18th Century Theatres and Concert Halls

Theatre Royal, Covent Garden

The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, now the Royal Opera House, served primarily as a playhouse for the first hundred years of its history. In 1734, the first ballet was presented. A year later, Handel's first season of operas began. Many of his operas and oratorios were specifically written for Covent Garden and had their premieres there.

The foundation of the Theatre Royal lies in the letters patent awarded by Charles II to Sir William Davenant in 1660, allowing Davenant to operate a patent theatre company, The Duke's Company, in London.  The Letters Patent gave the right to present spoken drama at their theatre in Lincoln Inn Fields, London.

The Royal Opera House is the third theatre on the Covent Garden site.  Its history began in 1728 when John Rich, actor/manager at Lincoln's Inn Fields, commissioned The Beggar's Opera from John Gay. The success of the venture provided the capital for the first Theatre Royal at Covent Garden, designed by Edward Shepherd, at the site of an ancient convent garden, part of which had been developed by Inigo Jones in the 1630s with a piazza and church. On the opening night, 7th December 1732, Rich's actors carried him there in triumph for a performance of Congreve's The Way of the World.

Rich introduced pantomime to the repertoire, himself performing (under the stage name John Lun, as Harlequin) and a tradition of seasonal pantomime continued at the modern theatre, until 1939.  The last pantomime performed here was Francis Laidler's Little Red Riding Hood in December/January 1938/39.

In 1734, Covent Garden presented its first ballet, Pygmalion, when Marie Sallé discarded tradition (and her corset) and danced in diaphanous robes.   George Frideric Handel had been named musical director of the company, at Lincoln's Inn Fields, in 1719, but his first season of opera, at Covent Garden, was not presented until 1734. His first opera was Il pastor fido followed by Ariodante (1735), the première of Alcina, and Atalanta the following year. There was a royal performance of Messiah in 1743, which began a tradition of Lenten oratorio performances.

From 1735 until his death in 1759, Handel gave regular seasons with many of his operas and oratorios written for Covent Garden. He bequeathed his organ to John Rich, and it was placed in a prominent position on the stage, but was among many valuable items lost in a fire that destroyed the theatre in 1808.

In 1792, the architect Henry Holland rebuilt the auditorium, within the existing shell of the building but deeper and wider than the old auditorium, thus increasing capacity.

[Text based on the Royal Opera House Archives and other London Historical sources.]


St Paul's, Covent Garden Inigo Jones 1631-33, ca. 1720.  [Side view] Photograph by ©George P. Landow. Caption and commentary by Jacqueline Banerjee. This building close to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is known as 'The Actors' Church.' Despite its size, hundreds had to be turned away when John Wesley preached here; great artists of all kinds have been associated with it. J. M. W. Turner and W. S. Gilbert are among those who were baptised here, and Grinling Gibbons and Ellen Terry are among those buried here.

Covent-Garden Theatre, 1808, aquatint engraving by J. Hill, and Harraden, after John Bluck (fl. 1791–1819).  [Image in the public domain.]  Original produced for the 'Microcosm of London.'

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, commonly known as Drury Lane, is in Covent Garden, close to the Royal Opera House. The current building is the most recent in a line of four theatres which were built at the same location, the earliest of which dates back to 1663, making it the oldest theatre site in London. 

The first theatre on the site was built  by  Thomas Killigrew following the Restoration of the Monarchy. The eleven-year-long Puritan Interregnum had seen the banning of pastimes regarded as frivolous, such as theatre.  Following the return of Charles II in 1660, Letters Patent were issued to two parties licensing the formation of new acting companies with a shared monopoly on the public performance of legitimate drama in London. One of these went to Thomas Killigrew, whose company became known as the 'King's Company'.  Killigrew built a new theatre for his company in Drury Lane.  Initially known as 'Theatre Royal in Bridges Street', its proprietors hired a number of prominent actors who performed at the theatre on a regular basis. 

