Musings on Lost Theatres
In his book, 'London's Lost Theatres of the 19th Century,' Erroll Sherson begins by writing a chapter on, not only the tragic 'Theatre losses,' but the state of the acting profession and the artistes of the time. I have included the chapter here because the parallels with the present time are obvious to the modern reader. Sherson laments the 'Lost Theatres' of the 19th Century just as we lament the losses of the 20th. His comments on the profession are still valid today, and his bleak outlook for the future has been echoed time and again. Truth is, he is right, and he is wrong, for there are fine Theatres still, and fine performers too, and although the present is easily criticized, the past is all too easily glamorized. Read the chapter and you could be forgiven for thinking that Theatre, and the buildings which are its home, are all but a distant memory. It's true to say that many fine Theatres are sadly gone, you can find many of them within the pages of this Website, but Theatre is, after all, not just an art, but a business too, and many of the losses are down to simple business sense. Of course now, just as in Sherson's time, we say that it's a tragedy that so many magnificent buildings were lost. But in the 1800s Theatres were constantly burning down, and being rebuilt, pulled down and rebuilt, or drastically altered, with an enthusiasm that would shock us today. Just as in Sherson's time, and ours, and the 1800s, Theatre was a business, and what's more, a living business. At the risk of sounding preachy, Theatre was living then, and it's living now. Recently in London there have been some notable rescues instead of losses in Theatre, and we can be proud of that, but it worries me that our reverence for all things theatrically old can sometimes stop progress too. There are Theatres still standing in London which have, in the past, been radically altered for the 'whim or fashion of the day' or more importantly, for more 'bums on seats.' But we wouldn't dream of altering these same buildings today. Take the vast and imposing Theatre Royal Drury Lane. This Theater's old auditorium was completely rebuilt in 1922, removing the top side Galleries, adding boxes, Royal and otherwise, changing the old Horse Shoe shape, and adding all new plasterwork and decoration. Nowadays, no one in their right mind books a box at 'The Lane,' or any other Theatre for that matter, because, instead of seeing the performance, they can only hope to see what's going on in the wings. Boxes are no longer fashionable, profitable, or useful, other than for placing speakers and lights, yet we wouldn't dream of altering an auditorium of such beauty today. In the 1800s they would have been gone as soon as they stopped making money. Of course nowadays we are hard pushed, both financially and creatively, to replace an auditorium or Theatre with something of the same value. The New London comes to mind when thinking of how not to replace a Theatre, but don't forget that it's only a short few years ago that the Savoy Theatre, having been completely gutted by fire, was rebuilt magnificently, and to a former design too. And the Lyceum - which in the 80's looked set to become a serious and tragic loss on the scale of the 50's 'Theatre destruction extravaganza' - is now completely restored and sold out every night of the week, just as it was over a hundred years ago. We do still have the skills to build and restore, and, dare I say it, alter Theatres. It's my opinion that if it's to stay 'alive,' Theatre, and by that I mean the buildings, not just the art, should be allowed to 'breath.'
Having said all this, I am still fascinated and haunted by the Lost Theatres of London, and the rest of the country, and indeed, the world. I mourn the passing of those grand buildings with their vast and elaborate auditoriums and foyers, and the music halls with their enormous energy and bustle, (now long gone with the theatrical 'reverence' of today.) But if they were all still standing, most of them would be nothing more than empty museums, we could not hope to fill the hundreds of past Theatres today, when a thousand and one other entertainments compete for our attention. It's true that many losses were, in retrospect, a disaster, when you consider that these Theatres were demolished to make way for a car park, a road widening scheme, or an ugly office building. But some had simply outlived their useful existence, and, without impossible amounts of money being spent on them for the rest of their lives, could never hope to survive today.
Theatres are like no other building, even an empty Theatre is a sad and expectant place. A derelict Theatre is as fascinating to us as a road accident is to a motorist, and a lost Theatre is as lost to us as an ancestor; there may be pictures, there may be fascinating descriptions, there may be anecdotes a plenty, but if you want to know what they were really like you'd have to travel back in time... Theatres are like people, they're only alive when they're living. (M.L) 2002.
Errol Shearson's book, part of which can be read below, was written in 1925.
London's Lost Theatres by Erroll Sherson
"Difficilis, querulus, laudator temporis acti Se puero."
