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April 19, 2012

As the American chanteuse and social historian Cher so aptly noted in her musical discourse “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”, people who travel tend to be distrusted by those who don’t. Musicians, acrobats, magicians, travelling players, were all seen as criminals until recent times.

But it was not just the players who were shunned; they attracted the wrong sort as their audience. In 1597 London’s mayor and aldermen objected to several playhouses on the grounds that “They give opportunity to the refuse sort of evil disposed and ungodly people that are within and about this city to assemble themselves… They are the ordinary places for vagrant persons, masterless men, thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozeners, coney-catchers, contrivers of treason and other idle and dangerous persons to meet together.”

Elizabethan England had draconian laws for vagrants, so players needed protection of nobles in order to survive. But the civil war closed theatres in 1642. When the country had had its fill of whitewashing walls, breaking church windows and defacing statues, theatres reopened with the Restoration of 1660. Plays were generally performed as part of major annual events, such as fairs and assizes, which attracted criminals and pickpockets so the reputation of players was always low. In time a provincial circuit began to develop. From 1704 Bristol developed some non-fair venues, the first being John Power’s Company that year. But as the theatre recovered, so did the Puritan opposition to it increase, so for each of his 3 years, each at a different venue, he suffered attacks.
In 1727 Thomas Cox claimed of the city “It is very populous, but the People give up themselves to trade so entirely, that nothing of the Politeness and Gaiety of Bath is to be seen here.” That is because Bristol was very much a working city; the aristocrats were to be found, if anywhere, at the nearby Hotwell Spa, so the first permanent theatre in the region was at Jacobs Wells, midway between the two. It was opened by John Hippisley, the original Peachum in ‘the Beggar’s Opera’ and its programming and resources were equal to London, though the venue was described as a barn or hut.

But theatres were still banned from towns and cities, so the Licensing Act of 1737 attempted to sort out the problem of theatre troupes who were no longer supported by wealthy benefactors. It gave local authorities the power to close theatres, but where companies were well established, this proved unpopular, so was rarely invoked. It was possible to get round the law by advertising programmes which included music or claimed to be educational or morally uplifting, rather than mere entertainments.

London tended to set standards and fashions, so Bristol looked there for an appropriate design. As Summerson states: “The Theatres of Georgian London defy all attempts at chronological grouping. The same theatre would have to make several appearances, [within this book] each time with a different architect, and perhaps for no more significant reason than that its predecessor had just been burnt down. Moreover, theatre-design is a rather special branch of architecture, and the main points about the subject can best be made in a comparative review. As no Georgian theatre interiors survive in London, the interest of he subject is somewhat limited

At the beginning of the 18th century, Wren’s Drury Lane stood much as he had left it. Its ample apron stage projected into an auditorium decorated on either side with giant Corinthian pilasters. At the back were three curved tiers of seats, supported on small Doric columns, in this respect slightly resembling the famous late 18th century Theatre Royal at Bristol.”

Jacobs Wells theatre was outside the city, so never under threat, but by the 1760s was increasingly excluding patrons due to lack of space, and often printed apologies in the papers to this effect. The theatre flourished, playgoing was increasingly accepted along with many other public entertainments, and as the city of Bristol continued to expand, and become more affluent, there were increasing calls for a larger, more convenient theatre, especially from the residents of Queen Square. The scheme began when a group was formed to purchase a house on King St with a garden to the rear, and ground behind the adjoining Coopers’ Hall.

The proprietors set off to London to survey and measure playhouses there. They engaged the services of ‘a very ingenious carpenter’, of Mr Saunders and here they show their hands as true Bristol merchants : “They have collected such Prints as they flatter themselves will be a means of Saving some hundreds in Building the intended house.” Despite this apparent copying of existing buildings, and the city’s notorious conservativism, Bristol’s theatre appears to have been unusual, if not unique at the time. Sumerson again: “Vanbrugh’s Haymarket had a dome supported on a Corinthian order and was acoustically deplorable. It was much altered, then finally burnt in 1789 when it was rebuilt by a Polish architect, Novosielsky, whose auditorium introduced the horse-shoe shape.

