The Glittering Regency Theatre

The theatres of the Regency did not only glitter with the talents of the great actors who trod their boards. They also glittered with the presence of the many members of the beau monde who flocked to the nightly performances during the season. But more germane to the subject of this article, they glittered with light, all the time. The house lights were never dimmed during a performance in any theatre auditorium in Regency England.

Despite the many instances in scores of Regency romance novels I have read over the years in which the theatre house lights dim and some form of seduction ensues in the darkness, it could not have happened. It was physically and technically impossible to dim the house lights of any theatre auditorium during the years of the Regency. And theatre-goers would have been appalled at the very notion. They came to the theatre to see and be seen. The play itself was secondary to the performances going on in the stalls and private boxes.

At the Globe Theatre, performances were typically given during the afternoon, so as to take advantage of the daylight. It was for that reason that the Globe was constructed as an open air theatre. By the Restoration, theatres were closed structures, performances illuminated by artificial light. Great chandeliers filled with many smelly, smoking tallow candles were suspended over both the stage and the auditorium. This was the primary form of theatre lighting for nearly two hundred years.

Which is not to say there was no innovation in lighting during those centuries. But the majority of the innovation took place on the stage. Footlights were placed along the front edge of the stage, and later, lights were placed in the wings and in some cases behind the backcloth. David Garrick, the great actor, playwright and manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane not only reformed the acting style of his time, he also instituted many reforms in the theatre itself. He banned spectators from sitting on the edge of the stage, which had been common practice. In 1765, after travelling on the Continent for nearly two years, he returned to Drury Lane determined to modernize the lighting in accord with what he had seen in the European theatres. He removed the chandeliers over the stage and introduced brighter wing and footlights. This was possible with the use of more candles in combination with reflectors which threw more light on the stage. This stronger, clearer light allowed actors to wear less make-up, thus giving their appearance more of the naturalness which Garrick also demanded of them in their acting.

But multiple, massive chandeliers, each bearing dozens of candles still hung suspended over the auditorium. In the mid-1780s, wax candles were introduced in many theatres, replacing the smelly, smoky tallow candles. There were some spectators who objected to this change, as they found the new candlelight much brighter and felt it spoiled their theatre experience. Though the wax candles burned cleaner and brighter than tallow candles, they still carried one of the same dangers to the audience below. They could drip as they burned. Thus, all of those seated in the pit were at risk of being burned by hot wax droplets falling on them from above. As you might imagine, this is one of the reasons why both the stalls and the private boxes were the preferred seating areas of the early theatres. They were not situated under multi-branched chandeliers holding candles which could unexpectedly drip hot wax onto one’s clothing or skin.

Each evening, before a performance, these capacious chandeliers were lowered from their lofty heights. They were cleaned, polished and filled with fresh candles. All of the candles were lit, then the chandeliers were again hoisted high up to illuminate the auditorium. This was all done by a small army of workers in the seating area of the pit. Once the chandeliers were in place, they remained there for the duration of the evening. There was no way to dim their light or extinguish them without disrupting the performance. Nor would those attending the performance have appreciated such an action. Society’s denizens had come to see and be seen. Those in the pit had come to ogle their betters as much as to watch the actors perform on stage. They all wanted plenty of light in which to indulge their guilty pleasures.

It was possible to slightly dim the light in the private boxes. Most of them had additional illumination in the form of candles in wall sconces along the back and side walls. These could be extinguished by the occupants of the box, if they chose to do so. But the very act of snuffing the candles would have drawn attention to a box that was now dimmer than the others. Even with those few candles out, there was still plenty of light flooding the boxes from the chandeliers suspended overhead. It would not be dark enough to engage in any but the most tame of illicit activity. Hand-holding or perhaps a surreptitious caress would be the best a couple might manage, with so many eyes upon them. But certainly, it would be too bright in any of these boxes for what in my day was known as heavy petting, or full-fledged sexual intercourse. Yet both of these activities have been portrayed after the "dimming of the house lights" in numerous Regency romance novels I have read.

In 1803, at the Lyceum Theatre in London, there was a demonstration of the use of gas for theatre stage lighting. By this time, the candles in the footlights and other stage lighting had been replaced with the brighter Argand lamps. But theatre auditoriums continued to be lit by candlelight. In August 1817, the stage of the Lyceum Theatre, rebuilt the previous year by Samuel Arnold to a design by Samuel Beazley, was the first to be illuminated by gaslight. On 6 September, 1817, Drury Lane was the first theatre to be lit throughout by gaslight. Only two days later, Covent Garden followed suit. As had occurred with the advent of wax candles, there were many who found the new lighting too bright and harsh, they preferred the soft, wavering glow of candlelight. But the tide was not to be turned and within the next ten years, nearly all of the major theatres in London and throughout England had converted to gaslight. One of the last theatres to convert to gas in London was The Haymarket, in 1843. Yet even at this late date, and with the use of gaslight, house lights were not dimmed during a performance.

