“Well, mother, I have done something for you that you will like. I have been to the theatre, and secured a box for to-morrow night. A’n’t I a good boy? I know you love a play; and there is room for us all. It holds nine. I have engaged Captain Wentworth. Anne will not be sorry to join us, I am sure. We all like a play. Have not I done well, mother?”
Persuasion Chapter 22
When Jane Austen wrote about attending the theatre in Bath in Persuasion the old Orchard Street theatre in Bath had been closed for some years. Its last performance was on the 13th July 1805.
As we have seen in a previous AustenOnly post, this small theatre, during its fifty year history, built a solid reputation for good if not excellent performances, and had established itself as the best and most influential provincial theatre, rivalling the two London patent theatres-Covent Garden and Drury Lane-for the quality of its performances, actors and actresses.
No, in Persuasion, Jane Austen was writing about the theatre that replaced it, the Theatre Royal, Beaufort Square.
Here is a map of Bath in 1803 from my copy of A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places(1803) by John Feltham:
And this is a section of it which shows the position of the new theatre:
Proposals to build a new theatre in Bath to replace the tiny, old-fashioned Orchard Street theatre were first mooted in 1802. In August 1804 a final decision was taken to build a larger, modern theatre on land forming the south side of Beaufort Square. Here is part of the history of the old theatre and the decision to build a new theatre from A Guide to all the Watering Places etc (1816):
The liberal and enterprising spirit of Mr John Palmer, father to the yet more entertaining and truly amiable John Palmer Esq. and grandfather of one of the present representatives of his native place, prompted him, amidst various other extensive concerns and speculations, to engage very deeply in the risk and expense of building a new and commodious theatre here, which had long been extremely wanted. In 1760 he obtained His Majesty’s patent for this purpose; and from him the property devolved on his son (the late amiable and intelligent gentleman who invented and successfully carried into execution the popular plan for the improvement of the posts of this kingdom by mail coaches etc), who rebuilt and considerably enlarged the house and, having connected the Bristol theatre with it, disposed of the greater part of that valuable concern. The old theatre at Bath was superior to any out of the metropolis; when the increasing population of Bath, and the rank of the company, seemed to require a new one, more capacious than the old and to which the access should be more commodious.
The funds needed to build the theatre were raised by way of a tontine. The tontine-named after Lorenzo Toni a Neapolitan banker who introduced this device- worked in this way: members of the tontine bought shares, and when they died their shares were shared between the surviving members of the tontine, and in theory the last standing survivor inherited it all.
On hundred first shares were issued of the theatre tontine, each costing £200 each. Each shareholder received income on that share of 3 per cent per annum, plus free admission to all performances at the theatre once it was built. A secondary issue of shares at a price of £150 per share did not entitle the holders to free admission, just to the income.
The subscribers to the shares included the great and the good. And the not – so – good .The Prince of Wales headed the list along with his brother, the Duke of York.
The foundation stone of the theatre was laid in 1804 and less than a year later the building, built in accordance with a design by George Dance, then the professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, was complete:
The following description of the sumptuous new theatre appeared in The Beauties of England and Wales (Volume XIII) by Edward Weylake Brayley and John Britton:
There are three entrances, in as many directions, the grand front being in Beaufort Square. The audience part is somewhere less than that of the late Covent Garden Theatre, but the space behind the curtain is much larger. The length, within the main walls is on hundred and twenty feet; and breadth, sixty feet; and the height seventy.
The exterior buildings including dressing rooms, scene room, wardrobe and every other convenience for the artistes, servants etc; the ante rooms and saloons to the boxes, rooms to the numerous private boxes; taverns etc ; are very extensive.
There are three tiers of boxes excessively lofty and affording a depth of rows towards the centre.
Cast iron bronze pillars are placed at a distance of two feet from the front, by which the first row of each circle appears as a balcony, independent of the main structure, and as inconceivable lightness is communicated to the tout ensemble.