In 1672 the theatre caught fire and Killigrew built a larger theatre on the same plot, named the 'Theatre Royal in Drury Lane,'  It opened in 1674, remaining in operation for 117 years, under the leaderships of Colley Cibber, David Garrick and Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  This building witnessed the triumphs of Thomas Betterton who played Hamlet when he was over 70, Charles Macklin who murdered a fellow actor in the Green Room and lived to be over 100, Peg Woffington, Mrs Jordan, Sarah Siddons and Charles Kemble.

The new playhouse opened on 7 May 1663. a three-tiered wooden structure, 34 metres long and 18 metres wide; it could hold an audience of 700.   Set well back from the broader streets, the theatre was reached by narrow passages between surrounding buildings.  The King himself was a frequent patron of the theatre's productions, as was Samuel Pepys, whose private diaries provide much of what we know of London theatre-going in the 1660s.  The day after the Theatre Royal opened, Pepys attended a performance of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher's The Humorous Lieutenant.

Performances usually began at 3 pm, to take advantage of the daylight: the main floor for the audience, the pit, had no roof. A glazed dome was built over the opening, to let in the light, but, judging from another one of Pepys' diary entries, the dome was not entirely effective at keeping out the elements: he and his wife were forced to leave the theatre to take refuge from a hail storm.  Green baize cloth covered the benches in the pit and served to decorate the boxes, additionally ornamented with gold-tooled leather, and even the stage itself.  The backless green benches in the pit were in a semicircular arrangement facing the stage; both the first and second galleries were divided up into boxes.

Theatre Royal was the home of actor-driven drama, contrasting with William Davenant's baroque spectacles and operas at Lincoln's Inn Fields.  Internal power structures were the main reason for this difference: while Davenant skilfully commanded a docile young troupe, Killigrew's authority over his veteran actors was far from absolute.  Experienced actors Michael Mohun and Charles Hart held out for shares and good contracts in the King's Company, and they despised baroque spectacle.

The dominance of these actors favoured a rebirth of English drama. It was mostly at struggling Theatre Royal, rather than at efficiently run Lincoln's Inn Fields, that the plays were acted that are classics today; the new form Restoration comedy, prevailed in the 1660s with William Wycherley and the Theatre Royal's house dramatist John Dryden to the fore. Another factor in the direction the drama took at this time was the appearance of actresses for the first time on the British stage. Their presence encouraged playwrights to focus on outspoken female characters, daring love scenes, and provocative breeches roles.  Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal, received its first performance here in 1777.

The Great Plague of London struck in the summer of 1665, and the Theatre Royal, along with all other public entertainment, was closed by order of the Crown on 5th June. It remained closed for 18 months until the autumn of 1666, during which time it received a little interior renovation, including widening of the stage.  Located well to the west of the City boundary, the theatre was unaffected by the Great Fire of London, which raged through the City in September 1666, but it burned down six years later on 25 January 1672.

The King's Company never recovered financially from the loss of their old theatre. The competitive pressure from the Duke's Company forced them to keep investing and construction work began immediately on an even larger and more luxurious theatre which housed an audience of 2,000. The new Theatre Royal Drury Lane opened on 26 March 1674. The new house was financed through selling more company shares, which meant that yet more money had now to be made from ticket sales.  Very little is known about the structure of the new Theatre Royal, because no reliable illustrations survive. However, it is believed that the building bore many similarities to the theatre at King's Street, Bristol.

In 1682, the King's companies was absorbed by the Duke's. Led at the time by Thomas Betterton, the United Company, as it was now called, chose Drury Lane as their production house, leaving the Duke's Company's theatre in Dorset Garden closed for a time. In 1688 Betterton was removed from managerial control by Alexander Davenant, son of William Davenant.  Davenant's management (with Charles Killigrew) proved brief and disastrous, and by 1693 he was fleeing to the Canary Islands in the wake of embezzlement charges. The Theatre Royal found itself in the hands of lawyer Christopher Rich for the next 16 years.

