It’s spring! Not to crow overmuch, but it reached over seventy degrees here this week. (Marissa will now commence throwing snowballs at me—guess what it did this week in her neck of the woods.) Some years, Easter would be right around the corner. In 1811, for example, Easter fell on April 14. It is, of course, much later this year.
And just after Easter, the London theatre season blossomed in nineteenth century England. The Monday after Easter, Sadler’s Wells, Astley’s Amphitheatre for the Arts, and the Royal Circus all opened. Each of these tended more toward pageants and melodrama. Other houses such as Covent Garden and Drury Lane, both Theatres Royal, brought out ballet and opera as well as dramas from Shakespeare and the playwrights of the times.
If you were a young lady of means and you were out in Society, you might accompany your family to the theatre. Seats were arranged in arcs around the center. In many theatres, the lower arcs housed the general (read well to do) public, and the upper arcs were reserved for season ticket holders (the elite). The center section held around twenty rows of seats, although not everyone actually sat, for the cheapest prices and was called the pit for good reason. One never knew who one might meet in the pit, or how the crowd would behave.
For many however, attending the theatre was as much watching what happened onstage as it was about watching what happened off. Stories abound of fisticuffs and mayhem in the pit. But perhaps one of the most dramatic offstage events happened on May 15, 1800. King George and his family had just entered the royal box at Drury Lane and been greeted to the tune of “God Save the King” from the orchestra when a shot rang out. The mentally ill James Hadfield, standing on a bench next to the orchestra, had attempted to assassinate the monarch.
The audience erupted. The musicians surged out of their seats, grabbed Hadfield, and dragged him back under the stage to the music room, where he could be held for questioning. In the midst of all this, King George refused to be cowed. He strode to the very front of the box, raised his opera glass, and gazed about the house as if daring someone to shoot again. Though his chamberlain and his queen and daughters begged him to retire into the safety of the antechamber, he replied, “I shall not stir one step.”
Officials called for calm, but the audience insisted on another round of “God Save the King,” which was greeted with shouts and applause. The play finally commenced, with much confusion on the part of the players, and the queen and princesses were said to weep through the entire play. I’m fairly sure no one was watching the stage. So much for theatrics.