It is quite apparent from her letters and from her works, that Jane Austen enjoyed the theatre very much. She most certainly did not disapprove of it, despite the evidence of some misguided views of the private theatricals she depicted in Mansfield Park.
The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted that over the past few days I have been posting at the Austen Only Twitter account, frontispieces for all the plays mentioned in Mansfield Park, which I thought might be of some interest.
I cant help it: for I too am hopelessly in love with the theatre of this era.
Therefore I’ve decided that once a month or so I’ll be posting on Jane Austen and the theatre, building up a special page of posts as a resource for you to use.
Today I am going to look at the Theatre Royal in Bath in its first incarnation at Orchard Street.
Here is a map of Bath circa 1803 from my copy of The Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1803) by John Feltham (which can be enlarged if you click on the map)
Jane Austen lived in Bath from 1801 until 1806 when the dwindling financial resources of the Austen ladies necessitated them leaving Bath to live in the cheaper surroundings of Southampton.
We know very little of the detail of Jane Austen’s time in Bath. As she and Cassandra were together most of that period, Jane’s letters to Cassandra , which usually provide us with vital information about the intimate details of her life, did not pass between them. We have no true idea of her theatre going habits while she lived in that city. However, she does mention the Bath theatre in both its guises in Northanger Abbey and in Persuasion, her two Bath-based novels. And as she was such a fan of the theatre, taking every opportunity to visit the London theatres when she visited her brother Henry Austen there, that I find it hard to believe she did not take the opportunity to visit the theatre in Bath as much as she could.
The theatre in Bath was probably the most important theatre in England outside London. As Bath was a very fashionable centre for people taking the waters as a cure and those in search, perhaps, of spouses (especially widows) there was a ready audience waiting to watch the biggest stars perform the latest plays.
(Here is a link to this print in colour, currently held by the Holburne Museum of Art, Bath)
The Theatre Royal in Orchard Street was the third theatre to be built in Bath and by the time Jane Austen lived in the city it was run in tandem with the theatre in Bristol. It did not follow the London theatrical seasons,and played to audiences all year round. ( In London the two main patent theatres, The Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Theatre Royal Covent Garden were the only houses legally authorised to perform the spoken word, and played from October to Easter. In the summer months in London only the Little Theatre in the Hay, as mentioned in Pride and Prejudice, was open for business.
The theatre in Bath was used as a starting ground for many of the great actors of the period, letting them “cut their teeth “ on a sophisticated audience before taking them or their productions to the London stage. In his book, Retrospectives of the Stage (1830) John Bernard, a member of the company of actors at Bath in the early 19th century, reminisced about the Orchard Street Theatre :
“..(it)boasted the best company out of London-Henderson, Dibdin, Dimond, Diddear, Blisset etc . The Bath Audience had long maintained the character of being the most elegant and judicious in the kingdom; and the “school” which gradually formed under their influence and the exertions of Mr Palmer obtained the pre- eminence in the eyes of the Dramatic Tyro and the London critic. It is well know that, for many years, the very name of Bath was a guarantee for a man’s good taste in his profession; whilst on the score of genius, it is acknowledged to have contributed more largely to the metropolitan boards than Dublin and York put together…
The construction of the theatre in Orchard Street was begun in 1747, and it opened for business in October 1750. Eventually stable management for the theatre was established under the control of John Arthur, a “low comedian” and pantomime clown. He began the process of building up the company and securing a good reputation for the theatre. A Royal Patent was granted in 1768 as, under the 1737 Licensing Act, it was technically operating outside the rule of law performing the spoken word without license or patent . This was the first theatre to gain a patent outside London, which does indicate just how important it was.
The arrangement with the Bristol theatre in Kings Street was to the advantage of the theatre-goers of both cities. They were only 13 miles apart and so it was easy to work out a modus operandi. From September and October of any year the company of actors played three nights in Bristol and Saturdays in Bath, with the exception of Race Week in Bath and Christmas and Easter when a full week was played there attracting capacity crowds. From November to May there would be three nights in Bath with Mondays in Bristol. Benefit performances in Bath were taken in spring and early summer: in Bristol in June and July. This method of sharing the two theatres between one company continued from 1777 until 1817 (Note that from 1806 the Bath company performed at the new theatre in Beaufort Square, still the site of the current Theatre Royal in Bath).
The company was transported between the two towns by coaches or “caterpillars “ as they were termed. John Palmer, the theatre manager of both theatres, had constructed three special long coaches, which carried 12 actors and their luggage between the theatres. This was probably a pleasant journey in summer but due to the size of the coach and the state of the roads, a dangerous one in winter.
Because of the relative stability of the Bath company and the exposure it could offer actors to good plays and influential audiences, a place in the Bath company was thought to be very desirable and a professional achievement of some merit. Here is a list of some of the actors who began in Bath,and them went on to gain more fame in the London theatres:
Mr Dodd, Mr Henderson, Mrs Siddons, Miss Kemble, Mrs Goodall transferred to the Drury Lane Company.
