Theatre in Georgian England


Hannah Pritchard as Lady Macbeth and David Garrick as Macbeth at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in April 1768

Hannah Pritchard as Lady Macbeth and David Garrick as Macbeth at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in April 1768


During the Georgian Era, Great Britain’s population grew rapidly, from around five million people in 1700 to nearly nine million by 1801.  Many people left the countryside to seek out new job opportunities in nearby towns and cities.  Others arrived from further afield: from rural areas in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and from across large areas of continental Europe.  Young people were drawn to urban areas by the offer of regular and full-time employment.  The increased income that came from this steady employment allowed these new city residents to take advantage of the entertainments offered in these urban areas: the theatres, inns, and pleasure gardens, as well as the shops featuring the latest fashions.

In today’s post, we are going to look at English theatre – its roots and development over time, the social forces that shaped it, and what it was like attending the Theatre in the Georgian Era.

Medieval Drama

Between 925 and 975, theatre was “reborn” as drama reappeared in church services.  By 975, it had become a small drama within the service, often played by altar boys, used to illustrate various lessons from the Bible.  These “dramas” had little sense of history – reflecting the limited knowledge of the people, and anachronisms were quite common.  In The Second Shepherds’ Play, for instance, the stolen lamb becomes the baby Jesus, although the Shepherds had been using Christian references even before this “baby Jesus” arrived).  Comic elements appeared in plays that were otherwise quite serious, and had as their purpose to teach Biblical stories and principles to the people.  The medieval mind looked at the temporal world (Earth) as transitory; Heaven and Hell were the eternal realities. (Northern Virginia Community College, 2008)

In the 12th century, the fighters, returning from the Crusades, brought traditions from other cultures to Great Britain.  It was during this time that religious dramas began to be performed outside the church in the vernacular [native language].  In the beginning, the church had control of the drama outside of the church, but then it gradually became more controlled by secular groups.  The Guilds took over in some cities, and often certain Guilds retained control over certain plays/stories, all based in some way on the Bible or religious teachings.  For instance, the Bakers’ Guild might control the play about the Last Supper, and the Shipwrights’ Guild would do plays about the Ark.  In some locations, local town or city governments assumed control of the plays; however, the church still needed to approve the scripts.  In this period, there were three kinds of religious plays: Mystery plays, Miracle plays, and Morality plays.

A Medieval Play Performed on an Outdoor Stage

A Medieval Play Performed on an Outdoor Stage

During the latter part of the Medieval Period, there were some secular plays as well.  Public (what we in the United States would call Private) Schools, as well as Universities, often studied Latin (Roman) comedies and tragedies as part of their curriculum.  Outside of the school venues, professional actors attached to noble houses most often performed secular plays.  Other types of secular theatre in the Medieval Period included: Farces, Moralities – based on classical gods and heroes, often with some political content, Mumming and Disguising – an early form of Masque involving dancing and acting performed by masked players, and Interludes – a short play performed between courses in a formal dinner.

By the late 16th century, the non-secular dramas of the medieval period lost their force.  Theatre became more and more of a secular undertaking and the likes of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare ushered in Elizabethan Renaissance Theatre.

Elizabethan Renaissance Theatre

English Renaissance theatre encompasses the period between 1562 and 1642 – when the English Parliament enacted the ban on theatrical plays.  Christopher Marlowe set the model that Shakespeare followed in writing tragedy, and Ben Jonson was Shakespeare’s best-known contemporary rival as a writer of comedy.

Much of the theatre of this period is a result of the upheaval, in thought and society, which was taking place.  The great scientific discoveries of the Renaissance showed that the universe was more diverse and more confusing than previously thought.  If heavenly bodies moved, if stars exploded, if previously unknown continents existed, then the world was an unstable place.  Over and above the common European experience of political instability, the specific crises of English history, shocks to the political and religious systems that had seemed to guarantee order, added to the confusion.

