Life in the 18th Century Theatre

Talk by Frances Hughes, Wednesday 4th February 2015

Frances entertained us with her intimate knowledge of the development of the theatre and paintings of the time, which serve as a record of life on the 18th Century stage.

She concentrated on the life and work of David Garrick (1717-1779), who introduced realism to the theatre, profoundly influencing all aspects of theatrical production during the period. He was known, particularly, for his actions and his voice. Similarly, Frances drew on the works of a number of artists, all of whom had painted representations of Garrick, or those patronised by him.

The two leading London theatres of the day were situated in Covent Garden and at nearby Drury Lane, a compact area containing Inigo Jones’ St Paul’s Church, known even today as the actors’ church. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) ran for some 69 nights at Drury Lane, dealing with the politics of the day in a witty, amusing, and somewhat dangerous manner. In all, around 9,000 people attended the play, despite the fact that tickets were expensive.

William Hogarth produced a painting of the final scene of The Beggar’s Opera. In his works, Hogarth always sought ‘a line of beauty’, his Southwark Fair, for example, capturing some fascinating and thoughtful detail. In another painting, set at Newton’s house in London, he shows royal children acting out a Dryden play, in a sumptuous salon lit by a candelabrum (gaslight came in during the early Regency period). By contrast, an anonymous watercolour of the same period depicts a travelling theatrical company in Wales, demonstrating the harsh living conditions endured by such a company, whose members walked huge distances and set up temporary accommodation under canvas in the open air.

Dr Samuel Johnson brought one of his Lichfield pupils, David Garrick, to London: a plain man, standing just 5’4″ tall, Garrick had inherited money, and wished to try his luck at acting. He and Johnson rode, tied up, and walked, to London, where Garrick initially opened a wine cellar just off the Strand. Eventually, finding acting parts, he came to public notice with his portrayal of Richard III at a minor London playhouse, Hogarth immortalising the ‘Bosworth Field scene’ in a painting.

A few years later, Johnson would take “thé” at the Southampton Street home of Garrick and his mistress, an Irish actress named Peg Woffington, whose portrait, on display at the National Portrait Gallery, shows her, paralysed, before her death at just 39 years of age. As an interesting insight, Johnson admired Peg’s tea-making at Southampton Street, it being of a delicious, blood red variety, whereas Garrick’s legendary parsimony saw him use tea leaves extremely sparingly.

Joshua Reynolds became friendly with Garrick, painting him as ‘torn between comedy and tragedy’. Although preferring comedy, Garrick had played the tragic Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, and Hamlet, in which rôles, as was the custom, hand gestures and the placing of feet became significant, the former to express emotion, the latter to determine whether the speaker were royal, aristocratic, or of inferior social standing. Additionally, perhaps strangely to our 21st century attitudes, the sight of men’s calves was considered sexually alluring at the time.

Johann Zoffany met Garrick, gaining his patronage, and painted Garrick’s ‘dagger scene’ in Macbeth, as well as the final scene of Venice Preserv’d, flattering his short, plain patron in these works. Tom King, as Touchstone (from As You Like It), also by Zoffany, was an actor supported by Garrick, and a mainstay at Drury Lane for 30 years.

Charles Macklin, who had played Shylock, was a friend of Garrick, and had, during a quarrel over a wig, thrust a swordstick into the eye of a fellow actor, Thomas Hallam, who subsequently died. Arrested and tried, Macklin avoided imprisonment, being branded, imperceptibly, with an ‘M’ (for manslaughter) on the arm instead. He died aged 97, but lives on, in spirit, as one of the ghosts at Drury Lane.

Henry Woodward played Petruchio in Catharine & Petruchio, a 1754 re-working, by Garrick, of The Taming of the Shrew, staged more often and considerably better thought of at the time than Shakespeare’s original, eloquently testifying how talented Garrick was perceived to be.

On his dying in 1779, a death mask of Garrick was cast, allowing us familiarity with his facial features, and, following a lavish public funeral, he was laid to rest at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

It may be advanced that the theatre, as we know and understand it today, had developed, in particular through Garrick’s input, the location of the two great playhouses of his day giving rise, in time, to today’s pre-eminence of London’s West End as the home of live entertainment. The various artists of the 18th Century have left us a rich legacy of paintings and drawings, revealing the costume, actions, scenery, and general colour of the London stage, which would otherwise have remained unknown.

Indeed, for about an hour, Frances Hughes gave us a glimpse of the flavour of a performance in a London theatre of the 1700s, and most enjoyable it proved to be.

Stefan Gatward