All the World’s Royal Stage

Robert Whelan’s history of the Theatre Royal indulges in a bit of frippery, but otherwise artfully and humorously tells the 350-year long story of West-End drama

Two wise and shrewd observations inform the text of this engrossing book. “Theatres don’t run themselves,” writes Mr Whelan, “they are complex and demanding organisations that require the complete attention of whoever is in charge.” And again: “Nothing stimulates the desire to see a show like the thought that you might not be able to get in.”  

They are both as true today as they were when Drury Lane marked the edge of London, beyond which were only fields. So this book chronicles the divergent characters and talents of the long line of managers at the Theatre Royal since Thomas Killigrew was given permission by his friend Charles II to run a theatre company in 1660, and how they progressively sought to ensure that the public would compete in the scramble to get tickets. As this building has the longest continuous use for theatrical production of any in the world, Whelan’s cast-list is formidable, and he controls them with a kind of affectionate dedication. Despite its name, by the way, the theatre has never had an entrance on Drury Lane. 

It is, quite properly, a chronological rather than thematic account, beginning with the scatterbrained pandemonium of the Restoration era, when spectators turned up whenever they felt like it, and left in similarly wilful fashion, so that the performance was constantly interrupted; when there was so much noise and chatter emanating from the audience that the actors could scarcely be heard; when people would wander onto the stage and behind it without hindrance, or throw fruit at it to register their opinion; when they ate and drank during, not after the show. It all sounds like boisterous fun, but I rather think our more restrained modern manners offer the performers a better chance to escape home without a headache.

Some of the managers, too, were pretty unpleasant, especially Christopher Rich, who was so mean he avoided paying the actors if he could get away with it, and my own favourite monster, the renowned 19th-century actor/manager Macready. Granted, he had a proper respect for Shakespeare (most of whose lines had been habitually rewritten to make them more “theatrical”), and for authenticity of costume and design, but his much-lauded insistence upon proper rehearsal times was his way of making sure everybody on stage sounded exactly like him. And he was irascible and vengeful to a degree bordering on the pathological. He almost ruined his rival (and better actor) Samuel Phelps by assigning him only small parts.

But the great majority of the managers are men of noble intent and a heroic capacity for hard work. Colley Cibber devoted his life to the notion that the theatre was the highest mark of cultural civilisation; Richard Steele thought it was even more important as a source of moral instruction, which makes his writing for the theatre now unreadably pious; Richard Brinsley Sheridan valued his political career higher than his scribbling, but his plays are as witty and popular now as they were 200 years ago (his management marred, alas, by financial naiveté); above all, the saintly David Garrick, whose first performance as Richard III has ever been a pillar of theatrical legend, and one of whose last, as Lear, was so traumatic that Joshua Reynolds said it took him three days to recover from the experience. 

The next century was dominated by actors in the grand style — Edmund Kean, Sarah Siddons and her brother John Philip Kemble. Not included in the book, but irresistible to me, is Mrs Siddons’s inability to stop talking in alexandrine verse even when she went shopping, as in “You brought me water, boy; I asked for beer.”

The dispute between those who would protect the intellectual integrity of what is presented on stage and those who would give the public what it wants, however trite, has reverberated throughout Drury Lane’s long history. The popularity of pantomime, originally offered as an “afterpiece” to follow the heavier stuff, so grew that it threatened to overwhelm everything else. It was the wise Garrick who tamed the beast by embracing it, and established the tradition that the first panto of the season should be shown on Boxing Day. He also devised the famous jubilee to celebrate Shakespeare’s bicentenary with a mixture of spectacle, dancing and fun, subtly borrowed from pantomime lore: “it allowed the audience to feel good about Shakespeare as a national hero without the effort of sitting through one of his plays,” writes Whelan, very astutely. By the end of the 19th century, under the management of Augustus Harris, spectacle so dominated the repertoire that a special high access to the stage was built and named “the elephant arch”; it is still there, though the elephants are gone.

And so we are brought to the era of the big musical and My Fair Lady, with many an odd piece of information along the way. Of course solid history does not have to wear a solemn face, but I have never encountered a book which so artfully combines serious narrative with a frisky, even flippant style; it is risky, but on the whole Whelan gets away with it. He falters only when he introduces out-of-place colloquialisms, such as “up his game”, “caught on the hop”, “PDQ” (what?), “packing ’em in” (sic). It might be all very well to talk about “bums on seats” in the Green Room backstage, but please, not on the page (three times). And to write that the Restoration actress Mrs Betterton was “past her sell-by date”, as if she were on special offer, is likely to mystify future generations of readers. 

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