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The Collation

Theatrical disturbances and actors behaving badly: what the Drury Lane Prompter’s Journal tells us about nineteenth-century theatrical life

Poison as reason for missing rehearsal
Poison as reason for missing rehearsal

What was life like inside the nineteenth-century London theatre? How smoothly did performances run? And how professionally did actors behave? The Drury Lane Prompter’s Journal, 1812-1818, held at the Folger, provides an excellent resource for answering each of these questions. From performances being pulled last minute, to drunkenness during rehearsals, and actresses being shot at on stage, the document is full of juicy and shocking anecdotes which provide fascinating insight into the day-to-day caprices of Georgian theatrical life. Throughout this post I want to present to you just a few of the many entertaining and enlightening scenes recorded in the journal for the period 1812-1816. So, take a seat in the pit, gallery, or box, grab your rotten fruit, and prepare to boo and cheer all you like as I immerse you in the chaotic, scandalous, and dangerous world of the nineteenth-century London theatre.

Act I: 1812-1814

Disruptions to performances were a regular occurrence in the early Georgian London theatre. As the Drury Lane Prompter’s Journal reveals, chaos in the auditorium could be provoked by the most trivial and minute of actions. A comment on a performance of The Castle of Andalusia staged at Drury Lane on 30 October 1812 explains that “A riot [was] nearly raised by the obstinacy of a Lady who persisted in keeping her shawl over the front of a box in defiance of a […] boorish audience.”1 Tumult caused by the positioning of a shawl? Certainly this seems a rather frivolous act over which to start a riot!

What an anecdote like this reveals to the British theatre historian is the common disjointedness between theatrical disturbances and actions occurring on stage. In an era in which theatregoers were notoriously rowdy, it was impossible to predict which performances might result in boisterous behaviour. Disorder in the auditorium was prompted just as frequently by events occurring offstage as it was by the content of the play itself. Therefore, even the most seemingly innocuous production could not guarantee a riot-free theatre.

Disturbances to performances were not always caused by the audience. Theatrical professionals also played their part. On 7 November 1812 for instance, the actor Mr. Pemson decided “at a few hours’ notice” not to play the Baron in the farce Matrimony, as the name of a different actor had “been inserted on the Bill by mistake.”2 It’s understandable I suppose for an actor to be frustrated by this lack of exposure. But to refuse to perform because of it? And at just a few hours’ notice? The word “diva” springs to mind.

Occasionally it was not just an actor who failed to appear on stage, but an entire scheduled performance. The figure who held the greatest authority over theatrical entertainments during the early Georgian period was John Larpent, the Chief Examiner of Plays in the Lord Chamberlain’s office. Anything performed at London’s patent theatres had first to be approved by Larpent, who would check that the material was fit and safe for the stage. On 8 December 1813, under Larpent’s instruction, a new farce was pulled from Drury Lane’s line up at the very last minute. The journal records that “Orange Boven was advertised, but at half past 1 o’ clock a prohibition was brought by Mr. Larpent the licensing clerk, on account of his having had only 5 days to read One Act.”3 There was clearly anger over this decision, the underlining of “One Act” strongly implying the prompter’s opinion that Larpent had in fact had plenty of time to peruse the script ahead of the intended performance. Larpent evidently pulled his socks up and quickly got round to reading the play after this, as Orange Boven was given the go-ahead for performance at Drury Lane just two nights later. 

As well as providing commentaries on evening productions, the prompter’s journal also records significant moments affecting rehearsals. Notably it documents actors’ absences and the justifications given. Many absences recorded for the years 1812-1814 relate to serious family illnesses or deaths: the actress Julia Glover for instance missed rehearsal on 16 January 1813 due to the death of her son, and Mrs. Edwin could not attend rehearsal on 6 May 1813 as “her father was very ill.”4

On other occasions it is the performers themselves who are ailing: on 8 April 1813 Mr. Bellamy missed rehearsal due to “a pain in the bowels” (possibly too much information); on 8 February 1814 Mr. Phillips was absent as he suffered from “a blasted hoarseness”; and, rather peculiarly, on 11 April 1814 Mr. Oxberry could not attend rehearsal as he “believe[d] he ha[d] taken poison (by mistake)”!5

Poison as reason for missing rehearsal

Mr. Oxberry absent from rehearsal due to poison

Alongside these presumably genuine medical complaints, a number of more suspicious absences are documented. On 4 December 1812 it is recorded that the actress Miss Bow missed a rehearsal scheduled for 1pm as she claimed to be “indisposed.” However, the prompter notes that she was “quite well at 10 o’ clock (a letter from Mr. Johnson warranting the same).”6 Equally curious, on 2 March 1813 Mrs. Dickens delivered a note justifying her absence from rehearsal on the premise that she was “very ill.” Yet, the servant who delivered the note let it slip that in fact “Mrs. D. was out of town.”7

Miss Bow "indisposed"

Miss Bow “indisposed”

Can we assume that these actresses were skiving? And if so, does this imply a lack of professionalism on their parts? Or might it indicate the pressures under which performers at Drury Lane were placed, the exhaustiveness of their busy schedules, and their urgent need, now and then, to gain a bit of respite? 