Rich attempted to recoup the depredations of the company's resources by cost-cutting tyranny, pitting actor against actor and slashing salaries. By 1695 the actors, including day-to-day manager and acting legend Thomas Betterton, were alienated and humiliated enough to walk out and set up a cooperative company of their own. Nine men and six women departed, all of them established professional performers.

A new play, Rich's last hope of maintaining his theatre; it is assumed to have been John Vanbrugh's The Relapse, and its success allowed Rich to continued as head until 1709, when the patent in question was actually revoked amid a complex tangle of political machinations. A lawyer named William Collier was briefly given the right to mount productions in Drury Lane, but by 1710 the troupe was in the hands of the actors Colley Cibber, Robert Wilks, and Thomas Doggett – a triumvirate that eventually found themselves sharply satirised in Alexander Pope's Dunciad. In 1713 Barton Booth replaced Doggett

Cibber was the de facto leader of the triumvirate, and he led the theatre through a controversial but generally successful period until 1733, when he sold his controlling interest to John Highmore.  It was during this period that actor Charles Macklin (a native of County Donegal in Ulster) rose to fame, propelled by a singular performance as Shylock in an early 1741 production of The Merchant of Venice, in which he introduced a realistic, naturalistic style of acting.

In 1747 Fleetwood's playhouse patent expired. The theatre and a patent renewal were purchased by actor David Garrick (who had trained under Macklin earlier) and partner James Lacy. Garrick served as manager and lead actor of the theatre until roughly 1766, and continued on in the management role for another ten years. It was under Garrick's management that spectators were for the first time barred from the stage itself.

In 1775 Garrick commissioned Robert Adam and his brother James to renovate the theatre's interior. Their additions included an ornate ceiling and a stucco facade facing Bridges Street. This facade was the first time any structure that might be considered part of the theatre proper actually abutted the street: the building, like the 1663 original, had been built in the centre of the block, hemmed in by other structures. The narrow passage from Bridges street to the theatre now became an interior hallway; some theatre office space also went up behind the new facade.

With a series of farewell performances, Garrick left the stage in 1776 and sold his shares in the theatre to the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Sheridan and his partners completed their purchase of Drury Lane two years later, and Sheridan owned it until 1809.  Active management of the theatre was carried out by a number of parties during Sheridan's ownership, including himself, his father Thomas, and, from 1788 to 1796 and 1800 to 1802, the popular actor John Philip Kemble.

In 1791, Sheridan oversaw the demolition of the ageing building and its replacement by a larger theatre to seat 3,600 people.  It opened in March 1794, with a performance of sacred music by Handel because theatrical performances were banned during Lent. This building boasted the world’s first safety curtain but still burned down only 15 years later, bringing Sheridan’s management, and personal fortune, to the ground.

[Text based on the Drury Lane Archives and contemporary sources of theatre histories.]


Thomas Killigrew 1612-83, 1650 by William Sheppard active 1641-60. Oil on canvas, 1245 x 965 mm.   Purchased in 1951 by the National Portrait Gallery, London.  [Image in the public domain.]

Drury Lane 1
Drury Lane Theatre at the end of the 18th Century [Image in the public domain.]

Drury Lane 1
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 1791–4 Henry Holland, architect. Destroyed by fire 1809 from a watercolour drawing of 1795 by Edward Dayes 1763–1804. Original in the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, California.  [This image in the public domain.]

Drury Lane 3
Interior of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane built by Henry Holland esq. R.A. hand coloured engraving by Dale after John Winston, published by Robert Wilkinson, London 1820, ink and paint on paper.   Bequeathed to the Victoria and Albert Museum by Prince Littler.  [Image in the public domain.]

David Garrick 1747–1776, as Richard III - 1745 by William Hogarth 1697-1764.   Oil on canvas, 1905 x 2508mm.  Original in the Walker Art Gallery and Museum, Liverpool.  [This image in the public domain.]


