The Theatres Trust

Eighteenth-century theatre

The Licensing Act of 1737 tightened censorship of drama, placing it under the control of the Lord Chamberlain. Only patent theatres were able to perform drama – known as legitimate theatre. Non-patent theatres performed melodrama, pantomime, ballet, opera and music hall (burlesque). As these involved music or musical interludes they could not be classed as plays and were regarded as illegitimate theatre and were not subject to the Licensing Act.

Later, a series of royal patents were granted to cities outside London. These became known as “Theatres Royal”. Many still operate and were built in a restrained neo-classical style.

Façade of the Georgian theatre in Truro Also in the eighteenth century, companies of players began to travel on regular circuits between market towns. They set up their own theatres, called playhouses, which were similar in shape and size. This enabled stock scenery to be easily erected and reused, which made touring easier. Hundreds were built, of modest size and exterior. Their interiors were simple, consisting of a rectangular flat-floored room with a stage that projected into the audience. People sat on benched seating on the floor in front of the stage, or on balconies against the three remaining walls supported by columns or wooden posts. Any scenery was placed at the rear of the stage. The rich could pay a little more in order to sit on the stage, not just for better viewing, but also to be seen by the rest of the audience and the cast. These theatres were open for limited periods, and when not needed for performances could be used for other functions such as assembly rooms or ballrooms.

Theatres had mainly wooden interiors which were always at risk of fire. In 1794 the Drury Lane Theatre, London introduced the first iron safety curtain, which would eventually become a statutory requirement in all large theatres. It also had a large water tank on its roof – a feature that was adopted by other theatres – to extinguish fire in the stage area. The theatre also began to make its scenery more fire-resistant.

By the end of the century the façades of many city theatres were built in the more imposing classical style. Some even had porticoes, similar to those seen on the front of large city homes or country seats. They were added mainly for show, but a few enabled the rich to descend from their carriages and enter the theatre without being exposed to any inclement weather.


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