Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770 — 1840 by Jane Moody

This book came to my attention recently, in a footnote, while doing research on a completely different topic. But I am now most grateful to have discovered it, since it is very well-written and filled with fascinating details about the theatre in London during our favorite decade. I have learned so much about the world of both the illegitimate and the legitimate London theatre from this book that I simply had to let my fellow Regency authors know about it.

Some of the things I learned from Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770 — 1840 . . .

Though Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770 — 1840 focuses primarily on the many illegitimate theatres in London from the end of the eighteenth century through the middle of the nineteenth, in order to set those theatres in context, the author, Jane Moody, provides a basic overview of what constituted legitimate theatre during this same period. The concept of "legitimate" theatre originated with the Licensing Act of 1737, Act of Parliament which restricted the performance of plays with spoken dialog to the patent theatres. During the Regency, there were only two patent theatres in London, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Only patent theatres were allowed to stage the plays of Shakespeare and other classical authors. There were other patent theatres established across Britain, but they are out of the scope of this book and thus this review.

In the view of the government, the few patent theatres could be more easily controled and censored, thus ensuring the play-going populace would not be exposed to any ideas which might foment dissatisfaction with the government, or even open rebellion. It was the intent of the government that the illegitimate theatres would only be permitted to offer performances of melodrama, comedy and pantomime, typically accompanied by music. Such entertainments were thought to be light and commercial, thus, less political and therefore, less dangerous to the authority of the regime in power. Throughout the course of the book, Moody demonstrates the many ways in which the law was either circumvented, or flaunted outright, in a number of the illegitimate theatres. She also shows that, particularly during the Regency, the illegitimate theatre was having an increasing influence on the legitimate theatre. So much so, that by the mid-nineteenth century, the monopolies on the performance of "serious" plays by the patent theatres was revoked by the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843. However, the government’s right to censor the content of plays was not actually abolished until the passage of the Theatres Act in 1968.

The rise of the illegitimate theatre in London began in the last decades of the eighteenth century. It had its origins in the burlesques of Henry Fielding and Samuel Foote, as well as other outrageous and unorthodox entertainments which appealed to a broad cross-section of the public. It was during this time that some of London’s minor playhouses opened, including the Adelphi, the Coburg, the Surrey and the Olympic. All found themselves in need of compelling content by which they could attract the repeat audiences they needed to remain profitable. In Moody’s own words:

. . . The fall of the Bastille, and England’s war against Napoleon, provided the monographic catalyst for the rise of an illegitimate drama. This theatre of physical peril, visual spectacle and ideological confrontation challenged both the generic premises and the cultural dominance of legitimate drama. In the theatrical revolution which followed, the minor playhouses and illegitimate genres would become the dramatic pioneers of the modern cultural metropolis.

Moody traces the influences of these theatrical pioneers throughout her book.

Music was one of the most important features of illegitimate theatre, so nearly all performances were accompanied by music. It might be played as background to help set a scene, or in between scenes to please and/or pacify the audience. Since it was technically illegal for the performers to speak their lines at illegitimate theatres, dialog was often delivered in the form of song. A number of these songs became so popular that people could be heard singing or humming them on the street, and many shops carried the sheet music for them. One of the most beloved genres of illegitimate theatre song developed during the Regency. The patter song was introduced by Joseph Grimaldi, the famous actor and comedian, into the pantomimes he performed at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Patter song consisted of sung verses which were interspersed with absurd and incongruous dialog. Because they were mostly sung, patter songs skated just along the edge of the law and the theatre was not shut down by the authorities for the performance of spoken dialog. It must also be noted that a number of the spoken portions of the patter songs, though seemingly nonsensical, often included sharp or sarcastic comments on the state of the government, the monarchy and other current issues of the day.

Something of which I was unaware, until I ready Moody’s book, was that music was not the only way in which the illegitimate theatres managed to perform quite a number of plays, including the supposedly forbidden Shakespeare. Another important technique was the use of scrolls. Apparently, the primary performance prohibition at illegitimate theatres had less to do with the plays performed than with the fact that actors could not speak the dialog. I was surprised to learn that many illegitimate theatres got around this prohibition by creating a set of large scrolls for each play, on which were written the various speeches made by the characters. In a performance at a legitimate theatre, each actor would simply speak their lines aloud. But during a performance at an illegitimate theatre, the actors would move about the stage, and behind them would stand costumed stage hands carrying long poles to which were attached large scrolls on which were written the words each character was to speak. These scrolls contained words written large enough that they could be seen even by the audience at the back of the house. The scroll-carrying stage hands had to change the scrolls after each scene or long speech, and had to be careful to stand behind the character whose words they carried, in order to ensure the audience was able to follow the play.

