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Subject: ‘Theatre’

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The Rose Theatre at Bankside in Southwark, London

Posted in Actors, Architecture, English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Shakespeare, Theatre on Friday, 14 March 2014

Rose Theatre,  picture, image, illustration
The Rose Theatre, Southwark by Peter Jackson

The Rose Theatre was one of four theatres on the south side of the Thames in Southwark, that district notorious for leisure and lascivious pleasures, whence the revenues went to William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, and undoubtedly paid for the establishment of his New College at Oxford, as well as Winchester College itself. It was the first London theatre to stage any play by Shakespeare, and yet its success was short lived. It was built by Philip Henslowe, whose diary from the period remains the most important historical primary source for the study of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. It was the smallest of the London theatres, but despite later enlargement by Henslowe himself, seems to have been unpopular with many theatre-goers. An outbreak of the Plague closed all playhouses for two years, and when they re-opened the Rose failed to increase its popularity. The Privy Council’s decree in 1600 that there should only be two theatres in the district signalled its demise, along with the building of the Globe in 1599. The Rose was abandoned and closed in 1603 when its lease expired. It was probably demolished around 1606.

Many more pictures relating to Southwark can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Fun and games and old-age pensions in Edwardian Britain

Posted in Historical articles, History, Leisure, Theatre on Thursday, 6 March 2014

This edited article about Edwardian Britain first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 581 published on 3 March 1973.

Music Hall,  picture, image, illustration   picture, image, illustration
The Music Hall by Peter Jackson

National Assistance . . . The Welfare State. We take these phrases for granted today. In the first years of King Edward the Seventh’s reign there was a ‘Welfare State’ for the rich who could afford the life of easy living, and something not far short of an ‘Illfare State’ for the masses of the people. The farm-labourer on fourteen shillings a week was, oddly enough, better off than the unskilled city labourer on double the money. The countryman had his low-rent ‘tied-cottage’, a pig in the back garden and, generally, a free allotment on which he could grow his vegetables. But the bulk of the population lived fairly close to the poverty line, and for the old there was the almost inevitable ‘Workhouse’, or ‘Poor House’ where, tragically, husbands and wives were forced to be sheltered separately, maybe never to meet again.

It was not until the year 1909, when the fiery young Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr David Lloyd George, introduced his ‘People’s Budget’, that things became any better. He introduced the first Old Age Pensions – five shillings a week to persons over 70 years of age. At a single happy blow old folks were relieved of the humiliation of being ‘on the Parish’ as the workhouse system was called. The ‘Welfare State’ had begun, and to pay for this small beginning the rich were taxed.

There were screams of outrage from the privileged. Income Tax was raised to one shilling and twopence in the £1 for earned incomes of £3,000 a year or over, and on all unearned incomes between £3,000 to £5,000. Then, horror of horrors, for those who gathered in £5,000-plus for doing nothing there was an additional ‘super tax’ of sixpence.

Clearly Edwardian Britain was ‘going to the dogs’. The House of Lords had, in fact, rejected Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ and it was only when the Liberal Party’s threat to flood it with up to 500 newly created Peers that the Upper House reluctantly saw reason.

Edward’s Britain did not ‘go to the dogs’, and, although a multitude of its citizens were poor, they were not, as with the Victorians, unhappily poor. The spirit of the new century, forward-looking and packed with the scientific promises of a ‘brave new world’, fairly bubbled with the spirit of being happy, of having a good time, whatever your income-bracket. Fun and games were in the air.

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At Drury Lane Sir Henry Irving bids farewell to the London stage

Posted in Actors, English Literature, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, London, Theatre on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about the British theatre first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 579 published on 17 February 1973.

Sir Henry Irving at Drury Lane,  picture, image, illustration
Sir Henry Irving's farewell to the London stage was as Becket at the Teatre Royal, Drury lane

It was the last night of Tom Page’s holiday in London with his grandparents and still, after a fortnight, he could not get over his excitement when travelling through its streets. One day he had been all the way to Wimbledon and back by electric tram, the line having only reached that far out a few weeks before, for this was 1905.

He had been in a horse-drawn hansom and a “motor hansom,” a horse-drawn bus and a motor bus – apart from trips on the Underground – and he had got caught in some appalling traffic jams. These were inevitable with so many forms of transport, plus private carriages and cars, jockeying for position in the streets, especially as trams hogged the centre of the roads on their rails!

Tonight, a lovely summer evening, Tom was going with his grandparents to the theatre, a family tradition of the Pages. Then, tomorrow, he would be speeding back to Exeter in a 60 mph train. But tonight he was riding in an open carriage owned by his grandfather, who was a City businessman and could afford to run one.

