The Hanoverian Theater

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The Hanoverian Theater

Death of Dryden.

From the perspective of hindsight the death of John Dryden in London in 1700 has often been seen as marking a pivotal change in the course of the English theater. While the passing of this influential playwright certainly affected English theater, moods were changing in England even before the great Dryden's death. In 1698, for instance, the fiery preacher Jeremy Collier published a bitter critique of the English stage entitled A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, a work in which he indicted the convention of Restoration drama. Collier attacked the rough language, indecent situations, and sense of license that had flourished under the later Stuart kings, and in particular, he singled out the works of George Etherege, Thomas Wycherly, and John Dryden for some of his bitterest attacks. Certainly Restoration tastes did not disappear overnight, and plays of the kind that had been performed in England over the previous four decades were staged in London during the first decades of the eighteenth century. Yet, at the same time, the resurgence of old puritanical attitudes, evident in the attacks of Collier, influenced dramatic writers of the time. A new sense of restraint sometimes referred to by historians of drama as "neoclassicism" began to flourish alongside the works of Sir John Vanbrugh (1664–1726) and others who remained faithful to Restoration traditions. None of the writers of the early eighteenth century rose to the level of Dryden's mastery over the English language and over verse. The tendency for amateurs to write for the stage continued alongside a generation of playwrights that were also actors and troupe managers in the by-now established tradition of figures like Shakespeare and Jonson. John Vanbrugh, who survived until the end of the first quarter of the century, was a figure who continued in the mold of amateur playwrights that had developed in the Restoration period. A member of Stuart court circles, he was a wit who entertained aristocrats with his charming mastery of the English language. He was also a cultivated amateur who not only wrote sparkling bawdy comedies for the London stage, but also served as an architect to the country's nobles. His most famous buildings established a taste in England for elaborate and imposing Baroque structures, and among his most famous works were the imposing domed Castle Howard built in Yorkshire and Blenheim Palace, just outside Oxford. At the other end of the spectrum, the early eighteenth century produced the figure of Colley Cibber, the son of an accomplished sculptor, who made his way into the theater as an actor at the Drury Lane Theater around 1690. When his income from this profession proved inadequate to support his family, Cibber began to write and produce plays. Cibber's Love's Last Shift marked an important shift in comedy away from the light and seemingly amoral fare that had flourished in the previous years. It helped to found the new genre of "sentimental comedies" that dominated the English stage over the next century. The tone of the work was moralistic in contrast to those of the Restoration period and, in the years that followed, Cibber exerted a powerful influence over the London theater.


The father of the incendiary transvestite Charlotte Charke, Cibber became one of three managers of the Drury Lane Theatre around 1710 and, following the death of Queen Anne in 1714, he began to write political plays that supported the Whig party. For these efforts he was named England's Poet Laureate in 1730. Arrogant and difficult, he became a lightning rod for criticism, but his life illustrates the rise of a type that was to be an increasingly common figure in the eighteenth-century theater: the impresario, that is the showman who exerted powerful influence on tastes by controlling what, when, and where plays, operas, and ballets were produced. These larger-than-life figures that dominated the eighteenth-century stage were common, not only in England, but everywhere in Europe. Many controlled all aspects of production, presiding over the theaters they managed with what now seems like an indomitable will and dictatorial spirit. Of the many actors and troupe managers who filled this role, David Garrick (1717–1779) was the most famous English example. The son of an army captain, he first rose to prominence on the London stage as an actor, performing first in unlicensed theaters in the city and then rising to debut at the esteemed Drury Lane Theater. Garrick's new style of acting favored realistic portrayal rather than the artificial and rhetorical style then in use by most actors. After touring Ireland and directing a theater there, he assumed control over the Drury Lane when the institution fell on hard times. His astute sense of what audiences wanted revived the theater, so much so that when Garrick sold his share in the venture he earned the princely sum of £35,000 for his stake. Garrick's choice of plays to be performed at the Drury Lane relied on by-then classical works drawn from the English tradition as well as new sentimental comedies popular at the time. In addition, the actor's own portrayal of Shakespearean roles and his staging of the first "Shakespeare Festival" in the bard's hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon helped to raise the reputation of the great dramatist to the level of admiration he has enjoyed since the eighteenth century. Never again were Shakespeare's works to fall in and out of favor, for Garrick's astute productions of the poet's works—although not completely historically or textually correct by modern standards—helped to establish an abiding affection for the dramatist's achievement. At the time, England was quickly emerging as the dominant commercial and trading power of the Western world, and Garrick's influence even spread to the country's colonies. Although he never visited India, the great manager prepared the prompt books of Richard Sheridan's popular play School for Scandal, which were carried to India and used in the first Western production in Calcutta. While widely admired, particularly in aristocratic circles, his career as a theatrical producer was not without its setbacks. Not every production he staged in his tenure at the Drury Lane—which lasted for almost three decades following his assumption of its management in 1747—was a success. But in the cumulative effects of his productions, he shaped the experience of a generation of London theatergoers.