Written between 1601 and 1607, Shakespeare’s major tragedies such as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, address the questions that puzzled Renaissance England.  These plays challenge both classical and biblical beliefs and focus on the dark side of man.  The world of Shakespearean tragedy is full of faithless lovers, corrupt courtiers, and treacherous politicians in an atmosphere so tainted with decay that no action by the hero can achieve reform. (Northern Virginia Community College, 2008)

The Stage of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

The Stage of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

During this period, there were two main kinds of theatres built.  The outdoor or “public” theatres (the largest accommodating 1,000-3,000 patrons) had a “pit” or “yard” – where the “groundlings” were – un-roofed space, surrounding the roofed stage on three sides, enclosed by three tiers of roofed galleries.  The yard cost less (general admission), the Gallery cost more.  In some, there may have been some private well.  We know much less about the indoor or “private” theatres.  These theatres were smaller than the public theatres and fully roofed so troupes could do shows in winter when it was too cold to be outside.  Blackfriar’s – a former monastery – was the first one.  It opened in 1576 and closed by 1584.  James Burbage opened the New Blackfriar’s in 1596.  The acting company, the King’s Men, used it after 1610 as their winter performance area.  Private theatre rose in popularity from 1610 to 1642, by which time, there were six private theatres in London.  Although called public and private, in reality, both types were open to anyone who could pay, but admission to the private theatres was more costly, thus ensuring a more select clientele in the smaller

Restoration Theatre

With the Puritan Revolution of 1642, the beheading of Charles I, and Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell becoming Lord Protectorate, things changed drastically for theatre in England.  From 1642 – 1660, a period called “the interregnum,” Parliament outlawed theatre because of its connection with the monarchy and with “immoral,” non-Puritan values.  In 1660, England restored the monarchy and Charles I’s son, Charles II, assumed the throne.  Throughout the Interregnum, he had been in France at the in the court of Louis XIV, who loved theatre.  Charles II helped bring Italianate and French theatre styles and staging to England.

Restoration theatre became a way to celebrate the end of Puritan rule, with its strict moral codes.  Restoration plays were lavish, often immoral by Puritan standards, and poked fun at both Royalists and Roundheads.  The lightheartedness of the plays reflected a society recovering from years of division and unrest.  Although the audience enjoyed tragedies, comedies were the hallmark of Restoration plays.

A Scene from George Etherege's Love in a Tub - a Restoration Commedy

A Scene from George Etherege’s Love in a Tub

Restoration comedies involved quick wit and comedic situations.  George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer (1706) had the most performances during the Restoration era.  Other successful comedic playwrights were George Etherege, William Wycherley, and William Congreve.  These playwrights wrote Comedies of Manners, plays that satirized the behaviors of society before and during the restoration period.  These comedic plays relied on situational humor: disguises, mistaken identity, and misunderstandings, which stem from chicanery and leads to confusion.  Restoration comedies also differed from their predecessors by using prose instead of the traditional heroic couplets.  Restoration comedies became social commentaries; they were not a mirror of society, but rather exaggerations of society that the audience would recognize and appreciate.  This “recognition” was assured by the use of transparent names such as Rev. Fidget, Lt. Squeamish, or Mrs. Malaprop (mal=French for “ill” – therefore, “ill-appropriate”).

The Drury Lane and Covent Garden became the first theatres officially licensed during this period.  The founding of the Theatre Royal Covent Garden lies in the letters patent awarded by Charles II to Sir William Davenant in 1660, allowing Davenant to run one of only two patent theatre companies (The Duke’s Company) in London.  Other theatres which sprang up during this period included Dorset Gardens, the Cockpit Theatre, Salisbury Court Theatre, and the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre.

Georgian Theatre

By the early 18th century, the aristocratic and amoral plays of the Restoration became unpopular and the neoclassical precept of teaching morals returned; at least in part because of the rise of a conservative Protestant (Puritan) middle class.  During the 1700’s, the concept of Rationalism – faith in reason, began to take over from a blind faith in God.  Rationalism began to lead away from the strict rules of Neoclassicism and towards a faith in man.  Part of this led to the Sentimentalism movement in the theatre.  Sentimentalism asserted that each person was essentially good.  This 18th century view held that people are good; their instincts let them keep goodness.  People could keep virtue by appealing to virtuous human feelings.