In 1771 an equestrian performer named Charles Hughes had opened a riding-school and exhibition in apposition to Philip Astley who began his managerial career owning a circus tent on a piece of waste ground near the Westminster Bridge. The Surrey Theatre began life in 1782 as the Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy, one of the many circuses that provided contemporary London entertainment of both horsemanship and drama. It stood in Blackfriars Road, in the London Borough of Lambeth.

The first theatre on this site was known as the St. George's Fields Circus or The Royal Circus.  It was built in 1782, at the cost of £15,000, by Charles Dibdin the composer and song writer, aided by Charles Hughes, a well-known equestrian performer.

An early handicap to the success of the house was the opposition of the Surrey magistrates to theatrical amusement; they closed the place as an unlicensed building. The devotees of the theatre, however, offered such resistance to these measures that the Riot Act had to be read and the military called out. The house obtained a licence and was re-opened a few months later.

The entertainments were at first performed by children with the goal of its being a nursery for young actors. Among the sixty members several were destined to loom large in the theatrical world, for example, Mrs. Charles Kemble. The ballet master was Grimaldi, the Father of the inimitable 'joey.' 

Delphini, a celebrated buffo, became manager in 1788 and produced a spectacle including a real stag-hunt. Other animal acts followed, including the popular dog act Gelert and Victor, lecture pieces, pantomimes and local spectacles.

The popular comedian, John Palmer, then managed the theatre until 1789, when he was committed to Horsemonger Lane Gaol as 'a rogue and a vagabond'.   The Circus continued in use until 1810, although it had a troubled existence, being burnt down in 1799 and again on 12 August 1805.

It is possible that Dickens had this theatre in mind as the one in which Frederick Dorrit played the clarinet in the orchestra.

[Text based on the Oxford Companion To Theatre 4th edition 1983, The Face Of London by Harold P. Clunn (1956), Charles Dickens and Southwark and British History Online]



Astley's Amphitheatre ca 1808.

Royal Circus
Royal Circus, 1809. aquatint engraving by J. Hill and Harraden after) John Bluck (fl. 1791–1819) as a Plate in Microcosm of London (1810).   Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) , Joseph Constantine Stadler (fl. 1780–1812), Thomas Sutherland (1785–1838) [Image in the Public Domain.]

Theatre Royal, Haymarket

In 1720, London was a city rebuilt, just sixty years after being swept away by great fire. Now, in the biggest city in Europe, filled with the handsomely rich living side by side with the wretchedly poor, a young carpenter, John Potter built his modest little theatre, nestled beside the ‘Cannon and Musket’ gun shop, on the current site of the Kings Head tavern.

From the moment the theatre opened its doors, the ‘Hay Market’ (later the ‘Little Theatre in the Hay’) was plagued with troubles. At this time, theatres required a Royal Patent in order to operate; this was something Potter lacked.   Desperate to keep his project from closure, Potter cast around for anything to put on stage, from concerts and amateur plays to the street entertainment at his door. But taking money at the door was illegal, and Potter found his investment closed regularly by the Constabulary.  

Arriving in London with a troupe of French Actors and a play, ‘La Fille A La Mode’, the Duke of Montague found neither of the Patent Theatres keen on presenting a piece in a foreign language. Rebuffed, he turned to the Little 'Theatre in the Hay', providing them with their first professional production.   The play was not a major success but, now established as a professional playhouse, the theatre’s reputation grew steadily until the first box-office smash in 1729. ‘Hurlothrumbo’, a 30-night theatrical spectacular, proved vastly more successful than anything running at the rival patented theatres.

Hot on the heels of Hurlothrumbo’s success in 1729, a young Henry Fielding arrived from Oxford, providing a string of triumphant plays beginning with a burlesque, ‘Tom Thumb’, his first major success that packed the House night after night.  Among his plays was ‘The Historical Register’, written in 1734, which contained a character by the name of ‘Quidam’, a villainous, bribing politician, instantly recognizable to the audience as their Prime Minister, Robert Walpole.   Walpole was enraged and in retaliation, introduced an Act that was to change the face of theatre for nearly three hundred years.  In 1737, came the Licensing Act, granting the Lord Chamberlain unprecedented and sweeping powers of censorship.   The 'Little Theatre in the Hay' was closed down, effectively, for the next eight years and the Censorship Bill, with all its powers, was not abolished until 1968.

