Play On

Blue Badge Guide Marc Zakian looks at the history of British Theatre.


Modern British theatre was born in Elizabethan London. In 1576, in a little-known parish on the edge of the City, a wooden building was nailed into place. This was England’s first playhouse, the Theatre, a new home for acting and entertainment and the forefather of every stage ever built in Britain.

Londoners loved their new playhouse. They were not short of entertainments – public hangings, taverns, bawdy houses and bear baiting – but the theatres eclipsed them all. New stages shot up around the city, packing in any punter prepared to part with a penny. By  1600, some 20,000 people a day went to see the plays, one in ten of the city’s population.


The theatres launched England’s first celebrities: tragedian Richard Burbage, comedian Will Kempe and writers Will Shakespeare and his rival Kit Marlowe – said to have been a spy who faked his death and went into hiding.


The more Londoners loved the theatre, the more the city officials hated it. They denounced playhouses as breeding grounds for ‘vagrants and whoremongers’ – not entirely without reason, Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre, also ran a  brothel – places for ‘corrupting youth and lewd and ungodly practices’.

The Puritans’ attempts to close the playhouses were thwarted by theatre loving royals, who patronised acting companies and paid them to entertain at court.

But in 1649 the king was beheaded and Protector Oliver Cromwell took charge. Actors were condemned as paid liars and ‘rogues and vagabonds’. Stages were demolished, players whipped and anybody caught witnessing a performance fined five shillings. A two-decade long interval curtain fell on the business of show.

Bankside, the Thameside setting for the Rose, Shakespeare’s Globe and Swan theatres, was home to the ‘Winchester Geese’, prostitutes who plied their trade from brothels on land owned by the Bishop of Winchester. Standing on the shoreline, they waved in potential clients, arms turning like the necks of geese.  Female roles were played by young boys in Shakespeare’s time. These lads became skilled cross-dressers and their ability to handle heavy women’s skirts on stage gave us the term ‘drag queen’.


King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. One of his first acts was to grant royal patents for the performance of plays.

Writers rushed to devise work for the newly licensed playhouses. In Shakespeare’s time theatre had played to both commoner and noble, but Restoration drama was to become the preserve of aristocrats and the wealthy.

Congreve, Dryden and their contemporaries populated plays with characters the audience would recognise, telling stories of society shenanigans, rakish behaviour and courtly cuckolds.

Women had been banned from performing in Tudor and early Stuart England, with female roles played by boy actors; this led to a series of mishaps involving boys appearing in drag. One such incident occurred when a performance Charles II was watching stopped unexpectedly. The king sent servants backstage who discovered that the actor playing the main female part was still shaving.

So, in 1662 Charles issued a royal warrant declaring that all women’s roles should only be played by females. The Merry Monarch loved the theatre, and he loved its actresses even more.

William Congreve is a much (mis)quoted Restoration writer. He has left us several well-known sayings, including: ‘Music has charms to soothe a savage breast’, ‘heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned’, and ‘o fie, miss, you must not kiss and tell’.



‘Pretty, witty Nell’, as diarist Samuel Pepys dubbed her, has been called England’s first female celebrity. Born into poverty, her mother drowned while drunk in a ditch near Westminster. Nell became a folk heroine, the Restoration rags-toriches Cinderella who began work as an ‘orange girl’ selling fruit in the King’s Playhouse. A year later she was acting at Drury Lane. She was reputed to have been illiterate, which makes the task of learning roles in some 50 plays a year extraordinary.

The love affair between Charles and the actress began in 1668 when Gwynne was watching a play. In the next box sat the king, more interested in Nell than the performance. Charles invited her to dine, along with his brother James. After supper, the royals discovered they had no money to pay and Gwynne had to foot the bill. “Od’s fish!” she exclaimed, imitating the king, “but this is the poorest company I ever was in!”

Gwynne became the king’s ‘official mistress’, soon bearing two sons by him. Legend says that one day Charles called on Nell and she summoned her eldest by yelling: “Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your  father.” When the king protested at her coarseness, she replied, “your Majesty has given me no other name by which to call him.” Charles immediately titled the little boy Earl of Burford.

Nell retired from the stage aged 21 and was gifted houses close by the royal palaces in Windsor and at Pall Mall. Charles’s deathbed wish was: “Let not poor Nelly starve”. King James II honoured his brother by paying Gwynne’s debts and awarding her a pension of £1,500 pounds a year, equivalent to £10 million in today’s money.


