A Few Fun Facts About Regency Theatre with Sara Ramsey
My first Regency romance series centers around a group of women, called the Muses of Mayfair, who pursue secret artistic talents. It has been so much fun to research, particularly since it’s allowed me to indulge my inner history nerd and learn more about the actresses, writers, and painters of the Regency period.
In the first book, Heiress Without A Cause, Lady Madeleine Vaillant is a well-bred spinster with a secret passion for theatricals. While I’ve read lots of Regencies that involve dark deeds in shadowy theatre boxes (which, ahem, may be slightly inaccurate given that the theatre was fully lit throughout the performance), I didn’t know much about the theatre of the time. So I thought I would share some fun facts that I found in my research.
Fun Fact 1: A Night At The Theatre Was Loooooooong (5+ hours!)
Joseph Grimaldi as The Clown
I think it’s natural to send characters to the theatre or the opera because, as modern readers, we can still imagine how it would feel – it’s certainly easier now to see a play than it is to find a country dance, rout party, or dinner at Vauxhall. But the danger is that it’s all too easy to imagine that the theatre hasn’t changed much – when really, theatrical productions have changed dramatically (pardon the pun) over the past two hundred years.
The most surprising fact I learned about Regency theatrical productions was that an evening at the theatre didn’t consist of just one play. Instead, the main event, which was already a full-length play, was always followed by an “afterpiece” – something lighter and more comedic, like a one-act play or a pantomime.
Pantomimes were oddly beloved by audiences, even though everything I’ve read indicates they were highly predictable and relied on slapstick humor between the expected main characters (Harlequin, Colombine, the Clown, Pantaloon, etc.) acting out a very well-established story. The father of modern clowns, Joseph Grimaldi, was the most famous Clown actor throughout the Regency, and his performances were highly regarded – so regarded that he was supported with a pension from Drury Lane after his retirement, and there is still a memorial service held for him every year in London.
As a whole, though, pantomimes and other afterpieces didn’t receive much critical acclaim – but then, perhaps a night at the Regency theatre would be like seeing a double header of Doubt and Die Hard. There was something for everyone. A full evening at the theatre could easily last five hours, even after they cut scenes and rewrote endings for the Shakespearean drama staged before the afterpiece (very common during the Georgian/Regency period – ‘bowdlerized’ comes from Thomas Bowdler, who published a sanitized version of some of Shakespeare’s plays in 1807). Of course, people came and went as they pleased, but a night at the theatre really was a night at the theatre.
Fun Fact 2: Actresses in Breeches Roles
Mrs. Jordan in the Character of Hypolita
– John Jones
A “breeches role” is a masculine character played by an actress dressed as a man. The audience is in on the disguise, and as far as I can tell, a big part of the appeal is that the audience could see a woman’s legs as she pretended to be a man. Some of these roles were specifically written as breeches roles, which lent itself well to comedy and satire.
However, even some famous men’s roles were occasionally played as breeches roles by the leading actresses of the day. Sarah Siddons, who was reputed to be the best dramatic actress of her generation, first played Hamlet as a breeches role in 1775. And Dorothea Jordan, better known as the mistress of the Duke of Clarence (later William IV), was famous for her breeches roles.
Mrs. Siddons As the Tragic Muse
– Joshua Reynolds
For the purposes of my novel, I didn’t delve too deeply into the gender implications of breeches roles – it was good enough for me that Madeleine could play Hamlet, and I couldn’t afford to spend three months reading about gender and the Regency. But as a side note, there is a wealth of interesting discussion in some of the theatre books and online articles about Sarah Siddons and gender – as a woman, she tried to portray herself as a “good” mother and wife, even as her roles on the stage (such as her portrayal of Lady Macbeth, which was one of her signature pieces) were powerful and almost masculine. And I found one article that suggested she didn’t play Hamlet in breeches – she may have played him more androgynously, in a costume of her own design that was neither purely masculine nor purely feminine.
I’m not a gender studies scholar and won’t muddy the waters here, but if you’re interested in gender and the Georgian/Regency period, Sarah Siddons would be a fascinating character study.
Fun Fact 3: Patent Theatres and Serious Drama
During the English Revolution, all public entertainments were banned by the Puritans. When Charles II reclaimed the throne, the Restoration government allowed theaters to open again – but they still maintained strict control over theatrical productions. To keep tabs over the theatre world, only theatres that were granted letters patent from the monarch were allowed to stage serious drama. Other theaters were allowed to stage melodrama, comedy, musical performances, etc., but they couldn’t stage “spoken” drama.
Theatre Royal Covent Garden - Second Building, 1810
By the Regency, the only patent theatres in London with permission for spoken drama were Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Theatre Royal Covent Garden, and Theatre Royal Haymarket. This did not include the separate permissions granted for opera and ballet. However, the theatre companies in London were intensely competitive with each other, and they consistently pushed the boundaries of what was and wasn’t allowed.
So it’s confession time – here’s where I stretched the truth about patent theatres in Heiress Without A Cause. Madeleine plays Hamlet in a small theatre near Covent Garden, which would not have had a license to put on a spoken drama. However, I’ve read that the unlicensed theatres frequently rewrote/restaged plays with music replacing or underscoring the dialogue to get around the law. So as I imagined it, this version of Hamlet had a musical score underneath it. It’s quite possible that, legally, my poor fictional theatre owner could get in a lot of trouble someday, but for the purposes of the book, I would rather have Madeleine play Hamlet over music than do slapstick pantomime.
Thanks for joining me for a night at the Regency theatre! I would love to hear anything you’ve stumbled across while researching Regency entertainments. And while I’m by no means an expert on this, if you have any questions, please leave a comment and I’ll see if my research books have the answers.