The theatre reopened in 1741 with the arrival, from Drury Lane, of a celebrated classical actor, Charles Macklin. Already a star at Drury Lane, Macklin had a reputation for being hotheaded.  Gathering a group of aspiring young actors, Macklin managed to sustain the theatre for some time, interrupted only by the regular Constabulary closures for taking money at the door.

1754 brought Samuel Foote to the the Hay Market, as successor to John Potter.   Foote, whose leg was amputated following an accident with a royal hunting party, had feared his theatre career was over but the Duke of York, a close personal friend and fellow guest at the hunt, secured a Royal Warrant and Patent for the ‘Little Theatre in the Hay’ as recompense for the injury.   Granted by King George III, the Royal Patent was valid only in the summer months, and only until Foote’s death.   Foote accepted the conditions of the patent and, having refurbished and enlarged the building, the theatre reopened in 1767 as the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

In 1776, George Colman the elder gained the right to produce dramas in the Theatre Royal, Haymarket ­ the so-called Summer Theatre. He rented this theatre for about a year from Samuel Foote; when Foote died unexpectedly 1777, the patent expired but Colman was able to continue operating the Haymarket theatre under the Lord Chamberlain's license renewed annually.  

When Colman purchased the theatre from Foote's estate, in 1777, there were further renovations.   He built a small lobby between the road and the auditorium, to block out the noise, and inside, he constructed three flat walls of three tiers of boxes, along with the orchestra pit and a gallery at the back.  A close friend of Garrick, Colman staged Oliver Goldsmith’s first two plays at the Haymarket, including ‘She Stoops to Conquer’, and employed some of the most prominent actors of the day.

At his death Colman he was succeeded by his son, known as Colman the Younger.  Colman the Younger was not blessed with his father’s business head and soon found himself in the Debtors Prison.  From there, he continued to run the theatre.

After several years, Colman handed the reigns of power to David Morris, with whom he’d endured a stormy partnership. Their union was fraught and frequently descended into rows, one of which caused a riot in the theatre.  Morris was a firm and capable ruling hand under whose ownership, the theatre obtained a 99 year Lease from the Crown for the sum of £356 nine and six pence.  A new era began for the Theatre Royal, marked by yet another renovation.

[Text based on the Haymarket Archives and biographies of individual actor/managers.]

Top    ~  The Haymarket Archives

Haymarket 18th C
The Old Haymarket Theatre ca. 1780. Reproduced in Brutish History Online.  [Image in the Public Domain]

Exterior of the Colman's Little Theatre in the Hay 1815.  Lithograph after George Jones 1786 – 1869.  [Image in the Public Domain.]

Interior of the Colman's Little Theatre in the Hay 1815. Lithograph after George Jones 1786 – 1869. [Image in the Public Domain.]

Vauxhall Gardens

Originally known as New Spring Gardens, this was one of the leading venues for public entertainment in London, from the mid 17th century to the mid 19th century.  The name distinguished the gardens from the Old Spring Gardens at Charing Cross  Believed to have opened before the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the first mention of the gardens was made by Samuel Pepys in May, 1662. 

Pepys records two dozen separate visits to the New Spring Gardens in his diary, and it is from Pepys that we learn that Restoration Vauxhall was a relatively simple affair, little more than a popular country ale-house with a garden, approached by boat across the river Thames.  It had walks, flowerbeds and arbours; the refreshments were basic and were often supplemented by visitors' own picnics, and the entertainment was from freelance performers or by the visitors themselves.  It was a place where a citizen could take his wife and young servants or children, and enjoy an evening out with food, drink and informal entertainment in the setting of a large garden, an activity previously the privilege of royalty, courtiers and aristocrats. A major attraction was that it was a place where the sexes could meet freely, without many of the constraints that normally circumscribed the tricky process of socialising between young men and young women in polite society.

