Riotous London Nights
If you’ve ever wondered any there are so many theatres in London (but no theatre museum – it was sadly closed down due to lack of funding), you have to go back to the King’s, the Rose and the Globe, to Shakespeare’s plays, and the coffee houses of London. The leading wits of the seventeenth century gathered in coffee houses, and much of their satirical humour was based on scurrilous modern-day scandal-mongering. As these performances transferred to stages, finding wider audiences, it incurred the royal displeasure, and so the office of the Lord Chamberlain stepped in after the 1737 Licensing Act and stopped licentious or offensive plays. This power remained in force until the 1960s.
One odd side-effect of this restriction was to give William Shakespeare a new lease of life on the stage, because new works couldn’t be performed. They were, still, by sneaking them in as free shows between other productions, and of course John Gay’s ‘The Beggars’ Opera’ shocked everyone buy putting real low-lifes on stage for the first time (the film version is pretty good and worth watching for one of the few times that Sir Laurence Olivier shared a scene with Kenneth Williams).
David Garrick had brought naturalistic performances to the West End for the first time, instead of waving-the-arms-about declamatory stuff, but the theatre was still a riotous place for a night out. Your footman or coachman would keep your seat for you (audiences started arriving at 3pm) and only ever saw the first half of anything. In the two royal theatres in Drury Lane and Covent Garden, there were iron railings with spikes between the players and the audience.
Back then, the public felt it owned the players, and if they weren’t up to snuff they had vegetables chucked at them. Of course, with the chandeliers on the move constantly, being raised and lowered to have their candle-wicks snuffed, and the general influx and outflow of people all around, there was no hushed sense of sharing a play. Theatres were dangerous places. There had even been a murder backstage at Drury Lane in the world’s first Green Room, when one player stuck his cane in another’s eye. The cure for this at the time was urine, and as the men played women this resulted in the unfortunate actor being straddled and pissed on by a man in drag. Much more can be gleaned from Ian Kelly’s wonderful history ‘Mr Foote’s Other Leg’.
I would also highly recommend ‘The London Mob’ by Robert Shoemaker, ‘City of Laughter’ by Vic Gattrell and ‘London: The Wicked City’ by Fergus Linnane, all packed with fantastic stories of the London mob at its worst (i.e. best).