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Drury Lane Theatre Royal

alias Theatre Royal in Drury Lane
history of the theatresupplementtechnical dataHistoric equipment

Important events

(detail)7.5.1663 | opening
Opened with The Humorous Lieutenant by Beaumont and Fletcher.
(detail)26.3.1674 | Opening
Opened as the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane with The Beggar's Bush by Beaumont and Fletcher.
(detail)1775 | Alteration
The auditorium was reconstructed by Robert Adam.
(detail)12.3.1794 | reconstruction
Opened with a Concert of Sacred Music. Rebuilt by Henry Holland.
(detail)10.10.1812 | reconstruction
Rebuilt by Benjamin Dean Wyatt. Opened with an address by Lord Byron, delivered by R. W. Elliston, followed by Hamlet and a musical farce The Devil to Pay.
(detail)1822 | Alteration

By 1822 it was realized that Wyatťs 33-foot proscenium was too narrow for the width of the house, and the entire auditorium was then virtually rebuilt by Samuel Beazley. Although the semicircular brick constructional frame was retained,the tiers were now reshaped to form a horseshoe, in the eighteenth-century Italian manner. The stage opening was widened and on each side a giant order of Corinthian columns, supporting an entablature, was built to frame the three new stage boxes - again a feature common in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Continental theatres.

IN:  Glasstone, Victor: Victorian and Edwardian Theatres: An Architectural and Social Survey. Harvard 1975 p. 13

 


(detail)1831 | Alteration
A colonnade was added on Russell Street front by Samuel Beazley.
(detail)1901 | alteration

Major reconstruction was made in 1901 by Philip Pilditch. The old theatre was then given the opulent look of turn-of-the-century Baroque: 'The tiers were reconstructed with steel girders and concrete floors, using only a front row of pillars to support them. Two rows of seats were added to each tier, and the box parapets were brought forward.' This made the house more intimate.

IN: Glasstone, ibid. p.15
(detail)1922 | alteration

In 1921-2, as a last flamboyant tribute to the by now defunct tradition of the Victorian-into-Edwardian theatre, the auditorium of Drury Lane was again rebuilt. Wyatťs circular walls were finally demolished by J. Emblin Walker and Associates. The four shallow tiers surmounted by their old uncomfortable gallery were replaced by three immense and steeply raked balconies, their cantilevers constructed of steel and reinforced concrete. The new decorations were intended to echo the late Georgian of the foyers, but they are in fact in the stiff and uncompromising manner of the Roman style with which Edwardian theatre architecture ended its days.

IN:  Glasstone, ibid. p.15


People

Joseph Emberton |architect
(detail)Samuel Beazley |architect
English theatre architect, designer of the Lyceum, the St. James's, the City of London, that part of the Adelphi fronting on the Strand, and the colonnade of Drury Lane. His buildings, though plain and somewhat uninteresting, were good and well adapted for their purpose. A prolific dramatist, mainly of ephemeral farces and short comedies, Beazley was also responsible for poor translations of several operatic libretti. IN: Hartnoll, Phyllis, ed. The concise Oxford companion to the theatre. 1st ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.  ISBN 0-19-281102-9. p. 8 More theatres

James Adam |architect

History

Drury Lane was one of the most important theatres in London up until the end of the 17th century. The typical English parterre was not flat as with the French but was sloped toward the stage in order to provide the audience with a better view, while additionally being furnished with benches. The stage was divided into two parts by the portal. The fore-stage jutted out into the space of the auditorium. The stage led from the fore-stage all the way to the rear edge. London theatre in the 17th century had a relatively small capacity.

