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The Exterior of the Theatre Royal,Bury St Edmunds @Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

The Exterior of the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

I did promise to write about the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk a few weeks ago when I wrote about  performances of Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s fascinating novel, Mansfield Park and of Mrs Inchbald’s Lover’s here we are. Never say I renege on my promises…

The reason this theatre is interesting to anyone interested in Jane Austen, is that it is a rare survivor, an example of the type of provincial theatre she would have known. She visited the theatres in Bath and in Southampton as well as the lager London theatres, and so this type of building would have been very familiar to her. But for us, used to larger Victorian, Edwardian or modern auditoria, a Regency theatre is a very different space, and the experience for  the audience was and is so very different from that which we experience today.

Being able to visit a Georgian or a regency theatre in the UK is a rare experience, for the theatre at Bury St Edmunds is the only Regency theatre still in existence and open for business. The only other working theatre of this type in England of which I am aware is the Georgian Theatre in Richmond, Yorkshire which was built in 1788. There is one in Scotland , the Theatre Royal, Dumfries, which was first built in 1792, and accordingly the Bury St. Edmunds theatre is the third oldest working theatre in the United Kingdom.


The Inscription on the Entrance of the Theatre ©Austenonly

The theatre was built 1819 by the architect, William Wilkins for use by his own theatre company, the “Norwich Comedians”. Wilkins, born in Norwich in neighbouring Norfolk, was the son of a very successful builder, William Wilkins senior, who was  a partner to Humphry Repton between 1785 and 1796. Wilkins senior  established an independent practice designing houses in the neo-Gothic and neo-classical styles, most notably Donington Park, in Leicestershire and Pentillie Castle in Cornwall. He also owned a series of theatres in East Anglia. His son, educated at  Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, became an architect of some merit, and  designed  the newly established Downing College in Cambridge in 1804. As the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states of his career:

Besides the prestigious East India House, however, he had recently finished the new St George’s Hospital at Hyde Park Corner, London (1825–8; now redeveloped as the Lanesborough Hotel). He was also supervising realization of his impressive classical edifice for University College on Gower Street (1825–32), in which he was assisted by J. P. Gandy,

University of London, courtesy of LordHarris at en.wikipedia

University of London, courtesy of LordHarris at en.wikipedia

and transforming a proposal to convert the old Royal Mews in Trafalgar Square into a design for a combined National Gallery and Royal Academy. Each of these commissions reflected the enlargement of Wilkins’s understanding of architectural function and of the social space in which it operated, which had been stimulated by reading the works of John Howard, Jeremy Bentham, and continental Enlightenment authors.

In 1815 Wilkins  and his sisters inherited their father’s chain of East Anglian theatres. Wilkins junior re-designed many himself but sadly most of these- in Cambridge, Great Yarmouth,Colchester and Norwich- no longer exist, having been either demolished or, in the case of Norwich, burnt down( a fate shared by many theatres of this era). Four years later he obtained backing from the local brewer in Bury St Edmunds, Benjamin Greene, to build a theatre at Bury St Edmunds Greene loaned Wilkins £5000, an amazing  sum. The intention was that the theatre would  be patronised by the local gentry.

The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds opened on the 11th October, 1819.  Amazingly the fabric and design of the theatre remained true to its Regency origins, with very few alterations, until it closed in 1903.  In 1906 it  re-opened after alterations were made to the structure by Bertie Crewe, but in 1920 it was taken back into ownership by the local brewery, now Greene King, a combination of the Greene and the King family breweries, who still owned the land that surrounded the theatre site.  The theatre closed again in 1925, and was effectively “put in mothballs” and used by the Brewery as a barrel store. Eventually in  the 1960s  some restoration was undertaken after support for a re-opening was generated by a local  group led by Air Vice-Marshall Stanley Vincent, and it was re opened in 1965.

Since 1975, ownership of  the theatre has vested in the National Trust on a 999 year lease and it is operated as an independent working theatre by the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Management Ltd. It is used for theatre performances throughout the year, and there is always a production of an annual Christmas pantomime. As you may already know the theatre has also been promoting the performance of Georgian plays which are no longer part of the repertoire. Its Restoring the Repertoire programme has enabled us to see, for the first time, forgotten plays which were very familiar to Jane Austen, Lovers Vows being only one example. And importantly we have been able to see them in their natural habitat: these intimate theatres.

The Theatre’s website explains why it is important to restore these plays in an appropriate setting:

Due to the disappearance of all other Regency theatres in this country and their unique stages, the repertoire that was written for them in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has lain dormant for over a hundred and fifty years.

The repertoire depends for its success on the combination of the physical circumstances which only the Georgian stage can offer. There are literally thousands of plays, many of which are fine examples of the literary and theatrical tradition of the period, and which offer a real opportunity to add a significant body of knowledge about the early nineteenth century English drama repertoire which has hitherto been overlooked.

What distinguishes this type of theatre from its more robust Victorian and Edwardian predecessors, is its size. Compared to more modern theatres the auditorium is small. This enables more interaction between audience and players;in addition  the Regency theatre remained lit during performances, remember. Everyone was on show-the audience and the actors. Eye contact between the two was inevitable. This made for a very different experience of the theatre, brightly lit and intimate. Not at all like the experience in the larger London theatres or the modern theatre we experience today. The stage extended beyond the proscenium arch, as you can see in the photograph, below. This helped the actors engage directly with the audience, and broke down any barriers created by the imaginary fourth wall.
View from the Central Box @Theatre Royal Bury St. Edmunds

View from the Central Box @Theatre Royal Bury St. Edmunds

So you can see that in this type of theatre, actors and audience were not separated by light, or rather dark, or space. An intimate space was created, perfect for exchanges between audience and actors.  The lawyer and  diarist, Henry Crabb Robinson, who visited the theatre during the first week it was opened, remarked:

“It is a handsome tho’ small house. There is from the upper boxes a cheerful breadth and airiness that is quite exhilarating contrasted with the pent-up chicken coops of most theatrical boxes…

This photograph, above, taken from the rear of the central box, gives you some idea of the intimate nature of the theatre. The boxes, which were the most expensive type of seating in this type of theatre, were arranged in a semi-circle , or horseshoe shape around the stage,  almost level with it, and this type of seating was known as the Dress Circle.

View from the Dress Circle Boxes, Stage Right ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

View from the Dress Circle Boxes, Stage Right ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

This photograph, above, taken from one of the stage-right side boxes, shows you the stage, and you can clearly see just how close the audience is to the performers. The bench seats in the stalls, or The Pit as it was known then, slope down towards the stage, below the level of the boxes in the Dress Circle. You can just see the entrance to these types of seats, under the stage to the right of the photograph, as the steps go down from the pit under the stage to the exit.



This rather poor picture of mine, above,  gives you some idea of the size of the auditorium, which you can gauge by the presence of some people. The theatre originally held 800 people, and they would have been squashed together in the pit and the gallery (which is as you can see  in the photographs below was above the boxes in the Dress Circle and the Upper Circle.) Modern standards for health, safety and comfort have reduced that capacity to 350.

To give you some idea of the sweep of the semi-circle of boxes in the Dress Circle, here is a photograph of the entrance to the boxes and the semi-circular stone-flagged corridor that runs around them.

The Corridor leading to the Boxes in the Dress Circle ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

The Corridor leading to the Boxes in the Dress Circle ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

This is the view from the stage left boxes in the Dress Circle, showing the audience in the Upper Circle , sitting above:

The Audience in the Theatre ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

The Audience in the Theatre ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

The cheapest seats were  to be found in the Gallery, which was above the Upper Circle, and you can see the audience sitting in the gallery  in the central uppermost part of the photograph, below:

The View from the Stage ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

The View from the Stage ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

This amazing photograph also gives you some idea of just how small the theatre is: by my reckoning, there are only eleven people sitting in the front row of the pit.

Here is the same view, taken from the stage, but without the audience being present. It  allows you to see the spaces they would occupy, in order: Pit, Dress Circle, Upper Circle and Gallery.

©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

The first playhouses in England were open to the elements: think of Shakespeare’s great wooden”O’,  the Globe:

Wilkins’ theatre  was enclosed but paid homage to the open sky by having a painted one:

©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

This wonderful photograph shows the sky painted on the ceiling looking upwards from the pit.

Do note that the entrance for the actors onto the stage  is not from “the slips” but from a pair of wooden doors providing access from backstage.



This is my  photograph, again rather poor quality,  of the stage, taken from the viewpoint of  the central box in the Dress Circle, which shows the doors set before the proscenium arch, and which allow access and egress to the stage.

And finally let’s compare this with an example of a real regency theatre.This picture. below,  is a scan  of a Regency theatre from my copy of Pierce Egan’s 1825 book, The Life of An Actor:

A Regency Theatre from Pierce Egan's 1825 book, The Life of An Actor ©Austenonly

A Regency Theatre from Pierce Egan’s 1825 book, The Life of An Actor ©Austenonly

I’m afraid it is not of a very high-resolution and for this I apologise. ***

To resume….this images shows two actors on stage. To stage-right is a door allowing access to the stage, as at Bury St Edmunds. You can clearly see the Pit, ( this is a badly attended production, it has to be said!), and the Dress Circle of boxes with its solitary well-heeled on-looker. These boxes are at a slightly higher level than with the stage, note as at Bury St, Edmunds. Above the Dress Circle is the Upper Circle. The Gallery would have been above that level, no doubt. The similarities between this print and the theatre at Bury St Edmunds are remarkable don’t you think?

So, if you want to experience the theatre as Jane Austen would  have known it, you now have the opportunity to do so  by visiting the theatre at Bury St Edmunds. Not only can you see productions of Georgian plays there, which are not performed anywhere else, the modern 20 and 21st repertoire having no place for them, but you can also take backstage tours. I’ve not done this yet, but it is on my to do list for next year.

I should like to than the staff at the theatre for all their assistance in preparing this article, and for their extreme kindness in supplying me with theses wonderful photographs of the theatre’s exterior and interior. I only hope my description has done them justice.

*** The reason why I have resorted to doing this is  that I have had problems recently with unscrupulous authors and publishers using my images for commercial purposes without my permission. I’m afraid that, from now on , my old images taken from my collection of 18th and early 19th century books and engraving will be published here but  only at low resolution. A practice which will not  affect your enjoyment of them  but which will, hopefully, stop the theft of my images. I do hope you will understand why I have reluctantly had to take this step.

Before we get back to posting about the Lefroys and Ashe, I thought you might like to know that the play adapted by Tim Luscombe from Jane Austen’s novel, and which is currently touring southern England in a Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds production, is now available to purchase. It has been published by Oberon Books in  paperback form and it is also available on Kindle as an E-Book.

In addition to the text of the adaptation, the book includes details of the cast and crew, a note on the production by the director, Colin Blumenau, and a note on the process of adapting Jane Austen’s most complex novel by Tim Luscombe.