Behn was Britain’s first female playwright and one of the first women to earn her living by writing. Like Gwynne, she was the daughter of a poor family and rose from obscurity to attract the attention of King Charles II. Employed as a spy, under the code name Agent 160 she travelled to the Netherlands with instructions to turn an enemy agent for the Crown. The mission left her bankrupt and, after a short period in debtor’s prison, she started writing for money.

Behn wrote and staged 19 plays, as many as the most popular male writers of the time. Her most famous, The Rover, is a comedy of Englishmen adventuring in Italy, featuring nuns, courtesans and jilting wenches.

She published under several pseudonyms, including Mrs Bean and Astrea. Behn is buried in Westminster Abbey, not in Poets’ Corner, but outside in the East Cloister.


Vanbrugh was a man of extraordinarily broad talents. He was the architect of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, an MP and political activist involved in the plot to overthrow James II and playwright behind several of the Restoration’s most popular, but radical plays.

The Provoked Wife, first staged in 1697, is the story of a wife trapped in an abusive marriage who wants to leave her husband and take a lover. The play’s liberal attitude to women’s status outraged some sections of Restoration society.



Libertine theatre of the ‘Merry Monarch’s’ England gave way to censorious drama in the early 1700s. Managers avoided new plays, fearful of prosecution for stagingwork that was not ‘morally instructive’.

One show bucked this trend. The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay premiered in 1728, becoming the most popular stage production of its time. It was the first drama to mix dialogue and popular songs, creating the genre of the musical.

The opera satirised politics, poverty and corruption. One of its targets wasPrime Minister RobertWalpole. The PM was outraged and in 1737 responded by introducing The Licensing Act which authorised the Lord Chamberlain to censor or ban plays. This act remained in place until 1968.



Elizabethan playgoers were more like football hooligans: shouting, drinking, pissing and brawling their way through performances.

The Georgian audience was equally rowdy. There were only two London theatres licenced for plays and when the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane burned down in 1809, the playhouse in Covent Garden increased its ticket prices. Riots broke out during a performance and people refused to leave, so the Bow Street police were called. This simply inflamed the situation and protests continued until 2am.

Rioting continued for 64 days. At one point, a coffin was carried in bearing the message ‘here lies the body of the new price’. The theatre manager hired celebrated boxer Daniel Mendoza to calm the crowds. This tactic misfired, infuriating the mob until finally the old prices were reinstated.

Even the royal family indulged in the occasional theatrical fisticuffs. In the late 1790s King George III and his son The Prince of Wales attended the same performance. The pair hated each other and when both arrived at the same time the king, in a rage, punched his son in front of a shocked auditorium.

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane was licenced by the monarch, so to avoid further incidents the management built two royal boxes; one for the king, one for the prince, with separate entrances for the feuding Georges – features that are still in place today.

Prince George had infuriated his straight-laced father by reviving the royal tradition of having affairs with actresses. His very public mistress was Mary Robinson, a performer, dramatist, novelist and celebrity figure nicknamed ‘Perdita’   for her defining role in The Winter’s Tale.

The prince’s brother – the future King William IV – followed suit. Dorothea Jordan, the actress daughter of a stagehand was his mistress and life-long companion. During a 20 year relationship they had ten illegitimate children.



At only five feet four inches, with a muted voice and an ‘inclination to stoutness’, David Garrick was an unlikely matinée idol. Yet the late 18th century performer became one of the most important actors in British history.

As a boy he attended Samuel Johnson’s school for gentlemen near Lichfield; there were only three pupils and Garrick amused everyone with impersonations of his brilliant but chaotic headmaster. When the school closed due to lack of money, Johnson and his former pupil walked down to London to find fame and fortune.

Garrick soon tasted success. As leading man at Drury Lane Theatre he moved away from the bombastic style of his peers, developing a more natural, easy way of performing that is familiar today, but was revolutionary at the time.

He was the first actor to be buried in Westminster Abbey, in Poets’ Corner, next to the monument to William Shakespeare. An actor could now be regarded as a member of respectable society. In later years, actors including Henry Irving and Laurence Olivier were buried alongside Garrick.



As a child, Edmund Kean ran away from school to be a cabin boy. He hated life at sea so much he pretended to be lame and deaf, deceiving doctors into sending him home. Clearly, performing was in his blood.

