Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Theatric Tourist

One of the books I picked up on my recent trip to England was a facsimile of James Winston's The Theatric Tourist.

Winston, an actor, theatre manager, and artist, published the book in 1805, including brief histories and illustrations of the major regional theatres in England during his day.

Though the title page boasts the book contains "all the principal provincial theatres in the United Kingdom," theatres in Scotland and Ireland are noticeably missing. However, Winston does give accounts of the major theatres in England that were outside the metropolis.

The most important of those, of course, was the Theatre-Royal, Bath. "Next to London, Bath should be thought the favorite of the muses," Winston writes. "No theatre has shone so conspicuously as a nursery for London, as this Bath." He mentions it was that theatre which brought Sarah Siddons "so nearly to perfection."

Andover in Hampshire was not nearly so blessed. Winston claims that "as Bath enjoys perhaps the most considerable share of public estimation, so Andover challenges the most deficient." The town did not have a Theatre Royal, but the local theatre building had written on it From the Theatre-Royal, Windsor with "Theatre-Royal" written "in striking characters," Winston tells us, while everything else was "written so faintly, as to be scarcely legible."

Margate in Kent, on the other hand, did have a Theatre Royal, and it's still there! Well, parts of it, anyway. It was originally a rectangular brick building, as pictured here in The Theatric Tourist:

Later in the 19th century, it was completely remodeled, with one side wall removed and the stage and auditorium gutted. A new front of house was also added and a stucco frontage. Here's what it looks like today:

It's interesting to me which towns were deemed worthy of a patent theatre in 1805 and which were not. Neither Tunbridge-Wells, nor Reading, nor Brighton had a Theatre Royal in 1805 (though Brighton has one now). Yet Richmond had that honor, and Winston provides seven pages of text on the Theatre-Royal, Richmond. His illustration contains a tree which he claims was "planted by the hand of the Maiden Queen" Elizabeth I.

Unlike the Theatre-Royal, Margate, the theatre in Richmond remains largely intact from the Georgian era. It closed down in 1848, sparing it the renovations that the later Victorians made to so many theatres. Refurbishments in 2003 used painstaking research to try to recreate a more authentic color scheme, and they even tried to calibrate the electric lighting to approximate candlelight. Here's what the auditorium looks like today:

Winston goes on to discusses other theatres in Newbury, Portsmouth, and Grantham. One thing I find interesting is that he always lists the prices they charged and how much the management could take in with a full house. For the theatre in Lewes, that was seventy pounds, while the theatre in Exeter could hold enough people to make nearly 100 pounds at the same prices (three shillings for a box seat, two to sit in the pit, and a single shilling for the gallery). The Theatre-Royal, Newcastle seemed to have varying prices depending on the time of year. (Prices were raised during the race weeks.) At optimal prices, it could hold enough people to take in 140 pounds, and its stage was larger than that of the Haymarket in London. Here's Winston's illustration of its grand exterior:

Winston goes on to discuss smaller theatres in Edmonton and Maidstone, as well as in Liverpool, which was not quite the thriving city it would later become. Still, Liverpool was no place to sniff at, even in the Georgian era. It was there that the Irish actress Elizabeth Farren came to recognition, acting onstage in Liverpool at the tender age of fifteen. The Theatre-Royal, Liverpool has since been demolished, but here's what it looked like in Winston's day:

The theatre in Windsor was a Theatre Royal, though Winston said it could "scarcely be said to enjoy a regular season." Its proximity to Windsor Castle made it a favorite place for the royal family to go see plays. The theatre at Chichester was not so favored, and Winston spends less than a page of text on it. He gives a much fuller account of the theatre in Birmingham, which did not obtain a royal patent until two years after Winston published his book. He does provide it with a rather lovely illustration, though:

Winston chronicles other theatres in Manchester, Southampton, and Plymouth. I'll skip over those, but give a great anecdote he tells about the theatre in Winchester:

In the play of Alexander the Great, for Keasbury's benefit, some olive leaves that were used for decoration, twisted and interwoven with little bits of wax, caught fire from the lights. The flames continuing to blaze, occasioned an intolerable stench, and an universal cry of fire, which was succeeded by a general panic; but none received so terrible a shock as the departed Clytus, who, at that time, lay dead before the audience. As by Galvanic impulse, he instantly revived, and, in his haste, o'erthrew the son of the immortal Ammon, who measured his extended length on that dread spot where he had slain his General. However, as soon as the cause was ascertained, all was restored to order, and the redoubted Clytus quietly returned, and (hard and uncommon lot) for the second time gave up the ghost.

The last theatre in the book is the Theatre-Royal, Norwich. Winston claims a strolling company of players performed in Norwich occasionally "from the year 1712." Parliament officially licensed the theatre there in 1768, and in 1801 William Wilkins remodeled it. Here's the illustration included in The Theatric Tourist:

When Eliza O'Neill appeared there in 1818, her appearance caused a furor. Unfortunately, the building where she performed no longer exists. A second Theatre Royal was built in 1826, and that one was destroyed by a fire in 1934. Sadly, very little remains of the wonderful theatres Winston featured in his remarkable book.