The Gardens comprised several acres of trees and shrubs with attractive walks; entrance was free with food and drink being sold to support the venture. The New Spring Gardens site became Vauxhall Gardens in 1785, when admission charges were introduced.  By this time attractions included tightrope walkers, hot air balloon ascents, concerts and fireworks, in addition to the walks noted for romantic assignations.

Located in Kennington, on the south bank of the River, which was not part of the built-up area of the city until the mid-eighteenth century, the proprietor to made his garden a place of musical entertainment for every evening during the summer season. At considerable cost, he decorated the gardens with paintings and engaged a band of excellent musicians.  Silver season tickets were issued at one guinea each for admission.   Frederick, Prince of Wales, took sufficient interest in the Gardens to have his own pavilion built from the very first. The first fully Rococo structure erected was the 'Turkish Tent' that was still a novelty in 1744.

Enormous crowds could be accommodated; in 1749 a rehearsal of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks attracted an audience of 12,000, and in 1786 a fancy dress jubilee to celebrate the proprietor's long ownership was thronged with 61,000 revellers. Many of the best known musicians and singers of the day performed at the Gardens and, in 1732, their fashionable status was confirmed by a fancy dress ball attended by Frederick, Prince of Wales.

It was Tyers's ownership, from 1729 until his death in 1767, that saw the height of Vauxhall's popularity amongst the fashionable elite, and the greatest quality of the music and artworks.   In the 1740s, the Vauxhall evening began at 7 p.m., with parties arriving from Whitehall or Westminster Stairs, where a boat could be hired to ferry them up river to Vauxhall Stairs, on the Surrey bank, just south of Lambeth Palace. This river crossing was an integral part of the evening, as it provided an exciting taste of danger and adventure before the thrills of Vauxhall itself.

After the river-crossing, parties arrived at Vauxhall Stairs, to walk the last few yards to the entrance. Having paid a shilling, or shown season tickets, visitors enter the Grove, the central area of the gardens, surrounded by the supper boxes, with the orchestra building in the centre.

The Vauxhall supper usually took place at around 9 o'clock, as dusk fell: 'The chief part of the company having seated themselves in the arbours, five hundred separate suppers were served in an instant . . . the price of a bottle of French claret was 5s., of one cold chicken 2s.6d., a quart of cyder 1s., a quart of small beer 4d. a slice of bread 2d. of cheese 4d., and everything else in proportion, which raises an elegant collation to a high rate.  The most famous item on the menu was the legendary Vauxhall ham, cut so thinly that you could read a newspaper through it. Besides cold meats, salad, and cheese, the Vauxhall menu also included custards, tarts, cheesecakes and other puddings, mainly to appeal to the younger generation.'

Following the death of Jonathan Tyers in 1767, Vauxhall was run by his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren until 1822. In this period there appears to have been little significant change in the way the gardens were run or in their layout. However, shortly after that, the gardens saw their two best ever years, with larger profits and more visitors than any previous year on record.

[Text draws on contemporary records and recent research by David Coke]

Top  ~  The Gentleman’s Magazine August 1742.


A General Prospect of VauxHall Gardens shewing at one View the disposition of the whole Gardens', 1751 print by Bowles and Carver, .
J.S Muller after Samuel Wale.  Original in a private collection  [Image in the public domain.]

Grand Walk
'Vauxhall Gardens showing the Grand Walk at the entrance of the Garden and the Orchestra with the Musick Playing', print published in London, 1751, after Canaletto, c.1751 Original in Collection ©Compton Verney [This image in the public domain.]

Vauxhall Gardens. engraving by J. Hill, and Harraden after Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832), John Bluck (fl. 1791–1819), Joseph Constantine Stadler (fl. 1780–1812)  and Thomas Sutherland (1785–1838).  Published as Plate 89 of Microcosm of London (1810). [This image in the public domain.]

Theatre Royal, Dublin.