 

 

The first Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was built as early as 1663, but only tantalizing descriptions (including some by Pepys) remain. It was replaced in 1674 by the second Drury Lane Theatre by Wren, about which controversy still rages. Wren certainly gave theatre design considerable thought (one of his earliest projects, after all, was the Sheldonian), and a collection of plans and elevations now at All Souls,Oxford, show that he had many interesting ideas. One of them features an auditorium shaped like a scallop shell facing a conventional deep stage, into which only a third of the audience could possibly have seen [Pi. 63]. Another, which has been convincingly connected with Drury Lane, is far simpler —a rectangular hall with a stage facing curving rows of seats. At the back was to be a row of boxes, the royal box being isolated, and galleries above. Again, nothing much was made of the proscenium arch; the stage projected in front like an Elizabethan apron stage (a fashion which the actors were probably reluctant to give up) and receded behind to create a space which has been christened the 'vista area'. The side walls contained a double range of boxes between giant pilasters. Later alterations to Wren's theatre are known to have had the effect of pushing the stage back inside the proscenium arch, a tendency common to the whole of Europe.

 

In: Tidworth, Simon : Theatres: An Illustrated History. London 1973 p. 76

 

Wren's Drury Lane remained substantially intact until 1775, when major alterations were made by Robert Adam. How far this affected the building structurally is hard to say; he certainly enlarged the auditorium by extending the gallery backwards, but it was the decoration which aroused most comment—the dainty panels in front of the boxes and the trompe l'oeil ceiling suggesting a shallow dome. 'The pillars which support the upper boxes and gallery', wrote a contemporary, 'are inlaid with plate glass on a crimson and green ground . . . The ceiling is heightened by twelve feet whereby the voice of the performers is greatly improved.' Adam enlarged the proscenium a little by removing 'the old heavy square pillars on each side of the stage', but this was still fairly small by foreign standards—thirty feet wide and 130 feet deep. A fine new Neoclassical facade was also built.

 

Henry Holland's rebuilding of Drury Lane between 1791 and 1794. While it lasted, this was among the largest and most splendid theatres in the world, with a reported capacity of 3,611 (the present Drury Lane theatre holds 2,226). The auditorium must have been very impressive, with its four tiers of boxes arranged in a semi-circle, converging by straight lines towards the stage. Here Holland preserved a modified apron, with proscenium boxes but no doors. The proscenium itself was supported not on pillars but on tiers of ornamental pilasters set with oval mirrors, reflecting the audience back at itself, and ending in huge acanthus consoles. Boxes and galleries were supported on cast-iron columns. The main front formed the pit entrance which led through a semi-circular vestibule to a grand 'Egyptian hall', segmental in plan with nine bays of Doric columns, lined with arcades housing shops. Stairs at each end led upwards to the upper tiers, and in the middle downwards to the pit. It must have been a composi­tion comparable in every way to Louis' foyer at Bordeaux. The boxes had their own entrances on the north and south (traditionally the King's side and the Prince of Wales' side), each with its vestibule and a saloon above. On the exterior, Holland planned an Ionic colonnade 'affording shelter and conven­ience below and forming a terrace before the theatre above', but this was never completed; there was also to be a ventilation tower modelled on the Tower of the Winds, crowned by a ten-foot high statue of Apollo. The theatre, however, was not to be an isolated public monument. Its frontages were integral parts of their streets, with shops, coffee-houses, etc., on the ground floor.
Holland incorporated the latest safety devices from France —an iron curtain and four huge tanks of water in the roof. To no avail. Less than twenty years later it was burnt to the ground, to be replaced by the theatre which still partially survives, by Benjamin Wyatt.

It had a flat ceiling, which disappointed those who had hoped for a dome. Wyatt retained the boxes beside the stage but beneath them, instead of the traditional English doors, he placed classical tripod altar lamps, similar to those still to be seen outside the main entrance. During the first season they were kept alight but were then removed because they were disturbed too much by the rising and falling curtain. In spite of Wyatt's attention to theory, the acoustics and sight-lines were not good and the auditorium was substantially rebuilt in 1822. (The present interior dates from exactly a hundred years later.) However, his entrance and public rooms remain intact. Three doors open into a vestibule, which in turn leads into a domed rotunda with niches for statues. To left and right rise two grand staircases (King's and Prince's). The rotunda is open through two storeys, with a gallery at first-floor level, and the stair arrangements are repeated at both levels, producing spatial effects smaller but no less subtle than at Bordeaux. Over the central vestibule is a saloon, as was standard in France, with column-screens and statues. Wyatt took pains to segregate the various parts of the audience. Respectable patrons were spared 'being obliged to press through lobbies, rooms and avenues, crowded with the most disreputable members of the community, and subject to scenes of the most disgusting indecency.'

