13 November 2012

The Battle of the Theatres

The Theatre on New Street on fire in 1792, produced by W. Pursall of
Dale End.

I haven't explored the Theatre much on this blog yet, one of the most prominent and admired buildings in the town, so thought that I might introduce it now: ablaze. After several unsuccessful attempts to set the Theatre alight, 'the inhabitants of Birmingham were alarmed by the cry of Fire!'* in the early hours of the morning of 17 August 1792. Within a short time of discovery, the whole building was engulfed and completely destroyed by the fire, all apart from the elegant stone facade which remained for another 100 years.

There were two theatres in Birmingham from the mid 1770s, the King Street Theatre, opened in 1752, and the New Street interloper, opened by the old manager of King Street, actor Richard Yates. Both venues battled with the other for primacy and to become 'the Theatre'. In 1774 when the New Street Theatre opened, the one on King Street was enlarged and 'beautified', but beautifying was not the only tool in the battle of the theatres, there was much criticism of the kind of performances put on to attract poorer spectators at reduced rates and paying workers in theatre tickets to keep down expenses.* Neither theatre had the royal license required for holding plays, but found ways around that barrier, usually by surreptitiously inserting plays as 'interludes' between musical concerts. Attempts to obtain licenses were blocked by some, such as many in the Society of Friends, and the Evangelical minister Rev. John Parsons who believed the theatre 'productive of idleness and dissipation'. Much criticism seemed to surround the idea that the industrious workers would neglect their duties to go to the theatre instead.

The New Street Theatre attempted to get a license in 1777,** promising critics that 'rope dancing, tumbling [and] puppet shows' would cease (the root of all evil, as we all know) and that the season would be limited to within June and September only, the London off-season. This bid was backed by Matthew Boulton who felt that theatrical performances produced by a single licensed theatre-house would improve the manners of the working people of the town and:
'prevent them from relapsing into the barbarous amusements which prevailed in this neighbourhood in the last century [...] Their diversions were bull baiting, cock fightings, boxing matches and abominable drunkenness [...] But now the scene has changed. The people are more refined and civilized, and the taste of their manufactures much improved.'
If Birmingham could be seen as a more 'refined and civilized' place, this of course meant that merchants like Boulton could promote their high quality goods more easily to widening middle class markets, and it would also attract more tourism to the town, and to manufactories like Boulton's at Soho. The entreaty fell flat though, and in the June of 1777 continuing rivalry meant that both theatres were closed by the magistrates until the summer of 1779. Those that wished for the return of plays met at the Old Cross in January 1778 and decided that one licensed theatre was preferable to two unlicensed ones, the New Street playhouse being preferred. In 1780 the New Street Theatre finally built the new facade designed by Samuel Wyatt that had been discussed since before the theatres were closed as well as adding a 'publick Coffee Room', which by the year of the fire had become the Shakespeare Tavern and a number of houses on the land of the theatre for added revenue.* The theatre, with its new facade, was described as 'the most elegant and certainly the best theatre for summer performances of any in this kingdom'.* It seems to be an attempt to win critics over with architecture; classical styling promoted theatre as an intellectual and civilised pursuit. The New Street Theatre tried to promote this idea by accommodating travelling lectures on science, fundraising for the Sunday Schools and putting on patriotic plays during the American War of Independence.

The end of the rivalry came in 1786 when the King Street Theatre finally closed; the town could not support two theatres, and New Street had won the battle for survival, simply becoming the 'Theatre'; though it did not obtain its license till 1807, thus becoming the Theatre Royal. So, it was not the rivalry that caused the fire in 1792, but, theatre as a leisure pursuit was still frowned upon by many and it was generally thought that the fire was a radical attempt to erase the playhouse and all its supposed negative influence from the streets of Birmingham once and for all. The plan failed, and by popular demand and with the help of the theatre-going public the Theatre reopened in June 1795. It had been  rebuilt by George Saunders of London and Charles Norton of the Cresent in Birmingham, though retaining Samuel Wyatt's 1780 facade; and I will be taking you inside this theatre in a forthcoming post.

Focus on the Illustration

Next door to the Theatre was Portugal House, above, Joseph Green's splendid home. Here you can see his furniture piled outside the front, presumably with Mr. Green himself, the renowned dandy, standing in the doorway. His house did not catch fire. ~
The following sections depict: 1) a man holding a hose directing water at the theatre, 2) armed guards patrolling outside Mr. Green's house (perhaps his servants), 3) an unknown 'event'; perhaps those who consumed this image after its production were aware of what this section was depicting, but the meaning seems now lost, and 4) part of the crowd of spectators.


External Links: eighteenth century theatre
* References on request
** King Street also, unsuccessfully, applied for a license in 1778

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