If you cannot get to see this production, you might care to read  it, as a substitute. I’m sure you are all imaginative enough to be able to join the dots….;)

Last Monday I was very lucky to see a performance of Elizabeth Inchbald’s play 1798, Lover’s Vows, at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. What made this performance very special was the cast: the actors were the members of the same cast which is currently appearing in the touring production of Mansfield Park, which I reviewed, here. As a result we saw Edmund play Anhalt, Mary Crawford play Amelia, Maria Bertram play Agatha, Fanny Price playing the Cottager’s Wife, Henry Crawford playing Frederick, and Mr Rushworth as Count Cassell. I am a firm believer that plays are better understood when seen rather than when merely read, and so it was with this production.

Cast List for Lover's Vows

Cast List for Lover’s Vows ©Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

It was, I hasten to add, a Script in Hand performance: one where the actors had had one read-though, then performed the play on stage, script in hand without benefit of costumes or scenery . I’ve seen an amateur performance of this play, but it was revelatory to see it acted by good hardened real professionals. In addition seeing it performed in the tiny Regency theatre at Bury St Edmunds was wonderful: the theatre is very intimate and suits this type of play-where there are many asides made directly to the audience. Another joy was that the theatre was kept illuminated during the performance, just as Georgian theatres were.We are all- actors ands audience, on view. A further layer of appropriateness was that Mrs Inchbald was born in a small village only five miles away from the town: she was born Elizabeth Simpson at Standingfield on October 15th 1753, and she knew Bury St Edmunds well. Her plays, along with most of the Georgian repertoire are very rarely performed these days. However, the restored Theatre Royal has established a very noble tradition, since its restoration in 2007, of performing these forgotten plays and attempting to “restoring them to the repertoire”. They have performed many of Mrs Inchbald’s plays, which is very appropriate given the local connection, and it is obvious that Colin Blumenau , the director of these two plays and once artistic director of the Theatre Royal, is a strong supporter and admirer of her works.

Engraving of Mrs Inchbald after a portrait painted by her friend, Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Engraving of Mrs Inchbald after a portrait painted by her friend, Sir Thomas Lawrence from “I’ll Tell You What” by Annabel Jenkins 

The play is, to modern eyes and ears, and odd mix of high drama and low comedy. And it is clear that the subject matter- the fate of a fallen woman who had given birth to an illegitimate son, and who was cast off by a noble family, combined with the love story of a young noble girl for her priest- is not at all suitable to be played by the unmarried and engaged Bertram daughters and Mary Crawford. It is really no surprise that Edmund is initially aghast to discover that this particular play was the one the Mansfield Players decided upon:

I cannot, before Mr. Yates, speak what I feel as to this play, without reflecting on his friends at Ecclesford; but I must now, my dear Maria, tell you, that I think it exceedingly unfit for private representation, and that I hope you will give it up. I cannot but suppose youwill when you have read it carefully over. Read only the first act aloud to either your mother or aunt, and see how you can approve it. It will not be necessary to send you to yourfather’s judgment, I am convinced.”

Mansfield Park, Chapter 15

If you would like to read the play you can, by clicking here. After the play had been performed, a question and answer session with the actors and the director, Colin Blumenau was fascinating.Their insights into the technique needed to successfully portray scenes where the actors are requited to switch abruptly from tragedy to comedy were compelling.

Since seeing the play, I’ve had the opportunity to consider it and  how Jane Austen used it in Mansfield Park. It is clear that she was very well acquainted with it. As a woman who was very interested in the theatre, she no doubt followed the news of its great success ( it was performed 45 times at its initial presentation at Covent Garden in London) and the controversy surrounding its translation from the German playwright, Auguste von Kotzebue’s play, The Natural Son. She many even have seen it performed, though she does not mention this in her letters. She did have the opportunity, for it was performed at least five times while she lived in Bath, IIRC. For her purposes it was the perfect vehicle for the young people at Mansfield.  From its first performance it was a controversial play- with its themes of illegitimacy, inappropriate love,and the decency of the lower orders as opposed to the arrogance and cruelty of the upper classes – and it suited her purposes not only to have the young people act in defiance of Sir Thomas’ strong sense of decorum but for them also to choose to perform the most unsuitable play that they possibly could. Its plot lines also gave them many opportunities to “act out’ their own secret passions and desires, to use the play for their own purposes.

But it goes deeper than that; by casting the play as she did, she subverted and even satirised her own characters. Let’s consider a few examples. Mr Rushworth, the dim but rich cuckold, is transformed into a boastful man about town, Count Cassell,who had made “vows of love to so many women that on his marriage with (Amelia) a hundred hearts will at least be broken. Maria, the adulterous wife who lived openly in sin with Henry Crawford and eventually is cast off by her family to live with Mrs Norris in

an establishment being formed for them in another country, remote and private, where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment, 

Mansfield Park, Chapter 48

plays Agatha, who is welcomed back into the bosom of her lovers family with great pomp and circumstance, having previously been abandoned to shift for herself and her son. Fanny- who was finally coerced into agreeing to play the Cottagers Wife, though Sir Thomas’ return prevented it, is meek and kind but relatively powerless to do good until she is exiled to Porstmouth, when her little store of money provides food and intellectual stimulation for her siblings: the Cottager Wife is kind, taking Agatha into her home when no one would help, but sensible enough to eventually take the financial reward offered by Anhalt on Count Wildenheim’s behalf despite the protests of her husband. The Butler, Verdun, is a long comic role: his rambling poetic speeches with concluding morals( which were not written wholly by Mrs. Inchbald but by her friend and college, John Taylor) ramble on: in Mansfield Park , the Butler,Baddeley has only two speeches, and of these the second  is of vast significant for it indicates the extent to   which the odious Mrs Norris is held in contempt  below stairs at Mansfield Park:

Mrs. Norris called out, “Stay, stay, Fanny! what are you about? where are you going? don’t be in such a hurry. Depend upon it, it is not you who are wanted; depend upon it, it is me” (looking at the butler); “but you are so very eager to put yourself forward. What should Sir Thomas want you for? It is me, Baddeley, you mean; I am coming this moment. You mean me, Baddeley, I am sure; Sir Thomas wants me, not Miss Price.”

But Baddeley was stout. “No, ma’am, it is Miss Price; I am certain of its being Miss Price.” And there was a half–smile with the words, which meant, “I do not think you would answer the purpose at all.”

Mansfield Park, Chapter 32.

Mary Crawford, a woman of strong opinions which are fatally and morally flawed,  played Ameila , a girl of strong opinions, who was seen as outrageously  forward by some sections of its 18th century audience, but who is truly moral and kind, and prepared to marry and love a clergyman, which Mary Crawford, most definitely, was not.

The most striking contrast is found in the attitudes of the head of the households, Baron Wildenhaim, as opposed to Sir Thomas. The Baron,who had been forced by his parents to abandon the low-born Agatha and their son, Frederick, and despite having married and become a widower, regrets ever having to take such a drastic course of action. He assures his daughter, Amelia, that she would never be forced to marry without affection. Once he discovers the true nature of Count Cassell’s sexual offences and bragging, he forbids her to marry him, and eventually consents to her marrying his Chaplain, Anhalt,  whose strong moral advice has allowed him to recover Agatha and his natural son Frederick and, also, to give them  respectable positions in society, as his son and wife. Sir Thomas, though he offers to allow Maria an escape route from the marriage with Rushworth, failed  to allow Fanny the same advantage and punishes her for her “inexplicable” rejection of Henry Crawford, a morally flawed man,who can offer riches and status and, through his connection the Admiral, has arranged for the  promotion of her brother, William. There are many more parallels…but I’ll stop here.

As you can see, I’ve been thinking a lot about  this play and I now wonder how influential Lover’s Vows was in sowing the germ of the idea for Mansfield Park in Jane Austen’s head. I used to think she merely inserted it as an (in)appropriate play in the private theatrical section of the book, but now…I think the evidence is that its influence is much stronger and deeper with her than that. I do thank the Theatre Royal, its Restoring the Repertoire programme, and the cast of Lover’s Vows for their inspiring performance.

Scene from "Lover's Vows":illustrating the last stage direction in the play, wherein  Agatha and Frederick are re-united with Count Wildenheim, as Amelia and Anhalt  look on ©Austenonly

Scene from “Lover’s Vows”,from The British Theatre, Volume XXIII, illustrating the last stage direction in the play, wherein Agatha and Frederick are re-united with Count Wildenhaim, as Amelia and Anhalt look on ©Austenonly

I made it to this exhibition with one day to spare.It closed on Sunday , but, my goodness, it was worth the wait.

The portraits on show chronicled the way actresses have been portrayed from the 1660s when they were finally allowed to perform legally on the stage, to the end of Mrs Siddons reign as Queen Tragedienne in the mid 19th century.  An exercise in spin if you like, yet again proving that nothing is new under the sun.

The early actresses, or, more correctly performers, for the exhibition also included images of dancers and singers, had to tread a fine line- for  to appear onstage, exposing aspects of their bodes and personalities was thought scandalous by many in the general pubic. Some led a scandalous off stage life and bad reputations stuck. For many, the perception was that to be an actress go the professional stage was analogous with being a prostitute. Some actresses tried to rectify this with portraits depicting them in serious poses, as very correct, classical muses. This might not succeed,  however if their private lives were not as exemplary as their images projected in these portraits. As a tactic of spin it often misfired. Dorothea Jordan ‘s attempt to be seen as a serious actress in Hoppner’s depiction of her as the Comic Muse was not at all successful . And of course she was also the Duke of Clarence’s mistress, bearing him many  children and supporting him financially.

Mrs Siddons changed all that. And for me the star turn of the exhibit was Sir Thomas Lawrence’s compelling deception of her from 1804.

A monumental canvas in many ways, not merely for its great size, she dominated the exhibit in her sober black dress, her intelligent eyes looking soberly at us, her audience. She stands, presumably turning the pages of a volume of Shakespeare: a powerful woman, famous for depicting powerful tragic roles.

I’d loved to have seen her Lady Macbeth on the strength of this powerful painting. Above, she is shown in this role in a mass-produced  Staffordshire flat back figure.  No wonder Jane Austen felt herself very unlucky to have not seen Mrs Siddons perform:

I have no chance of seeing Mrs Siddons.She did act on Monday but as Henry was told by the Boxkeeper that he did not think she would all the places and all the thought of it were given up. I should particularly have liked seeing her in Constance and  could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me.

(See: Letter to Cassandra Austen dated, 25th April, 1811)

Other highlights for me were the depiction of Hester Booth, the dancer-actress, actually shown  in her stage costume as painted by John Elys circa 1772-3, which must be one of the earliest depictions of an actress in costume:

And I loved the small items of ceramics on show: Kitty Clive as The Fine Lady in Lethe from 1750

and this amazing set of  late 18th century tiles showing from the bottom up,

Mrs. Yates, Mrs. Buckley, Anne Barry and Susannah Cibber. Do note you can click on these images to enlarge them and see the details.