Piccadilly was a fine sight that evening, with the sun still shining and the pavements thronged with people. It was certainly much livelier than the quiet square in Kensington where he was staying. But Tom knew that there was another London not far from all this wealth where a million or more lived in the slums in direst poverty, and where children of Tom’s age, 16, were several inches shorter than he was because of lack of good food and fresh air. He had an uncle who was a vicar in the slums who had once shown him something of the other London.

But tonight was no moment for unhappy thoughts, especially as they were nearing their destination, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He had been there once before to see “Humpty Dumpty,” with Dan Leno, greatest of all Pantomime Dames, starring in it.

Tonight was an even more exciting occasion for it was the last London performance of Sir Henry Irving, the first actor ever to be knighted. Irving had been very ill, and everyone knew that this short season must be his farewell one.

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Sarah Siddons was called the Queen of Tragedy

Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Theatre on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about the English theatre first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 578 published on 10 February 1973.

Mrs Siddons,  picture, image, illustration
Mrs Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough

A cold dawn was breaking as young Tom Page erupted from his grandparents’ house in London’s Bloomsbury Square and nearly collided into two cows being driven down the cobbled street by a pretty milkmaid.

Apologising to the girl, who had driven her charges from the pastures around St. Pancras, the 16-year-old youth tore down into Holborn past other early risers. It was October 1782, too late in the year for the morning air to be rent by cheerful cries of “Cherry Ripe!” and “Fine Strawberries!”, but apples were being hawked up and down, and plenty of milkmaids, with or without cows, but all with pails, were calling out: “Any milk here?”

Tom lived in the country near Bath, but was staying with his grandparents, a retired Naval captain and his wife. Tom thought that even this fashionable part of London was an evil-smelling place, and kept leaping over piles of rubbish, but he loved its excitement and bustle.

Sweating a little, despite the morning chill, he reached Drury Lane Theatre only to find a huge queue outside. His heart sank at the size of it, but it was hardly surprising. Three nights ago, a young actress, Sarah Siddons, had taken the town by storm as Isabella in a play called The Fatal Marriage by Thomas Southerne and everyone wanted to see her. On the first night her acting had been so sensational that the orange sellers decided to carry smelling salts from then onwards, as well as fruit, because so many people had fainted!

Tom’s grandparents had been invited to see Siddons from a box, but had had to tell him that there would be no room in the box for him. He told them not to worry: he would queue to watch the play from the Pit.

This was where today’s stalls are and consisted of row upon row of wooden benches. The keenest and liveliest playgoers sat there, and the Management had finally been forced to install a line of iron spikes between the Pit and the orchestra and another between orchestra and stage because there had been invasions of the stage from time to time, and not always friendly ones. Otherwise, it was roughly the same Drury Lane designed by Wren and smaller than today’s. Now all the inhabitants of the Pit – and the Galleries – could do was throw things, occasionally tearing up the seats if prices were raised.

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The rise of comedy in Restoration theatre was a sign of the times

Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Royalty, Theatre on Tuesday, 4 March 2014

This edited article about Restoration theatre first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 577 published on 3 February 1973.

Charles II and Nell Gynne,  picture, image, illustration
King Charles II visiting Nell Gwynne in her dressing room by Peter Jackson

The traffic was terrible! Mr Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty, decided to use his barge instead of his coach for most of his journey from Derby House near Westminster Hall to Drury Lane Theatre. The previous week he had arrived late for a performance at the Duke’s Theatre, Dorset Gardens, after getting caught in a traffic jam, consisting of noblemen’s coaches, carts and hackney carriages, with every cursing driver claiming right-of-way in the narrow cobbled lanes off Fleet Street.

It was most important not to be late tonight, May 26, 1674, for a new Theatre Royal was to open, to replace the old one, which had been burnt after only nine years of exciting life.

The new building had been built by Sir Christopher Wren, a friend of Pepys, who was already working on plans for the new St Paul’s Cathedral to replace the old one, burnt in the Great Fire of 1666. How Mrs Pepys would have enjoyed tonight, Pepys thought, but she had been dead five years, and that evening he was taking a junior clerk of his, Thomas Page, and his pretty wife Mary. Tom Page was the grandson of Master Page the tailor, had actually been present at the Globe Theatre to watch Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Tom loved the theatre as much as his grandfather had done. Born in 1650, he could remember a time when there were no theatres, for during Cromwell’s “reign,” with the pleasure-hating Puritans in control, there had been no plays to see, except for a few that were given in secret. It was not until Charles II returned in 1660 that the theatre returned as well. Deprived of entertainment for eleven years, theatre audiences were delighted with the new plays which were gay, spicy comedies.