THE Lost Theatres of London! How many delightful evenings in the past do these words recall to the old playgoer ! Where are they all, and when and why were they lost ? Some were swept away by the besom of modern improvement ; some sacrificed to the demand for Cinemas, a cheaper and much less intelligent form of entertainment ; some were burned down and not rebuilt ; some fell before the greed of profiteers. Few old theatres remain which can afford stories of great actors and great plays, and the green-rooms and wings of such as survive must be haunted by many a sad shade.
There are, perhaps, half a dozen left which have a history - Covent Garden, Drury Lane, Haymarket, Adelphi, Lyceum, and St. James's, to which may be added the Surrey and the Old Vic, and not one of these but has been reconstructed at least once.
So when I set out to put down some stories of the lost London theatres and some of the players who trod their boards, I had to make up my mind which were really lost. Not, perhaps, those that are only turned into Cinemas - they may possibly be resuscitated in the days to come. Therefore, Sadler's Wells and Marylebone are not yet lost. This might clear the way for me and make my work the lighter, but my conscience was not easy and told me that I was shirking what I ought to do. For those two old homes of the Drama were among the most famous of the day, keeping the flag of "The Legitimate " flying when other places were given over to burlesque and weak adaptations from the French and even, to their shame, to men-flies and performing dogs as once were Drury Lane and Covent Garden.
So, although the Marylebone might conceivably be one day among the living theatres, I have included it in the list of the lost. But Sadler's Wells, though it has not been used as a regular theatre for a considerable time will not, I hope, be numbered with the " lost for years " yet and will assume the position in the North of London that the Old Vic has attained to in the South. *
But there is still another house with a great past which, though, I believe, still standing, is probably one of the lost. This is the Princess's Theatre in Oxford Street, left to the rats and the spiders now for nearly a quarter of a century. It cannot be omitted, for its boards saw the transition from the old style to the new, from the ponderous Macready to the more natural school of Fechter, Boucicault and Barrett, with Charles Kean as a connecting link between the two.
The younger playgoer of the present day, whose range does not extend much beyond the neighbourhood of the Strand and Shaftesbury Avenue, has little idea of the number of theatres which have been " lost " in the last forty or fifty years, or of the tales connected with them and the companies acting there. He has heard, perhaps, of the Olympic, Globe and Opera Comique, which were swallowed up in the improvements of the Strand ; he may be acquainted with some traditions of the old Strand burlesques and of the horsemanship at Astley's ; but he knows little or nothing of the story of those playhouses in the central and outlying districts which had their successful seasons, but are now totally lost to all save the memories of the oldest playgoers. Their records and traditions are buried beneath files of ancient theatrical programmes and newspapers and between the covers of Memoirs and Reminiscences of actors dead and gone.
There is nothing left, beyond the mere name, of the Lyceum to recall the glories of the Vestris, Fechter and Irving regimes. Excluding the Opera House, perhaps the Haymarket, the St. James's, the Adelphi and the little Royalty are the least altered from what they were in the sixties of last century. Let us see what has become of the rest. The remains of Sadler's Wells, one of the oldest places of entertainment in London or perhaps in the world, has been cast to the Movies for a very long time, if it be indeed used for anything at all now. The once famous Opera House, Her Majesty's (the old King's Theatre) has been reduced to a much smaller His Majesty's and surrendered half its body to the CarIton Hotel ; the Prince of Wales's (alias Queen's, Regency, Fitzroy or " Dust Hole ") has been transmogrified into the beautiful high-brow and rather dull Scala, and handed over to Amateur Clubs. The Grand, Islington, built on the site of the Philharmonic (with its memories of Soldene, Dolaro and the noceurs of the seventies), the Surrey, Marylebone, Britannia, Standard, Pavilion (each with a history especially the two first-named) and other less important places are now Halls for exhibiting disembodied shadows on a screen. The Princess's - the theatre of Booth, Charlotte Cushman, Charles Kean, Fechter, Boucicault and Barrett - has been derelict for nearly a quarter of a century: a dusty mouldering vault, peopled with who knows how many ghosts of the past ! The Grecian now re-echoes to the Hallelujahs of Salvation Lasses. The famous Olympic, with its memories of Vestris, the Wigans, Robson, Brooke, Kate Terry, Henry Neville, Ada Cavendish and a dozen others, is gone. The old Strand, Alma Mater of burlesque, is gone. Astley's of Philip Astley, Ducrow, Batty and Sanger, with its unforgettable reminiscences of the beautiful Menken, is gone. The Queen's, Long Acre (Labouchere's toy), the two theatres of Holborn, the Globe, the Opera Comique, the Folly, the Imperial and many outlying houses, are all gone. More modern theatres named after some of these may help to recall their former triumphs, but they have not hitherto produced anything or anybody which the theatrical history of a future generation will care to note with more than a few passing words.