Restrictions on the Theater.

In the mid-eighteenth century one controversy dampened the development of the theater in London. In 1736, Henry Fielding's play, Historical Register, For the Year 1736, was staged at the Haymarket Theatre in the city; like Thomas Middleton's A Game At Chess of the previous century, it caused a sensation because of Fielding's open mockery of the prime minister Robert Walpole. Walpole responded by pushing a new measure through Parliament known as Walpole's Licensing Act in 1737. Under this law, all new dramatic productions were required to be submitted to the government for approval before being performed. In addition, the act stipulated that no productions could be performed outside the two then-existing theaters. The act produced unexpected consequences. At first it drove competent, even brilliant authors like Henry Fielding from writing for the theater for a number of years, and many of these figures turned to writing novels and other fiction, rather than drama. Thus began the great age of the English novel to which Fielding himself and other luminaries like Samuel Richardson were to contribute. They followed in the paths that figures like Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift had already trod in the decades immediately preceding the passage of the Licensing Act. The publishing of novels, in fact, became a more profitable and a less risky venture than play writing since there was now no assurance that the government might license one's works to be performed. The government's restrictions aimed to limit the performances of drama to the two royally chartered theaters that existed in London at the time, but all sorts of ingenuous schemes developed to steer managers and actors around these requirements. Short dramas, skits, and other kinds of burlesques already popular in the capital at the time began to be performed in taverns and other ad hoc theaters. This music hall theater soon grew to be wildly popular, prompting the government to pass another measure directed at these institutions in 1751. The measures were ineffective since tavern owners merely formed private clubs with minimal admission requirements in order to entertain their clientele. Thus government measures actually helped speed the development of the English music hall, and by the nineteenth century there were hundreds of these institutions in the capital. For a time in the mid-eighteenth century, though, government regulations did make it harder for serious actors to find work. As the two licensed theaters in London became the only outlet for drama, securing roles in dramatic plays became a far more difficult proposition for actors. At the same time, the crown was in these years actively chartering a number of theaters in the towns and cities in the British provinces, a development that provided work for London's actors, many of whom came to spend time, particularly in their early years, touring these cities. By the second half of the eighteenth century, working in a provincial company or touring with a traveling troupe had become a recognizable way for an actor to acquire the skills that were necessary to find role on the now more highly competitive London stage. Thus in an oblique way, the Licensing Act helped to raise the skills of those who performed in the city.

The Actor as Star.

If the quality of dramatic writing declined in the years immediately following the Licensing Act, the damage that government regulation inflicted on the theater was neither permanent or long-lasting. Still, in contrast to the rich tradition of the Tudor and early Stuart stage or the Restoration Theatre, eighteenth-century England produced relatively fewer plays that have remained in the repertory until modern times. A few, such as Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (1773) or Richard Sheridan's School for Scandal (1777) are still performed, but far more were ephemeral productions that were staged for a while and then quickly forgotten. Even as the quality of drama declined, though, the figure of the actor or actress became far more important on the London theater scene. David Garrick, the actor turned theatrical manager who guided the Drury Theatre to great financial success, was only one of many figures who acquired a star-like status at the time. Even as he fulfilled numerous roles in the theater, he continued to act in productions, often producing great excitement when he returned to the stage. Even before Garrick's fortunes had risen, Charles Macklin (1690/1699–1797) had already cultivated a similar career, although his personal life was far more turbulent than the gregarious Garrick. After an early career in the provinces, Macklin began to perform in London around 1725, and his career attracted great excitement over the coming decades. He played Shakespeare's famous character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice with an altogether new twist. Instead of relying on the broad humor of the part, he transformed it into a tragic role. At the same time, Macklin's larger-than-life temper was always a problem. In 1735 he killed another actor when the two fought over a wig in the theater's Green Room. Although he was tried for manslaughter, he was never sentenced. For the rest of his life he was almost constantly involved in battles with other actors and legal cases, but his popularity as an actor was little diminished by these problems. By virtue of his incredibly long career, Macklin left an indelible imprint on the acting styles of the eighteenth century, but his success on the stage combined with his larger-than-life antics also garnered him celebrity status. Sarah Kemble Siddons (1755–1831), the greatest tragic actor of her generation, shared a similarly exalted position among the many competent, even accomplished performers of her time. The daughter of a theatrical family, she grew up touring the English provincial theaters and stepped onto the stage when she was just a child. When she threatened to marry another actor, her parents sent her off to become a servant in a noble household. They planned on her marrying a gentleman farmer, but Sarah eventually prevailed upon her parents and wed William Siddons while continuing to pursue a theatrical career. She came to the attention of David Garrick and was engaged for a performance at the Drury Lane Theatre, but when she failed to captivate audiences she returned for five years to provincial theaters. Several years later she returned to London, this time in a revival at the Drury Lane of Thomas Southerne's Fatal Marriage. The production was a huge success, and for the next thirty years she reigned as the unquestioned tragic actress of her generation. She also led a cultivated life as queen of the London stage until her retirement in 1812. Well educated by her parents, she was able to rise in London society. She is best remembered today from the portrait that Sir Joshua Reynolds painted of her entitled Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, although the artist painted the actress on other occasions, as did Thomas Gainsborough.

