In one of the more unusual events in 19th century theatre history, patrons of the newly rebuilt Covent Garden Theatre in London went on an extended riot beginning on this day–September 18–in 1809. The trouble began the year before when the old Covent Garden burned down and the theatre’s manager (the famed actor, John Philip Kemble) redesigned a new facility with more private boxes and larger capacity to accommodate the demand for spectacular performances that were becoming increasingly popular. Though much of the cost of rebuilding was borne by public subscriptions, there remained a deficit that Kemble decided could be covered by raising ticket prices. By today’s standards the increases seemed modest (from six to seven shillings for boxes and from three shillings sixpense to four shillings for a place in the pit). But the costs were too much for weary Londoners who were beginning to feel the pinch of an economic decline.
On the remodeled theatre’s opening night (September 18), during a performance of Macbeth, the audience booed, hissed, sang songs, stomped their feet, and generally did their best to drown out the performance. The tumult was so great, the shouting actors could not be heard beyond the footlights. After the show, the incensed audience refused to leave and Kemble was forced to call in the Bow Street Runners (a private police force) to quell the growing riot. Things only got worse and the unruly patrons stayed until the early hours before dispersing for the time being. But this was only the start. The discontented customers returned the next day and continued their protests, night after night, rioting throughout each and every performance, for three full months. In the end, Kemble was forced to apologize and restore ticket prices to their previous levels.
While many argue that nationalism, class and even xenophobia (Kemble had hired an Italian opera singer to help reopen the theatre) were to blame, there may have been another, more subtle, influence that contributed as well. By 1809, Britain was deeply involved in the Napoleonic Wars–specifically the Peninsular War. One of the casualties of this campaign was the British economy. With a faltering pound and inflated costs, the average Londoner was feeling the financial stress. Any price increase in such non-essentials like theatre was ripe for protest and riot (and being a non-essential, the authorities were not terribly inclined to interfere). Fortunately, the rioters efforts paid off and English theatre recovered briefly until the currency crisis that followed at the end of War of 1812. Nonetheless, it was now clear that English theatre had changed. The “OP Riots,” as they were known (for “Old Price”), marked a shift in the way business would be conducted in the great London playhouses. The growing numbers of middle class patrons had changed the composition and tastes of the English stage and they were now demonstrating their economic power as well. The OP Riots reverberated for decades in London and abroad. While there were other, deadlier riots for disparate reasons during the 19th century, the OP Riots became a hallmark of a new, more egalitarian theatre, and an indication that theatre had become more than idle amusement for the upper crust.