Another form of theatre that developed during this early Georgian Period was the Ballad Opera – sections of dialog alternating with lyrics set to popular tunes.  John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) satirized British politics, using Georg Frederick Handel’s Messiah and other tunes.  This was a precursor to today’s musical comedy.

Painting by William Hogarth based on The Beggar's Opera, scene 5

Painting by William Hogarth based on The Beggar’s Opera, scene 5

Farce was also popular.  Farce is a type of comedy that uses absurd and highly improbable events in the plot.  Situations are humorous because of their ludicrous and often ridiculous nature.  The choice of setting is a key factor in farce, as the protagonist is sometimes at odds with the environment.  Often the central character in a farce does not (or should not) belong in the place of the action.  The audience will only accept the situation if they follow the conventions previously established.

Pantomimes became popular by 1715.  These performances joined dancing and mime (silent mimicry), done to music, with elaborate scenery and special effects.  These were often performed as an after piece following plays.  They combined Commedia dell’arte, farce, and mythology.  The Harlequin character, with his magic wand that would make the scenery change, came from these pantomimes.

Regency Theatre

In the Regency Period, the Rise of the middle class was occurring – trading and manufacturing joined agriculture as major sources of wealth and  the population in cities and increased.  Between 1750 and 1800, Romanticism took hold in both art and theatre and flourished until the 1840s.

Major Characteristics of Romanticism:

  1. A trust in nature’s goodness:
  2. Equality of people – social and economic classes downplayed
  3. A premium on detail – detail is the pathway to truth.
  4. The search for ultimate truth must take place, even though we will probably never find it.
  5. Art and theatre served an exalted purpose – to lead people

The American Revolution (1770) and the French Revolution (1791) further asserted that men had freedom to act on their own consciences.  Going along with this was the view that Nature was something to honor.  God had created nature, and we must know as much about it as possible.

English Romanticism has long been considered an “undramatic” and “anti-theatrical” age, yet Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats all wrote plays and viewed them as central to England’s poetic and political reform.

Other popular early 19th century theatrical forms include:

  • Specialty acts: jugglers, tumblers, etc.
  • Comic operas – sentimental stories, original music
  • Revivals of Shakespeare – usually Bowdlerized (“Bowdlerizing” a play — refers to deleting or changing parts of a script, removing socially “unacceptable” or sexually “offensive” parts of the script).

Attending the Theatre

The Georgian Era was the great age of theatre in England.  In London and the provinces, large purpose-built auditoriums were built to house the huge crowds that flocked nightly to see plays and musical performances.  A variety of entertainments were on offer, from plays and ballets to ropewalkers and acrobats.  London’s Drury Lane, Covent Garden and the Haymarket theatres, which by the 1760s seated several thousand people each, all prospered during the period.  This was also the age of the first ‘celebrity’ actors: such as David Garrick who fans mobbed wherever he traveled in London.

Picture of London's Drury Lane Theatre ca. 1775

London’s Drury Lane Theatre ca. 1775

Theatre going in the Georgian period was a very different experience from that of today.  Audiences could be rude, noisy, and dangerous.  Theatre patrons consumed large quantities of alcohol and food, and people arrived and left throughout the performance.  Audiences chatted among themselves, and sometimes pelting actors with rotten fruit and vegetables if dissatisfied with the performances.  At other times, audiences demanded that popular tunes or popular scenes be played repeatedly .  James Boswell, the 18th century diarist, described mooing like a cow during one particularly bad play, to the great amusement of his companions.  Rioting at theatres was also not uncommon.  For example, rioting destroyed the Drury Lane theatre in London on six occasions during the century.

In general, audiences were a mix of rich and poor: boxes placed along the stage seated ‘persons of quality,’ while working-class men and women squeezed into hot and dirty galleries.  Down below in front of the stage, young men would drink together, eat nuts, and mingle with prostitutes in the notorious pit.

The following is an extract is from the diary of German novelist Sophie von la Roche.  In it, she describes the diverse entertainments on offer at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre, including a ballet, a ropewalker, a strongman, and an operetta.

