Old Orchard Street Theatre Royal, Bath, its actors and actresses, including Sarah Siddons, and its links to Jane Austen

Plaque outside the Old Theatre Royal, Orchard St, Bath, today

So this week, let’s hear a little more about life in the old Royal Theatre, Bath. Once it had gained its Royal recognition John Palmer Junior the manager in 1768 was able to capture the attention of the top theatre companies and draw some of the leading stars in English theatre to Bath. He was not only good at attracting current successful actors though, but spotting new talent and he undertook regular talent-scouting trips to recruit new unheard of actors to Bath. In the later part of the 1700s this developed a reputation for the Royal Theatre at Bath as being a nursery for developing talent.

One of the first such actors was John Henderson, who first appeared in 1772 under a ‘nom de theatre’ Mr Courtney. He did not reveal his name because he was uncertain of his talent and his inclination to make acting a career. But his first performance was a huge success and the Bath Chronicle reported.

‘Last night a young gentleman, whose name is Courtney, made his first appearance on our stage in the character of Hamlet, which he supported throughout with so much ease, judgement and propriety in action as well as expression, as gained him the warmest plaudits of the whole audience. And we cannot help congratulating the admirers of the tragic muse on so valuable an acquisition to our Theatre.’

His second performance was an equal success when he appeared as Richard III and he continued in the next two months in such tragic roles until he became certain of his future and began using his real name. He spent five seasons in Bath and then transferred to the London stage in 1777/8.

It was the season following this that the Royal Theatre Bath’s most famous actress took to the stage. Another prodigy discovered in the provincial theatres by John Palmer Junior and his actor-manager William Keasberry. They had already contracted Sarah at the point Henderson left.

Sarah’s father had run a touring theatre company so acting was in her blood and in 1774 she had gained a chance to shine and appeared in Drury Lane but preformed badly and in her words was,

‘banished from Drury Lane as a worthless candidate for fame and fortune’

Like Henderson, Sarah was most celebrated for her tragic roles and I wonder if John Palmer employed her as the taste in Bath leant toward tragedies. Her most famous role was that of Lady Macbeth, the audience were said to be spellbound as she expressed Lady Macbeth’s murderous passions. Sarah was tall and recorded as strikingly beautiful with powerful expressive eyes and a solemn dignity.
She also played Rosalind, Desdemona, Ophelia and Queen Catherine in Henry VIII. As the Life of Samuel Johnson, written in 1787, records, she once told the author Samuel Johnson that Catherine was her favourite role, as it was the most natural

Another actor of the time, William Macready, described her performance as holding a power over her spectators. When she played Aphasia in Tamburlaine after seeing her lover strangled before her eyes, he said, her performance of agony as she fell lifeless on the stage, was so convincing the audience thought she was really dead and only the manager’s assurance could pacify them. One night Charles Young was playing Beverly to Sarah’s Mrs. Beverly in The Gamester and even he was so overwhelmed by her performance that he could not speak. She was so acclaimed and respected in her era that the Duke of Wellington attended her receptions and King George III and Queen Charlotte employed her as a reader of English to the Royal children. While a constant stream of carriages were drawn up outside her door daily.

The portrait below of Sarah Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1784. He signed it on the hem of her dress, “for,” he told her, “I have resolved to go down to posterity on the hem of your garment.”

Mrs Siddons as ‘the Tragic Muse’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Thus I would say as noted in my last blog, Sarah Siddons was one of the women the gentlemen of high society liked to play the romantic for. They would have courted her with a terrible determination I’m sure. She was married young, before she found fame, to a fellow actor who had first proposed to her when she was sixteen. At the time her father had sent her suitor William Siddons away from the company and Sarah was forced to take up the appointment of ladies maid. But they were allowed to marry two years later and Sarah had several children and miscarriages before they separated after she came into her own at Drury Lane. A little snit bit of 18thcentury gossip tells that Sarah had a romantic

Sarah Siddons by Sir Thomas Lawrence

inclination towards a young painter who captured her image in portraits several times, Thomas Lawrence, who also had romantic relationships with two of her daughters, which was not an uncommon thing. I’ll say more on that some other time regarding another family I am researching.

She returned to Drury Lane to high acclaim and much ado on 10th October 1782. After the following report of her performance by the niece of the play write Richard Sheridan, Mrs Le Fanu; ‘My Grandfather was strongly solicited to go to the play, to witness the performance of a young actress, who was said to distance all competition in tragedy. He found, to his astonishment, that it was the lady who had made so little impression some years before, but who was possessed of tragic powers sufficient to delight and electrify an audience. After the play was over he went behind the scenes, in order to complement her. He said: ‘I am surprised, Madame, that with such talents you should confine yourself to the country; talents that would be sure of commanding, in London, fame and success.’ The

Another painting of Sarah Siddons by Sir Tomas Lawrence

actress modestly replied that she had already tried London, but without success which had been anticipated, and that she was advised by her friends to be content with the fame and profit she obtained in Bath. Immediately on his return to London, he spoke to my uncle, strenuously recommending her to him.’