Animals were another feature of many illegitimate theatre performances. Astley’s Amphitheatre was not the only venue in which horses appeared. In fact, some illegitimate theatre managers contracted with Philip Astley to provide horses or donkeys when their performances required them. In addition to equine actors, the stage of an illegitimate theatre might be graced by a range of creatures, including dogs, rabbits, birds, and even the occasional reptile. Audiences were usually surprised and/or charmed by the appearance of real, live animals on stage, which may be why so many illegitimate performances included animals. Though having live animals on stage at a patent theatre would have been considered out of the question at the beginning of the Regency, the patent theatre managers began to include animals in their performance during that period, in order to better compete against the illegitimate theatres.

Special effects, particularly those which required large bodies of water, were regularly included in performances at the illegitimate theatres. The Sadler’s Wells Theatre, for example, made extensive use of water effects. The stage was set over a large tank which could be filled with water from a nearby river and used for the presentation of aquatic melodramas and the recreation of famous sea battles. There was also a second large water tank installed above the stage. The water from this second tank was used to simulate waterfalls and other water effects, to further enhance performances. Though used less often, pyrotechnic effects might also be seen during performances at some of the illegitimate theatres. The use of fire effects was certainly dangerous, but if carefully supervised, the effects could produce the desired results without igniting the theatre. Large, complex stage sets, in many cases of the trompe l’oeil variety, were often seen on the stages of illegitimate theatres. Audiences enjoyed being fooled by what they knew could not be real. All of these effects had made their way to the stages of the patent theatres before the Regency came to an end.

Another surprise was waiting for me in this book, when I discovered that it was not only the use of animals and special stage effects used by the illegitimate theatres which gradually influenced the performances at the legitimate theatres. Some of the performers themselves actually crossed back and forth over the line between the legitimate and the illegitimate stage. The most interesting comparison she makes is that between Edmund Kean and Joseph Grimaldi. When Kean made his London debut, actors on the legitimate stage performed in the restrained declamatory style which was considered very noble and had become the tradition in the patent houses. But as a young man, Kean had performed in a number of illegitimate venues and chose to let his passion show in his performances at the legitimate theatres. And Joseph Grimaldi, who had long performed in Sadler’s Wells and other illegitimate theatres, was hired to perform at both Drury Lane and Covent Garden before the Regency came to an end. Grimaldi’s remarkable abilities with the pantomime were wanted by the managers at both the London patent theatres to help increase attendance and thus, their profits.

Jane Moody has shown that neither the illegitimate nor the legitimate theatres of London were static during the period she covers in her book. Each was pulling ideas, methods and even performers from the other, gradually blurring the lines between the patent and the minor theatres. In a sense, it was the theatre-going public which influenced this change, as the managers at the various theatres, both patent and minor, sought ways to make their respective performances fresh, current and attractive to the audiences they needed to sustain their institutions. Never again will I think of the illegitimate and legitimate theatre experience of Regency England as opposites. Rather, they were gradually implementing those features which best pleased the audiences they wanted to attract.

Sadly, I discovered recently that Jane Moody passed away in the fall of 2011, still quite young. The scholarship of English literature and culture is certainly diminished by her loss. But she did leave behind a small body of work, including Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770 — 1840, by which she enriches our knowledge of the London theatre world from the end of the eighteenth century into the middle of the nineteenth. Fortunately, this book is so significant that it is still in print, and therefore available to those would like to immerse themselves in this world.

Dear Regency Aficionados, whether you want more specific details about the illegitimate theatre in London during the Regency for a new romance you are writing, or whether you would simply like to better understand that unique and special era in the development of theatre in England, I can highly recommend Jane Moody’s book, Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770 — 1840. You will not be disappointed.

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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4 Responses to Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770 — 1840 by Jane Moody

  1. Onto the wish list. And I have an immediate plot bunny involving a clever painter of trompe l’oeille backgrounds, perhaps the daughter of an actor but who does not want to be an actress with all it implies, and the backer of a play who makes assumptions about theatre wenches and is put firmly right. And he is being menaced by someone over something, and the painter paints a trompe l’oeille window in his house which actually hides a small room where witnesses are listening and when a pretence is made of Bow Street at the door he escapes through the ‘window’ which isn’t there, and into the arms of the real runners. Well, for theatre, one has to have melodrama…

  2. Brilliant, on my wishlist, too. Thank you for sharing!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      My pleasure! I have always found the theatre world of Regency London rather difficult to understand, until I read this book. I thought others would find it helpful as well.


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