The scenes in the pit and boxes we found as strange as the ten-fold comedy itself.  In the pit there is a shelf running along the back of the seats on which the occupants order bottles of wine, glasses, ham, cold chops and pasties to be placed, which they consume with their wives and children, partaking while they watch the same play.  The front seats of the boxes are just the same.  In three hours we witnessed nine kinds of stage craft.  First, a comedy, then a ballet, followed by a rope-walker, after this a pantomime, next some balancing tricks, an operette, and the most miraculous feats by a strong man; another comedy, and finally a second operette.  All the decorations were exceedingly well painted, the dresses very fine and the music good… (La Roche & Clare, 1933)

The Late Georgian Era (1780 to 1832) was one of exciting changes in the theatre.  There were technical innovations in architecture, lighting, and scenery; with many new theatres built in London and elsewhere.  In addition, there were artistic changes towards a greater realism in scenery design and costume.  The theatre had become popular and widespread.  The theatre companies of major towns toured to theatres in smaller towns.  For example, the theatre at Richmond in Swaledale toured to Beverley, Harrogate, Kendal, and Ulverston.

The Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds was opened by its proprietor and architect William Wilkins on 11 October 1819, and was one of the most elegant, advanced and up-to-date playhouses of its age.  Today, it is the last remaining working example of a Regency playhouse.  In 2005, the venue underwent a £5.3 million restoration to return it to its original 1819 layout and design, enabling the building to show more about its Regency history and the plays once performed there.  From the semi-circle of boxes, all the decoration in the house is immediately visible, as are all the other patrons.  This is the type of theatre Jane Austen would have frequented in her day, a place ‘to see and be seen’ where one could watch all the different levels of society enjoying a night of entertainments.

Bury St. Edmonds Theatre as Viewed From the Stage

Bury St. Edmonds Theatre as Viewed From the Stage

Wilkins used all his skill to create a playhouse that was perfectly in proportion and with all the beauty of the classical buildings that were his inspiration.  Between the layers of boxes, a curve of frieze work in golden yellows and blues draws the eye to the proscenium arch, topped with a fresco of the Greek muses and Graces.  Above it all there is an expansive painted cloud ceiling that harks back to the great classical open-air theatres.  Regency theatre design attempted to create a 360-degree illusion to captivate the audience, with the house decorations adding to the scenic effects on stage.

Bury St. Edmonds Theatre as Viewed from the Boxes

Bury St. Edmonds Theatre as Viewed from the Boxes

All performance would have taken place on the fore-stage in close quarters with the audience.  Behind this, the stage would be elaborately set with perspective backdrops creating the illusion of distance in a variety of settings including castles, forests, fields, ships, and oceans.  The Georgians were particularly fond of special effects, and sound effects, such as storms and thunder, and scenery that would create movement, such as waves or clouds, wowed Regency audiences.

Performances could last up to 5 hours, with performances including several plays.  Old playbills from the Theatre Royal show audiences of the time had very eclectic tastes, ranging from notable dramas and Shakespeare to the crudest variety acts, including one entitled ‘Mr. Gouffe the man monkey’.  (Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, 2015)

Aside from the “formal” theatres, there were theatres set up in booths at fairs, and groups of strolling players who performed in barns, inns, and private houses.  In addition to professional companies, there were many amateur societies as well.  There were apprentices’ theatricals, military and naval theatricals, children’s and school theatricals, and small theatres in which amateurs could try out their dramatic abilities for a modest fee.  Families of the nobility and gentry performed in private theatres and at the public schools, what we in America would call private schools.  Evidence seems to indicate that the popularity of theatre in this period was akin to that of sport today.  Most people, regardless of class, occupation, or income, would have known enough about the subject for it to be a topic of conversation one could discuss with a complete stranger.

© 2015
Chuck Hudson



La Roche, S. v., & Clare, W. (1933). Sophie in London, 1786; being the diary of Sophie v. la Roche. London: J. Cape.

Northern Virginia Community College. (2008). Theatre History. Retrieved from Introduction to Theatre Online Course:

Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. (2015). Retrieved from Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds:








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