Now a statue of Sarah Siddons stands In Westminster Abbey in London in the chapel of St Andrew.

I also spoke last time about the difference in audience behaviour in the 1700s and 1800s and there is another instant of their engagement with the play when Sarah performed for the last time in Covent Garden on the 29th of June 1812, she played Lady Macbeth and at the end of the sleep walking scene the audience refused to let the play continue. In the end the curtain fell and when it was lifted Sarah Siddons appeared sitting in one of those chairs at the edge of the stage as herself and went on to give an eight minute farewell speech.

Interior of the Theatre in Orchard Street by Nixon

Jane Austen first visited Bath in 1797 with her mother and sister Cassandra. They stayed in No. 1 The Paragon visiting her aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot. She wrote the first draft of Northhanger Abbey in 1798 undoubtedly drawing on her own experience of attendance at the pump room, the upper assembly rooms and the Orchard St Theatre Royal.

We can only guess which actors she may have seen there or where she sat, but it was likely to have been in one of the boxes and perhaps she saw Sarah Siddons. Sarah did return to Bath for benefit performances from time to time. One occasion is noted in February 1799 when her fame brought dozens of people onto the streets to wait all day for a chance to see her and the tickets were sold out immediately and oversold so not everyone could squeeze in. The audience were so raucous when the performance began they would not cease applauding. The actors stopped and called for a constable to silence them and then the play had to begin again.

Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough

Jane Austen was not reported to be in Bath in the February but she did come to Bath for six weeks in the summer of 1799. She stayed in No. 13 Queen Street, with her brother Edward and his wife and would certainly have visited the Theatre Royal in Orchard St during that time.

Persuasion which is Jane Austen’s other novel including scenes of life in Bath was written much later in 1815-1816 and Jane’s experience of Bath was very different by then. In 1797 and 1799 she had attended Bath for the benefit of enjoying Bath’s pleasures, but from 1801 until 1806 she lived there under the sorrowful circumstances of her father’s diminishing health and death, and their increasing poverty.

Well that is all for this week, I think there is one more story I’d like to pull out of the Orchard St Theatre next week, but then I’ll move to a new subject.

Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.

See the side bar for details of Jane’s books, and Jane’s website www.janelark.co.uk to learn more about Jane. Or click  ‘like’ on Jane’s Facebook  page to see photo’s and learn historical facts from the Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras, which Jane publishes there. You can also follow Jane on twitter at @janelark

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The Theatre Royal, Orchard St, Bath, was the Theatre Jane Austen attended – I’ll tell you more about it today

The Exterior of the Theatre Royal, Orchard St, Bath by T Woodfall

In my last blog I spoke about how the Theatre was established in Bath in the 1700s and now I’ll tell you a bit about the Theatre Royal itself. It was opened on 27th October 1750 but at the time it had no boxes. When it opened the space was simply a stage and the audience watched from a sloped floor which rose by roughly seven feet from the front of the Theatre to the back.

The elite who visited Bath must have still thought the then new Theatre a bit less than genteel in comparison to the venues they frequented in London. They could not reserve a space nor escape the local less well born who might attend. But still they managed to engineer an improvement to their Theatre visit. They would send their servants to the Theatre early and have them reserve a space and then arrive once the play had commenced. Of course that meant disturbance for everyone else as people forced a path through the crowd to get in and their servants forced back through the crowd to get out. And let’s remember there were probably at least two dozen or more aristocrats or gently born patrons reserving spaces.

Comedy in the Country and Tragedy in London, by Thomas Rowlandson

But then a Theatre excursion was very different in the 1700s and 1800s, it was quite normal for people to talk through a whole play and the servants reserving spaces in Bath were often known to shout across the hall to one another if they were bored with waiting for their employers to arrive. In London those who occupied boxes would move between them, visiting each other and socializing, and sometimes pay no mind to the play at all. In the pit and on the floor level as in Bath, the audience were known to regularly converse with the actors too, shouting things up at the stage. The courtesan’s in London hired out boxes for a season solely to hold court there. As the play progressed they entertained gentlemen visitors as it was the fashion for men to be seen with the priciest of courtesans and vie for her favours. It was the age of romance, or what the gentlemen of the era called romance, which was to pine and write poetry and say pretty words to a woman.

