Today in Theatre History: THE ENGLISH PLAYHOUSE RESTORED; OR, “TENNIS ANYONE?”–November 8, 1660

Killigrew imagining how easy it would be to convert a tennis court into a playhouse.

Killigrew imagining how easy it would be to convert a tennis court into a playhouse–with man’s best friend by his side–Charles II.

It was on this day in theatre history–November 8, 1660–that the first major professional playhouse in London opened after the restoration of Charles II as King of England.  During the Puritan Interregnum, of course, commercial theatre was banned.  But in the spring of 1660, the Puritans gave up running the country, Charles II returned to England to continue the monarchy, and theatre was restored.  Given that most of the old playhouses from the early 1600s had been destroyed or ruined under Puritan rule, theatrical entrepreneur and courtier, Thomas Killigrew, decided to use an existing structure to house his King’s Company.  Like so many European cities at that time, London was fat with private indoor tennis courts.

Multiple French persons playing tennis in a potential playhouse.

A perfectly viable playhouse being used by multiple French persons for the playing of sport.

That’s how the game was played back then–indoors, like a double-sided version of racquetball, bouncing off the walls and over a slack net in the middle.  The game’s conventions dictated that courts be long and narrow, with high ceilings and built-in galleries along at least one wall and at the back, making a playhouse conversion that much easier.   Simply construct a raised stage at one end, take down the net, and VOILA!–you’ve got yourself an instant theatre, complete with box seating.  In fact, the term for such auditoria was known as “pit, box, and gallery,” reflecting the penchant of many 17th century theatre managers for adapting tennis courts for use as temporary playhouses–a lesson Killigrew undoubtedly picked up in France where the practice was quite common.  Killigrew’s Kings Company dominated the London theatre scene for almost three years.  But soon they began losing audiences to William D’Avenant’s new playhouse–another converted tennis court just around the corner in Lincoln’s Inn Fields called Lisle’s Tennis Court, housing the Duke’s Company.  Moreover, D’Avenant’s theatre had “moveable scenery” with a state-of-the-art wing and groove system.  Technology, it seems, wowed ’em back then too.  So in 1663, Killigrew built a new playhouse–from scratch–on Bridges Street (what would become known as the Drury Lane Theatre) with all the latest scenic technology.  It didn’t last long, of course,  the Great Fire of 1666 burned everything down, including both theatres.  But by then, the age of the indoor playhouse, complete with the latest Italianate scenery, had been firmly establish in London.  And English theatre was now on the fast-track to utter ruin.  But that’s a story for another day…

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