The private boxes are inclosed with gilt lattices; the entrance to them is by a private house, part of the property connected with the theatre, and they are accommodated with a suite of retiring rooms.
The decorations are very splendid, particularly the ceiling, which is divided into four compartments, each of which is adorned by one of those exquisite paintings by Cassali, formerly belonging to Fonthill ,Wiltshire.
The wreathes of flowers etc which connect these paintings are executed with great skill and taste. The walls are covered with stamped cloth stuffed of a crimson colour and are papered above to the tops of the boxes with paper of the same colour; and Egyptian pattern fringed with gold stripe. The seats and edges of the boxes are also covered with cloth. The front is painted of the same colour with four broad stripes of gold and the centre ornamented with tasteful scrolls of gold.
This is the description from A Guide to all the Watering and Sea Bathing Places (1816) by John Feltham:
The whole south side of Beaufort-square was accordingly purchased in 1804, and such was the activity employed that in twelve months a theatre was opened, which, in elegance of structure, and magnificence of decoration, may vie with any in Great Britain. Its size is considerably larger than that of the little theatre in the Haymarket, being one hundred and twenty-five feet in length, sixty wide and seventy high. Four private boxes are taken from the first tier, on each side next the stage, and handsomely fitted up. There is an air of warmth,comfort and ease, about the house, not to be found in any other theatre in England; and two of the back rows of the front boxes, with similar conveniences as in many of the theatres in Italy. The scenery and stage-apparatus are not inferior to those of the London houses, and the actors are considerably the best out of the metropolis.
The Bristol theatre now belongs entirely to the same proprietors and it is needless to observe that these theatres have been long held next in consideration to those of London; and that there have arisen under their fostering care, the greatest ornaments of the British stage: we need enumerate only the names of Henderson, King, Edwin, Abingdon, Crawford, Siddons, Murray, Incledon and Kean; and though last, certainly not least in the esteem of the public, Elliston.
When the company is at Bristol, the performances are on Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays there and on the Saturday at bath; and, during the season at the latter place, the performances are on Monday at Bristol and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at Bath…
As you can imagine from the descriptions, the new theatre was altogether a very different and larger theatre than the intimate Orchard Street playhouse where Henry Tilney really has no excuse for not seeing Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey.
Let’s compare the interiors. Here is the Orchard Street theatre drawn by Rowlandson circa 1790:
And here is the interior of the Beaufort Square theatre, ready for a ball, circa 1820.
It was much larger,and very ornate, as you can see. Do remember you can enlarge all the illustrations here merely by clicking on them. The new theatre had its first performance on 12th October 1805, nine days before the battle of Trafalgar.
This is the playbill for that opening night. Sadly, it was a flop- the role of Richard III was given, rather unwisely as it turned out, to an unknown actor who was overcome with stage fright and forgot his words….Poor soul.
Jane Austen was living in 1805 at 25 Gay Street, where the Austen ladies lived after the death of Mr Austen. In 1806 they lived in temporary accommodation in Trim Street- both not far from the new theatre as you can see on this map.
The theatre is still in existance, though it is somewhat changed from Jane Austen’s day for it was destroyed by fire in 1862: go here to see it as it now appears.
Back to Persuasion….
Sadly because of the prior engagement at the Elliot’s evening party the Musgroves and Anne could not go to see a play at the relatively new Bath theatre. Charles Musgrove is not impressed:
“Phoo! phoo!” replied Charles, “what’s an evening- party? Never worth remembering. Your father might have asked us to dinner, I think, if he had wanted to see us. You may do as you like, but I shall go to the play.”
He is eventually persuaded to go to the Elliot’s…..My sympathies are with him. I’d much rather have spent time in congeal company at the theatre than spend a night-with not even a dinner in sight- in the company of the coldly elegant Elizabeth and the idiotic, egotistical Sir Walter…not to mention Mrs Clay.