A Brief History of Theatre in London

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London’s association with the theatre stretches back centuries, and is closely linked with the history of the city itself.  Whether you’re an avid fan of all things theatrical, or simply keen to discover an essential part of London culture while you’re staying locally – in this blog, we’ll take you on a quick tour through the history of the London stage…

Elizabethan patronage and the age of Shakespeare 

Play on theatre

The Elizabethan era (1558 – 1603) was a major turning point for London’s theatrical scene, thanks largely to Queen Elizabeth I, who was a prominent patron of the arts. Without doubt the most famous recipient of her patronage was William Shakespeare, who was called upon for regular performances at the Royal court. ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ was written after being commissioned by the Queen, and many speculate that without her support, many of Shakespeare’s works would have been lost to history.

In 1576, the first permanent theatre in the city was built, marking a major turning point in British theatre history. Simple called ‘The Theatre’, the structure was located in Shoreditch, and dedicated solely to theatrical performances. The theatre sat on a site which is now part of Hackney, and was noted for its many performances of Shakespeare plays.

In 1577, The Curtain Theatre was built, only 200 yards from The Theatre. The venue was open until 122, and soon became a major venue for Shakespeare’s theatre company. The London stage was thrown into chaos between 1592 – 1594, as a result of the plague which was sweeping through Europe.

Later patronage and a puritanical approach to theatre

Theatre

Bouts of plague were a constant threat during this time period, and continued to be a major concern for Londoners until around 1666, following the Great Plague which killed an estimated 15% of London’s entire population. This made gathering spaces such as playhouses a potential threat, though it didn’t deter all fans of the stage. In 1599, The Globe was built using wood sourced from The Theatre, built in the shape of an O.

The structure of The Globe is even referenced in Henry V, one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. During the early 1600s, King James I was an avid arts supporter, and commissioned a number of private plays which never reached the general public.

In 1613, The Globe burnt down in the middle of a performance of Henry VIII, and had to be rebuilt the following year. Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans were not fans of theatre, leading to the closure of all British theatres in 1642.

This ban lasted for another 18 years, as the viewpoint of the Puritans was that the theatre attracted crime and begging. This led to the demolition of The Globe in 1644, replacing it with housing.

Restoration-era theatre

albert hall theatre

At the end of Puritan reign, Charles II returned to England and reclaimed the throne. As a fan of all things artistic, the reign of Charles II was marked by a new era of Restoration comedies, noted for their innuendo and wry sense of humour. The Theatre Royal was developed in 1660, and by 1662, for the first time in history, female characters were now allowed to be played by female actors. The Theatre Royal underwent three notable fires, and in 1672 the entire building was destroyed, before being rebuilt by Christopher Wren in 1674.

Licensing and the British Theatre

British Museum

The Licensing Act of 1737 had a devastating effect on the theatre of the era, though thankfully its legacy can’t be felt by guests staying at hotels near Paddington Station in the 21st century. This licensing act certainly impacted British drama at the time, giving the power to remove anything which was considered unfit for consumption by audiences, and threatening dramatic prosecutions for theatre owners who did not comply.

In 1791, the Theatre Royal was rebuilt, this time due to demand for more seats rather than fire damage. The new venue opened in 1794.

19th century theatre productions

theatre

While staying at the Chilworth Hotel Paddington ensures you’re within easy reach of a wide variety of different theatres, in the early 19th century, options for theatre-goers were far more limited. A patented system meant that only the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and Covent Garden were able to show plays, mostly focusing on the works of Shakespeare.

In order to get around this licensing law, theatres across the city began to place a musical segment into their productions. The early 1800s also saw the beginnings of the Adelphi Theatre, today a major destination in the West End.

In addition, during this period the Theatre Royal experienced its final fire, and had to undergo an extensive refurbishment. Towards the end of the 1800s, the Garrick Theatre opened. 1896 also marked the debut of Oscar Wilde’s famed play, The Importance of Being Earnest.

20th century theatre development

The Apollo Theatre opened in 1901, and remains one of the city’s most popular destinations for a night of theatre after enjoying afternoon tea in Paddington. 1922 saw the opening of the Fortune Theatre, which is also still going strong to this day, and the Duchess Theatre, opened in 1929, followed just a few years afterwards, as well as the Cambridge Theatre, which was opened in 1930.

The Great Depression had a dramatic effect on the creative industries, and many theatres experienced significant financial losses during this time. Later in the century, the Second World War led to theatre closures, though some remained open as an act of defiance.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the National Theatre was opened (1976), with a brutalist design which has helped it become a hugely popular destination for creatives. The Donmar Warehouse followed, and by the 1980s, world-class musicals such as Les Miserables had started to attract huge crowds. In 1996, Shakespeare’s Globe was opened following a reconstruction to restore the building to its former glory.

Developments in 21st century theatre

Modern Theatre London

The 21st century has been a positive time for the London stage. The Noel Coward Theatre opened in 2006, followed by the success of stage plays such as the long-running Wicked and a new emphasis on championing emerging playwrights across London.