Though the exhibit is no longer available the book is. Go here to read my review of it. I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition: being able to compare and contrast so many canvases in the intimate  temporary exhibition space at the NPG was a treat and a privilege. More please. Or should I say, Encore.

You may recall that in September, I brought your attention to this fascinating necklace

which was part of the late Dame Elizabeth Taylor’s estate. Go here to read about its history.

The sale at Christie’s in New York took place on the 13th December, and  it sold for $314,500…which is really amazing when you consider the the sale estimate was for $1,500 to $2000. Go here for all the sale details.

I will console myself with reading the catalogues of the sale, which are going to be part of my Christmas presents from my family. A girl can still dream….well, she will have to, because that bauble is not going to find its way into her Christmas Stocking!

The National Portrait Gallery in London’s new exhibit,  The First Actresses  opens tomorrow and runs until the 8th January 2012. I hope I will be going to see it soon. I will ,of course, then let you know my impressions of it( you would be hard pressed to restrain me!). But today I thought you might like to read about the book that accompanies the exhibition, and you might consider purchasing it, especially if you cannot visit the exhibit in London in person.

The exhibition seeks to examine how these first actresses were portrayed, not only in the large-scale portrait but in caricatures, in prints  and on such diverse goods as china figures and tin glazed tiles, and how perceptions of  their reputations changed as a result. The book contains interesting essays on the lives of these early actresses. Of course, it has to be remembered that it was only after the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II (my hero!) in 1660 that women were allowed to become professional actress and appear on the stage. The way in which their reputations, good or ill, have been portrayed by artists is certainly an intriguing subject to examine in detail.  Many actresses were associated with lax morals and, indeed, outright prostitution. During Jane Austen’s era Sarah Siddons sought to establish a more serious, responsible and respectable persona for the female branch of the profession. But, of course, she shared the stage with actresses like Mary Robinson, shown above on the cover of the book, who was The Prince of Wales’ mistress, and  Dorothea Jordan, shown below in a portrait by  John Russell dating from 1801. She was famous for her marvellous pair of legs, revealed to the adoring public in “breeches roles” where cross dressing was allowed, even encouraged. She was also the long term mistress of the Duke of Clarence, the Prince of Wales’ brother, who pretty swiftly disposed of her servicesin the race to produce a legitimate hero to the throne after the death of George IV’s only legitimate child, Princess Charlotte in  November 1817, but only after she had bourne him ten children and supported him financially.

The great serious portrait , executed by an aspiring or famous artist and exhibited in public was one way in which actresses sought to convince the public that they were to be taken seriously. John Hoppner’s portrait of Mrs Jordan as the Comic Muse, below,  failed miserably in this regard as the attitude in which she was painted  was thought to be  too salacious and  many hostile reviews resulted. The great portrait was, for both parties involved, a two-way street. If it worked, not only did the actress enhance her reputation but  the artist gained fame and possibly more commissions as a result of portraying a celebrity successfully. Plus ca change….

The book contains potted biographies of the sitters included in the exhibition. The portrait of Mrs Inchblad, below, attributed to John Hoppner, is new to me and I think it is fabulous. She was, of course, not only an author in her own right but was also  the translator of Kotzebue’s play, Lover’s Vows, which Jane Austen used to spectacular and revealing dramatic effect in the Private Theatricals episode in  Mansfield Park.

 The Chapter entitled Star Systems Then and Now written by Gill Perry is perhaps my favourite section of the book. As well as considering actresses now and how they are portrayed by artists and photographers,  Gill Perry examines how non-professionals who took part in The Itch for Acting– private theatricals – an itch which infected the society in which Jane Austen lived, were portrayed by artists and the media of the day.

The painting by Daniel Gardner of The Three Witches from Macbeth, shows Elizabeth, Vicountess Melbourne, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and Anne Seymour Damer, as they appeared at the Richmond House private theatricals which were hosted by the Duke of Richmond at his London home in a specially built theatre, and where its aristocratic cast were coached by the professional actress Elizabeth Farren. She went on to marry one of them, the Earl of Derby.

Jane Austen  loved the theatre and was an acute critic of performances she attended in London and in Southampton.She would have enjoyed this book tremendously I’m sure, casting her critical eye over the many portraits, making caustic comments on them no doubt.

You ought to know that the NPG is currently offering the book at a reduced price currently: here is a link to the website should you wish to buy it from them directly, and take advantage of this offer. If you are interested in the theatre of Jane Austen’s era, then I am sure you will want to do so.

will be sold at Christies in New York in December as part of the sale of Dame Elizabeth Taylor’s jewellery and effects.

Why may Jane Austen have admired it? Because it is made of 18th and early to mid 19th century ivory theatre tokens.( Well, in truth she may not have admired it at all, but it gives me an opportunity  to talk about theatre tokens with you, and you do remember how much I love the theatre of this period!)

Theatre tokens were used instead of paper tickets: paper was expensive and so permanent tickets in the form of these tokens were the preferred way of keeping track of the paying customers. They paid for their ticket, or token, and then surrendered them to the doorkeeper on the day of the performance. Above is a drawing of some metal tokens for the gallery at Drury Lane Theatre in London issued in 1790. It was, of course in the Lobby at Drury Lane where Sir John Middleton harangued Willoughby for his treatment of Marianne Dashwood in Chapter 44 of Sense and Sensibility :

“Last night, in Drury-lane lobby, I ran against Sir John Middleton, and when he saw who I was (for the first time these two months) he spoke to me. That he had cut me ever since my marriage, I had seen without surprise or resentment. Now, however, his good-natured, honest, stupid soul, full of indignation against me, and concern for your sister, could not resist the temptation of telling me what he knew ought to though probably he did not think it would , vex me horridly. As bluntly as he could speak it, therefore, he told me that Marianne Dashwood was dying of a putrid fever at Cleveland — a letter that morning received from Mrs. Jennings declared her danger most imminent — the Palmers all gone off in a fright, etc. I was too much shocked to be able to pass myself off as insensible, even to the undiscerning Sir John. His heart was softened in seeing mine suffer; and so much of his ill-will was done away, that when we parted, he almost shook me by the hand while he reminded me of an old promise about a pointer puppy…

I’m sure Sir John would have and a token such as these, though no doubt his would have been for a box, and would most probably have been ivory likes the ones in the necklace. Base metal was used for the lesser value seats, while those in the boxes or more expensive seats would have had tokens made from ivory. If you go here you can see the type of ivory token used for admission to the stalls at Drury Lane , now in the collection of the British Museum.

This photograph shows the reverse of the tokens. The necklace was first owned by the magnificent Hollywood costume designer, Edith Head. Elizabeth Taylor knew her from the time they both worked at MGM studios, and they had a very close and friendly relationship. apparently Dame Elizabeth was very taken with the necklace and Edith Head promised to leave it to her in her will. And she did.

It will be sold along with other items from Dame Elizabeth’s jewellery collection in New York on the 13th and 14th December to benefit the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation. I’d love to buy it but  I think that the sale estimate of $2,000 is going to be exceeded many times over. Owning the catalogues are my consolation!

It now forms part

Yesterday was the anniversary of Sarah Siddons birth in 1755. She is  shown below in a portrait by Opie, and so it is an appropriate opportunity to give you advance notice of an exhibition that would surely appeal to Jane Austen. The National Portrait Gallery in London  will be staging The First Actresses: from Nell Gwynn to Sarah Siddons  from the 230th October 2011 till the 8th January 2012.

The exhibition will examine the portraits and careers of actresses from the Restoration, when they were first legally allowed to appear on the professional stage to the early part of the 19th century. So, the exhibition will present information on and portraits of actresses such as Nell Gwynn, the Covent Garden orange seller, comedian and royal mistress of Charles II, through to Sarah Siddons, the most famous actress of the Georgian era, whose performances were said to be so intense that a co-star was once said to have been rendered speechless, while members of the audience fainted in awe. Jane Austen would have loved to have had the opportunity to do so: she was desperate to see Mrs Siddons perform but never quite managed it…though she was close on a few occasions.

The exhibition will feature portraits of 52 actresses, including Dorothea Jordan, renowned for her sweet nature, fabulous legs (she was famed for her “breeches ” roles, that is playing boys and young men) and for bearing 10 children by the Duke of Clarence, the future William IV. She is shown below,

and she was a favourite of both Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra:

I think you judge very wisely in putting off your London visit, and I am mistaken if it be not put off for some time. You speak with such noble resignation of Mrs. Jordan and the Opera House, that it would be an insult to suppose consolation required…
(Letter to  Cassandra Austen dated January 8, 1801)

It will also feature Mary Robinson, the actress and poet and yet another royal mistress, this time of the Prince of Wales, shown below in a portrait by John Hoppner, which is now owned by Chawton House Library;

© Chawton House Library, Hampshire

and Elizabeth Inchbald, who retired from acting and became a successful playwright, and whose version of Kotzebue’s Lovers Vows was used  spectacularly by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park to highlight the essential nature and ambitions of the main characters in her novel.

The portraits will include works by  Gainsborough, Reynolds, Hogarth and the caricaturist Gillray, so it will be a visual feast. I cannot wait to see it, for I am, as you are only too well aware, as enamoured of the 18th century theatre as was our Miss Austen.

This exhibition will have many resonances for readers of Jane Austen’s novels and letters, so once I have visited it I will be reporting back, of that you can be assured.

You wil recall that last year we learnt a little about the actors that Jane Austen admired: Miss O’ Neil and Mr Young. As I have not written about Jane Austen and the Theatre for some time I thought today might be the day to resume our interest in matters theatrical.  Writing to her niece, Anna Austen, Jane Austen thougth that Miss O’ Neil was most elegant- one of her highest terms of praise for a female- but was not as good an actress as she had been led to believe:

We were all at the Play last night, to see Miss o’Neal (sic) in” Isabella”. I do not think she was quite equal to my expectation. I fancy I want something more than can be.  Acting seldom satisfies me. I took two Pocket handkerchiefs but had very little occasion for either. She is an elegant creature however and hugs Mr Younge  delightfully.

( Letter to Anna Austen, dated 29th November 1814, written from 23 Hans Place, London)

I have found another admirer of Miss O’ Neil, a contemporary of Jane Austen,  and thoguht you might like to share his impressions of her acting ability, to compare and contrast it with Jane Austen’s acute preception and theatrical criticism ;)

The person in question is one of my favouite diarists of the era, Joseph Ballard

Joseph Ballard  was a Bostonian, born in 1789 in Bromfield’s Lane, Boston, Massachusetts, where his father had a livery and hack business. In fact his father established the first hackney carriage business in Boston. Jospeh Ballard was mostly aself-educated man, but on his journey to England  and Wales in 1815 he kept what is now a fascinating journal, full of delicous detial of all he did and experienced, contrasting Amercian habits and customs with those he observed in England.