Desperate to be a serious actor, he started touring in pantomime and circus until Drury Lane rescued him from poverty and obscurity. He triumphed as Richard III, Shylock and Hamlet – to such acclaim that one critic observed: “Seeing him act was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.”

Kean was a roustabout rogue, the prototype ‘bad boy’ actor. He would gallop his horse through London and up the theatre stairs, and even kept a tame lion in his drawing-room.

He founded the Wolves’ Club in the  basement of the Coal Hole pub on the Strand. Supposedly for oppressed husbands ‘forbidden to sing in the bath’, in reality it was an excuse for drinking and womanising. Kean’s affair with the wife of a City businessman ended in a public shaming. His Drury Lane audiences reacted by booing and pelting him with fruit.

Kean’s last appearance was in 1833, playing Othello. During the performance he broke down, crying in a faltering voice: “O God, I am dying”. The great actor was carried home, where his last words were: “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”


The 19th century saw a huge growth in demand for theatrical entertainment. At the start of the Victorian period there were still only two licensed playhouses in London. But the old duopoly was unworkable and in 1843 the Licensing Act was repealed, ushering in a boom that resulted in the building of modern London’s 40 West End theatres, numerous ‘fringe’ venues and hundreds of regional playhouses.

The two licensed London theatres went in different directions: Covent Garden became the home of highbrow musical drama (today, the Royal Opera House), and Drury Lane turned to pantomime and melodrama featuring spectacular stage effects such as working paddle steamers and charging horses.

As electric lighting and hydraulics were introduced, the scale and excitement of the on-stage pyrotechnics grew. In the 20th century these evolved seamlessly into the modern megamusical.

Playgoers developed a taste for comedy. By the 1870s, a generation of writers including Arthur Wing Pinero and Oscar Wilde were fashioning sophisticated, witty dramas for the Victorian middle classes.



The dramatist, novelist, poet, and wit Oscar Wilde rose on a tide of comic genius, then sank in one of the great personal tragedies of Victorian England.

During the 1890s, he won fame and fortune with three hugely successful society comedies, including his theatrical masterwork The Importance of Being Earnest.

Though married, Wilde was gay and fell in love with young Lord Alfred Douglas. When the details of his private life emerged Wilde was arrested, convicted on charges of sodomy and gross indecency then sentenced to two years’ hard labour.

Though he continued to write brilliantly, he was a broken man. On leaving prison Wilde exiled himself to a shabby hotel in Paris. Bankrupt and mortally ill, a month before he gave up the ghost he quipped: “I am in a duel to death with the wallpaper, one of us has to go.” In his last days, sipping champagne in the cheap hotel he muttered: “I am dying beyond my means.” When he finally succumbed, he was only 46.


Henry Irving and Helen Terry were the most celebrated actors of Victorian England.

In 1871, at Hyde Park Corner, Irving jumped out of a carriage that was carrying his pregnant wife. Her constant mocking of his theatrical ambitions had culminated in the final insult: “Are you going to make a fool of yourself like this all your life?” Irving walked off into the night, never to see her again.

Irving became the great classical player of his time; the actor-manager, who ruled London’s Lyceum Theatre for two decades. He invited Helen Terry into his company to play Ophelia to his Hamlet and Portia to his Shylock.

Live Irving, Ellen Terry left a spouse for a career on the stage. As a teenager, she married the celebrity artist George Fredrick Watts – she was 16, he was 46. Ten months later she abandoned him to return to the stage.

In 1895 Henry Irving became the first actor to be knighted and Terry later became the second actress to be made a Dame. No longer branded as thieves and professional liars, actors had reached the status of society Sirs and Ladies.

Writer Bram Stoker was also Henry Irving’s business assistant. The actor’s gaunt aspect and quirky mannerisms were the inspiration for the character of Count Dracula in Stoker’s eponymous novel.



Laurence Olivier was the most acclaimed stage actor of the 20th century. His high-velocity performances in Shakespeare brought a new energy to classical acting. A battle-ready Henry V and spidery Richard III demonstrated a physical daring that culminated in a famous headlong deathfall off a 12-foot-high platform in Coriolanus – performed when the actor was 52. These performances inspired later generations of actors from Anthony Hopkins to Kenneth Branagh.

