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The Audience and the Stage




Pastorini. Interior view of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Engraving, 1776.

This engraving shows the interior of Drury Lane being admired after the 1775 renovations, with the different seating areas clearly visible. The most expensive seats, the Boxes, form the bottom tier and sides. In front of them, starting below stage level, is the slightly less expensive Pit. Next in price comes the First Gallery, or middle balcony, and cheapest of all is the Upper Gallery, at the very top. On benefit nights, Garrick sometimes still permitted audience members who paid a premium to sit onstage. He had put an end to regular seating on the stage as soon as he became manager, at which time he also banned all audience members from being “admitted behind the Scenes.”

Action still usually took place at the front of the stage, with entrances and exits from large proscenium doors like the one on the right of the print, though characters were also revealed further back stage by painted wings, drops and flats being pulled apart.

Audience members brought certain expectations to the theater, and did not hesitate to express themselves when expectations went unmet. Sometimes this disapproval took the form of hissing and booing. Occasionally, things became violent. Garrick encountered public wrath most famously in 1755, when he hired Jean-Georges Noverre (1727–1810) and his French dancers to perform a grand afterpiece, The Chinese Festival. On the eve of the Seven Years’ War, anti-French sentiment ran high, and performances led to riots at Drury Lane. In 1763, riots were threatened at both theaters because half-price admittance after the third act of the mainpiece was no longer allowed. The half-price riot shown here happened at Covent Garden. Garrick and the other managers did not want to back down, maintaining that audiences’ increased expectations for quality costumes, scenery and showmanship could not be met without the extra income from full-price admission. But in the end they capitulated. Both houses returned to a half-price policy, and charges were dropped against the Covent Garden rioters (where the damage had been most severe).


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Half-price riot at Covent Garden. Engraving, 1763.



Additional Information

Benefit nights: on a person’s benefit night, he or she paid the costs of the production, but kept all remaining profits from ticket sales. Authors of new plays generally had a benefit every fifth night of production; actors and other entitled employees had their benefits at the end of the season, and relied on them for the lion’s share of their income.

 

Wings, drops and flats:  two-dimensional illusionistically-painted scenery designed to fit in and above a series of grooves on the stage.

 

Half-price riots: Thaddeus Fitzpatrick, a drama critic who had once been on the Drury Lane "free admittance" list, organized and acted as spokesperson for a public enraged by this break with precedence. Fitzpatrick had been parodied years before by Garrick as the character Fribble in the farce, Miss in Her Teens. Jump directly to Grand Tourist in the online exhibition for more on Fitzpatrick as Garrick's "foe."





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