Lovers and Liars

Lovers and Liars : A David Garrick Double Bill

18th Century Theatre

The Theatre and the Actor in Eighteenth Century England

When considering Eighteenth Century plays and writing, it seems crucial to do so within the context of the period in which they were produced. The theatrical world was very different from how it is now, and it aids our understanding of a play to give some thought as to how the original performance conditions are reflected within the writing, as this could influence directorial decisions and the style of performance.

The Licensing Act: Something which impacted upon, and perhaps even handicapped, the development of theatre in the Eighteenth Century, was the introduction of the Licensing Act in 1737. This Act had huge repercussions for British theatre as it wasn’t repealed until 1968, although it was amended in 1843. The Act was brought about by Robert Walpole (a well-known political figure), as a means by which to end the ridiculing of public figures which had previously been prevalent in British theatres. The Act decreed that all new plays must be presented to, and meet the approval of, the Lord Chamberlain, who had the power to censor and ban scripts as he saw fit. Another stipulation of the Act was that a venue had to be licensed for public performance of spoken theatrical pieces (the rules differed for musicals). There were only two theatres licensed for such performances in the 1700’s; Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Therefore, any plays put on at other venues in London, such as Lincoln’s Inn Fields or Goodman’s Inn Fields, had to present plays as free performances given between musical or variety acts. This limited both playwrights and actors of the period.

The system in place in the eighteenth century necessitated that a play had to run for three nights before it could make money for the playwright and so ensuring that a play reached at least this number of performances was essential. This brought about generic scripts as writers were forced to pander to the lowest common denominator in order to achieve a successful run and there was, therefore, little room for experimental writing. This is why a lot of the plays of the time contain similar themes and plots and make use of recognisable stock characters.

An Evening at the Theatre: In the Eighteenth Century, an evening at the theatre was structured very differently to the way it is at present. Theatres would provide a whole evening of entertainment as audiences were keen to get their money’s worth. An evening’s bill would usually consist of a main piece; either a comedy or a tragedy followed by a short afterpiece, which was usually a farce, such as Miss in her Teens and The Lying Valet. In addition there could also be musical, dance or variety acts; some of which may even occur between the acts of the main play.

People would often arrive early to ensure good seats as these were not numbered. Some wealthier individuals would even send their footman to the theatre two to three hours ahead of a performance in order to ensure that they had the best seats. Audience members had the option of paying half-price admission after a certain point which would entitle them to see the second part of the performance. This is one of the reasons that farce was thought of as a lesser performance style as the lower, poorer classes would often pay half-price admission and just come for the farcical afterpieces. The proposed abolition of the half-price tickets instigated the Covent Garden Theatre riots of 1763.

Audiences: Eighteenth Century audiences had preconceived expectations of what they would see prior to a performance. These would have been shaped by playbills, advertisements, newspaper articles and reviews and pamphlets. Playbills would contain the usual performance information (date, time, venue etc) whilst also listing the performers, the company and the genre. Audiences in this period were knowledgeable and they would make assumptions, based upon their knowledge of the performers and companies, about a performance before they arrived. An audience tended not to react favourably if the performance veered drastically from these expectations. For example, if an actor who usually played comic parts was to appear in a tragedy, an audience may not take him overly seriously and might, therefore, disapprove of the production as a result.

Rivalry between the Drury Lane and Covent Garden and their respective companies was fierce, and it was not uncommon for groups to gather in the theatres in order to boo or cheer a particular performance or actor. For example, when the actor Charles Macklin fell out with David Garrick over a dispute at Drury Lane, he organised for groups to attend Garrick’s performance and heckle him as a means of revenge. On the other extreme, groups of ‘puffers’ would devote themselves to cheering on and helping to bolster the confidence of their favourite star through enthusiastic responses to performances.

The theatre was an integral part of society at the time and it provided a place for those with money to be seen. The upper class audience members were as much interested in showcasing themselves and socialising as they were in the actual performance. There were rigid seating arrangements within theatres; a person’s social rank and class dictated their place in the auditorium. Front boxes were for ladies of quality and the wives and daughters of wealthy merchants; the galleries were for the lesser middling and servant classes; and the most expensive seats were in the pits, as these were the closest seats to the stage. The very wealthy could also pay for a box on the side of the stage (something which Garrick was opposed to and helped to abolish) which enabled them to interact with the actors on stage.

Theatre auditoriums were often noisy as audience members would not automatically stop talking at the start of a performance. The lights would also remain up in the auditorium which created less of a distinction between the world on stage and reality. It also allowed audience members to watch one another as well as the action on stage. There was no ‘fourth wall’ in Eighteenth Century theatre and the audience were as much a part of a performance as those on stage. Actors would frequently deliver asides to audience members as a way of drawing them into the action and making them feel included.

The Actor: The Eighteenth Century is considered by some to be the age of the actor. It was also the period which saw the birth of theatre and celebrity journalism. The general public were fascinated by actors both on and off the stage and, as such, reviews and articles reporting supposed scandals and detailing actors’ lives became increasingly common. The writing tended to be very biased as those that produced it would tend to have a favoured actor or performance style. A lot of the writing that was produced was done in verse form.