These plays, which we now call Restoration Comedies, were performed in indoor theatres, very unlike the outdoor Elizabethan playhouses, and had painted scenery on shutters which were moved along grooves in the stage itself. The Elizabethans had not bothered much with scenery, which was an Italian innovation that Charles had seen during his exile in France.

Far more sensational than the scenery had been the appearance of women in plays, for formerly boys had played the female roles. As the three playgoers were rowed down the river, Pepys told his young guests that tonight’s play, a 50-year-old comedy called The Beggar’s Bush by Beaumont and Fletcher, had been the very one in which he had first seen an actress back in 1661. He had confided as much to his secret diary that long-ago night. He had had to give up the diary, though, in 1669 because of the strain on his eyes.

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The arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel

Posted in English Literature, Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Law, London, Theatre on Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Arrest of Oscar Wilde,  picture, image, illustration
The arrest of Oscar Wilde:’The pet of London society, one of our most successful playwriters and poets, arrested on a horrible charge'; from the Illustrated Police Budget, 13 April 1895

Oscar Wilde withdrew from the prosecution case regarding The Marquess of Queensberry’s alleged libel on Friday 5 April, 1895. He spent time with both the Douglas sons, Percy and Alfred, over lunch, and in the late afternoon returned to the Cadogan Hotel where ‘Bosie’, Lord Alfred, was staying. Sir John Bridge had by that time issued a warrant for his arrest at the direction of the Home Secretary, Herbert Asquith, and at precisely 6.20 pm Oscar Wilde was arrested at the hotel. It is a myth that the arrest was delayed to allow him to escape to France on the last train, since there were three others he could have taken that night. This momentous event preceeded the so-called ‘Trial of the Century’, and was immortalised in Sir John Betjeman’s poem ‘The arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’, which contains this amusing stanza reporting what the plain clothes policemen in the above picture might have said:
“Mr. Woilde, we ‘ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”

Many more pictures relating to crime and punishment in London can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

The golden age of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama

Posted in Actors, English Literature, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Literature, London, Shakespeare, Theatre on Monday, 3 March 2014

This edited article about the English theatre first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 576 published on 27 January 1973.

Shakespeare at the Globe,  picture, image, illustration
Shakespeare performing at the Globe Theatre by Peter Jackson

Telling the boy apprentices to look after the shop, Master and Mistress Page, a prosperous tailor and his wife, went out into the street and headed south.

This was a street with a difference, for it was London Bridge with its high houses and marvellous array of shops. It was a wonder of the Elizabethan world.

The Pages walked hurriedly, waving at friends and not stopping to talk to them, for it was already nearly 1.30 and the play at the newly built Globe Theatre on Bankside on the south bank of the Thames began at 2.

Boats were taking other theatre-goers across the river, which in Spring 1600 was London’s main highway, but it was more sensible for the Pages to walk. They passed under the south gateway, glancing up at the shrunken traitors’ heads stuck on poles to deter others, then they turned right into a world of churches, slums, bear-gardens and theatres all alongside each other. Many patrons of the bear-baiting and cockfighting dens were just as much at home in the Globe listening to Master Shakespeare’s thrilling poetry, or to singers accompanied by lutes. Such was the sharp contrast of Elizabethan London – beauty and pain, music and sudden death, and always in the background the fear of the plague, which, when it came, closed all the theatres on Bankside for fear of mass infection.

The flag was flying over the Globe to show that a play would definitely be given that afternoon, and streams of people, some 2,000 or so, were heading for the cylindrical building with the thatched roof that the great actor Burbage, Shakespeare and several of their friends had built when their old one in north London had been threatened by the landlords. The Pages knew the story of how Burbage and the others had literally pulled the old theatre down and carried the wood across the river to help build the new one. They had once met Shakespeare himself, a most likable man, as everyone agreed, and they knew one of the boy actors at the Globe, who played women’s parts.

They waved at friends going to the Swan Theatre. Still more were heading for the Rose, where a play by Christopher Marlowe, who had been killed in a tavern brawl, was being given by the Lord Admiral’s Men, rivals of Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men.

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General Burgoyne lost at Saratoga but became a witty playwright

Posted in America, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Theatre, War on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about the American War of Independence first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 569 published on 9 December 1972.

General John Burgoyne,  picture, image, illustration
General John Burgoyne was resolved to fight on and led one last attack on the American lines, by C L Doughty

Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, was in a temper. He had ridden up to his London office to sign some important despatches before setting out on a fishing holiday, and one of the despatches was not yet ready for his signature.

