A QUICK LOOK AT REGENCY THEATRE AND THE “OLD PRICE” RIOTSby Cara King (all rights reserved)
During the extended Regency period, the program at a “legitimate” theatre, i.e. one that was licensed to perform dramatic plays, typically began with a full-length play and concluded with a shorter “afterpiece,” which was often a farce, pantomime, or short ballad opera. In London there were only two theatres that were permitted by the Licensing Act of 1737 to perform legitimate theatre: Drury Lane and Covent Garden (though when they were closed during the summer months the Haymarket Theatre was allowed to stage plays.)
Other theatres often used clever ways to get around this law, however, such as setting Shakespeare to music, or selling beer and then allowing patrons to view a “rehearsal” of a play for free. Beginning in 1807, though, several new permits were issued for minor theatres in Westminster by the Earl of Dartmouth, who was Lord Chamberlain from 1804 to 1810. Dartmouth also extended the length of the Haymarket’s summer season, putting it for several months of the year in direct competition with the “patent” theatres. The monopolistic Licensing Act was finally repealed in 1843.
The patent theatres were patronized by a variety of classes: the aristocratic and wealthy in private boxes, the middle classes in the dress boxes and lower gallery, servants and laborers in the upper gallery, and in the pit a mix that included single gentlemen, clerks, tradesmen, skilled workers, and apprentices. When Covent Garden disastrously raised their prices in 1809, the prices went up from 6 to 7 shillings for a seat in the boxes, and from three shillings sixpence to 4 shillings for the pit, whereas the upper gallery remained one shilling, or sixpence (half-price) for those who arrived halfway through the first offering.
In 1808, Covent Garden Theatre had burnt to the ground, at great loss of life, history, and the finances of the investors. Insurance and fundraising helped rebuild the theatre by 1809, but debt forced the manager, John Philip Kemble, to raise the prices upon the reopening. The London public had in previous decades reacted to price rises with rioting, and this time was no different. Complicating the issue was the addition of private boxes with private anterooms and entrances, which some claimed would lead to immoral behavior.
Whether this supposed immoral behavior was really the issue, or whether the objection lay with the fact that the wealthy aristocrats could now enter the theatre through private entrances, stroll about in a private saloon, take refreshments in their private anterooms, and watch the play from their private boxes, all without brushing shoulders with the common folk as they used to do, is a matter for debate. An unrelated factor which certainly spurred the rioting was Covent Garden’s hiring of Italian soprano Angelica Catalani at the exorbitant rate of 75 pounds per night, a move which inflamed national prejudices.
Covent Garden reopened September 18, 1809. The National Anthem was received calmly, but as soon as Kemble appeared onstage in his costume for Macbeth, the clamor began: hisses, hootings, shouting. Kemble and Mrs Siddons continued with the play, but nothing said onstage could be heard for all the noise the audience was making. At the end of the night the audience refused to go home. A magistrate attempted to read the Riot Act from the stage, but only provoked the rioters to vandalism.
By the next night, the rioters were organized, with placards and banners, shouting “God Save the King! No foreigners! No Catalani! No Kemble!” By the third night, rioters were using horns, bugles, rattles, bells, and all manner of noisemakers. Rioting continued for sixty-seven performances, escalating to the throwing of various objects at the stage. The rioting was popular, organized, and supported by several newspapers. Although the demands were various, the riots and their supporters were known by the appellation “O.P.” for Old Price. By late December, Kemble finally acquiesced to all the O.P. demands.
For further reading:
A clear and entertaining account of the O.P. Riots is contained in “The Kemble Era: John Philip Kemble, Sarah Siddons, and the London Stage,” by Linda Kelly, Bodley Head, London, 1980.
For a scholarly and thorough study of the O.P. Riots: “Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London,” by Marc Baer, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992.
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Last updated 26 July 2005.
All text and images copyright 2005 by Cara King