Act II: 1815-1816

For the period 1815 to 1816 the prompter’s journal is filled with accounts of theatrical disasters. On evenings in October and November 1815, these were blamed on the theatre’s stage managers and technicians. A rather farcical description of the night’s entertainment for 28 October reads:

This evening two of the Green Coat men […] came on the stage during the first act of The Beggar’s Opera to take off the table and chairs before the scene was finished — and […] another of the Green Coat men drew off the OP flat in the middle of the scene, no signal being given.8

It this wasn’t embarrassing enough, the following month the lighting technician Mr. Glossop managed to ruin performances of Othello and My Spouse and I staged on 11 November. The prompter complains that there was “Great neglect and inattention on the part of Mr. Glossop […] relative to lighting the theatre,” and that there was “no light in either of the box entrances.”9 These complaints draw attention to the collaborative nature of stage production. An excellent script and a competent cast do not guarantee a successful exhibition: the backstage crew play just as integral a role in making or breaking a performance—in these cases, unfortunately, achieving the latter.

Account of poor lighting

An account of Mr. Glossop’s neglect of proper lighting

If the stage management team held a lot to be desired during this period, so too did Drury Lane’s performers. The journal explains that when Honey Moon was represented on 15 December 1815, a number of the chorus failed to appear on stage in the final scene, “they being all in their dressing rooms at the time, not expecting the farce to be so near over.”10 Subsequently, on 29 December 1815, two blunders were made during a performance of Romeo and Juliet, when the actress Miss Scott appeared “in the funeral procession with her veil down altho’ she saw every other lady with their veils up,” and the musician Mrs. St. John went on stage “without having any musick in her hand.”11 Can we assume these errors to result from the performances being under-rehearsed? Or do they point towards inattention during the rehearsal process?

Performers' blunders

Performers’ blunders in Romeo and Juliet

Certainly there is evidence to suggest that actors were not always entirely focused on the job-in-hand when rehearsing the night’s entertainment. On 23 October 1815, the actor Mr. Appleby is recorded as being “absent two scenes” of rehearsals for The Haunted Tower, and when “he did attend,” he was “in a state of intoxication.”12 Drunkenness during rehearsals?!? That could certainly account for shoddiness during performance.

Actor drunk at rehearsal

Mr. Appleby attending rehearsal “in a state of intoxication.”

Alongside actors behaving inadequately, in this period we see a number of performers placed in real physical danger while appearing on stage. The year 1816 gets off to an unfortunate start, when on 5 January, during a performance of Othello, “Mr. Penley received a wound in his thigh (thro’ accident by Mr. Holland while playing the part of Rodrigo).” This injury left Mr. Penley unable to perform as scheduled the following night, therefore disrupting two consecutive evenings of entertainment.13 Just ten days later, when New Way to Pay Old Debts and Harlequin’s Fancy were being performed at the theatre, the dancer Mrs. Barnett “met with an accident by one of the braces falling on her head.”14

An account of Mr. Penley's thigh wound.

An account of Mr. Penley’s thigh wound.

Dramatic as these incidents might sound, neither compares to the extreme threat of physical danger posed to the esteemed actress Fanny Kelly while performing in Modern Antiques, or the Merry Mourners on 17 February 1816. The night witnessed a shockingly violent event at the Drury Lane theatre, recorded in the journal as follows:

This evening the whole theatre was thrown into an extreme state of alarm and agitation from a man in the pit of the name of George Barnett firing a pistol loaded with shot at Miss Kelly — […] several people quitted the theatre in consequence but the man being secured […] tranquillity was restored and the farce proceeded without further interruption — Miss Kelly appeared much agitated during the remainder of the performance.15

Shooting incident during a performance

An account of George Barnett shooting Fanny Kelly

George Barnett, the man responsible for this crime, had been stalking Kelly for some time, and, in a letter addressed to her three days previously, had expressed his outrage at her for appearing on stage in “male dress,” and thereby abusing her “sex’s softness.”16 His attack reveals firstly the extent to which actions presented on stage could aggrieve and provoke the general public. It indicates also the lack of security within the London theatre, and consequent lack of protection received by nineteenth-century performers. Finally, and on a positive note, it exemplifies the commendable commitment of a nineteenth-century actress to her theatrical career. For all the mistakes shown to have been made by performers throughout this period, Kelly’s incredible ability to continue acting in the farce, despite being “much agitated” by what had just occurred, attests to her utter professionalism and diligence as an actress. Not even a near death experience could stop this lady from completing her evening’s work.

Act III: Conclusion

What then does the Drury Lane Prompter’s Journal tell us about nineteenth-century theatrical life? Perhaps the overriding message is that the London theatre was a site of great unpredictability. It was impossible to know what to expect when entering the Drury Lane theatre in the early nineteenth century: theatrical experiences were governed by erratic and unforeseeable events, roused varyingly by performers, licensers, stage managers and spectators. No two nights at the Drury Lane theatre were ever the same, making the theatre’s performance history an exhilarating topic of study.

  1. Journal of Prompter, 1812-1818, in “Records of Drury Lane Theatre, 1714-1880,” Folger MS W.b.381, 8.
  2. Journal of Prompter, 11.
  3. Ibid., 63.
  4. Ibid., 25; 38.
  5. Ibid., 35; 72; 80.
  6. Ibid., 18.
  7. Ibid., 31.
  8. Ibid., 148.
  9. Ibid., 151.
  10. Ibid., 155.
  11. Ibid., 157.
  12. Ibid., 147.
  13. Ibid., 160.
  14. Ibid., 160.
  15. Ibid., 163. This incident is often wrongly cited as having occurred at Covent Garden.
  16. See L.E. Holman, Lamb’s Barbara S — (London: Methuen & co. Ltd., 1935), 38.


This is great! The more things change…

Rebecca Maxfield — October 16, 2018


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