From his observations made in London, he was obviously a fan of theatre in America. So it is interesting to note his reaction to Miss O’Neil, with whom Jane Austen was ever-so-slighlty disappointed. And it is also interesting to note the tiny details he noticed and recorded, some that Jane Austen ignored, or just didn’t think necessary to note.

He first went to see Miss O’Neil on the 20th April 1815, when she was appearing in one of her most famous roles,Shakespeare’s Juliet. Here is his dairy entry for that night:

This evening attended Covent Garden Theatre. The outside as well as that of Dury Lane and the Opera is guarded by soldiers to keep proper order. The play was Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Miss O ‘Neil sustained the character of Juliet in a style which far surpasses our actresses as the celebrated Cooke did our actors.The funeral scene was extremely solemn; the friars and attendants were over sixty persons who chanted the service in the manner of the Romish church. The music and singing was very fine. The after-piece was ‘Lembucca’ a modern melodrama resembling ‘Tekeli’. The scenery and dresses to this were very handsome. There were frequently one hundred performers on the stage at once. The decorations of this house on the audiots parts ( in the auditorium-jfw) are not so elegant as those of Drury Lane yet I think the scenery more elegant.

There is always attending these theatres an immense number of women of the town( prostitutes-jfw). With the exception of the first boxes which are designated as dress boxes they go into all parts of the house and seat themselves as they please. I have often seen many of them in boxes with ladies and gentlemen apparently respectable. The streets are thronged with these miserable wretches who acost every person who passes along. Many of them  have no where to lay their heads and pass the night in the street in any corner which will afford them shelter.

At Covent Garden Theatre, Liston,( John Liston a noted comedian-jfw) one of the performers, is enuded with such comical powers of countanance  that one must have a perfect command of the risible powers to prevent himself from laughing before he utters a word.

(John Liston in 1817 by George Clint)

There are also some fine dancers at this house but these ladies are so thinly clad and throw themselves into such indecent postures that I think a New England audience  would not have tolerated them.

This is a much fuller and very different account of a night at Covent Garden that Jane Austen ever gives us, I am sure you will agree.

Then on 4th May, after having watched the procession of grandees arrive at St James Palace for a levee held by the Queen, Mr Ballard again went to Covent Garden to see Miss O’ Neil.

At night attended Covent Garden theatre to see Mr Kemble and Miss O ‘Neil in the play of ‘The Stranger’. The performances in this play were never in my opinion surpassesd for excellence. Kemble has a singular voice and I think is a little too formal and precise yet his acting is elegant. When I speak of Miss O ‘Neil I cannot find words to express sufficiently my admiration of her acting. It is said she excels Mrs Siddons when she first appeared opon the London boards. Her person is most beautiful. She posesses a fine tonic voice and a very expressive countnance.

I think we can clearly discern that Mr Ballard was rather taken with the elegant Miss O’Neil. Rather more so than Jane Austen,who was rather cool about her acting ability. But interestingly, he gives us far more detail of the evenings entertainment than Jane Austen ever did: a forgeiners eye picks up on details that Jane Austen most probably noticed but took as normal- the prostitutes-women of the town- sitting all around the theatres, the same poor wretches lying in squalor on the streets.

Mr Ballard has a lot more to say about Jane Austen’s England and so I think we can all profit by following him about. There will be more posts about his travels soon.Do join me, won’t you?

The chapters dealing with the private theatricals at Mansfield Park are one of my favourite in any of Jane Austen’s novels. Her attitude towards private theatricals and the theatre has long been debated as a result of her seemingly contradictory writings, and I’ve added my little part to the debate here. But what that intriguing episode in Mansfield Park most certainly did, without doubt, was to reflect the real “itch for acting‘ that seemed to consume polite society in England and Wales from 1780-1820.

There were many many instances of private theatricals performed in country and town houses and in some cases in specially  built theatres attached to country houses, during this period.  The Earl of Barrymore, shown below performing in his production of  the Beaux’ Stratagem, acted on the public stage and also  constructed  his very own and elaborate private opera house in the grounds at his estate at Wargrave in Berkshire where he also performed.  Finished in 1792, it cost the  (amazing for then!) sum of £60,000.

He employed Mr Cox, the carpenter from Covent Garden, to ensure everything was constructed to the highest specifications and was truly authentic. Mrs Lybbe Powys, Jane Austen’s kinswoman by marriage and friend to the  Leigh Perrots, Jane’s  aunt and uncle, attended one of the performances there, and thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle.

The Duke of Richmond had a theatre constructed in his town home, Richmond House, in Whitehall. The aristocrats who performed on stage there were coached by Elizabeth Farren, depicted below by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

She was one of the most  famous actresses of the era, and she eventually married one of the aristocraic performers she met there, the Earl of Derby.  The screen painter at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and John Downman the portrait painter were employed as scene painters. King George III and Queen Charlotte and the whole troupe of royal princesses  even attended performances.

One of the most intriguing series of private theatricals were those staged by the Margravine of Anspach, at her home, Brandenburgh House at Hammersmith, then a village separate from London, in Surrey near the Thames.

The Margravine was an interesting character to say the very least. Born Elizabeth Berkeley

shown above, painted by Ozias Humphrey, she had first married the 6th Baron Carven ( pictured below) and was mother to his children, including his heir who became the first Earl of Craven, and who was of course

a kinsman and patron of the Fowle family at Kintbury. They became estranged after both began a series of extra marital affairs and then always lived apart until his death.

Sybil Rosenfeld in her magical book, Temples of Thespis describes Elizabeth’s extraordinary private life after separating from Baron Craven:

She travelled about Europe for some years until she finally settled at the court of the Margrave of Anspach in 1787 as his “adopted sister”. In 1791 only a month after she heard of the death of her husband she married the Margrave in Lisbon and persuaded him to give up the ruling of his principality and retire with her and his fortune to England. Her precipitancy was considered indecent and, on her return, she found herself cold-shouldered by the court and high society. The Margrave, a stolid German who seems only to have wished for a peaceful life, purchased Brandenburgh House a country villa on the bank of the Thames at Hammersmith and spent the rest of his days there. His wife built a theatre in the grounds where she coud entertain him and at the same time indulge in her favourite past time of taking the centre stage….

The Margravine, socially under a cloud and not visited by the more rigid and respectable members of high society, threw herself into organising her theatricals:

The Margravine was a vain and egotistical creature with a strong streak of exhibtionism in her nature, who yet was capavle , where her happines was involved, of showing detemination and strength of character…..

(Tempels of Thespis,as above page 53)

The theatricals performed at Brandenburg House were lavish and extravagant -the theatre fantastically built in the manner of Horace Walpole’s’ Strawberry Hill as a faux castle ( plainly to be seen in the scan of my print of the theatre and house taken from my copy of The Beauties of England and Wales 1801, above). Here is an image of the interior of the theatre:

The Margravine’s theatricals were expensively and lavishly produced. The Margravine was heavily involved in all aspects of the productions, and was naturally, most often to be found centre stage. The goings on at Hammersmith caught the eye of Gillray who satirised poor plump Lady Buckingham, one of the members of the company, below:

One of the more famous of the Margravine’s productions took place in 1803. It  was a three act comedy called Nourjad, adapted from Frances Sheridan’s novel,  The History of Nourjad.  The production was created in celebration of the Margrave’s birthday and was not performed in the lavish theatre but in the great gallery adjoining the dining room of Brandenburg House. A temporary stage was erected at one end of the gallery and green baize served for the side screens. Shades of Mansfield Park indeed.

If you would like to experience this type of private theatrical, indeed this particular production, then you will be enchanted to note that, for one night only, you will have the chance to do so. The Margravine’s 1803  staging of Nourjad will be re created at Chawton House on 10th December  under the direction of Professor Judith Hawley of Royal Holloway College, University of London:

Professor Hawley and Dr McGirr are leading a network of scholars, literary critics, theatre practitioners and stake holders in the heritage industry to investigate the history and contemporary possibilities of this form of entertainment. Central to their investigation is a practical exploration and on 10 December the great hall and kitchen of Chawton House in Alton, Hampshire will be transformed into a make-shift theatre to evoke an event which took place on 24 February 1803 at Brandenburgh House, Hammersmith. On that night, the theatre-mad Elizabeth Craven, Margravine of Anspach, staged her adaptation of Frances Sheridan’s Oriental fantasy, ‘Nourjahad’ as a birthday entertainment for her husband. Chawton House, once owned by Jane Austen’s brother, is both a magnificently preserved Elizabethan manor house and a centre for the study of early women’s writing.

Professor Hawley said: “Theatre history has concentrated almost exclusively on the public theatres but there is a fascinating aspect of private life waiting to be uncovered. The possibilities for the transformation of space and self were so appealing that hundreds of upper class families got in on the act, while others decried the liberties so taken. We are very grateful to Royal Holloway for supporting this endeavour which is intended as a pilot for a more extensive project.”

“Students from the Drama Department will perform their interpretation of Lady Craven’s elaborate entertainment as a play within a play, to explore the ways in which texts were tailored to particular spaces and performers. Recapturing the spirit of amateur drama, this performance will bring both history and the house itself back to life”, explains Professor Hawley.

This sounds a fascinating experiment, and one I’d love to attend. Further details of the project are available here. A symposium is also being held and details can be obtained by contacting Professor Hawley by email on

j-dot-hawley-at-rhul-dot- ac-dot-uk

replacing the dots etc with the usual punctuation.

This is a once in a life time opportunity to time travel and to experience the sort of private theatricals that play such a prominent part in Mansfield Park…I do wish I could go.

As a sort of tribute to Jane Travers of the Jane Obsessed With Jane Blog,  whose homeland is Ireland,  I thought I would continue to post on a Jane Austen/ Irish theme this week.

As we already are aware, Eliza O’Neil was the Irish actress whom Jane Austen admired and who hugged Mr Younge Delightfully:

We were all at the Play last night, to see Miss o’Neal (sic) in” Isabella”… She is an elegant creature however and hugs Mr Younge delightfully.

(See letter from Jane Austen to Anna Austen dated 29th November 1814)

and Id like to share with you a short biographical article I found about her recently in a copy of  La Belle Assemblee , published in January 1816:

I’ve scanned the pages in and added them here.  And all you have to do to read them in comfort is to enlarge them.

I love the florid language of these magazines of the early 19th century. And it is comforting to realise that celebrity worship is not a new phenomenon ;-)

Jane Travers of the Jane Obsessed With Jane blog has very kindly asked me to prepare a guest blog post on the topic of the private theatricals in Mansfield Park, and to try and explain why Fanny’s censorious attitude towards then seems to have been in complete contradiction to that of her creator, Jane Austen. So here it is, written with love for her ;-)


It is true that Jane Austen loved the theatre. Each time she visited London and her brother Henry she seized every chance she could to see professional performances. She had her favourite actors an actresses and was a keen but cool critic of their performances.  Eliza O’Neil of Ireland was a favourite:

We were all at the Play last night, to see Miss o’Neal (sic) in” Isabella… She is an elegant creature however and hugs Mr Younge  delightfully.