The exterior was soberly Neoclassical. Set back above the facade one saw the semi-circular line of the auditorium rising like a clerestory (only without windows). Wyatt's planned portico remained unexecuted. The present rather squat porch was built in 1822 to the design of Sir John Soane, and the colonnade along the north side somewhat later.

 

In: Tidworth, Simon : Theatres: An Illustrated History. London 1973 p. 124-128

 

 

 

 

Author: Simon Tidworth

Additional information

Simon Tidworth's account of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, contains several factual errors, which I will correct here.
1. Bristol's Old Vic theatre in King Street, Bristol, opened in 1766, is the best surviving model revealing how the second Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (1674-1792) might have looked.  Photos, old and new, of this playhouse are innumerable on the web. Its website and seasonal repertoires advertise play performances for any theatre architects or historians who want to experience how the second Drury Lane felt: http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk Anyone wanting to know how plays by Cibber, Garrick and Sheridan, Farqhuar, Dodsley, Inchbald or Centlivre might have been staged should visit Bristol's Old Vic because Andrzej Blonski Architects have now built a new version of its 1766 stage front, deep inside the circular auditorium with spectators on three sides.  My new research shows Bristol's Old Vic was purposely designed by Garrick's Master Carpenter Architect, James Saunders, as a circular version of the 1674 Drury Lane Theatre Royal, where he worked.  Like the 1674 Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Bristol's Old Vic stood in an open yard encircled by other buildings on four sides. The external dimensions of Bristol's Old Vic
2. 1663. Tidworth mistakenly claimed "The first Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was built as early as 1663.." The site of the theatres built in Drury Lane was an open yard known as "Ridings Yard," surrounded on four sides by other buildings.  Passageways through the ground floors of other buildings fronting Bridges Street and Drury Lane gave spectators and performers access to this yard, in which the theatre stood as a separate building.  The first theatre built in the Ridings Yard was known as the Theatre Royal in Bridges Street (BS) because Ridings Yard play spectators then accessed passageways through the ground floor of houses in Bridges Street, not Drury Lane.  
3.  1674 - 20The second theatre built in Ridings Yard was known as the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, because the spectators'  accessed the yard via a passageway through the ground floor of houses and other buildings in Drury Lane.  Tidworth's claim "Another, which has been convincingly connected with Drury Lane, is far simpler —a rectangular hall with a stage facing curving rows of seats." refers to a long section drawing of a theatre twice reproduced in this article, with an additional two modern copies, and two photos of a model version. This reliability of this long section showing Drury Lane in 1674 has been seriously questioned by Graham Barlow (1985 or 6 PhD dissertation) me (1995), R. D. Hume (2007) and by Tim Keenan's detailed analysis of the requirements of plays staged at the 1674 Drury Lane Theatre Royal.('"Scenes With Four Doors": Real And Virtual Doors On Early Restoration Stages', Theatre Notebook, 65.2, (2011), 62–81.)  Evidence from maps and panoramic views from the period (Langhans, “Pictorial Material on the Bridges Street and Drury Lane Theatres,” Theatre Survey  7.2  November 1966, 80-100), nearly all show  Drury Lane Theatre Royal surrounded by passageways or yards on three sides.  These yards appear to measure between 5 and 10ft wide, limiting the exterior dimensions of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to no larger than between 100ft-102ft long.   Since the first time it was associated with the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, researchers and scholars have consistently claimed the theatre shown in the All Soul's long section drawing measures between 112ft and 114ft long.  It therefore could not fit the known dimensions of its site, the Ridings Yard, which measured 112ft long x 58-59ft wide.  

Mark Howell - 25.06. 2014

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