I therefore, who have been an enthusiastic playgoer since the sixties, have thought it worth while to jot down some recollections of delightful nights at those playhouses which have been either swept away entirely or have abolished flesh and blood drama for the mechanism of the Movies, and to collect in one volume as much of the gossip and tradition of such places as can be gathered from personal reminiscence and scattered records.
I was at first induced to attempt this by certain young friends of mine who are devoted to the theatre and wish to hear all that I can tell them about it out of my playgoing experiences. These are full enough, for they extend from the sixties to the time of the disappearance of the theatres concerned, with the exception of two absences from England in the late eighties and the beginning of the present century - gaps easily filled by younger playgoers.
I must needs confess to being an old fogy, seeing that I can clearly remember theatrical events of so long ago, but, besides being an old fogy who sighs over the productions and performers of days that are gone, I count myself of that number who can find very little to like or praise in the theatre world of to-day, though one is bound, of course, to recognize a few bright exceptions standing out here and there from the rest. I venture, moreover, to exercise the privilege of an elder, and to suggest one or two reasons why there is such a dearth of really good acting as compared with my younger days, though I am quite aware of my rashness in so doing.
First, and perhaps this is the chief reason of all, there appears to be an engrained idea in the minds of the younger generation of actors and actresses that it is not really necessary to study or work hard at their profession: that, if you are good-looking, dress well, can learn a certain number of lines, and can be pushed by well-known actor-relatives or assisted by outside finance, you have the right to a huge salary, to the "centre of the stage," and to an entree to the best society off the stage that London offers to-day.
Mr. Cosmo Hamilton in his very amusing book of Reminiscences (Unwritten History) alludes to this question of the young ladies who are quite ready to undertake an important part in a play at a moment's notice without any previous experience. He has written many successful pieces for the theatre himself, and says : " Lately it has become quite the fashion for debutantes - how soon conventions die! - to apply for the leading part in any play that I may have ready. It must, of course, be the leading part. Condescendingly enough, they inform me that they like my kind of stuff, and being fed up with dancing and the same old giddy round, are ready, the salary being high, to make the stage a career without ever having been nearer to it than the second row of stalls. And they often wind up by saying : ' I am a very beautiful girl, with a priceless voice and the most wonderful sex charm. ' "
In the same connection I have noticed a review of an important production at a West End theatre which must have cost thousands to put on. It was withdrawn after a very short run, and a leading dramatic critic thus speaks of the actress who was cast for the chief role :
" The heroine is played by a young lady who, to judge from recent appearances, is to enjoy the singular good fortune of learning her business while playing leading roles. At present her equipment is too amateurish to call for criticism."
These young people should read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the accounts of the theatrical careers of their famous predecessors whose shoe latchets they are, in most cases, not worthy to loose! Irving, the Bancrofts, the Kendals, the whole family of Terrys (I am not going farther back than the sixties), Toole. Wyndham, Alexander, Tree and others began their career early and worked for salaries so small that our budding Keans and Siddons would turn up their noses at the amount, even as, "pocket money," on which their predecessors (and betters) had to live.
When I first saw the late Sir Charles Wyndham, he was playing a dancing and singing smuggler in Burnand's burlesque of " Black Eyed Susan " at the little Royalty, and this was not his first appearance. The late Kate Terry began at eight years old and her sister Ellen almost as early, and they went through much drudgery before obtaining that recognition which the young people of to-day claim, as a right, at once. It is true that Kate Terry, by reason of her extraordinary genius, achieved success sooner than most, for she was the Cordelia to Charles Kean's Lear when not fifteen years of age. Tree, after he left the ranks of the amateurs, began in an East End theatre - one of the lost ones. Mrs. Kendal served a long apprenticeship in provincial stock companies, playing several different parts every week, which involved immense study and left no time for garden parties by day or cabarets by night.
The young aspirants to dramatic honours should take to heart the lines of old Geoffrey Chaucer :
The lyfe so short,
Secondly, abnormally long runs, though doubtless very satisfactory from the managerial point of view, give no opportunity for the younger members of the company to attain front rank. A single production may run for years if it happen to hit the public's fancy, and what chance does that afford to such as really desire to be able to act? Another drawback of somewhat the same kind is that some get known for their ability to shine in a certain type of part. Unfortunate ones! They are labelled for life. I know one extremely clever character actress, with years of experience behind her, who is invariably cast for the " slavey," generally of the lodging-house kind, and will never he thought of in connection with any other role. The revival of Stock Companies such as used to flourish at Nottingham and under Sarah Thorne at Margate, and still do, I understand, under Greet and Benson passim, would do much to do away with the disadvantages of long runs, besides affording the younger members of the profession opportunities of experience in various kinds of parts. The dramatic world owes a great debt to Sir Frank Benson and his charming wife for their work in this direction, and it is good to see that signs are not wanting that they will have successors in the same field.