(See letter from Jane Austen to Anna Austen dated 29th November 1814)

As was Dorothea Jordan. She was most miffed to have missed the opportunity of seeing Mrs Siddons in 1811:

I have no chance of seeing Mrs Siddons.She did act on Monday but as Henry was told by the Boxkeeper that he did not think she would all the places and all the thought of it were given up. I should particularly have liked seeing her in Constance and  could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me.

( letter to  Cassandra Austen of the 25th April 1811)

Her early works have numerous theatrical and farcical  elements, evidence of her wide reading of the 18th century theatrical cannon. For example, in Love and Freindship (sic)we find one of the most famous phrases in the Juvenilia:

“We fainted Alternatively on a Sofa”

a line in which Jane Austen is in fact satirising a stage direction in Sheriden’s farce, The Critic,which was in turn satirising the discovery scene in Home’s tragedy, Douglas.

Jane Austen was even known to have taken part in private theatricals at Manydown House,the home of the Biggs Wither family as part of the Christmas festivities in 1808.

So why did she make Fanny Price so censorious of private theatricals in Mansfield Park?

The answer may lie in her own experience of private theatricals held at Steventon Rectory when she was a young girl. From 1782-90 productions of plays modern and classic took place in the dining parlour and later, when their ambitions for producing more professional productions took hold, in the Barn at Steventon.

Jane Austen’s brothers, James and Henry, appear to be the main instigators of this activity, and, indeed,  James wrote the prologues and epilogues for the plays they performed. Jane Austen was 7 years old when these theatricals began and 14 when they ceased.

In 1787 they probably used the barn as a setting for their plays for the first time. They performed the now  forgotten play, “The Wonder! : A Woman Keeps A Secret” (1714),written by Susannah Centlivre,  after rejecting a request by their guest, their glamorous and worldly cousin Eliza de Feuilide to perform “Which is the Man?” by Hannah Cowley, or “Bon Ton or High Life Above Stairs” by David Garrick.

(The Frontispiece of The Wonder from Mrs Inchbald’s collection of plays the early 19th century theatrical repertoire, The British Theatre.)

The Austen’s acting enthusiasm reflected the craze for private theatricals –the itch for acting- which became prevalent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and certainly from 1770, almost all genteel British society was affected by the seeming urge to perform plays in private theatres.

And they had to be “private” and amateur; unlicensed paid public performances were illegal .The Licensing Act of 1737 stipulated a fine of £50 for anyone convicted of acting for “hire, gain or reward” in any play or theatrical performance not previously allowed by royal patent or Licensed by the Lord Chamberlain.

Marc Baer in his excellent book “ Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London” theorizes that private performances may have been preferable to many of the upper classes who wished to avoid the riots which were so prevalent a part of theatre going throughout the 18th century. Also that it was a step by the upper classes to distance themselves from the increasingly plebeian nature of performances at the two Patent theatres in London. They were once concerned only with productions of “serious” plays and opera, but were increasingly incorporating elements of pantomime, and melodrama, burletta and pure spectacle into the evening’s entertainment. In short the evenings were becoming vulgar. Horrors!

“It was beyond everything vulgar I ever saw…the people were hollowing and talking to each other from the pit to the gallery, and fighting and throwing oranges at each other. The play itself was a representation of all the low scenes in London… a sort of very low Beggar’s Opera, but it is impossible to describe the sort of enthusiasm with which it was received by the people who seems to enjoy a representation of scenes, in which, from their appearance, one might infer they frequently shared.”

(extract from a letter written by Mrs Harriet Arbuthnot, writing about seeing a performance of Life in London by Pierce Egan and George Cruickshank at the Adelphi Theatre in 1822.)

Some of the more prosperous amateur performers constructed very elaborate private theatres.  As Paula Byrne writes in her excellent book Jane Austen and the Theatre:

Makeshift theatre mushroomed all over England from drawing room to domestic buildings. At the more extreme end of the theatrical craze member of the gentrified classes and the aristocracy built their own scaled down imitations of London playhouses. The most famous was that erected in the late 1770s by the spendthrift Earl of Barrymore, at a reputed cost of £60,000. Barrymore’s elaborate private theatre was modeled on Vanburgh’s Kings Theatre in the Haymarket. It supposedly seated seven hundred..

We also know from records of the very elaborate and private theatricals at Richmond House- home to the Duke of Richmond  that these private theatricals could be very professional(and costly) indeed.

But they were sometimes accompanied by a sense of unease: as shown in this  letter written at the time of the Steventon Theatricals by another Austen  cousin, Philadelphia Walter who was being ever-so-gently bullied by Eliza de Feuillide to attend the Steventon Theatricals, and it throws a little light on the moral dilemmas these performances could cause, and reflects quite eerily in my opinion,  those  doubts experienced by Fanny Price:

“They go at Xmas to Steventon and mean to act a play “ Which Is the Man” and “Bon Ton”. My uncle’s barn is fitting up quite like a theatre and all the young folks are to take their part. The Countess (Eliza-JFW) is Lady Bob Alrdoon in the former and Miss Tittup in the latter. They wish me much of the party and offer to carry me, but I do not think of it. I should like to be a Spectator, but am sure I should not have the courage to act a part, nor do I wish to attain it”

(Letter dated 19th September 1787).

Opinions as to the desirability and correctness of “polite” females appearing on the stage certainly varied at the time, the position certainly reflected by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park. Members of the growing Evangelical Movement in the Church of England voiced grave concerns about such performances. The attitude shown by the Reverend Thomas Gisbourne in his work “An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex”(1797)

was typical. He took a stance very much against this type of theatrical performance. Remember- most actresses were still not quite “respectable” at this time in history, despite the success of actresses such as Mrs Siddons, who was a favourite with King George III and Queen Charlotte.

He wrote:

For some years past the custom of acting in plays in private theatres, fitted up by individuals of fortune, had occasionally prevailed. It is a custom liable to objection among others: that it is almost certain to prove, in its effects, injurious to the female performers. Let it be admitted that theatres of this description no longer present the flagrant impropriety of ladies bearing apart in the drama in conjunction with professional players. Let it be admitted, that the drama reflected will in its language and conduct always be irreprehensible. Let it even be admitted, that many theatrical talents will not hereafter gain admission upon such a Stage for men of ambiguous or worse than ambiguous character. Take the benefit of all these favourable circumstances; yet what is even then the tendency of such an amusement? To encourage vanity; to excite a thirst of applause and admiration of attainments which, if the are to be thus exhibited, it would commonly have been far better for the individual not to possess; to destroy diffidence, by the unrestrained familiarity with the persons of the other sex, which inevitably results from being joined with them in the drama; to create a general fondness for the perusal of plays, of which so many are unfit to be read; and for attending dramatic representations, of which so many are unfit to be witnessed”

Jane Austen read this work, on Cassandra’s recommendation, in 1805. She had expected to dislike it, but surprised herself by approving of it. But as Jane Austen took part in private theatricals herself  at Christmas in 1808 was merely performing in such a play a problem for her? I think not. But I think she did recognise, as Philadelphia Walter had done , that the experience could, in certain circumstances, be disquieting.

Amanda Vickery in her book The Gentleman’s Daughter notes;

“The donning of disguise and the doffing of decorum might be thrilling for participants but it could be disquieting to attentive observers, as novels such as Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) Maria Edgeworth’s Patronage (1814) and Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814) dramatically demonstrated.”

In a note to this part of her text she adds;

“The narrative possibilities inherent in amateur performance were seized on by novelists, but assessments of the morality of female exhibition differed. Fanny Price piously refuses to take part in Lovers Vows, which rebounds to her credit…The pure and perfect Caroline Percy declines an invitation to take part in Zara, which in the event demonstrates the vanity of her rival, yet Caroline remains a sympathetic member of the audience…On the other hand, the “incognita” is allowed to give a dignified performance as Lady Townley in The Provoked Husband, which convinces many in the audience of her gentility:”

So….if these performances were so widely prevalent in genteel society, what could have particularly  upset Jane Austen, watching her brothers and her glamorous cousin Eliza as they rehearsed and performed this old play in 1787, so much so that she used her experiences in Mansfield Park, to reflect Fanny’s own discomfort?

I don’t think it was acting per se that gave her such discomposure.  I think it was motive and opportunity.

Let me explain.

The Wonder as performed at Steventon in 1787 was an old , not particularly well written play. It was set in Portugal and gives the opportunity for many declarations of patriotic fervour in praise of the British (Hurrah and Huzzah, would no doubt ring out from the  audience of young Austens) ). But the hero Don Felix, played by Henry Austen at Steventon, is given quite some liberty for ‘stage business’ with the leading lady, Violante, who played by Eliza de Feuillide. Look at this extract, as just one example :

Don Felix: Give me your hand at parting Violante, won’t you ? (He lays his hand upon her knee several times)Won’t you ..won’t you..won’t you….

Volante: (Half regarding him) Won’t I do what?

Don Felix: You know what I would have Violante.’Oh ! My Heart!

Volante (smiles) : I thought my chains were easily broken(lays her hand in his)

Don Felix: (Draws his chair close to her and kisses her hand in a rapture) Too well thou knowest thy strength.Oh!  my charming Angel, my heart is all thy own. Forgive my hasty passion, tis the transport of a love sincere. Oh Violante! Violante!

As George Herbert Tucker in his book “A Goodly Heritage “ writes;

“As Eliza De Feuililde had descended on Steventon that Christmas like a Parisian bird of paradise, and had according to family tradition, openly flirted with both James and his younger brother Henry, it is apparent that James epilogue was tailored to her specifications…Also considering her predilection to coquetry, it is easy to imagine she delivered the provocative lines with considerable biro.”

I am of the opinion that the young Jane Austen would have watched all these goings on with great interest. What ever she truly thought of it all, we will never know,but I think she abhorred the use of such a play to facilitate flirtations between the cousins and no doubt causing pain to one , two or all three of the participants. All done in full view of her, a child of twelve watching on the sidelines.

James eventually married Mary Lloyd of the Lloyds of Ibthorpe, long time family friends of the Austens, whereas Eliza eventually married James and Jane’s brother…Henry.

Marylin Butler can certainly be justified for making this comment on the behaviour of this trio;

“Detail from real life has plainly been absorbed in Mansfield Park and the vantage point of the younger sister, jealous and excluded by the casts intrigues has re-emerged as the novel’s distinctive mode.”

(Introduction to Mansfield Park, Oxford Classics edition.)

So when it came to writing Mansfield Park’s private theatrical sessions, remembering the events in the Steventon Barn in 1787, Jane Austen chose her play carefully. Clearly using The Wonder was too close to real life for comfort . Lovers Vows however, does give the participants extraordinary license for physical closeness in a way that would not have bene tolerated in real life(even under the negligent eyes of the poor chaperones Mrs Norris or Lady Bertram.) And this is the nub of Jane Austen and Fanny’s disquiet.

