On this day–September 2–in 1666 a London baker named Thomas Farriner changed English theatre forever. And he did so in a most unlikely way–by being the source of the Great London Fire of 1666. Today, poor ol’ Mr. Farriner gets the blame for the fire that wiped out most of the old medieval city between September 2 and September 5. It started in his shop on Pudding Lane and grew quickly in a wind-whipped frenzy ultimately destroying almost 90% of the homes in the city, displacing some 70,000 people.
Mr. Farriner, who probably never even saw a play in his life, changed England’s commercial theatre in a number of important ways. First, his fire wiped out the plague that began the year before (1665), and that led to the closing of all theatres as a health precaution. With the plague now over, the theatres could reopen–once they were rebuilt, that is. (Of course, conservative preachers immediately declared both the plague and fire God’s vengeance on London’s licentiousness and irreligiosity led by the sinful theatres.) Second, with all of London’s playhouses in ashes, plans for new and even grander theatres sprang up and within a few years–thanks largely to the designs of Christopher Wren–London had the world’s most advanced theatrical facilities. Third, with no playhouses left standing, much of London’s theatrical activity moved to the semi-annual commodity fairs where the focus of English theatre would remain for nearly fifty years. And finally the old, tired, and at times crude, dramatic works that had dominated the stage since the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 were largely dropped and a reinvigorated drama emerged, led by John Dryden and Aphra Behn. And does Mr. Farriner get any credit? Of course not. Not one bit. Fortunately for Mr. Farriner, he managed to escape any blame during his lifetime for the fire that started in his ovens, since the prevailing theory being propagated at the time was that traitorous Catholics were the real cause–Catholics bent on disrupting England’s Protestant rule. Mr. Farriner died in 1670 never knowing the enormously positive effect his carelessness had on English theatre. So here’s to Mr. Thomas Farriner, fire-prone baker and accidental London theatre innovator.