13 November 2012

A New Theatre on New Street

Inside the Swan Inn on High Street on 10 August 1773 a group of enthusiastic manufacturers and tradesmen met with the intention of opening a new playhouse, each subscribing a certain amount of money for the venture. The group elected the celebrated actor Richard Yates to manage the establishment, a friend of David Garrick, the well know actor who managed London's Drury Lane Theatre Royal making it one of Europe's leading theatres. Yates himself had been managing what would become the new theatre's Birmingham rival, the King Street Theatre. Land near New Street was chosen, the site of a Mr. Greenwood's orchard. Joseph Green, one of the subscribers to the theatre who owned one share, took land adjoining to build his new grand house (visit here), and at least one meeting of the subscribers, in 1776, was held at Mr. Green's house.* Green and the New Street Theatre had a number of disputes over land boundaries though, but the proximity of Green's house to the theatre was probably most keenly felt when the latter was set on fire in 1792.

The New Street Theatre was built by Thomas Saul, a Birmingham builder and surveyor, and opened on 20 June 1774; the first performance was recorded in the local paper:
'On Monday last the new Theatre in this Town wes opened with the Comedy of 'As you like it' and the Entertainment of 'Miss in her Teens; a Prologue (said to be written by Mr Foote) was spoke by Mr Yates, which was suitable to the Occasion, and very well received by the Audience. The drawing up of the Curtain about the Middle of the Prologue, discovering a most magnificent Scene of a Palace, had a very fine Effect, and was received with a prodigious Burst of Applause. The different Parts of the plays performed this week have been well-filled, and the Performers on general met with universal Approbation. Particular Encomiums are due to Mr Columba, from the King's Theatre, who painted the Scenes,** which are allowed to be as well executed as any in London. The Audience each Night has been brilliant and numerous, [...] -One Circumstance we are sorry to remark - that several of the Gentlemen that appeared in the Boxes were dressed in a very improper Manner for so conspicuous a Place, and it is recommended to them in future to pay more Respect to the Ladies, by dressing themselves in a Manner suitable to the Company, and as Gentlemen should, who appear in the Boxes.'*

The Gentlemen, improperly dressed in the boxes, were given a bit of a telling off; theatre going could not be seen as refined and respectible (as it needed to be to defend against attacks from many critics) if theatre-goers did not arrive in the proper mode of dress. This kind of behaviour also distinguished provincial theatres from the London ones, and it was these differences that many wished to be lessened.

The coin, above, is a very rare token owned by Birmingham Museum, produced for the New Street Theatre to allow free entry for the bearer.* Shakespeare is depicted on one side with the words 'WE SHALL NOT LOOK UPON HIS LIKE AGAIN', and on the reverse 'FREE TICKET FOR BIRMINGHAM THEATRE 1774' with a space above; the space filled with the engraved name of Mr. Faulcanbridge. Thomas Faulconbridge, like Joseph Green, was a subscriber to the theatre, he was actively involved in the venture till his death, and chaired a number of the meetings. There is another of these coins in the posession of Birmingham Museum, in silver, and with the name 'Jos.h Green's' engraved into the space. Historian David Symons suggests that the silver coins belonged to the subscribers, allowing them free entry to the theatre, whilst the copper coins were given to others by those named. I suggest in turn that both the coins allowed only the named persons, the paying subscribers, in for free; it does not seem good business sense to be allowing friends of subscribers free entrance, but Joseph Green was well known as a dandy; he was often called 'Beau Green', and with the need for flamboyant 'bling' that any self respecting dandy would need, Joseph may have had his token struck in silver as a status symbol. Only the discovery of more of these tokens though, would shine light on either of these proposals.

* References on request
** The older King Street Theatre had an ongoing rivalry with the New Street establishment after its opening, but it is unsurprising after it stole its successful manager, Richard Yates, and then pilfered the talents of the scene painter as well.

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