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A Skelding Summary

The site of Covent Garden's Opera House was originally a nunnery attached to the Abbey of Westminster.

John Rich built the first theatre. He had succeeded to a patent originally granted to Sir William Davenant by Charles 11 to build a theatre "wherein tragedies, comedies, plays, operas, music, scenes and all other entertainments of the stage whatsoever may be shown and presented" John Rich, manager of Lincolns Inn Fields theatre was said to have invented pantomime and was principally known for the successful 'beggars Opera' which "made Gay rich and Rich gay".

John Rich takes possession of Covent Garden

The Piazza, Covent Garden

The first theatre was opened on December 7th 1732 showing the 'Way of the World' by Congreve. Admission to the 55 boxes was 5 shillings (25 pence) half a crown (12 pence) to the 'pit' and the gallery cost one shilling (10 pence). A seat on the stage cost ten shillings. It was allowed to send servants to arrive at three to save places on the stage for their masters and mistresses. £115 was taken on the first night.

Handel's first opera at Covent garden was Pastor Fido followed by Ariodante (1735) Alcina the following year and Atalanta. Despite lavish productions none of them did much for Handel's operatic career. He turned to oratorios and gave a royal performance (to George II) of the Messiah in 1743 which was a success and started the custom of oratorio performances every Lent at Covent garden.

The fire of 1808 destroyed the theatre and the second one was built by Sir Robert Smirke. Three months after the fire Prince regent laid the foundation stone. It was much larger and was one of the largest in Europe. It was re-opened September 18th 1809 with a performance of Macbeth. A price rise from six to seven shillings caused riots. Cobett noted that it was "an attempt to compel people to sell entertainment at a price pointed out by the purchaser" The situation was caused by the fact that Drury lane and Covent garden had, as Fitzgerald pointed out "by their patents and established position had almost a monopoly of the theatrical amusements of the town".

Façade of the Second Theatre, Covent Garden

The Riots continued and the more kemble tried to quell them with pugilists the more angry the public became until Kemble apologised on the stage for employing "improper persons" namely 'Dutch Sam and Co' who were the unsuccessful bouncers.

The abolition of the 26 private boxes cost him £10,000 a year and to recover his losses he began to put on spectacular pantomimes of which perhaps the most famous was 'Bluebeard'. He even brought on an elephant. Such sensationalism shocked the theatre-goers of the time and pantos continued to thrive.

Audience in the Second Theatre, Covent Garden

Opera goers enjoyed many seasons however between seasons the theatre put on many other forms of entertainment among which were the Promenade concerts of Jullien. More 'unworthy' performances were also presented such as 'The Wizard of the north' in 1856. - an 'extrodinary combination of entertainments'. Drams, squibs, melodramas and pantomimes were concluded by a 'bal masque' which was severely criticised by Tom Robertson as a miserable affair "not 20 persons in evening dress, decorations discreditable to a bard, the company would have disgraced a dancing saloon and only held ranks with a 'penny gaff'....a disgrace to everyone connected with it" It ended at five to five in the morning of March the 5th 1856 with a fire that destroyed the theatre within half an hour - with no loss of life.

The third theatre took two years to re-build, funded by Frederick Gye. It was said that £100,000 was staked on the theatre not meeting the opening date. However those who doubted lost. It re-opened it's doors on May 15th 1858 with 'Les Hugenots' which was so long that the management decided to cut the last act amid "yells and hisses form the people of the upper regions"

The Third Theatre, Covent Garden

The evening at the opera cost the Victorian men of fashion about a pound. A verse in Punch defined a pound's value at the time as

"A pound dear father is the sum
That clears the opera wicket:
Two lemon gloves, one lemon ice,
Libretto and your ticket."

It was fashionable to study the libretto and take the opera seriously. Of course it was important to have a full season's set to discuss over tea.

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Jubilee programme for the
State Performance

Interior of the First Theatre,
Covent Garden.

Interior of the Second Theatre,
Covent Garden

Fire at Covent Garden Theatre

Index of things

Histories of Things
By Laurence Skelding

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