The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane is Covent Garden’s oldest surviving theatre. [Tube: Covent Garden]
The first theatre on this site was established just off Drury Lane, in fact, on Bridges Street in 1663. It was the home of the King’s Company, who had moved here from Lincoln’s Inn.
The Bridges Street theatre revived plays by Ben Jonson, and Beaumont and Fletcher, and commissioned new work by Dryden, Otway and Lee, and the Comedies of Wycherley, Congreve and architect/playwright John Vanbrugh.
Its most famous personalities before the eighteenth century include the inveterate theatre-going diarist Samuel Pepys and Nell Gwyn.
Nell Gwyn used her wit and charm to rise from being an orange seller at Drury Lane to become one of the most popular comic actresses and singers of her time – as well as the King’s mistress.
When an Oxford mob mistook her coach for that of the Duchess of Portsmouth, Louise de Kéroualle (Charles’s unpopular French Catholic mistress) Nell famously called out, ‘Pray, good people, be civil; I am the Protestant whore.’
Nell Gwyn is remembered by two Covent Garden pubs – The Nell of Old Drury (29 Catherine Street) and the Nell Gwynne Tavern in Bull in Court, between the Strand and Maiden Lane.
The Country Wife
The theatre was destroyed by fire in 1672 and rebuilt by Wren with an enlarged capacity, reopening as the Theatre Royal in 1674.
Its first big success was Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675). The play examines the gulf between true and false sexual honour. On the one side are the town ladies, the Fidgets and Squeamishes, to whom outward form is all, and on the other is the country wife, simple and forthright.
The play is shot through with double-entendres and duplicity in action, and may owe something to activities in the playwright’s own life. Wycherley was fond of Will’s coffee house and the Cock Tavern, much to the chagrin of his wife – as too his affair with Lady Castlemaigne.
The tremendously popularity of the play at The Theatre Royal helped to elevate Wycherley into court circles. However, when his wife, the Countess of Drogheda, died, Wycherley fell into debt and spent seven years in Fleet Prison.
From 1747 to 1777 actor-manager David Garrick ran the Theatre Royal’s company successfully. He raised the status of actors by moving the audience off stage and established an extensive repertoire based on the works of Shakespeare.
With his exaggerated facial expressions and bodily movements, Garrick excelled in low and high comedy and tragedy. His contemporary Charles Macklin, on the other hand, pioneered the movement from declarative to naturalistic acting.
Macklin's revolutionary portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice portrayed him as a tragic rather than comic character, prompting Pope to write 'This is the Jew / That Shakespeare drew’.
Hannah Pritchard (1711-68) played opposite Garrick from 1747 and gained renown for her Lady Macbeth. Her great rival (and Garrick’s lover) was Peg Woffington, who performed at the Theatre Royal [See below]. Both actresses played Rosalind in productions of As You Like It in 1740 and 1741.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose comedy The Rivals had enjoyed enormous success at Covent Garden in 1775, took over as owner-manager of the Theatre Royal from Garrick in 1776.
Sheridan presented his play The School for Scandal at the Theatre Royal on 8 May 1777.
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (who partly inspired the Lady Teazle character), and the Devonshire House circle of Whig politicians, fashionable ladies, libertines and wits arrived en masse for the opening night, ensuring the play received great publicity.
Garrick, also part of the circle, wrote an energetic prologue for the play, which has been in more or less continual production ever since. The audience appreciated its exposure of hypocrisy and the disparity between reputation and reality within a modern culture and shifting city.
Sheridan wrote one more farce, The Critic or A Tragedy Rehearsed (1779) before entering politics. The Critic revealed the inner workings of the theatrical business, hilariously confusing the real and the illusory.
The spectacle of his financial ruin
At the height of his powers, Sheridan was an irrepressible figure, held in rhapsodic regard by Byron and Hazlitt, both leading critics in their day. The growing popularity and cultural and political importance of the theatre gave playwrights and actors increased importance. Ultimately, Sheridan became part of the society he had formerly satirised, and all too often drinking and womanising rather than writing.
Sheridan was in the House of Commons on the evening of 24 February 1809 when news came that the Theatre Royal was on fire. The blaze was enormous, illuminating the river and Westminster and by midnight was said to have been visible as far away as Fulham. Sheridan calmly nursed a drink as he watched the spectacle of his financial ruin. Questioned regarding his composure in the face of disaster, he replied ‘A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.’
Funds to finance the rebuilding of the theatre, with increased capacity and soft seating, were raised by Samuel Whitbread and Lord Byron. Byron wrote the ‘Address’ for the Theatre Royal’s official reopening on 10 October 1812 in honour of his friend Sheridan:
Far be that hour that vainly asks in turn
Such verse for him as crown’d his o’er Garrick’s urn.
The Tragic Muse
At this time actors began to gain great status and celebrity. For Hazlitt, Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) was ‘tragedy personified’. Both Gainsborough and Reynolds, who represented her as The Tragic Muse, painted her portrait.
In the late 19th century, pantomime and music hall artist Dan Leno (featured in Peter Ackroyd’s novel set in 1880, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994) was a popular performer at the theatre until he was up-staged by Henry Irving and Ellen Terry’s popularity at the Lyceum Theatre.
During the Second World War the Theatre Royal was the home of the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). Among the actor-writers involved with ENSA were David Gascoyne, Joyce Grenfell and Spike Milligan. In recent years it has staged American musical comedies such as Mame (1969) and Miss Saigon (1989).
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane offers the ‘Tragical, Comical-magical Histoire of the Oldest Operating Playhouse in the World’ tour on Weekdays (except Wednesday) at 2.15 pm and 4.45 pm, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10.15 am and 12 pm and Sundays by arrangement.
Adults £9 and Children £7
Private guided sightseeing tours
The Word Travels offers private and group guided sightseeing tours, within and beyond London, throughout the year. For further details, please contact us