Sir Thomas it is certain would not approve of any performance whatsoever. But what he would certainly have disapproved of was the use of a play as a pretext for dangerous love games between engaged couples and their unengaged friends. Fanny’s reaction on first reading Lovers Vows ,with the knowledge of who would play the parts, makes her very uneasy:

The first use she made of her solitude was to take up the volume which had been left on the table, and begin to acquaint herself with the play of which she had heard so much. Her curiosity was all awake, and she ran through it with an eagerness which was suspended only by intervals of astonishment, that it could be chosen in the present instance, that it could be proposed and accepted in a private theatre! Agatha and Amelia appeared to her in their different ways so totally improper for home representation—the situation of one, and the language of the other, so unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty, that she could hardly suppose her cousins could be aware of what they were engaging in; and longed to have them roused as soon as possible by the remonstrance which Edmund would certainly make.

Chapter 14

Forced involuntarily to watch the rehearsal between Edmund and Mary  in her cold  sanctuary of the East Room, poor Fanny  sees exactly what is going on: no real play-acting this, but an excuse for impropriety of a most dangerous manner:

She could not equal them in their warmth. Her spirits sank under the glow of theirs, and she felt herself becoming too nearly nothing to both to have any comfort in having been sought by either. They must now rehearse together. Edmund proposed, urged, entreated it, till the lady, not very unwilling at first, could refuse no longer, and Fanny was wanted only to prompt and observe them. She was invested, indeed, with the office of judge and critic, and earnestly desired to exercise it and tell them all their faults; but from doing so every feeling within her shrank—she could not, would not, dared not attempt it: had she been otherwise qualified for criticism, her conscience must have restrained her from venturing at disapprobation. She believed herself to feel too much of it in the aggregate for honesty or safety in particulars. To prompt them must be enough for her; and it was sometimes more than enough; for she could not always pay attention to the book. In watching them she forgot herself; and, agitated by the increasing spirit of Edmund’s manner, had once closed the page and turned away exactly as he wanted help. It was imputed to very reasonable weariness, and she was thanked and pitied; but she deserved their pity more than she hoped they would ever surmise. At last the scene was over, and Fanny forced herself to add her praise to the compliments each was giving the other; and when again alone and able to recall the whole, she was inclined to believe their performance would, indeed, have such nature and feeling in it as must ensure their credit, and make it a very suffering exhibition to herself. Whatever might be its effect, however, she must stand the brunt of it again that very day.

Chapter 18

This reflects I am sure, the feelings Jane Austen had as she watched her brothers and cousin play out their fantasies in public in the barn at Steventon all those years ago. Jane Austen saw the dangerous consequences of using private theatricals as a screen for playing a rather more dangerous game. And that is why Fanny was so censorious. She was, in my humble opinion,  reflecting Jane Austen’s dislike of the hypocrisy  to be found when “lovers” use such a situation to their own advantage.

Jane Austen, Cassandra and Mrs Austen lived with and Mary Austen, wife of Frank, in Southampton from 1806 to 1809.

The old port of Southampton had by this time long been in decline but when Jane Austen lived there Southampton had a short lived popularity as a fashionable place to live, take the waters and bathe in the Solent. From the mid 18th century, new houses were built, inns were modernised and communications with London improved and the fashionably rich built villas in the surrounding countryside. Promenades were created and shops boomed along with circulating libraries etc.

This is a general description of it from my copy of A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places etc (1803) by John Feltham

EQUALLY adapted for health, pleasure, and commerce, Southampton, distant about seventy-seven miles from London, is bounded on the east by the river Itchin which flows past the ancient city of Winchester, and on the west by the Tese or Anton, which rises near Whitchurch. It occupies a kind of peninsula, the soil of which is a hard gravel ; and, as the buildings rise from the water with a gentle ascent, the streets are always clean and dry. The approach from the London road is uncommonly striking and grand; in fact, it is almost unparalleled in the beauty of its features, for the space of two miles. At first appear an expanse of water, and the distant Isle of Wight, the charming scenery of the New Forest, and Southampton itself, in pleasing perspective. Elegant seats and rows of trees, nearer the town, line the road on both sides ; and, on entering the place, by one of its most fashionable streets, that venerable remain of antiquity the Bargate, gives a finish to the scene, and fixes the impression of the objects through which we have passed.

But by the time of Jane Austen’s death in 1817 its star had faded, and it was only with the introduction of the railway system, in the 1840s that Southampton once again became a port and place of some import.

However, it was undoubtedly a pleasant place to be in Jane Austen’s time:

THE lovely situation of Southampton, the elegance of its buildings, the amenity of its environs, and the various other attractions which it possesses, in a very high degree, will always render it a place of fashionable residence, as well as of frequent resort. As a sea-bathing place, indeed, it has less reputation than some others that are described in this work. It has no machines, nor is its beach favorable for immersion; the marine is, also, deeply mixed with the fresh water; but, if the opinion of those is correct, who maintain, that water acts only by the shock and ablution, and that one cold or one warm bath is the same as another, Southampton, notwithstanding the disadvantages we have mentioned, is as eligible as any other station on the coast, and, in many respects, it is superior. The air is soft and mild, and sufficiently impregnated with saline particles to render it agreeable, and even salutary, to those who cannot endure a full exposure to the sea, on a bleak and open shore.

(See: A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places etc (1803) by John Feltham)

Jane Austen as we know from her letters was a keen play goer, and there was a theatre in Southampton which she could visit. However, the theatre in Southampton was a far cry from the theatres she knew in Bath and in London. It was a place where amateur and provincial theatre companies performed. I suppose we can assume that the performances Jane Austen saw there were probably not always first rate evenings.

The first theater built in  Southampton as not at all salubrious, despite this description of it, again from The Guide to all the Watering Places etc by John Fletham (1803):

THE Theatre, which was built by subscription in 1766, is commodious, and capable of admitting a large audience. It is under the management of Messrs. Collins and Davies, who exert themselves to give satisfaction, and have a full attendance during the season.
They usually open their campaign in the beginning of August, and perform every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, till the end of October, after which they take a regular circuit to Portsmouth, Chichester, and Winchester.

This theatre was however  thought to be in such a run down and dowdy condition that the Company-the fashionable people who visited Southampton to take the waters or to bathe, or lived in the fashionable villas, did not care to go there. So in 1803-4 a new theatre opened in French Street, almost exactly opposite the site of the old theatre:

The Theatric Tourist (1805) written by the actor/manager James Winston , gives this account of the history of the new theatre:

The elegant fashionables visiting Southampton refused to patronize the theatre on consequence of its ruinous condition and most deplorable entrance; therefore as the lease was nearly out on the 12th September 1803 they commenced campaigning in another built under the regulation of Mr Slater. Collins gave 450 guineas for St John’s Hospital and the ground on which it stood in French Street nearly opposite the former theatre: the charity being discontinued this old building furnished him with ample materials for this new one. He says his theatre cost him £3000 which with due deference we should suppose an error; if we  give credit for £2000 besides the purchase of the ground we think it not amiss.

He did not think much of the interior of the theatre, and as an actor/manager his opinion has some worth:

It has a bad gallery; the Pit is much too low; the Stage is short and the Boxes so near the Pit that the lower tier resemble the Orchester (sic) boxes of Drury lane the company appearing to sit below the level of the stage. The old theatre  had this fault also; but we acknowledge the Green Room to be good. The house holds upwards of £100; 4 shillings admission to the lower boxes, which have a good lobby; as have also the upper tier. Charges £23. The benefit of favourite performers generally amounts to £60 or £70 .

The illustration of the theatre which was included in The Theatric Tourist and was also drawn by James Winston has this  withering “explanation”:

The right hand entrance is to the Boxes to which there are two lobbies, lighted by the only two windows in the elevation; the door on the left is to the Pit,gallery and Stage; here the old saying is verified,”spoil the ship”etc.,- for the niche over each door,meant undoubtedly for Statues of Tragedy and Comedy; and the plinth at the top for the Royal Arms, both remain blanks.

As Southampton had minor fashionable status as a spa and sea-bathing resort- Charles Dibdin, the dramatist,

who was born in Southampton, related the popularity of Southampton to the increasing number of;

“genteel families who have made it their residence-

it is no surprise that stars from the London stage made occasional visits-for example Mrs Siddons visited in 1802

and Dorothea Jordan, one of Jane Austen’s favourites

appeared there in 1803.

We know that Jane Austen took the opportunity, while in Southampton, to visit the theatre. She took her niece Fanny Knight to the theatre in French Street on 14th September 1807, (Fanny recorded the event in her diary) and that  night  they saw the famous comedy actor, John Bannister

in “The Way to Keep Him” .

Interestingly The Way to Keep Him by Arthur Murphy includes the following lines, spoken by Sir Brilliant Fashion:

Never be so abrupt. Who knows but Lady Constant may be the happy wife, the Cara Sposa of the piece ! and then, you in love with her, and she laughing at you for it, will give a zest to the humour, which every body will relish in the most exquisite degree.

(Act II)

Paula Byrne in her book Jane Austen and the Theatre posits the theory that Jane Austen, after hearing the phrase Cara Spousa delivered with relish at Southampton, then took this ‘fashionable Italisniam” and ran with it in Emma:

For Emma there is  no clearer mark of  Mrs Elton’s vulgarity  than her references to her husband as “Mr E “ and “my caro sposo”…Scholars have debated  the source of Austen’s use of the phrase, but no one has noticed its presence in Murphy’s comedy, where spoken by the coxcomb Sir Brilliant Fashion, it surely got a laugh in the theatre.

Amateur dramatic performances took place in the theatre as well as professional ones.

In 1807 Hume’s tragedy Douglas– was performed at the French Street theatre by the local grammar school boys for the benefit of British prisoners of war in France.

This may explain why Jane Austen put these words into Tom Bertram’s mouth in Mansfield Park , when he was reminiscing about reading aloud at home as a young lad;

“And I am convinced to the contrary. Nobody is fonder of the exercise of talent in young people, or promotes it more, than my father, and for anything of the acting, spouting, reciting kind, I think he has always a decided taste. I am sure he encouraged it in us as boys. How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be’d and not to be’d, in this very room, for his amusement? And I am sure, my name was Norval, every evening of my life through one Christmas holidays

Mansfield Park , Chapter 13.

Jane Austen certainly had the opportunity of seeing this play at the theatre, and I would not be surprised if she had seen these productions at Southampton and they had made a mark.

I do love these speculations, don’t you?

Elliston, she tells us has just succeeded to a considerable fortune on the death of an Uncle. I would not have it enough to take him from the Stage; she should quit her business, & live with him in London
Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 20th Feburary ,1807

This of us who may occasionally be keen to hear some gossip about out favourite actors and actresses can take hart: Jane Austen  like to gossip about her faves too. As this tiny snippet of gossip referring to Robert Elliston, rather confirms. He was it appears one of her favourite actors.

