Friday, 9 October 2015

London theatre fires and riots




Boyd Hilton’s excellent volume on English history from 1783 to 1846 in the New Oxford History of England – A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? - mentions one of the many disasters to afflict London’s theatres.

The Covent Garden Theatre was burned down twice – in 1808 and 1856. The first fire in September 1808 destroyed not just the building, but also the costumes, the scenery and the scripts, but thanks partly to some chivvying from King George III, Londoners contributed generously enough to help the owners get the theatre rebuilt and reopened just a year later.

To recoup some of the considerable sums they had invested, the owners decided to put up the prices. On the first night of Macbeth, patrons rioted until the early hours of the morning over the new charges, and that was just the start of the so-called ‘old price riots’ which went on for 64 days.

In the end, the manager and part owner of the theatre, John Kemble, a distinguished actor, had to deliver a public apology, and announce that the increases were being withdrawn. (See also my blog of 21 December 2013.)

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