Thirdly, the prevailing unhappy taste for what are called Revues (which they are not !) is probably another reason for the lack of good acting to-day. A pretty face, a fair voice, a dancing knack, a good figure, a cheeky manner, may bring the lucky owner the offer of a weekly salary which in former days would have kept an actress in comfort for months. Even in these times of high prices for everything, it is enough to provide for many pretty frocks, suppers at the Savoy and week-ends at Brighton.
But the well-being of the theatre does not depend on the stage alone. The public must do its part. After all, it is very natural that those who run the theatres should wish to do so at a profit, and if literary skill and dramatic intelligence are at a discount they must fall back upon " legs," mannequin fashion displays, and bedroom scenes - to say nothing of American crook plays! It may be that the moot intelligent class of audience has been greatly reduced since the war and its predatory after-years. Educated people and those who enjoyed the first-class acting of former days can no longer afford to go to the play as often as they did. Those who can afford the luxury belong rather to the half - educated, half - illiterate "must be amused" set, many of whom earlier in the century, had been accustomed to the Music-hall Saloon and the Gaff !
I should not omit one other point tending to make a poor show in these days. I allude to the gross miscasting of plays, which is obvious to any playgoer. Young girls trained for Revue and good for nothing else., and actors who have made their names by dancing through " buffoonery parts," aspire to serious roles in high comedy or even in Shakespeare's plays, and, glancing down the columns of the Era or the Stage or the Drama page of the Daily Telegraph on Thursdays, you will see many names of fine actors and actresses who have proved their worth, among the " resting " ones, while youths and young girls who may happen to be sons and daughters of well - known members of the profession, or have influence of some other kind, are shoved into the front rank and given good parts. They fail, accordingly, time after time. Notwithstanding, occupants of the stalls and boxes on first nights applaud loudly, murmuring " How perfectly sweet "--or " just like her dear mother " (or father as the case may be). It is not good for the " sweet thing," for she promptly thinks she has " arrived " when she is only just setting out ! Nor is it altogether good for the management, for the audience (or at least the intelligent part of them), in despair of finding a standard play, or even a new one, properly cast, fall back upon the " Chu Chin Chow " sort of piece, in which they can, at any rate, admire a lot of pretty girls, hear lively tunes, see gorgeous spectacle, and need not be too exigeant about the quality of the acting, or the intelligence of the performance generally.
Notable exceptions there are, of course, in the ranks of the managers and producers and the performers themselves ; many will at once occur to the average playgoer. On such exceptions rest the whole responsibility for restoring to the British Stage some of the cachet and distinction the absence of which old fogies like myself are bemoaning to-day.
Comparisons, we are told, are odious. Yet, those old enough to remember the Prince of Wales's, Lyceum, St. James's, His Majesty's, Haymarket and Criterion in the days of the Bancrofts, Irving, the Kendals, Alexander, Tree and Wyndham, to go no farther back. will agree that nothing as good (with one exception perhaps) is now to be found.
Is it possible that what is required is the return of the Actor Manager? I suspect that will prove to be the solution, provided he be an actor of the first rank, with really artistic ideas, a capacity for choosing, and managing, a good team, and a backing to start with. There is said to be one on the horizon. He has my fervent prayers.
A book of this kind must inevitably, at times, take on the form of a mere chronicle of productions and casts, but I have tried to avoid as much as possible. anything like a continuous list of names et preterea nihil. I have occasionally omitted names of plays and actors of slight importance, while striving to include all that would be of interest to the general reader, and in the accounts of the more important theatres I have included some short notes on, the personality and careers of the chief players who have appeared there. In the endeavour to ensure the accuracy of my script, I have ransacked the records of the past. I have hunted up old programmes and searched through dusty files of old newspapers, I have rummaged in the published Lives and Reminiscences of theatrical folk no longer with us. The writings of Blanchard, Henry Morley, Clement Scott, Dutton Cook and others who wrote from "before the curtain" and the Lives of and accounts furnished by Macready, James Anderson, the Bancrofts, Kendals, Toole and others " behind the scenes " supply an old playgoer with dates and names and bring back vivid memories of the joyful nights of bygone years.