Olivier’s personal and professional relationship with actress Vivien Leigh turned him into a celebrity. The glamorous couple were the ‘Brangelina’ or ‘Posh and Becks’ of postwar Britain. In 1970 ‘Sir Larry’ was ennobled as  Lord Olivier, the first-ever actor to be made a peer, and on his death was honoured as the last person ever to be buried in Westminster Abbey.


Sir Noël Coward was known as ‘The Master’, the genius of the theatrical and musical world famed for his legendary witticisms and cool poise. He never stopped writing, maintaining that “work is more fun than fun”. Coward took Oscar Wilde’s drawing-room comedy tradition and remodelled it for the 20th century, writing some 50 plays including Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit. These are still regularly revived today.

Toward the end of his life, Coward was asked by an interviewer: “How do you account for your success in so many fields – acting, directing, writing, painting, music?” Noël replied: “Talent”.



In 1952 a murder mystery opened in the West End. 64 years and over 26,000 performances later, The Mousetrap is the longest-running play in the world.

More than 400 actors have appeared in the Agatha Christie drama since it opened, including the late Richard Attenborough. One member from the original cast is still in the show, the late Deryck Guyler, who died in 1999, provides the pre-recorded voice of the newsreader in the first act. A prop also survives from the opening night – the clock above the fireplace in the main hall.


An adaptation of a 3,000 page French novel about political conflict in Paris is an unlikely candidate for show biz success and back in 1985, the stage version of Les Misérables (aka in theatrical circles as ‘The Glums’) was panned by critics. But the ticket-buying public saved the show from oblivion and it is now the longest-running musical in the world, with over 12,000 performances in London alone.

play-14 Les Miserables London theatre history guide

Playwright George Bernard Shaw sent Winston Churchill an invitation to Pygmalion, saying: “Here are two tickets for the opening of my new play. One for you, and bring a friend – if you have one.” Churchill returned the tickets, responding: “I’m sorry that a previous engagement precludes my attending your opening night. I shall be happy to come to the second night – if there is one.”


The theatre is the oldest continuously working theatre in London. There have been four playhouses built on this site, the first dating back to 1663. The present theatre with its lavish 2,000 seat auditorium dates from 1812. It is best known for staging big musicals and is owned by composer and producer (Lord) Andrew Lloyd Webber. It also claims to be the world’s most haunted theatre, with no less than four resident ghosts, including the ‘Man in Grey’, an 18th century nobleman with a cloak and sword whose body was discovered in a walled-up side passage. Actor Charles Macklin regularly haunts the backstage, wandering the corridor where, in 1735, he killed a fellow performer in an argument over a wig. And when an actor is nervous, the friendly apparition of pioneering early 19th century English clown Joseph Grimaldi turns up to guide them on stage.

Theatre Royal, Drury lane


opened in 1766 and is the oldest continually operating theatre building in Britain. With its horseshoeshaped auditorium and red and gold decor, the Georgian building remains one of the most beautiful theatrical spaces in the world. The theatre has launched careers of several leading contemporary stars including Jeremy Irons and Daniel Day-Lewis.


Built in 1788, this is the most complete Georgian theatre remaining in Britain. Originally known as the Courtyard Theatre, it is laid out in a horseshoe to mimic the inn-yard performance spaces used by travelling players in medieval times before the advent of permanent playhouses. The theatre seats 214, but in the 18th century they squeezed in up to 400 spectators to make as much money as possible. The galleried auditorium has three levels; at the top were the cheap seats with a kicking board balcony that Georgian patrons would stomp on disapprovingly if they didn’t like the acting. In its long history, the theatre has hosted Georgian star Edmund Kean and contemporary luminaries including Dame Judi Dench and Alan Bennett. One can only imagine what those  pioneering Elizabethan players nearly 500 years ago would make of Britain’s remarkable theatrical heritage in this second Elizabethan age.



THE VICTORIA & ALBERT MUSEUM THEATRE & PERFORMANCE COLLECTION is the most important in the UK. It includes papers, manuscripts and memorabilia of many of Britain’s great theatre luminaries. The museum’s new Curtain Up exhibition runs until 31 August 2016. It explores the theatre traditions of London’s West End and Broadway, with costume displays and set models from The Lion King, Matilda the Musical, War Horse and A Chorus Line.

THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY is home to the largest collection of actors’ portraits in the country – including many of images featured in this article.

Let us find you a bespoke theatre tour in Britain.