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Astley's Amphitheatre

alias Astley's Royal Amphitheatre
history of the theatresupplementtechnical dataHistoric equipment

Important events

(detail)1773 | opening

History

This curious theatre, immortalized by Charles Dickens, had many names. It began when in 1784 Philip Astley, a retired cavalry man and horse trainer, erected near Westminster Bridge, on the site of an amphitheatre dating from 1770, a wooden braiding with a stage intended for the display of feats of horsemanship and equestrian dramas. This was burned down in 1794, rebuilt and reopened as the Royal Grove on Easter Monday 1795, and again destroyed by fire in 1803. Astley then moved to the Olympic (q.v.) m Wych Street while he rebuilt yet again, and the new house opened in 1804 with a great equestrian spectacle, for which type of performance it became famous. Having built similar places of entertainment all over Britain, France, and Ireland (nine­teen in all), Astley died in 1814, but the theatre, which was for some years known as Davis's Amphitheatre, continued to feature equestrian spectacles, with Gomer-sal, enshrined by Thackeray in his novel The Newcomes (1853/5), as the chiei actor. He was succeeded by the famous Andrew Ducrow, who was so illiterate that he seldom played a speaking part, but excelled in riding, stage management, and production. The building was twice destroyed by fire, in 1830 and again in 1841, after which William Batty rebuilt it, and gave it his own name. He was suc­ceeded by William Cooke, who made Shakespeare's Richard III into an eques­trian drama, giving White Surrey, Rich­ard's horse, a leading part. In 1863 Dion Boucicault (q.v.) turned the Amphi­theatre into the Theatre Royal, West­minster, with disastrous results, and was succeeded by E. T. Smith, who reverted to its former name of Astley's and drew all London across the river to see Adah Isaacs Menken (q.v.) in an equestrian spectacle based on Byron's poem Mazeppa. In 1871 the building came under the control of the circus proprietors John and George Sanger, and a year later was renamed Sanger's Grand National. In 1893 it was closed as unsafe, and it was finally demolished some time between 1893 and 1895. No trace of it remains, but in 1951 a memorial plaque was unveiled on the site at 225 Westminster Bridge Road.

 

In: Hartnoll, Phyllis, ed. The concise Oxford companion to the theatre. 1st ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.   ISBN 0-19-281102-9. p. 6

 

 

Author: Hartnoll Phyllis

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