Saturday, November 6, 2021

London's 1782-83 Season

I was recently asked to give a presentation on the London theatre season for 1782-1783. This was the season that Sarah Siddons returned to the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane and revolutionized British acting.

Even before Siddons made her return, the public was primed for great things. All three London patent houses--Drury Lane, Covent Garden and the summer theatre at the Haymarket--had been redecorated, welcoming audiences to grander, more opulent interiors.

Covent Garden's renovation had been the most extensive. A contemporary account in Universal Magazine claimed that "Nothing remains of the old structure but the outside walls." Seating was increased, and boxes replaced the side doors to the stage, finally moving side entrances fully behind the proscenium.

The Theatre Royal at Covent Garden benefited from something else, as well. Frances Abington, the previous leading lady at Drury Lane, left in 1782 for Covent Garden, where she continued to perform until her retirement. When Drury Lane opened its season with a production of The Clandestine Marriage, a comedy David Garrick co-wrote with George Colman the Elder, the female lead was played by Priscilla Brereton, who was never considered a particularly strong actress. The receipts that night only totaled 200 pounds and four shillings.

By contrast, Covent Garden opened its season with Susanna Centlivre's comedy The Busy Body. That evening brought in a whopping 314 pounds and 18 shillings. While you might expect a theatre's opening night of the season to be a hit, Covent Garden continued to perform well for the rest of the month, too. They followed up their initial success with a production of Isaac Bickerstaff's musical drama The Maid of the Mill. That play brought in more than 270 pounds, easily beating out anything Drury Lane put on that month, including on its opening night of the season.

Drury Lane tried to draw audiences in with a production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which they had not done for three years, and featuring a new actress making her Drury Lane debut in the role of Viola. In spite of a strong cast that included Elizabeth Farren as Olivia, and the novelty of a new actress making her debut, receipts only totaled 144 pounds and 11 shillings. The next week Drury Lane brought out a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Receipts were better, but still couldn't break above 200 pounds. Only on its opening night had Drury Lane managed that feat.

The next month, though, Drury Lane scored a palpable hit with Siddons. The actress was returning to London after a long absence, having performed principally at Bath following her inauspicious debut at Drury Lane in 1775. In Bath, Siddons had honed her craft and developed a devoted following for her dramatic style. When she reappeared on the stage of Drury Lane in October 1782, this time in the title role of Isabella in Garrick's adaptation of Thomas Southerne's The Fatal Marriage, she was an immediate sensation.

On the nights Siddons appeared on stage at Drury Lane, receipts were frequently over 200 pounds more than they were on evenings when she did not appear. Given that during the month of September, Drury Lane only just made it to collecting 200 pounds on opening night, and then never made that amount again for the rest of the month, we can see that the presence of Siddons more than doubled the amount the theatre took in on a given night.

Covent Garden collected nearly 36,000 pounds for the season as a whole, though, while Drury Lane took in something closer to 34,000 pounds. While Covent Garden's box office returns were larger, both houses had introduced substantial alterations to their physical buildings. Those investments were not included with ordinary expenses, and were made with an eye toward the long-term success of the ventures.

We might look at the introduction of Siddons in a similar way that we view the capital improvements to the theatre buildings themselves. Though in the short run, Siddons was unable to make Drury Lane more profitable than Covent Garden, she was laying the groundwork for Drury Lane to become a more prestigious, and hopefully more profitable theatre in future seasons.