Theatre Royal Playbills Collection

Ref: PE18

Title: Theatre Royal Playbills Collection

A selection of printed playbills issued by the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 1789-1838

Dates: 1789-1838
Extent: 1 box (21 items)
Name of creator: Mrs Kastell

Theatre Royal Playbills Collection

Administrative / biographical history:

The collection consists of 21 playbills issued by the two Royal Patent theatres of London, the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and the Theatre Royal , Drury Lane, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Covent Garden theatre section begins in the year of the French Revolution, 1789, and announces a comic opera with a French name Fontainbleau together with a pantomime, Harlequin´s Chaplet, while in 1815, the year of Waterloo, the programme is the tragedy Grecian Daughter together with a new musical entertainment Brother and Sister; while a playbill of 1796 for the Drury Lane theatre notes promises a comedy called Man of Ten Thousand and a new pantomime Harlequin Captive.

The two Theatres Royal at Drury Lane and Covent Garden were for many years rivals, both sharing a pre-eminent role in the theatrical life of the capital. Letters Patent granted by King Charles II, in 1662 to Thomas Killigrew and in 1662/3 to Sir William Davenant, gave each of them a right to build a theatre and to manage a company of actors, and at the same time suppressed other companies in London and Westminster. The Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres thus enjoyed, until 1843 when the Theatres Act put an end to the situation, what was intended to be a monopoly in the presentation of dramatic performances in London, although the position was in fact not consistently enforced, while the history of the patents turned out to be a complex one.

Killigrew´s new theatre opened in 1663, and followed the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 (the theatres had been closed during the Commonwealth period), in Bridges Street, now Catherine Street, close by Drury Lane, later becoming known as the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The Covent Garden theatre appeared a considerable time later, followed the commissioning by John Rich in 1728 of John Gay´s Beggar´s Opera, the success of which provided Rich with the money to build a new Theatre Royal there under Davenant´s patent, and the new theatre opened in 1732 with Congreve´s The Way of the World.

Many individual playwrights, actors, actresses and managers were to be associated with the theatres over the years, sometimes, as with Sheridan, Kemble and Sarah Siddons, with both. Drury Lane is linked with such famous names as Nell Gwynne, David Garrick, Sarah Siddons, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Grimaldi, Edmund Kean, William Charles Macready, Noel Coward and Ivor Novello. At Covent Garden Sheridan´s first play, The Rivals, was performed, John Rich, as "Lun", was himself a famous Harlequin, and the theatre provided the venue for Handel´s operas and oratorios; and in a notable event in theatrical history, when John Philip Kemble and his sister Sarah Siddons raised seat prices following the expensive rebuilding which followed the 1808 fire, serious riots, known as the "Old Prices Riots", developed and they were forced to back down.

Both theatres have suffered disasters on more than one occasion – Drury Lane was burned down in 1672 and 1809, the building was condemned in 1791 and had to be rebuilt, and in 1940 it suffered bomb damage, while Covent Garden burned down in 1808 and 1856. But both have always been rebuilt to continue in business.

Originally predominantly theatres for the drama, and still today premier theatrical venues, both have substantially changed their roles with the passing of time. Drury Lane, from the mid 19th century, became increasingly known for productions of opera and pantomime, and in the 20th century for popular musical plays. Since 1892 Covent Garden has been known as the Royal Opera House, and is today the home of both the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet.

[Notes based on: Survey of London, ed. F.H.W. Sheppard, Vol. 35: The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (1970); W.J. Macqueen Pope, Theatre Royal Drury Lane (1945); Roose-Evans, J. London Theatre from the Globe to the National (1977); Web sites for both theatres]

  • Related collections: Hudson Collection of Early Sheffield Playbills
  • Source: Donated by Mrs Kastell
  • System of arrangement: Chronological
  • Subjects: Theaters—Great Britain—London; Playbills—Great Britain--Collections
  • Names: Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (London); Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (London)
  • Conditions of access: Available to all researchers, by appointment
  • Restrictions: None
  • Copyright: None
  • Finding aids: Listed