Angelo Ingegneri, who wrote on the theatre in the very early 1600s, had recommended that the auditorium be darkened during a performance. He felt it would not only highlight the activity on stage, it would make it easier for the spectators to view the action by eliminating the glare from the overhead lighting. Over the centuries, Ingegneri’s recommendations were occassionally implemented for special performances in theatres in both Italy and France, but the practice was not adopted in England. Not for more than 350 years, until the 1870s, when Henry Irving, perhaps the predominant actor of his age, as well as a great innovator of stage lighting, determined to dim the house lights. He realized that unless the lights in the auditorium could be dimmed, much of his artistry in stage lighting would be invisible to the spectators. At the Lyceum Theatre, which Irving then owned, with the help of his assistant, Bram Stoker, he arranged for all of the lights throughout the theatre to be controlled from the prompt corner. It was then possible to darken the auditorium during the performance. This practice caught on, and by the end of the century, nearly every theatre in England darkened their auditorium lights for performances.

Regency authors, please be more circumspect with any seductions you choose to set in a theatre box. Any contact between your couple must be covert, secret, not visible to all those prying eyes around them, unless you are determined to ruin the young lady. Yet such a surreptitious seduction, if done well, can only heighten the drama of the moment. But please, do keep in mind that if you wish to be historically accurate, you cannot use the non-existent "dimming of house lights" to turn a private Regency theatre box into a convenient trysting venue. If you must set your seduction in a darkened theatre, then set your story in the late Victorian era.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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9 Responses to The Glittering Regency Theatre

  1. Buzzy says:

    Wonderfully informative as always.

    Something I’ve often wondered about in Regency romances is the use of the private box. If the owner of the box doesn’t use it, does it remain empty? Wouldn’t many boxes then be empty for most performances, particularly of shows that had longer runs? But in images of the theaters in artworks they are always filled and the whole “see and be seen” notion demands filled boxes. Any information you might have on this conundrum would be appreciated.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I have yet to run across any definitive evidence of how boxes were used during the Regency, so I can only offer speculation based on what I have read which tangentially touches on the use of theater boxes.

      Most plays in legitimate theaters would run for two or three weeks, some of the more successful for maybe a month or more. Therefore, a box owner may only use their box two or three times a month, unless they were deeply enamored of a particular play or one of the players. However, the very generous might offer the use of their box to friends or extended family on the nights they were not using it, as a treat or a reward.

      Some of the less wealthy might pool their resources to acquire a box that they could all take turns using, rather like a time-share. Thus, each family, or group would have a box available to see each new play, at a lower cost, but the trade-off was that they had to sort out the schedule so everyone got a turn during the run of the play. These folks might also rent out the use of their box on the nights that no one was using it, to help keep their costs down.

      This box-sharing appears to have been a common practice among high-class courtesans, as being seen in such venues was very important to them. Thus, a group of these ladies might pool their resources to acquire boxes in the theaters frequented by wealthy gentleman, and take turns using the different boxes on the nights they were not otherwise occupied.

      Most theater managers handled the renting out of unused boxes by those who gave their permission, for a small fee. They would also handle the sale of unused box seats for those who wished to maintain appearances, but could not afford to maintain a box without the income from the nights they did not use it themselves. I have also found suggestions that some less-than-honest theater managers also gave or sold the use of seats in boxes they knew were going to be unused on a given night, without the knowledge or permission of the box owner, pocketing all the proceeds, or gaining some favor by allowing someone the use of the seats in a box on the nights they expected it would not be occupied.

      For a theater manager, as you mentioned, it was important for as many seats to be used each night as possible. And not just for the extra income they might earn in handling the sales, but because the more people were seen in a theater on any night, the greater the perception of the popularity of the play. That, as now, could have a beneficial effect on ticket sales. But, as you said, seeing and being seen was the reason most of the ton attended the theater. Only a very few were actually interested in the play itself. So, there may have been times when a box or two was empty for an evening, here or there, but for the most part, the majority of the boxes in most theaters were occupied on nights when a performance was given, though the occupants of many boxes may not have been the actual owner of the box.

      I hope that helps give you some idea of how things were managed. Please let me know if you have more questions.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Buzzy says:

    Thank you for that very informative and useful answer.

  3. Pingback: The Glittering Regency Theatre | The Beau Monde

  4. Kathryn Kane says:

    For those of you who are interested in a concise history of London theatres during the Regency, I highly recommend a post made recently at the Beau Monde blog, The Theaters of Regency London, by Regan Walker.

    =^..^=

  5. I have two questions: Do you know typically how many people could comfortably sit in a box?
    And was the pit just an open floor with people standing as in Shakespeare’s day or did they have seats or benches by then?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      From what I know, there were no standards during the Regency. Each theatre was different. Even within a single theatre, there were variations in box sizes. The average box seems to have had seating for between six to eight people. However, there were a few boxes which were larger (such as the so-called “royal” box) and could seat as many as a dozen people. There were also some smaller boxes which could only seat two to four people. Based on my research, these boxes were just an open space furnished with chairs. The person or family who rented them for the season could request more or fewer chairs for their box, or they might have provided additional chairs themselves.

      In terms of the pit, the same lack of standards apply. Older theatres in provincial towns may well have had an open pit, but they were probably quite rare by the Regency. London theatres, particularly those which had to be rebuilt after a fire, do seem to have had chairs set up in rows in the pit. However, I did come across one passing reference that suggested that in the area immediately in front of the stage was furnished with benches rather than chairs in some theatres. My take was that seats were provided in order to keep the theatre-goers up front from blocking the view of those behind them.

      Hope that helps.

      Regards,

      Kat

  6. Pingback: Recreating Richard III: the Georgian stage and The Hollow Crown | Jane Austen's Microcosm

  7. Pingback: Regency Bicentennial:  Gaslight Makes Its Debut on the London Stage | The Regency Redingote

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