Today in Theatre History: RENOVATING THE RESTORATION THEATRE; or, THE OPENING OF LINCOLN’S INN FIELDS–June 28, 1661.

William Davenant, minus part of his nose which he lost as a result of an unfortunate encounter with a lonely treponema pallidum  spirochete in an evening gown.

William Davenant, minus part of his nose which he lost as a result of an unfortunate encounter with a lonely treponema pallidum spirochete wearing a cheap evening gown and far too much make-up.

On June 28, 1661–this very day in theatre history–one of London’s greatest playhouses opened for business for the first time, the famed Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre.  And here’s how it happened:  At the end of the Puritan Interregnum–once it became evident that the monarchy would be restored–entrepreneur and theatre buff, William Davenant, began negotiations to convert Lisle’s Tennis Court, just off of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, into a home for his company of young actors called The Duke of York’s Men.  (Tennis was a very popular sport in those days with courts sprouting up like Starbucks, it seemed, on almost every corner.  But these were indoor courts where “real tennis” was played.  Fortunately for theatre types, the structures, with their built-in spectator galleries and rectangular dimensions, were ideal for converting into makeshift playhouses.)  Though Davenant signed the lease for the disused tennis court in March of 1660, it would take more than a year of renovations before he could open the facility.  In the meantime, his business rival, Thomas Killigrew, had already opened the King’s Company playhouse in November 1660 at the renovated Gibbon’s Tennis Court nearby.  Undeterred by the competition, Davenant persevered and finally opened his facility on June 28, 1661, and immediately gained the upper hand.  Unlike Killigrew’s theatre, Davenant’s playhouse offered London’s severely deprived theatre audiences something they’d never seen before on a public stage:  moveable scenery.  Yup, Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre was the first public playhouse in England to offer the latest in Italianate scenery and machinery–something reserved up to then only for the private royal playhouses of the Jacobean and Caroline era.  This was quite the treat for Restoration audiences desperate for the latest innovations.  With an advanced wing-and-groove scene changing system masked by England’s first public proscenium arch, Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre was a genuine technological marvel.  Davenant’s choice for an inaugural production was a restaging of his 1656 opera, The Siege of Rhodes, complete with a young Thomas Betterton in the lead.  The show was the smash hit of the season, running for an astounding and unprecedented 14 performances in a row.  In fact, the production was so popular the new king, Charles II, actually showed up in person–the first time an English monarch had attended a public theatre.   In doing so, Charles ushered in a new era in English theatre and the restored nobility and aristocracy flocked to the new playhouse in imitation of the king.  The Restoration theatre had now begun in earnest.

The exterior of the old Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre as it looked in 1811.  The structure stood until demolished in 1848 when the nearby Royal College of Surgeons decided they needed more space.

The exterior of the old Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre as it looked in 1811. The structure stood until demolished in 1848 when the nearby Royal College of Surgeons decided they needed more space–an early example of STEM taking precedence over the arts…

Of course Mr. Killigrew, sitting in his Gibbon’s Tennis Court a few streets over, soon found himself with a empty playhouse, unable to attract audiences to his now obsolete facility.  He began immediate plans to build himself a new and even more advanced playhouse, something to out-shine Davenant’s.  And in 1663, Killigrew opened the Theatre Royal, Bridges Street–the playhouse that would become known as The Drury Lane (a remodeled version still stands on the same site today and is still regarded as among London’s most illustrious theatrical facilities).  This competitive  “arms race” between Davenant and Killigrew would create an extraordinarily fertile period of theatrical innovation that defined the Restoration and helped relaunch London as one of the world’s leading theatre cities.

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