At one stage in the history of the theatre in Britain and Ireland, the designation Theatre Royal or Royal Theatre was an indication that the theatre was granted a Royal Patent without which dramatic performances were illegal.   Over the years, there have been four distinct Dublin theatres called the Theatre Royal.

The earliest recorded theatre in Dublin was one opened in 1634 in Werburgh Street. It enjoyed a chequered career that was closed by the outbreak of the rebellion of 1641.

The Smock Alley Theatre, which subsequently played a prominent part in Dublin's theatrical history, was opened by John Ogilby in 1662, close to the wharves on the River Liffey.  Ogilby, who was the first Irish Master of the Revels, had previously run the New Theatre in Werburgh Street.  For half a century Smock Alley's position was unchallenged by any rival

The Restoration of the monarchy in Ireland in 1661 enabled Ogilby to resume his position as Master of the Revels and open his new venture. His Theatre Royal was essentially under the control of the administration in Dublin Castle and staged mainly pro-Stuart works and Shakespearean classics.

In the 18th century, the theatre was managed for a time by the actor-manager Thomas Sheridan (1719 - 88), father of playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  While Smock Alley was in operation as a theatre, it gave the world the plays of George Farquhar (The Recruiting Officer/The Beaux Stratagem), Oliver Goldsmith (She Stoops to Conquer) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (The Rivals/School for Scandal). It was here that the stars of world theatre appeared to much acclaim - Peg Woffington, Thomas Sheridan, Spranger Barry and Charles Macklin. It was on the stage of the Smock Alley Theatre that David Garrick, the greatest actor of the 18th century, first played Hamlet.

It was also the site of some infamous 18th century Dublin riots, the most serious being the Kelly riots of 1747. Thomas Sheridan was manager at the time and had recently banned the presence of audience members on stage and the taking of money for the privilege of going backstage. These rules were severely tested by a very drunk Trinity College student whom Sheridan reprimanded, and in the resulting row about fifty gentlemen tore up the inside of the theatre.

Despite opposition from the Smock Alley management, including recourse to the law, Spranger Barry built a new theatre on the site of the Crow Street music-hall.  This opened in October 1758 but was not a great success; the opposition of the other was enough to spoil the prospects of each of the rivals. The Smock Alley house was further handicapped by two disasters.

Sheridan, who had gone to London to recruit for his company, leaving his partner Benjamin Victor to manage the theatre in his absence, had engaged two 'stars' in the shape of Theophilus Cibber and a celebrated Harlequin of the name of Maddox, both of whom were drowned while crossing to Ireland. On the top of this came a crowning blow in the shape of Sheridan's decision not to return to Dublin. Victor tried a final coup by engaging Macklin and his daughter, but, Macklin reneged on his bargain, putting forward his daughter's health as an excuse for not fulfilling the engagement. Eventually in the summer of 1759 both the Smock Alley and Crow Street theatres closed their doors.

Both shortly reopened under new management, the Crow Street theatre now surpassing the older house in enterprise.  In 1772 Smock Alley came under the management of Thomas Ryder, who was already a popular actor in Dublin.  Ryder took over at Crow Street in 1776, retaining Smock Alley only so as to prevent competition.

The Smock Alley theatre was knocked down and rebuilt in 1735 and closed in 1787.  The Crow Street Theatre was replaced by the Theatre Royal in Hawkins Street in 1820.

The publication The Dublin Stage, 1720-1745: A Calendar of Plays, Entertainments, and Afterpieces by John C. Greene, ‎Gladys L. H. Clark, Lehigh University Press, 1993 provides a detailed history of the location. Please follow this LINK

[Text based on 'Smock Alley Theatre', The Dublin Stage, 1720-1745, A short history of the British Stage and other published sources.]


Smock Alley
Theatre Royal, Smock Alley ca 1750.  [Image in the public domain.]

Thomas Sheridan 1719 - 88 by Edmund Scott.  Stipple engraving, after Robert Stewart, published for Charles Dilly, published 4 June 1789 254 mm x 165mm  [Image in the public domain.]

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