An actor’s public image was often carefully constructed so as to create a more wholesome image of them. This was a result of the ever pressing argument of the morality of the stage. The theatre was seen as a place to be used for the education of the morals of the public. If an actor had a low social status, it could nullify the theatre’s educative message. There was, however, something of a trend for ‘gutter journalism’, with writers keen to cash in on the public’s interest through the publication of pamphlets and magazines reporting scandalous and, often totally unprecedented, rumours about an actor’s private life. For example, there were rumours circulated of a menagé a trois when Garrick lived with Peg Woffington and Charles Macklin, despite there being no evidence to support this.

The most celebrated actor in a company could command a benefit performance. A benefit performance entitled an actor to either a share of or the total profits of a performance as well as allowing them to shape the bill for that evening. Benefits could be a gamble. For example,  if, for whatever reason, a benefit performance was poorly attended it may leave an actor and even the management out of pocket. Actor’s would chose the part they wanted to play at their benefit and thus these performances allowed them to demonstrate their versatility and ability to both the public and the management in the hope of attracting bigger or better parts in the future.

Actors were normally recruited to play particular types of roles e.g. leading lady. This was known as the ‘lines of business’. If an actor were to deviate from their usual type of role they were said to be ‘out of line’. There was less of a concern in the Eighteenth Century of an actor’s suitability with regards to a part in terms of age or physical appearance; if an actor usually played the daughter or the maiden aunt then that is the part they would play regardless of whether or not they were still as suited for this role as they had been when they were hired. For example, Lisa Freeman describes an incident in her book, Character’s Theatre: Genre and Identity of the Eighteenth Century English Stage, where a woman played the role of a virgin despite being nine months pregnant at the time. Audiences were often not accepting of an actor who played against type. An example if this is when Charles Macklin, who was known for his comic performances, was poorly received in a production of Macbeth. Garrick was considered to be one of the few actors capable of spanning all genres to the exacting expectations of a demanding audience.

This period also saw the development of a theatrical language as people began to talk and write critically about acting for the first time and begin to develop theories of acting. This language was born out of the increased literary material on actors and the stage but carried through into everyday discourse.

Modes of Performance: Garrick is credited as being influential in the shaping of a more naturalistic style of acting, however, it is important to consider this within the context of the period. What was considered naturalistic by an Eighteenth Century audience would no longer be considered so today. The physicality of the theatres and their facilities had a direct impact upon performance styles. Playhouses in the 1700s were large buildings and some seats, the upper galleries or ‘the gods’ for example, were a long way from the stage. In addition the theatres were predominantly lit using candles. A grander, more gesticulate acting style suited these conditions as greater elaborate movements were more easily visible in low lighting and from much further away.

Pointing was a dramatic technique employed by actors of the period. In essence it entails the marking out of particular sections of dialogue by means of striking and holding  a dramatic pose for a few seconds. A famous example of this is Garrick’s portrayal of the ghost scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is reported that in this performance Garrick held his pose for so long that some feared he had forgotten his lines. Pointing tended to break up the momentum of the action and plot by making it seem episodic and stilted. It was employed predominantly in tragedy.

There was the belief, in the eighteenth century, that an actor ought to ‘feel’ their part. It is implied that they ought to experience the same emotions as the character they are playing. The idea of stage realism was strongly linked to this notion of feeling. The idea of feeling a part has similarities with more modern acting methodologies such as the Stanislavski system and method acting. This notion led to confusion as to how an actor could play something if they had not experienced it. Some people believed, for example, that only an actor who was a successful lover in real life could accurately represent one on the stage. This line of thinking created difficulties when actors were required to play murderers or the like. There was also the fear that if an actor were truly feeling a part than they would become too immersed within it and, thus, lose control of their scene.  This led to the development of the notion of judgment which suggested that an actor should be able to judge the correct emotional levels and involvement required by a part.


Callow, S. (1991). Acting in Restoration Comedy. New York, NY: Applause Theatre Books

Freeman, L. A. (2002). Character’s Theatre: Genre and Identity on the Eighteenth Century English Stage. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Holland, P. (1979). The Ornament of Action: Text and Performance in Restoration Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Hume, R. D. (1981). The Multifarious Forms of Eighteenth Century Comedy. In G. Winchester Stone Jr. (Ed.) The Stage and the Page: London’s Whole Show in the Eighteenth Century Theatre. Berkeley: University of California Press

Pedicord, W. and Bergmann, F. L. (Eds.). (c.1980-1982). The Plays of David Garrick: Volume One, Garrick’s Own Plays, 1740-1766. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press

Southern, R. (1948). The Georgian Playhouse. London: Pleiades Books

Thomson, P. (2006). The Cambridge Introduction to British Theatre: 1660-1900.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Troubridge, St. V. (1967).The Benefit System in the British Theatre. London: Society for Theatre Research

West, S. (1991). The Image of the Actor: Verbal and Visual Representation in the Age of Garrick and Kemble. New York: St. Martin’s Press


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