Role of the Stage in Hanoverian Society.

Despite government attempts to restrict its performance and a decline in the quality of play writing, the theater in eighteenth-century England continued to play an important role in society. In fact, the evidence suggests that the London stage in these years gradually acquired the popular audience that it had lacked during much of the Restoration period. An expanding economy in and around the city of London as well as increasing time for leisure meant that the audience that packed the city's few eighteenth-century theaters came from a broader range of society. The royal patronage that had been so key to the revival of the theater in the Restoration period was largely absent in London during the eighteenth century. The Hanoverian kings who ruled in the country during the period were not great supporters of the arts; instead they lived quietly, spending much of their time outside the capital in rural palaces and castles. The scope of royal patronage was altogether humbler in the England of the day than it was in France at the same time. Under these circumstances the English stage was a "paying proposition," but one that seems to have been enormously popular at the time. The emergence of provincial theaters in cities in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland also provided a training ground for actors and actresses to hone their craft. If the quality of many of the dramas performed in the period has not withstood the test of time, the celebrity status that performers achieved in this era has remained a fixture of the modern drama to the present day.


introduction: If the eighteenth-century English stage produced few works that continued to be performed in the modern world, it was an age notable for the emergence of great actors, whose careers were avidly followed in London and other theatrical capitals throughout Europe. One of the greatest of these figures was Sarah Siddons, who ruled over the English stage as the queen of tragedy. Leigh Hunt, a noted English critic of the day, made these observations about the acting of Siddons.

To write a criticism on Mrs. Siddons is to write a panegyric, and a panegyric of a very peculiar sort, for the praise will be true. Like her elder brother, she has a marked and noble countenance and a figure more dignified than graceful, and she is like him in all his good qualities, but not any of his bad ones. If Mr. Kemble studiously meditates a step or an attitude in the midst of passion, Mrs. Siddons never thinks about either, and therefore is always natural because on occasions of great feeling it is the passions should influence the actions. Attitudes are not to be studied, as old Havard [William Havard (1710–1778), actor] used to study them, between six looking glasses: feel the passion, and the action will follow. I know it has been denied that actors sympathise with the feelings they represent, and among other critics Dr. Johnson is supposed to have denied it. … It appears to me that the countenance cannot express a single passion perfectly unless the passion is first felt. It is easy to grin representations of joy and to pull down the muscles of the countenance as an imitation of sorrow, but a keen observer of human nature and its effects will easily detect the cheat. There are nerves and muscles requisite to expression that will not answer the will on common occasions. But to represent a passion with truth, every nerve and muscle should be in its proper action, or the representation becomes weak and confused: melancholy is mistaken for grief and pleasure for delight. It is from this feebleness of emotion so many dull actors endeavour to supply passion with vehemence of action and voice, as jugglers are talkative and bustling to beguile scrutiny. I have somewhere heard that Mrs. Siddons has talked of the real agitation which the performance of some of her characters has made her feel.

To see the bewildered melancholy of Lady Macbeth waling in her sleep, or the widow's mute stare of perfected misery by the corpse of the gamester Beverly, two of the sublimest pieces of acting on the English stage, would argue this point better than a thousand critics. Mrs. Siddons has the air of never being the actress; she seems unconscious that there is a motley crowd called a pit waiting to applaud her or that there are a dozen fiddlers waiting for her exit. This is always one of the marks of a great actor. The player who amuses himself by looking at the audience for admiration may be assured he never gets any. …

source: Leigh Hunt, Dramatic Essays. Ed. W. Archer and R. W. Lowe (London: Walter Scott, 1894): 11–14. Reprinted in David Thomas, ed., Restoration and Georgian England, 1660–1788 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989): 347–348.


William Appleton, Charles Macklin: An Actor's Life (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960).

Phyllis T. Dircks, David Garrick (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985).

Robert D. Hume, ed., The London Theatre World, 1660–1800 (Carbondale, Ill.: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1980).

Roger Manvell, Sarah Siddons: Portrait of an Actress (New York: Putnam, 1970).

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The Hanoverian Theater

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