Miss Sacre, Mr and Mrs Knight, Mrs Glover, Incedon Elliston, Mr Murray, Miss Wallis and Miss Smith to Covent Garden.
John Edwin and Julia Grimaldi to the Haymarket.
Many actors choose to stay with the Bath company…and frankly who could blame them. It was a less precarious life than the limited season in London could offer.
The theatre at Bath was quite small compared to the London theatres, but even they were intimate affairs, quite unlike the massive auditoria we now know. The picture below shows the theatre as it was in 1775, and despite some small alterations this is how the interior looked till 1805 when it was rebuilt, on a different site in Bath, in Beaufort Square.
This print shows a scene from a performance of Hamlet. And this is how it would have looked, in the main ,when Jane Austen knew it and when she depicted Henry Tilney studiously ignoring Catherine Morland in that same theatre, sitting in the box opposite to his in Northanger Abbey:
To the theatre accordingly they all went; no Tilneys appeared to plague or please her; she feared that, amongst the many perfections of the family, a fondness for plays was not to be ranked; but perhaps it was because they were habituated to the finer performances of the London stage, which she knew, on Isabella’s authority, rendered everything else of the kind “quite horrid.” She was not deceived in her own expectation of pleasure; the comedy so well suspended her care that no one, observing her during the first four acts, would have supposed she had any wretchedness about her. On the beginning of the fifth, however, the sudden view of Mr. Henry Tilney and his father, joining a party in the opposite box, recalled her to anxiety and distress. The stage could no longer excite genuine merriment — no longer keep her whole attention. Every other look upon an average was directed towards the opposite box; and, for the space of two entire scenes, did she thus watch Henry Tilney, without being once able to catch his eye. No longer could he be suspected of indifference for a play; his notice was never withdrawn from the stage during two whole scenes. At length, however, he did look towards her, and he bowed — but such a bow! No smile, no continued observance attended it; his eyes were immediately returned to their former direction. Catherine was restlessly miserable; she could almost have run round to the box in which he sat and forced him to hear her explanation. Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own dignity injured by this ready condemnation — instead of proudly resolving, in conscious innocence, to show her resentment towards him who could harbour a doubt of it, to leave to him all the trouble of seeking an explanation, and to enlighten him on the past only by avoiding his sight, or flirting with somebody else — she took to herself all the shame of misconduct, or at least of its appearance, and was only eager for an opportunity of explaining its cause.
The play concluded — the curtain fell — Henry Tilney was no longer to be seen where he had hitherto sat, but his father remained, and perhaps he might be now coming round to their box…..
Northanger Abbey ,Chapter 12.
The theatre at Bath was not especially large, when compared to modern ones. This description of the Georgian Theatre in Richmond, Yorkshire by Richard Leacroft in his very informative book The Development of the English Playhouse( with Comparative Reconstructions ) shows how tiny these early theatres could be:
The theatre occupies a stone walled building 28 feet wide by an average of 61 feet long, divided almost equally internally between stage and auditorium, the latter over lapping the former by some 5 feet .A rectangular pit was enclosed by boxes, with two rows of benches at the sides and three facing the stage. These front boxes were backed by a curved wall similar in character to those at Drury Lane and the Theatre Royal , Bristol. The front row of benches in the side boxes and the two front rows of the front boxes were divided by low partitions of the same height as the box fronts, each related to one of the small timer Doric columns supporting the side galleries and the main gallery facing the stage, situated above the front boxes…..
It has been calculated by reference to the current Freemason’s Hall( which is now situated in the old Orchard Street Theatre, and which you can still visit- see this link here) that the theatre was sixty feet long and forty feet board. In that case, the space between the two boxes was a mere 33 feet . In addition, we ought to recall that at this time theatres were , in comparison with our temples of dark and respectful quiet, brightly lit places where the object was as much to be seen as to watch the play. The candles were not extinguished during the performance so Mr Tilney could clearly be seen by Catherine Morland and Catherine Morland must surely have been visible to him, whatever impression he gave to the contrary:
Badly done Henry, badly done. But I’m glad he was “such a Henry” that he could not resist Miss Morland’s artless plea:
“But indeed I did not wish you a pleasant walk; I never thought of such a thing; but I begged Mr. Thorpe so earnestly to stop; I called out to him as soon as ever I saw you; now, Mrs. Allen, did not — Oh! You were not there; but indeed I did; and, if Mr. Thorpe would only have stopped, I would have jumped out and run after you.”
Is there a Henry in the world who could be insensible to such a declaration? Henry Tilney at least was not.
A final point. It may interest you to note that from 1801 to 1806 the play Lover’s Vows by Kotzebue but adapted by Mrs Inchbald was performed 17 times in Bath…which coincided with JA’s residence in that city. More on that play and Mrs Inchbald in later posts.