of Charles Killigrew versus Charles Davenant, (the eldest son of Sir William,) which was heard before the Chancellor Somers, on Monday, the 7th of December, 1691.
In Cibber's “ Apology," (p. 61,) the date is given 1684 (36 Car. II.); and the union of the two companies “ into one, exclusive of all others,' is said to have been effected “ by the King's advice, which perhaps amounted to a command." And, in an answer to a petition presented to the Lord Chamberlain Dorset by Thomas Betterton and others, (a copy of which answer is in the Lord Chamberlain's Office,) the patentees allege that both patents were united by indenture bearing date the 4th of May, 1692, (4 William and Mary,) but this latter is obviously a clerical error for 1682.
The alleged cause for this union of the two patents was the various disturbances and revolts that had taken place among the actors; but it is not improbable that these revolts arose from the incapability of the patentees to pay their respective companies, owing to the scarcity of play-goers, there not being at the time sufficient to fill the two theatres.
1689. (1 William and Mary.)-Charles Davenant assigned his share in
the incorporated patent to Alexander Davenant; it seems that afterwards the whole patent became the property of the latter.
1690. (2 William and Mary.)-Twenty-fourth of March, Alexander Davenant sold the patent to Christopher Rich, a lawyer; who afterwards took Sir Thomas Skipwith as a partner.
1694. (6 William and Mary.)-Rich behaved tyrannically to the actors, and attempted to reduce their salaries. Congreve, Barry, Mrs. Bracegirdle, and others, entered into an association, with Betterton at their head, and petitioned the Earl of Dorset, then Lord Chamberlain, to relieve them from the tyranny of the monopolists. His Grace laid their complaints before his Majesty, who caused his counsel learned in the law to be consulted upon the subject; and they were of opinion that no patent for acting plays, &c., could tie up the hands of a succeeding prince from granting a similar privilege. While this affair was in progress, Queen Mary died, (28th December,) which caused a suspension of all public diversions.
1695. (7 Will, III.)-On 25th of March the Lord Chamberlain granted a license to Betterton and the others, under the style of “his Majesty's sworn servants and comedians in ordinary;" who, having raised a new theatre in Tennis Court, Lincoln's Inn Fields, by subscription, acted therein, under the name of Betterton's company.
So that, at this period, there were two theatres open,—the one playing, it seems, alternately in Drury Lane and Dorset Gardens, under the one united patent; the other in Tennis Court, Lincoln's Inn Fields, under a license*.
1704. (2 Anne.)—Betterton conveyed his license to Sir John Vanbrugh.
1705. (3 Anne.)_Vanbrugh having built an immense theatre in the Haymarket, (on the site of the present Italian Opera House), took Congreve into partnership; and having shut up the house in Tennis Court, they opened the new one under Betterton's license.
1706. (4 Anne.)-This speculation having failed, on the 9th of April they sold the license and let the theatre to Mr. Owen M‘Swiney, who undertook to pay them 51. for every night's performance, so that the gross sum should not exceed 7001. in the year.
1707. (5 Anne.)-Drury Lane was shut up by order of the Lord Chamberlain; and the patent company, (now called the Queen's) on the 30th of November, played at Dorset Gardens.
1708. (6 Anne.)-Tenth of January, the Queen's company, from Dorset Gardens, joined M‘Swiney's company in the Haymarket; but they were afterwards all ordered by the Lord Chamberlain to return under Rich and Skipwith, the patenteest, as her Majesty's sole company of comedians; the greater part of M‘Swiney's company seems to have joined them, as that gentleman soon afterwards appropriated his large theatre to the new speculation of the performance of Italian operas.
It appears that, at this period, the theatres were considered exclusively under the management of the Lord Chamberlain, as there is extant, in the office, a printed order of the 2d of March, in this year, by the Duke of Kent, the Chamberlain, that no person should be admitted behind the scenes &c. to interrupt the performances.
* Soon after Queen Anne's accession Betterton presented a petition to her Majesty setting forth that the town wculd not maintain two play-houses ; the somewhat inconsequential result of which was a license to rent another theatre " as a help or nursery to his forementioned theatre.” This document contains some - curious facts relative to the state of the theatres at that period, which would not be unapplicable to those of the present time. . f I am doubtful to which theatre the Queen's company returned : according to two statements I have seen, it was to Drury Lane, which had been previously shut up ; but it would appear, from the order of suspension mentioned in next year, the removal was to a (new) theatre in Covent Garden.