Constant playgoer as I was, I had, through occasional absences abroad, to miss many productions of note in London, and these lost opportunities can never be renewed. The years are erased from my Calendar.
What Horace says is
So can I also sing in company with old Barham of Ingoldsby in the words of his slightly altered quotation from Horace. I doubt, however, if many of the plays produced to-day or the players in them, need be regretted by a future theatre enthusiast born too late to see them. He can certainly hope for, and look forward to, better things later on. For us, the old fogies, there is only the " looking back."
Perhaps, I have been unduly discursive and garrulous and sometimes inclined to repeat myself ; but these are faults pertaining to old-age. I hope that my readers (if I have any !) will forgive my sins of omission and commission and find something to interest them in this gossip of the Past.
Since writing the above, Terry's Theatre has "joined the majority," having been destroyed to modernize the Strand, and make it more respectable! Under the direction of the actor whose name it bore, several notable pieces were produced, among which the best known is perhaps " Sweet Lavender." But its story belongs to very recent days and contains little of interest to the student of theatrical history.
I am indebted to the proprietors of the Stage for permission
to include in the following pages the material of a slight sketch
of "The Lost Theatres of London" which appeared in 'that
journal in 1923.
*Since writing the above, Sadler's Wells has been saved by public subscription, and is being entirely re-constructed.
The above text is from 'London's Lost Theatres' by Erroll Sherson.
(Note: In 1998 Sadler's Wells was saved again, but this time by demolishing and rebuilding the Theatre completely. M.L.)
Also see on this site:
From the Theatre section of the BBC Website by Mark Shenton 10 April 2002
It's not as if London is short of theatrical venues - Time Out currently lists 105 in active use.
But two of them deserve special attention right now because they are amongst the capital's most surprising spaces, and it's great to have them reclaimed for theatrical use.
Between now and July, the RSC is showing London one of the blueprints for its future. Freed from the Barbican that it has occupied for the last twenty years, it is looking elsewhere to provide it with temporary homes, and is kicking this policy off audaciously by taking over the magnificent Roundhouse in Camden, where three of Shakespeare's late plays - The Winter's Tale, The Tempest and Pericles - will be staged.
This handsome and distinctive Victorian venue, originally built as a steam engine repair shed in 1846, has had a long and chequered history as a performance space.
In the 60s and 70s, it hosted rock gigs by The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and The Doors (in their only UK appearance). On the theatre front, it famously housed Peter Brook's legendary 1968 staging of The Tempest and infamously hosted the premiere of Kenneth Tynan's Oh! Calcutta!
But it subsequently fell into disrepair, a state that strangely suited more recent live events there by the likes of the wall-scaling acrobatics of De La Guarda. While funding is now finally in place to restore it as a vibrant, multi-purpose "creative centre for young people", it's terrific to see this uniquely versatile space flexing its theatrical muscle once again through the RSC. Will they unlock it's thrilling potential? Watch this space.
Meanwhile, a space with an even longer performance history is also back in action: Wilton's Music Hall, just off Cable Street in the East End.
London's oldest surviving such hall, it was founded in 1858 by John and Ellen Wilton. For the next quarter of a century, it would operate as a highly successful music hall, even surviving a fire that gutted it in 1877 but saw its proprietor refit and reopen it the following year.
After John Wilton's death in 1881, it was subsequently taken over by the Methodist Church, who used it for a variety of purposes - from mission to badminton hall - until 1956, after which it became a rag warehouse. Though near derelict for many years, it was pressed into occasional service to provide location settings for such films as The Krays, Interview with the Vampire and Chaplin.
But the last few years have seen its theatrical star rise once again. Among those who have appeared here have been Fiona Shaw (giving her stirring solo performances of TS Eliot's The Wasteland) and Simon Callow (previewing his performance of The Mystery of Charles Dickens, subsequently seen in the West End and now headed for Broadway). The South African production of The Mysteries, now at the West End's Queen's Theatre, was also seen here first last year.
Now the ever-enterprising Oxford Stage Company has hired it to premiere Naomi Wallace's boldly epic new play The Inland Sea there. The play, which uses a story of 18th-century English landscape gardening to provide a metaphor for a parallel discourse on sexuality, is confusing though sometimes spirited.
The venue, however, is tremendous. Hopefully we'll be visiting it a lot more in the years to come.
From the Theatre section of the BBC Website.
Theatres and Music Halls Past and Present