And his rise to fame coincided with Jane Austen’s stay in Bath from 1801-6.

He was born on the 7 April 1774 in Orange Street, London, the only child of Robert Elliston , a watchmaker, and his wife. Sadly, his father was an alcoholic,and Elliston was cared for by two uncles, Dr William Elliston, master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and Dr Thomas Martyn, professor of botany, of the same college. And it was form  one of these uncles that in 1807 he inherited £17,000……but we are getting ahead of ourselves in his story….

Under his uncles supervision he was educated at St Paul’s School, London, where he took a special interest in oratory. It would appear that his uncles intended him for the church but spurning this role they had mapped out for him, he “ran away to the theatre” at Bath. Scandalous!

A this time as we have already noted, the Orchard Street theatre in Bath was second in importance in the English dramatic world only to the two London patent theatres- the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and Covent Garden. In conjunction with the theatre at Bristol the Bath company provided a very fashionable and knowledgeable audience with entertainment suitable for the most discerning of tastes.

Eliston made his first appearance at the Orchard Street Theatre in Bath in 1791. He stayed at the Bath theatre till 1804, performing many roles in plays with which Jane Austen was very familiar. Of particular note is the fact that he played the part of Frederick in Mrs  Inchbald’s adaptation of Kotzebue’s Lover’s Vows at least ten times in that period.

In 1796 he eloped with and married Elizabeth Rundell, a Bath dance teacher.  They had ten children before she died in 1821. Through her dancing academy she helped Elliston’s productions when he later became a theatre manager. Interestingly, she continued her occupation after her marriage despite Ellistons sucess as a leading actor. She first, from 1801, had premises in Trim Street and then from 1812 in Milsom Street. Hence Jane Austen’s rather interesting comment above…..

Elliston finally left Bath for London in 1804, as Richard Sheriden wanted him to appear at his Drury Lane theatre . Initially Elliston had refused a permanent postion in Sheridan’s company but gradually the lure of the London theatre and the riches it could command sucked him in.  On 20 September 1804 Elliston began appearing as the leading actor at Drury Lane. He had played successfully in London during the summers of 1796 and 1797, mainly at the Haymarket Theatre, run by the playwright George Colman, but cannily waited until his reputation in Bath was secure before making a complete break with Bath and Bristol in order to move to London.

Although he was versatile, Elliston’s appearance was thought rather against him for the playing of tragedy, for his face was described as:

…the very Mirror of Comedy. His countenance was round and open, his features small, yet highly expressive; laughter lay cradled in his eye, and there was a muscular play of lip, so pregnant of meaning, as frequently to leave the words that followed but little to explain.

(See G. Raymond, Memoirs of Robert William Elliston,(1844)

He seems to have been best in the Charles Surface sort of role from Sheridan’s play The School for Scandal:  rakish but generous and warm-hearted chaps, versions of which character were available by the score in the comedies of this era.

He was known as a great lover on stage, just as he was a notorious womanizer off stage……The theatrical critic Leigh Hunt has left us an interesting analysis of Elliston’s skill in this area, when Elliston played opposite Dorothy Jordan in 1805 in the facre Matrimony by James Kenney . They provided

‘altogether the most complete scene of amorous quarrel that I have witnessed’

(see Leigh Hunt Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres (1807)page 190.)

When Drury Lane was destroyed by fire in 1809, Elliston looked around for new worlds -or rather theatres– to conquer and hit upon theatre management. He became known as ‘the Great Lessee’ and ‘the Napoleon of the Theatre’ for his interest in acquiring new property. He also tried  very hard to break the monopoly  held by the two patent theatres on performing plays. In this aim he was not successful.

He began his theatrical property empire with the Royal Circus in St George’s Fields, which he transformed and managed for five years. At the same time he leased the Manchester Theatre Royal from 1809–10 then purchased Croydon in 1810 but it was seized by creditors in 1826. He leased Birmingham from 1813–18,

to which he added Worcester and Shrewsbury in 1815 to make up a midlands area theatrical circuit, where his company of players could perform.

He then purchased the Olympic Pavilion in London-also known as Astleys for it was built by none other than Phillip Astley- in 1813,and this may have been the site of Harriet Smith and Robert Martin’s reconciliation in Emma!

Elliston leased Lynn in Norfolk from 1817–18, Leicester, and Northampton both from 1818 and Leamington (where he also had a lending library and assembly rooms!!) from 1817, and Coventry in 1821.

When he became the manager of the newly built Drury Lane in 1819 Elliston was indeed “king of the theatre”, and was soon to play that role in his magnificent coronation spectacle of 1821. During his “reign” at Drury Lane, Elliston had many successes with spectacular melodramas, operas, and pantomimes  but with not a single new ‘legitimate’ play of any significance ,even though he was at last the manager of a patent theatre which could legitimately perform plays.  Theatrical extravaganzas, not drama, and novelty of every kind were what the public now demanded.  Edmund Bertram would clearly not have approved ;-)

Following a severe stroke in August 1825, by which time the now sadly severely alcoholic Elliston was but a shadow of his former self, his place as manager was taken over by his eldest son, William Gore Elliston, who formed a successful partnership with his brother, Henry Twissleton Elliston. The results of his  pressured lifestyle and alcoholism were making themselves felt  earlier than this, however.  Certainly in 1814, Jane Austen-that very acute observer- on seeing him perform in London had noted that something was taking a toll on his performance and his appearance:

(Elliston in 1813)

We were quite satisfied with Kean. I cannot imagine better acting, but the part was too short; and, excepting him and Miss Smith, and she did not quite answer my expectation, the parts were ill filled and the play heavy. We were too much tired to stay for the whole of “Illusion” (“Nour-jahad”), which has three acts; there is a great deal of finery and dancing in it, but I think little merit. Elliston was “Nour-jahad,” but it is a solemn sort of part, not at all calculated for his powers. There was nothing of the best Elliston about him. I might not have known him but for his voice.

(See Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 5th March 1814)

Elliston returned to the stage, however, to create his last original role, “Falstaff” in The First Part of King Henry IV, in May 1826. As sometimes happens, he was brilliant in the final rehearsal but unable to reproduce that quality in public.  Elliston finished his career  as a theatrical  manager of the Surrey theatre , where he also acted out his last appearances.His last appearance was as “Sheva” in Cumberland’s The Jew, one of his most popular characters, on 24 June 1831. Two weeks later, on 8 July 1831, Elliston died of an ‘apoplexy’,which was, presumably, a cerebral haemorrhage, and was buried at St John’s Church, Waterloo Road London’

Given his womanising reputation, it would seem that Jane Austen’s advice to his wife  was, as ever, quite perceptive….

“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.

“It is a very simple story. He went to town on business three days ago, and I got him to take charge of some papers which I was wanting to send to John. He delivered these papers to John, at his chambers, and was asked by him to join their party the same evening to Astley’s. They were going to take the two eldest boys to Astley’s. The party was to be our brother and sister, Henry, John — and Miss Smith. My friend Robert could not resist… However, I must say that Robert Martin’s heart seemed for him, and to me, very overflowing; and that he did mention, without its being much to the purpose, that on quitting their box at Astley’s, my brother took charge of Mrs. John Knightley and little John, and he followed with Miss Smith and Henry; and that at one time they were in such a crowd, as to make Miss Smith rather uneasy.”

Emma, Chapter 54


“Harriet was most happy to give every particular of the evening at Astley’s, and the dinner the next day; she could dwell on it all with the utmost delight”

Emma, Chapter 55.

So all is well: Harrriet and her lover are reunited at Astleys.

But what exactly was Astley’s? And it may interest you to know that there was more than one in London…so which one is referred to here?

Let’s attempt to find out, shall we?

The most famous of Astley’s  theatres was Astley’s Amphitheatre which is pictured above. This print is by Rowlandson and Pugin, and is from my copy of  the Microcosm of London published by Rudolph Ackermann.

This theatre was built on the south side of the river Thames in London over Westminster Bridge,  opposite the houses of parliament. It was the property of the theatrical entrepreneur, Phillip Astley . Hopefully you can clearly see the position of the theatre in this  section from my copy of Smith’s New Map of London 1809:

Do remember – you can enlarge all these illustrations by clicking on them.

It was first opened in 1770 and  was originally merely an open air circus ring, surrounded by seats for the audience (which were mercifully covered to protect them from the elements). It became famous for its equestrian performances. By 1780 it boasted a compete roof and became known as The Amphitheatre Riding House. In 1794 the amphitheatre burnt down-a common hazard for early 19th century theatres.  It was rebuilt and when in 1796 Jane Austen visited it, it was performing elaborate spectacles, on a scale unknown in England before:

We  are to be at Astley’s tonight,which I am glad of...

(see: Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 23rd August 1796)

It was an unpatented theatre, which meant that it could only stay within the confines of the law regarding theatrical performances in the 18th/ early 19th centuries if it had a license  for performance, and also performed anything but plays. The 1737 Licensing Act (which was in effect a piece of legislation sponsored by the Walpole government to control and  censor the content of stage performances) confined  the professional , paid, performance of legitimate, spoken word theatrical performances ( plays, in short) to the two patent theatres in London: Covent Garden and the Theatre Royal,Drury Lane .They were the only theatres that had licenses to perform plays on a permanent basis in London.

The establishment – more by accident than design-  of Samuel Foote’s Little Theatre in the Hay ( as mentioned in Pride and Prejudice) did not  provide open competition to the two existing drama houses. Foote’s theatre was licensed to stage plays but they could only be performed in the summer,when the two other main houses were closed. As Drury Lane and Covent Garden concentrated on performing during the autumn, winter and spring, the Little Theatre in the Hay did not really compromise their monopoly of serious theatrical performance.

As one of the un-patented theatres Astleys was not therefore supposed to perform plays- performances of the spoken word. But it –along with the growing number of other “illegitimate” theatres in London-often tried to circumvent the law by adding straight plays in among the permitted equestrian exhibits and burlettas. Astley’s Amphitheatre operated only on a summer license obtained from the Lord Chamberlain, as is clear from this description of the theatre taken from my copy of  A New Picture of London 1803, one of the first tourist guides to London:

This Theatre is situated in the Westminster-road near the bridge, and is built on the very ground on which Mr. Astley, sen. formerly exhibited feats of horsemanship and other amusements in the open air; the success and profits of which enabled him afterwards to extend his plan and erect a building, which, from the rural cast of the internal decorations he called the ROYAL GROVE.

In this theatric structure, stage exhibitions were given, while, in a circular area, similar to that in the present theatre, horsemanship, and other feats of strength and agility, were continued. About seven or eight years ago, it was accidentally burnt down, after which the present theatre was erected under the appellation of the AMPITHEATRE of ARTS.

The interior of the building, though for a summer theatre somewhat heavy in its style, has been rendered truly elegant by its late additional decorations; and the stage and scenery are also greatly improved. The horsemanship, for which a circular ride is provided, is still continued, though it forms a much smaller portion of the evening’s entertainment than formerly.

