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Ghosts and greasepaint at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London

Posted in Actors, Architecture, Historical articles, History, London, Music, Royalty, Theatre on Wednesday, 30 October 2013

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This edited article about theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 443 published on 11 July 1970.

Kean at Drury Lane, picture, image, illustration

Edmund Kean outside the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where he triumphed in 'The Merchant of Venice'

The building of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was the dream of two men, Sir William Davenant and Thomas Killigrew.

Behind their dream was the dream of all the strolling players, acting in barns and inn yards. Actors were considered vagabonds 400 years ago. Some of them, when banded together in a company, could gain a little protection from a nobleman who gave them his patronage.

Shakespeare’s company was known as “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.” Later, under the patronage of King James I it became “The King’s Men.” Technically, the actors were enrolled in the Royal Household.

The first man to realise that the theatre could only flourish if a Royal Charter was obtained to build a permanent playhouse was Sir William Davenant. He may have obtained his love of the theatre from his godfather, William Shakespeare! His father, John Davenant, was an Oxford innkeeper and Shakespeare often visited the family. No doubt young William could not be kept in school on those occasions.

However, Davenant did not become an actor when he left school, but went to Court as a page. He started writing plays and Charles I liked his work so much that he made him Court Poet and gave him a handsome salary.

It was on 26th March, 1639, that William Davenant obtained from Charles “A Royal Patent, under the Great Seal of England” to erect a theatre. It was to stand “upon a parcel of ground lying near unto or behind the Three Kings’ Ordinary in Fleet Street. . . .”

That theatre was never built. The backers, who had come forward at first, withdrew because of the growing threat of Civil War.

Davenant did not lose heart. He kept his charter safe. But it was a bad time for actors. In 1642, pleasure-hating Puritans closed all the theatres and destroyed most of them, and actors found themselves without prospect of work.

Davenant had a varied career in the Civil War, fighting for the King, getting himself arrested and managing to stage some performances at his Cockpit Theatre despite the ban. In 1649, however, the theatre was raided. His biggest stroke of luck, due partly to his ability to get his own way, occurred in the 1650s after he had spent some time in exile. In 1656, he managed to get permission to put on stage shows despite the ban!

Cleverly, they appeared to be entertainments with music. The first major event was The Siege of Rhodes, more an opera than a play, which was performed at Rutland House. He put on two propaganda shows, one of which, The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru, was guaranteed to appeal to Cromwell because he disliked the Spaniards!

Another of his achievements was to introduce women into his entertainments, not as actresses but as singers. They had been forbidden to perform publicly up to that time.

During his period of exile at the Court of Charles II, Davenant had become a firm friend of Thomas Killigrew, six years his junior, who had also started life as a Court page. Killigrew had not been to a university and always called himself “The illiterate Courtier,” but he had wit and talent and was well read. He was greatly liked by Charles II.

When Charles II, the Merry Monarch, returned to London from exile in 1660, Killigrew was with him. Charles loved the theatre and every type of entertainment, and he made Thomas Killigrew “Master of the King’s Revels.” But several other theatre managers were already active, including Sir Henry Herbert who considered himself already in the job of Master!

The King stepped in to resolve the crisis. He decided that Sir William Davenant – he had been knighted for bravery in the Civil War – and Thomas Killigrew were to be the kings of London Theatreland, and he gave them a virtual monopoly of players and buildings.

Davenant and Killigrew saw their dreams coming true of a great theatre, a permanent building very different from the theatres of Shakespeare’s day, and Royal patronage. It was as if the old Royal Charter, still held by Davenant, had a new blessing.

They continued for a while in partnership, but, sadly, these two great men of the theatre went their own separate ways. It was left to Thomas Killigrew to become known as the Father of the Theatre Royal, which he finally managed to get built in Drury Lane.

The Theatre opened on 7th May, 1663, and its total dimensions were about the same as the stage of today’s vast playhouse! Killigrew was then 51 years old and he saw the fortunes of the theatre continue for another 20 years. In 1672 it was burnt, but two years later, another theatre, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was built.

Davenant meanwhile had died, but he had worked busily and successfully without Killigrew. Between them, and until Davenant’s death in 1668, they controlled theatrical London with Royal permission. Both of them started schools for young actors and both deserve to be remembered as pioneers of the British Stage.

Wren’s theatre lasted many years and David Garrick and Sarah Siddons were among the great actors and actresses that played on its boards. Then, in 1791 it was rebuilt, though the new theatre incorporated much of the old.

Fire struck again in 1809 and the fourth and last theatre on the site opened in 1812. Two years later, Edmund Kean, the most electrifying of all English actors, made a sensational debut as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Since then many famous actors and actresses have appeared at the great theatre, though in the last half century the majority of the shows there have been large scale musicals. Disaster nearly struck once more in 1940 when a bomb exploded at the back of the Pit, but, fortunately, no-one was hurt, and the theatre continued as before.

Drury Lane even has a theatre ghost. He is not Davenant or Killigrew, but appears to be a friendly 18th-century character. As ghosts go, his appearances are much better authenticated than most.

Drury Lane has known great nights, disasters, plays, pantomimes, operas, ballets, musicals and melodramas. It has had a fabulous past and will have, one hopes, an equally fabulous future.

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