In the summer of 1814, there were a plethora of festivities held in London in celebration of what was believed to be the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte and the return of peace to Europe. One of those celebrations was a grand masquerade ball sponsored by some of the members of Watier’s Club in July. In the fall of 1815, with Napoleon truly, finally, defeated and exiled to a small island deep in the south Atlantic, the Drury Lane Theatre decided to include a reproduction of that masquerade ball as part of their pantomime.
How Lord Byron and his friend attended both versions of the masquerade ball . . .
Throughout his life, Lord Byron had something of a love/hate relationship with the theatre. He wanted to write plays, but he feared how they would be received by the public, because he dreaded ridicule. In addition, he had developed a strong dislike of much of what he considered "English," including the majority of the crude and tasteless contemporary plays which were staged in London theatres. He was also appalled by the travesty of the way in which Shakespeare’s plays were presented at that time, heavily bowdlerized and re-written. Though Byron had called Shakespeare "the worst of models" he did think him an extraordinary writer, and, as a fellow writer, he was horrified by the liberties taken with Shakespeare’s work.
From an early age, Byron craved public acclaim. He got his first taste of acting while a student at Harrow. There, he declaimed a number of his favorite dramatic selections from his favorite plays, typically to loud applause from his fellow students. As a young man, he occasionally took part in private theatricals staged by friends. At Newstead Abbey, he also staged a few theatricals of his own. However, though he was fascinated by acting, Byron was unwilling to appear on the public stage due to his self-consciousness with regard to his disability, his deformed foot. Nevertheless, the theatre continued to attract him, and would do so for the rest of his life.
After the fire of 1809, Byron became a member of the committee which oversaw the restoration and re-building of the Drury Lane Theatre. In 1812, another committee member, Lord Holland, invited Lord Byron to write an address for the gala to be held on the opening night of the new theatre. A contest had been announced, with the winner to receive 20 guineas for the best address. However, nearly seventy entries had been received and Lord Holland and the committee deemed them all thoroughly unacceptable. Though he struggled with writing the address, Byron did not want to disappoint Lord Holland, and worked hard to produce something acceptable. The address was chosen by the committee and on the evening of 12 October 1812, it was read from the theatre stage by Robert William Elliston.
On the evening of Friday, 1 July 1814, the younger members of Watier’s Club hosted a masquerade ball at Burlington House in honor of the Duke of Wellington. Though it was a masquerade ball, Wellington, as the guest of honor, was not required to wear a costume. He attended wearing his military uniform. The hosts wore costumes, but not masks, so that their guests would be able to recognize them. One of the members of the club, and therefore one of the hosts, was Lord Byron. He came to the ball wearing the robes of a monk, while his friend, John Cam Hobhouse, wore Byron’s famous Albanian costume. Another of Byron’s friends, Douglas Kinnaird, was also at the ball that evening. It was at this ball that Lady Caroline Lamb, dressed in green pantaloons, played tricks on several of those in attendance, causing considerable comment. The famous courtesan, Harriette Wilson, and her sisters, all in costume, also attended this masquerade, it is believed at the invitation of the Dukes of Devonshire and Leinster. The Prince Regent, the Royal Dukes, most of the allied sovereigns and a great many members of London society were also all at Burlington House that night. That masquerade ball at Burlington House was considered one of the most glittering and significant events of that summer of celebration.
Since he joined the management committee of Drury Lane, Lord Byron spent time around the theatre. As his marriage began to deteriorate, the time Byron spent at the theatre increased. He particularly enjoyed lounging in the green room during and after the performances, chatting with the performers, especially the actresses. He also occasionally became involved with the performances which were staged at the theatre. In the autumn of 1815, a pantomime was planned for the upcoming season. Though the Battle of Waterloo had resulted in the final, permanent defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, it was somewhat anti-climatic after the great victory celebrations which had been held in London the previous year. In addition, the news had arrived in London in the summer, when few people were in town, so there had been no grand celebrations for the second victory. Drury Lane management thought some kind of victory celebration would appeal to the public. Perhaps at Byron’s suggestion, they decided to include a recreation of the grand masquerade ball which had been held at Burlington House the previous summer.
Many famous and infamous people had been at the Burlington House ball. Most of those in attendance were represented in the pantomime reproduction of the event, some of them re-enacting their scandalous behavior of that evening. The pantomime was a great hit for Drury Lane and ran for many weeks. Despite his wish to "reform" the theatre, Byron was pleased at the high attendance numbers for the pantomime. With the great success of the pantomime that year, apparently Byron decided to take advantage of that success to trod the boards. On at least one evening, possibly more, Byron, Douglas Kinnaird and a few other friends who had been at the Burlington House ball, played themselves in the pantomime. They all wore masks so that they would not be recognized even by the other actors,
. . . and went on the Stage among the hoi polloi — to see the effect of a theatre from the Stage. — It was very grand. — Douglas danced amongst the figuranti too — & they were puzzled to find out who we were — as being more than their number. — It was odd enough that D. K. & I should have been both at the real Masquerade — & afterwards at the Mimic one of the same — on the stage of D. L. Theatre.
Probably because he believed he had anonymity behind his costume and mask, Byron felt free to go on a public stage, even with his lame foot. Though he did not dance, as Kinnaird did, he was able to bask in the applause and cheers of the audience. It is not known how many times Byron, and/or some of his friends, played a part in the recreation of the Burlington House masquerade on stage in the pantomime at Drury Lane Theatre that fall. Byron never revealed himself while on stage, so only his friends and a few of the pantomime actors were aware of his anonymous performances. Though he clearly enjoyed himself, there are is no record that Lord Byron ever took part in any other public theatre performances. However, he did continue to participate in private theatricals from time to time, even after he fled England in the spring of the following year. He would later confide to a friend that, had he chosen to pursue the profession, " . . . he would have made the finest actor in the world."
Dear Regency Authors, might Lord Byron’s secret performance in the 1815 pantomime find a place in an upcoming Regency romance? Could it be that a sharp-eyed character spots him on stage during the performance? Or, might one or more of your characters meet with him in the green room of the Drury Lane Theatre after the pantomime? Then again, the characters in a novel might attend the pantomime at Drury Lane in the autumn of 1815 just to share in the celebrations of the Waterloo victory. Mayhap, they do not recognize Byron, but they do recognize Douglas Kinnaird, who, in addition to being a friend of Byron, was also a prominent banker and an avid cricket player.