This theatre always opens on Easter Monday; and its amusements continue till October or November. There are two tiers of boxes, a pit, and gallery.

To get a taste of the type of performances which were staged at Astleys, do  look at this description of a visit to Astley’s by one of my favourite diarists of this period, Joseph Ballard,  an American -a Bostonian-who visited England in 1815.

This extract from his diary  gives a vivid impression of  the type of entertainment Astley’s offered:

April 22nd:

This evening went to Astleys Amphitheatre near Westminster Bridge.

The interior is very pretty lighted by a splendid chandelier, which descends through the ceiling and when coming down makes a beautiful appearance.

The performances were of the pantomime and equestrian kind, the subject being the Life and Death of the high-mettle racer. During this piece there was a correct representation of a horse race. The pit was railed through the centre and the horses started from the back of the stage at a long distance from the audience and passed through the pit.

A fox chase was also admirably done, from the starting of the fox till his death, the dogs and horses in full speed after the little animal.

This was so illustrative that  the audience heartily joined in  the tally–ho of the huntsmen etc.

In the course of the harlequinade a curious transformation set the house in a roar.

A barber as carrying a wig box whereupon was written “Judge Wisdom’s Wig” The clown desiring to see it, he set it own and opened it, when a large wig (such as the judges in this country wear upon the bench) appeared. Harlequin struck it with his word and out marched a venerable owl who majestically stalked across the stage and made his exit. Such success has this piece met with that tonight was the one hundredth night of its representation.

There were in fact two Astleys theatres. And the second Astleys also tried to circumvent the law regarding spoken performances.

Astley opened another theatre on Wych Street near Newcastle Street , just off the Strand,  in London in 1806.

Besides the Amphitheatre, Messrs. Astleys have a very elegant Pavilion, for exhibiting amusements of a similar description, which they have lately erected, and fitted out in a most complete style, in Newcastle-street in the Strand, and named ASTLEY’S PAVILION. At this place the horses have displayed some feats of so wonderful a description, as could not easily be conceived unless they were seen. In this place eight horses have lately performed country dances, &c. in a manner that has astonished all the spectators. To this have been added divers horsemanships, the twelve wonderful voltigers, &c.

(See The Microcosm of London etc )

This was called the Olympic Pavilion, but it was as can be seen from the above quotation, known as Astley’s Pavilion, the Pavilion Theatre the Olympic Saloon, or simply, and confusingly,  Astley’s.

Phillip Astley staged equestrian performances here, and through the influence of Queen Charlotte,  managed to botain a license from the Lord Chamberlain also to perform musical perforamces, burlettas, including dance.

This buiding itself was very interesting as it as built from the  reclaimed timbers of naval ships– prizes -that Astley had bought. The deck of a ship was used to make the stage and the floors. The new theare was built just like a traditional playhouse compete with stage orchestra side boxes galleries and a pit  surrounding the ring:

One of Jane Austen’s favourite actors, Robert Elliston bought the license from Astley in 1812. He decided to make a concerted effort to break the monopoly on spoken drama held by the two patent theatres: initially he tried to rename Astley’s,  The Little Drury Lane Theatre.

Of course, objections to this name were made from the  legitimate parent holders, and he had to close. But he re-opened again simply as Astleys and introduced a programme of

“farce, melodramas, and pantomine-burlettas”

He also  managed to again circumvent the prohibition on licensed theatres from performing the spoken word by continuing to add plays to the programme of events. Obviously, what made it daring of Elliston to do this was the closeness of his theatre in the Strand to the patent theatres, Covent Garden and especially, Drury Lane.(You can see how close he was from the map above of the area)

Paula Byrne in her book, Jane Austen and the Theatre argues that Jane Austen probably approved of Elliston’s stance against the two patent theatres. She may be right – we will never know for sure, but we do know that the Austen family were not afraid to patronise the illegitimate theatres and often went to others apart from Astley’s : Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, in particular patronized illegitimate theatres. He had a box at the Pantheon on Oxford Street, which from 1812 also staged a mixed bill of burlettas and ballet to try to circumvent the law on  performing plays.

Paula Byrne is of the opinion that Jane Austen chose to reconcile Robert and Harriet at Astleys, because it was an illegitimate theatre, where performances were not of the most rarefied nature, and it was exactly the type of place where a yeoman farmer and a girl carrying the “stain of illegitimacy” could meet with and be seen in the company of  the gentry (the Knightley family) without raising adverse comment.  Perhaps.

But what is interesting to me is that  cannot be exactly certain at which of the two theatre Harriet and Robert Martin reconciled their differences.

The Amphitheatre on the south bank of the Thames was, as we have noted , a summer theatre, but also ,as we have seen, it could stage performances into September, October and sometimes even in November. The Astleys of  the Strand was not a summer theatre but began its season in September.

Though Jane Austen does not tell us exactly when Harriet’s fateful  trip to the theatre took place, it appears to  have been in late summer , possibly early September: it could not be late September as that was when Harriet was married to Robert Martin:

Before the end of September, Emma attended Harriet to church, and saw her hand bestowed on Robert Martin

Emma, Chapter 55.

Paula Byrne argues that it is the crowds that frighten Harriet which give the game away:

Given that the Austens patronized the Lambeth Amphitheatre Jane may well have intended the same theatre. On the other hand the genteel John Knightley’s visit Astley’s as a treat for their boys and Harriet on quitting their box is made uneasy by the size of the crowds. This suggest the superior Olympic Pavilion. The Lambeth Amphitheatre had its own  separate entrance for the  boxes and the pit with the gallery entrance fifty yards down the road, so it would be more likely that Harriet encountered large crowds  at the Olympic.

(Page 43)

I suppose it doesn’t really matter in the end , given the similarities between the two theatre, but its good to know I think,  that there were two different Astley’s. Given that there were two and that one fits the bill a little better than the other we can’t necessarily assume that the Westminster Bridge Astleys was The One. And fun to speculate which one was the location for  Harriet and Robert’s  romantic evening  of low comedy, equestrianism and burletta. And yes, its just this type of conundrum that keeps me awake at night…..

Poor Jane Austen. The evidence from her letters is that despite being desperate to see Mrs Siddons on the stage, she missed every opportunity she had to see her perform.

In her letter to  Cassandra Austen of the 25th April 1811, written from her brother Henry Austen’s home in Sloane Street, Jane Austen bemoaned her lot :

I have no chance of seeing Mrs Siddons.She did act on Monday but as Henry was told by the Boxkeeper that he did not think she would all the places and all the thought of it were given up. I should particularly have liked seeing her in Constance and  could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me.

Mrs Siddons was quite simply the most accomplished and most  acclaimed  actress of her day. She is still remembered today for her interpretation of tragic roles. No wonder Jane Austen was desperate to see her on stage..

Let’s find out some more about her….and why her fame has endured…

Sarah Kemble was born on 5 July 1755 at the Shoulder of Mutton inn in Brecon, Wales. She was the first of the twelve children of Roger Kemble an actor and theatre manager, and his wife, Sarah Ward. Like her sisters, she was baptized into her mother’s religion as a protestant, while her brothers were baptized, in their father’s faith , as Catholics . Seven of her siblings (four sisters and three brothers), including Charles Kemble, Ann Julia Hatton, and Stephen George Kemble, also followed family tradition and entered the acting profession.

Her brother, John Philip Kemble became the most important actor and manager of his time. This is a picture, now in the Garrick Club, London, is of them both, Mrs Siddons and John Phillip Kemble, in Macbeth, and was  painted by Thomas Beach in 1786.

Sarah Siddons was to establish herself as the most acclaimed tragic actress of her own age, and she has subsequently been widely regarded as the greatest female performer in English theatrical history.  In her own lifetime she achieved the status of a popular icon. Her popularity  among influential people- most  notably the patronage of King and Queen Charlotte- played a key role in the social legitimation of the acting profession.

She could affect people in a most surprising way-the reports of her audiences crying hysterically and fainting with grief at her portrayals of  bereft, heartbroken or grateful mothers are legion.  Siddon-imania was the term used to describe her audience’s reactions. They were considered victims of The Siddons Fever.

She moved from the reputedly disreputable world of provincial touring theatre , tainted with its associations with prostitution and low life, to the salons of the aristocracy and royalty. King George III and Queen Charlotte were avid fans, though they were not in particular fans of the theatre. In January 1783 they went to see her five times in one month, weeping though every performance. Suitably impressed with her manner of delivery they subsequently appointed Mrs Siddons to be the Reader in English to the royal children.

As a result of her fame she amassed a substantial personal wealth: in 1786 she  confided to a friend that she  had saved the magnificent sum of £10,000 on which she had initially planned to retire,but wrote

“My riches are incredible, for I will go on as long as I am able”

By 1801 this fortune was estimated to be as much as £53,000.

Her public success, however, was attended by a great deal of personal sadness: her marriage to the philandering and feckless William Siddons, was an unhappy one and ended in informal separation, and she outlived five of her seven children, suffering numerous miscarriages  in addition to this dreadful loss.

The roles Jane Austen so wanted to see her perform were her most famous.

Deirdre Le Faye, in her note to the quoted letter above in Jane Austen’s Letters (3rd edition) explains that  King John by Shakespeare  had been announced to be performed at Covent Garden on Saturday 20th April.

However a day or two before,  Hamlet was substituted.  Mrs Siddons made her first appearance  since December 1810 in Macbeth (she had many “retirements” and  “combacks” though her career) on the following Monday.

During the remainder of the time Jane Austen was in London staying with her brother Henry, Mrs Siddons performed in The Gamester

and as Lady Randolph in Douglas,

Jane Austen does not appear to have been able to get to any of these performances .

The role of Constance in King John was one of her most acclaimed, and the original text  was revised by her brother to emphasise Constance’s role as the dominant force in the play, even though Constance appears in only three scenes.

Mrs Siddons herself noted that she would leave her dressing-room door open between her scenes, and therefore was able to overhear events on stage so that she could work herself into an appropriate frenzy, as they would cause

‘bitter tears of rage, disappointment, betrayed confidence, baffled ambition, and, above all, the agonizing feelings of maternal affection to gush into my eyes‘.

Her interpretation of  the role Lady Macbeth was her triumph ,as William Hazlitt, the critic wrote::

If we have seen Mrs Siddons in Lady Macbeth only once, it is enough. The impression is stamped there for ever, and any after-experiments and critical inquiries only serve to fritter away and tamper with the sacredness of the early recollection.

No wonder Jane Austen was virtually grinding her teeth in frustration at having missed seeing Mrs Siddons in her iconic roles….

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)

bath-map-18031146-correction-correction1-1And here is a close-up of the area of Bath that included Orchard Street ( to be found in the bottom right section of the map above)


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.

orchrd exterior409 Correction

(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.

orchrd interior408 Correction

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…..

Page 156.

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.

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