Novosielsky’s theatre was probably the first in England to take advantage of the originality displayed in the grand Theatre at Bordeuax, a classic of theatre design completed in 1780. London theatres before that date – for instance, Adam’s exquisite recasting of Drury Lane for Garrick in 1775 – were mostly rectangular. Bristol (1764-66) is supposed to have been the first English theatre to copy the normal French semicircular end. The Haymarket opera house went a step further in borrowing the horseshoe from Bordeaux. the horse-shoe remained the standard shape for large London theatres; it lent itself to the introduction of a circular or domed ceiling, with 2 spandrils at the proscenium end, and could be considerably elongated without losing the obvious advantages of the shape.

The Bath Chronicle of 13 Sep 1764 announced “We hear a new Theatre is intended to be erected in Baldwin-street and that the Leases are now preparing.” This was followed by Felix Farley’s Journal of 24 November 1764, which reported “The Workmen are now employ’d in order to lay the Foundation of the New Theatre, in King-Street, which would have been done before this time, had not a Mistake been made in the Calculation, whereby the House would have been built 8 feet larger in the Clear, than the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. A Model of that House has been sent for, and the Proprietors seem determined that the Work shall be carried on with great Spirit.”

So, the clever cost-cutting proprietors weren’t so clever at all.

The architect – or rather clerk of works – on this project was one of the Paty family, but which one depends on who you read. Ison and Pevsner claimed it was James, but Kathleen Barker, using the Theatre Royal’s Proprietors’ Minute and Account Books claims it was Thomas, “probably the best-known local architect of the time.”

On 30 November 1764 Felix Farley announced the foundation stone had been laid the day before, and the theatre should be open for the summer season. In April 1765 the work was inspected by David Garrick, the most famous actor of his day, and declared it to be the most complete theatre in Europe. This shows how much Bristol had changed in a few decades, that there was now sufficient money to promote this scheme and belief that such a cultural venue was viable. It was built by Thomas Paty, Gilbert Davis house carpenter, William Foote mason and the interior painted by Michael Edkins whose CV was almost as varied as that of the Paty family.

The building was 120 foot by 50 foot, its outer walls of thick rubble stone, so they were aware of the risks of fire in a crowded, candle-lit space full of smokers. Most of the interior was of wood, but what survives now is a mixture of the original design and several poorly documented alterations. Edkins original account was for pea green painting with ornamental work in silver and white, a colour scheme which has now been restored. The scenery was painted by John Freke of Drury Lane.

The cost was intended to be covered by the issue of £2000 worth of shares but by spring 1767 about £3,500 had already been paid out which by 1769 had reached £5,000. It opened on 30 May 1766 with a benefit for the Infirmary. It included a doggerel prologue and epilogue by David Garrick who had been impressed by his visit to the site a month earlier. The company was similar to that which had played Jacobs Wells the previous summer, but the theatre still faced opposition, so to avoid the rogues and vagabonds act, they billed “A Concert of Music and a Specimen of Rhetoric.” Opposition continued, especially from Quakers, though some of the founders were members of the society of Friends.

On 21 June Felix Farley gleefully declared:

“Newgate enlarge”… Yes, Quick extend its walls;
a large Play-house loudly for it calls.”

Despite the delays and over run in cost, the Theatre was built too fast for some, as the other Thomas Paty project at the time, St Nicholas’ church, was struggling to be completed, but this was a complete new build rather than complicated rebuild. Felix Farley again “what a melancholy Prospect it must offer to every considerate Mind, to observe with what Facility Buildings of this Kind are erected, and at the same Time the difficulty with which those set apart for religious Services are carried on.” This reference to the delays in rebuilding St Nicholas church ignores the problems that had beset this project, and its link with the bridge (see relevant article) but also the fact that merchants were probably paying more than the struggling church could afford, so the work was done faster.

The theatre obtained a licence in 1773 which allowed it to become the Theatre Royal, but even at this late date was opposition to it. A petition against it with 405 signatures was sent to London for the MPs to present, but the application arrived several days earlier, putting local MPs in the difficult position of having to support 2 opposing groups.

The first lease was to actor/manager Wiliam Powell, a patentee of Covent Garden and regarded by some as a successor to Garrick. But he died 3 July 1769, aged only 33. He fell ill with pneumonia, and lingered for several days in his house adjoining the theatre. Straw was strewn on the cobblestones outside to dampen noise . A benefit was held for his family on 14 July, which overflowed the theatre. His monument in the Cathedral is one of its largest and finest, which shows how important he and the theatre had become to the city.