A scene in Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs which were published in 1825 describes a Theatre excursion. Harriette was a courtesan as were two of her sisters – I wrote a blog about one of her sisters who ended up marrying a Duke previously– see Attingham family tales, Sophia Dubochet and the 2nd Lord Berwick . Anyway Harriette used to share a box with other courtesan’s in London and to earn a little extra money they would resell the seats for the box, yet people who purchased them did not have space in the box but room in the pit below. On this occasion a couple who were from the country misunderstood the purchase, took the seats in her box and would not move unaware they shared it with a courtesan. Harriette describes their growing agitation as she continued to speak with the one gentleman in her company that night.

Harriette describes how the young man she was with, ‘A little Captain Chruchill’ called for the box-keeper to through the squatters out and they asked the box-keeper to force Harriette to be silent. He said ‘that he really could not take upon himself to request me or my friend to be silent, when we were inclined to converse or laugh in my own box, as it was what everybody did, and many went there for no other purpose but to chat with their friends.’

She describes the other parties reaction too ‘turning up their eyes and throwing out contemptuous remarks on the man for having attempted to impose on them with such an improbable story as that of people putting themselves to the expense of going to the King’s Theatre, when they only wanted to converse.’

I should imagine many similar arguments occurred in Bath. But on that occasion Harriette tried to force them from the box by talking louder and laughing more and when that did not work she cleared them from it by telling them who she was and that they appeared her friends.

The interior of the Theatre Royal, Orchard St, Bath, by Nixon

So anyway, back to Bath. Not only would the elite in the audience arrive late they may also dip in and out of the play and only attend for a particular scene which their favorite actor or actress played in. And of course the actors and actresses were as human then as they are now and treated their late arrivals and early leavers in the same manner a comedian would treat a heckler now, welcoming them or bidding them goodbye in a range of responses dependent on their mood.

There is one instance of an actor in Bath becoming thoroughly outraged with a member of his audience. The favored elite could sit on chairs at the side of stage during a performance as there were no boxes, and on this occasion the gentleman was so bored he walked across the stage to speak to his friend on the other side. Swords were drawn over the issue. Even other actors could be disrespectful of the play. When their part finished they would sit on stage, not in the wings, and an actor with an ego was known to make faces and deliberately look bored through another’s performance.

Perhaps you can imagine the atmosphere in the Theatre too. There were no windows and no air vents. It would have been hot with so many people crowded in and the air would have smelt of sweat and been quite thin by the end of a performance, probably not a comfortable or pleasant experience – really it’s no wonder they only stayed for elements of a play. The Theatre was lit with tallow candles, both burning on the stage and about the auditorium which meant members of the audience had hot wax dripping on their clothes and heads.

The stage, Theatre Royal, Orchard St, Bath

It is not surprising then that improvement commenced quite quickly, boxes were added along both edges of the Theatre, you can see on the photographs of the walls as the Theatre is today the markings in the plaster where the boxes once were. And boxes were added at the side of stage too so the chairs could be removed from the stage itself. Also a dome was placed in the middle of the ceiling and decorated with a picture of Apollo and the Muses  in 1767 to add beauty and grandeur, which it did, it was described as ‘esteemed, in fancy, elegance and construction, inferior to none in Europe,’ except that it was a dreadful addition as it ruined the acoustics. It was later taken out.

In 1768, once the beautifying dome had been added, the Theatre’s manager of the time, John Palmer Junior, the son of the John Palmer who helped build it, presented a petition in London for a Royal Warrant for the Theatre. It was granted by special Act of Parliament and the Orchard Street Theatre became the Theatre Royal, Bath. It was the first provincial theatre to receive the accolade, prior to this only Drury Lane and Covent Garden held the honor.

This picture shows one of the boxes built at the side of the stage, which is still in situ, look up to the left

Then in 1774 an entrance lobby was added on the front of the building and a crush room serving refreshment, and above this seven more grand boxes facing the stage, there are no signs of these now. The boxes stretched back in a fan shape and had five rows of benches, seating five occupants on each bench. It cost three shillings for a box seat and two shillings for the pit.

The other addition was a carriage forecourt in which the elite might be deposited at the door easily without needing to walk through the street. The steps down to the carriage forecourt can be seen at the far right of the picture of the exterior by Woodfall.

We know Jane Austen definitely visited the Theatre Royal and occupied one of the boxes on a visit to Bath, but more about this in my next blog.


Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.

See the side bar for details of Jane’s books, and Jane’s website www.janelark.co.uk to learn more about Jane. Or click  ‘like’ on Jane’s Facebook  page to see photo’s and learn historical facts from the Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras, which Jane publishes there. You can also follow Jane on twitter at @janelark

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