Lord George fumed at the delay. Anxiously, a subordinate suggested that when the document was read, perhaps it could be forwarded to his holiday home. Grumbling still, the Secretary of State agreed and, stepping into his carriage, set off for the rest he had so eagerly anticipated.

When, weeks later, he returned from his holiday, the despatch had been pigeon-holed and Lord George had forgotten all about it. The omission was perhaps one of the most catastrophic that any civil servant has ever made.

For, in that year of 1777, the undelivered despatch was addressed to General Sir William Howe, Commander-in-chief of the British Army in New York and it ordered him to hurry north and effect a union with the army of General John Burgoyne who was advancing swiftly southwards from Canada to meet him.

General Howe never received the despatch. And General Burgoyne and his army were left in the lurch, eventually to face an enemy four times their number.

The link-up plan had been Burgoyne’s, and he was the only man who had showed any foresight and tactical skill when, in 1775, the American colonists revolted against their British masters.

Burgoyne realised from the start that the subsequent war might be lost through incompetence at home and sheer incompetence in the field, for the British army in America was awash with inexperienced generals and brigadiers.

To Lord Germain the impatient Burgoyne confided his plan. This was that he would go to Canada and would link up with Howe in New York at a small town called Albany, over 100 miles north of New York. New England, the cradle of the rebellion, would thus be cut off from the southern states and the war won.

Lord Germain liked the idea. He also liked Burgoyne, who had introduced some new ideas into the army, like treating his men as thinking beings and showing them consideration. Immediately, therefore, he agreed to send Burgoyne to Canada, promising him an army there of 16,000 highly trained men.

Unfortunately for Burgoyne, “Gentleman Johnny” to the soldiers whom he so much respected, Germain was perhaps the most disastrous man who could have been appointed Colonial Secretary. Before Burgoyne had arrived in Canada, Germain had talked so much about the plan that the American revolutionaries already knew all about it. And, of course, he never sent the vital despatch to Howe.

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The Roman Gladiatorial Games at the Italian Exhibition, 1888

Posted in Actors, Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Leisure, London, Theatre on Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Italian Exhibition 1888,  picture, image, illustration
The Roman Gladiatorial Games at the Italian Exhibition, Earl's Court; illustration for The Graphic, 14 July 1888.

The Italian Exhibition at Earl’s Court in 1888 was a triumphant success, its most spectacular achievement being what today is called an historical re-enactment. The Souvenir Guidebook describes it thus:

“A reproduction of the Coliseum with its Roman sports, gladiatorial combats, wrestling bouts, chariot and foot races, triumphal processions, and all the other stirring spectacles that went to make up a Roman holiday. In the proceeding year the huge space at Earl’s Court, now transformed into the Flavian Amphitheatre, had formed the scene of ‘Buffalo Bill’s’ performance; but the revolver, the scalping-knife, the lasso, and the Winchester repeating-rifle of ‘Wild West’ warfare were now exchanged for the gladiatorial short sword, the net, and the trident of the Roman arena; and it was hard to say which species of personal combats exercised the greatest spell on the spectators.

As a mere show this reproduction of ‘Rome under the Caesars’ was admitted to be one of the finest and most interesting things of the kind that had ever been essayed in England, and a perfect triumph of scenic art. By continuing the semicircle of seats right round, the ‘Wild West’ Arena had been converted into a wonderful resemblance of the Flavian Amphitheatre, its dimensions, for one thing, being exactly the same as those of the Coliseum.”

Many more pictures relating to games can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Wotan’s farewell to Brunnhilde in Wagner’s ‘Die Walkure’

Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Wotan's farewell,  picture, image, illustration
Wotan's farewell to Brunnhilde in Wagner's 'Die Walkure' by Konrad Dielitz

In Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Die Walkure’, Brunnhilde, favourite daughter of Wotan, defies her father’s command and tries to protect Siegmund the Walsung in his battle with Hunding. Wotan, however, ensures the outcome of this fight and sees that Hunding stabs Siegmund to death. After Brunnhilde has gathered up the shattered fragments of the Walsung’s sword, Nothung, she hurries away in order to give them to Sieglinde, pregnant with Siegmund’s child, the future hero, Siegfried. Wotan pursues her, and after a lengthy argument punishes her by removing her divine powers, and puts her into a deep sleep on a mountain peak. “Leb’ wohl” he sings, in the famous ‘Farewell’ scene for which Wagner composed some of his most intensely moving music. She has begged him to make sure that only a hero can claim her, so Wotan surrounds the rocky eminence with fire to test any future adventurer. It will be Siegfried who finally crosses those flames to take Brunnhilde for his bride.

Many more pictures relating to opera can be found at the Look and learn picture library.