In 1779 John Palmer, manger of the Bath Theatre took on a 20 year lease in which he undertook to make significant improvements, including a 2nd tier of boxes in the dress circle and the addition of a tea house, possibly to avoid drunkenness. It was reopened October 1779 but under the management of Dimond & Kesbury. The two theatres were run as repertory companies, with the same actors playing different roles, rather than the previous star dominated programmes. They were run back to back, which involved constant commutes between the two venues of staff, costumes and scenery in huge wide wheeled coaches.

John Palmer also travelled widely in search of talent, especially to London, so was painfully aware of the dire state of road travel, of its unreliability and the dangers of attack from highwaymen. This inspired him to present a submission to the government in 1783 proposing the establishment of armed high speed coaches which adhered to regular timetables, so he was responsible for establishing the Royal Mail. Mail at that time took 30-40 hours from Bristol to London; his improvements reduced this to 16. His scheme was later copied by Wells Fargo in the United States and Cobb & Co in Australia.

There was no proper frontage to King St, alleged by many to counter religious opposition, but it may reflect the difficulty in obtaining such a large plot, with street frontages being far more in demand and more expensive. Most people still lived above their businesses, and the plot for the theatre was fronted by 2 houses, which were to accommodate the theatre manager, so a careful watch could be kept on the premises to protect against theft and in particular, fire.

These were demolished in 1904. The earliest known picture of the King St frontage is from abut 1805, which shows the adaptations to allow access to the theatre, including a portico.

A surprising amount of the original interior survives, despite the many refits and alterations. The sunken pit survives as stalls, the original boxes had entrances which can still be seen at the back of the horseshoe stalls. The auditorium is still semicircular rather than the elipse that was the norm at the time. Towards the end of the 18th century the gallery was added and the decorated ceiling raised to accommodate it. Pevsner describes it as “internally a delight to the eye and in addition a most valuable document of English theatrical history.”

A proper entrance to King St was not provided until the 1972 conversion by Peter Moro which involved the gutting the adjoining Coopers’ – or Hoopers’ – Hall. Which was built on King St by William Halfpenny when the previous one was demolished for the Exchange. It had a guild hall on the 1st floor ands storage on the ground and basement, but guilds were in decline, so the Hoopers’ hall was rented out for entertainments, auctions, and lectures. In November 1772 an attempt was made by a group of comedians to stage a winter season here – advertised initially as musical events, but gradually noting the inclusion of plays, much to the aggravation of existing illegal venues.

In January the vagrants and vagabonds act was invoked, and 4 of the principal performers fined a massive £50 each. The following winter they returned, but they were unable to attend their own benefits, and though promising to reopen after Christmas, they never did. The benefits did happen, and produced possibly one of the strangest performances ever, with an Eskimo chief and his wife playing the leads in Macbeth.

The Theatre Royal went into decline as wealthy patrons emigrated from the city centre, which was accellerated by the 1831 riots. The area around King Street filled with warehouses; and the Princes’ Theatre on Park Row became the popular venue. King Street was eventually closed and the coopers’ Hall used as a warehouse. The theatre was used by the Arts Council and the DSO during the war, who recognised its historic and cultural value. When they moved down the road to number 6, their architect became interested in its conservation.

The corporation, in a rare moment of enlightenment, declared King Street as a Museum Street, advertised as such on GWR posters. Soon after, a campaign was started to save the theatre, and now in 2008 after years of neglect, it is again in need of rescue.

The story of the theatre’s endlessly see –sawing fortunes, is linked with the state of the area in which it exists, but today faces more competition for entertainment money than ever with soaring maintenance costs. The cozeners and coney-catchers are nowhere to be seen, though the masterless men are still in evidence. Most of the pulpits from which condemnation once rained down on the theatre are now empty, either bombed by the Luftwaffe or struggling to survive.

But the importance of Bristol’s theatre is immense. Whilst the theatres it was based on have long since burnt down, only here can we come close to the real sense of what 18th century theatre must have been like, thankfully without the smells, noise, and smoke and fire risks. Today, the theatre architecture of Georgian London is irrecoverable except through prints and drawings. ..the enchantment of the older theatres is completely lost. And what is, perhaps, worse is that no theatre architect of the present time has given us an auditorium which rises above the meanest mediocrity [Sumerson p 242] With so much of Georgian Bristol lost, in a city known for its passion for money making and disinterest in the arts, it is more than miraculous that this most frivolous structure is the one to survive.

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