Today’s walk 'Thespians' was about distinguished actors of the past associated with the Holborn area. We started as usual from Holborn Tube Station with our guide Aly, and crossing Kingsway we stopped briefly to hear about an excerpt from ‘The Players Scourge’ written in 1757 by William Law who described actors as follows:- “Play actors are the most profligate wretches, and the vilest vermin hell ever vomited out…they are filth and garbage of the earth, the scum and stain of human nature, the excrements and refuse of all mankind, the pests and plagues of human society, the debauchees of men’s minds and morals.” Obviously he wasn’t too fond of actors! In fact until the mid 18th century actors were considered no more worthy than vagabonds, and until the Licensing Act of 1837 all players, unless contracted in a company, could be subject to charges of vagrancy. A Mr. Hooper was one actor who fell victim when he was arrested in 1735.
The man credited with changing the way actors were perceived was David Garrick, (1717 - 1779) who transformed actors into the celebrities of the mid 18th century. Garrick was not only an excellent Shakespearian actor but also a playwright, producer and manager of the Drury Lane Theatre. He was also a pupil and friend of Dr. Samuel Johnson. He took over the patent to the theatre, in partnership with James Lacy, in April 1747 and they made a failing theatre a huge success. He retired from theatre management in 1776 and when he died three years later, was given a lavish funeral and he was interred in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey. His legacy was perhaps best surmised by the Rev. Nicholas Tindal, the historian, when he said that “The ‘deaf’ hear him in his ‘action’ and the ‘blind’ see him in his ‘voice’". A monument to Garrick in Lichfield Cathedral bears Johnson’s famous comment: “I am disappointed by that stroke of death that has eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished that public stock of harmless pleasure.” Both Garrick Street and the Garrick Club are named after him.
We then walked down Kingsway and turned right into Kemble Street. This is named for Charles Kemble (1775 - 1854), the youngest son of Roger Kemble. A younger brother of John Philip Kemble, Stephen Kemble and the great Sarah Siddons, he was born in Brecon, South Wales. His first job was in a Post Office but he quickly resigned to become an actor. He lived close by in Great Russell Street. He was originally rather in the shadow of his more famous brother and sister, but gradually achieved independent fame. In comedy he was ably supported by his wife Marie Therese De Camp, whom he married in July 1806. He had a very successful tour of America with his daughter Fanny during 1832 and 1834. His later career was beset by financial difficulties caused by his joint proprietorship of the Covent Garden Theatre. Macready summed him up as “a first rate actor of second rate parts”.
We then walked along Kemble Street and turned left into Kean Street, named for Edmund Kean (1789 - 1833) who was regarded in his time as the greatest ever actor. He was born in London the son of an actress Anne Carey, daughter of the 18th century composer and playwright Henry Carey and probably Edmund Kean, an architect’s clerk. His background has been less flatteringly described as “bastard son of Anne Carey, itinerant actress and Street hawker and Edmund Kean a mentally unbalanced youth" who committed suicide at the age of 22.
He made his first appearance on stage aged four in Nouverre’s ballet Cymon, playing Cupid. As a child his vivacity, cleverness and affection made his universally popular. A few benevolent people paid for him to attend school where he did well, but feeling restricted left to go to sea as a cabin boy. Life at sea however, was not to his taste. His acting abilities were already so skilful that he was able to fool the doctors in Madeira that he was both lame and deaf, and was so allowed to return to England. He sought the protection of his uncle Moses Kean, an entertainer who introduced him to the study of Shakespeare. He also received lessons in the principles of acting from Miss Charlotte Tidswell, an actress. He quickly showed his genius in his interpretations of Shakespearean characters which were entirely different from John Philip Kemble, then considered the greatest exponent of these roles.
At the age of 14 he obtained an engagement for 20 plays at York Theatre, and shortly afterwards came to the notice of King George III who commanded him to appear at Windsor Castle. He then joined a circus but fell from a horse and broke both legs which left him with swellings in his insteps for the rest of his life.
In 1814 he was given a chance by the Drury Lane Theatre as part of their effort to regain popularity. His performance as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice brought him great fame, and he moved to Piccadilly. He earned an astonishing £12000 per year, which was a huge sum at that time, but his profligate lifestyle damaged his reputation. In 1825 he was named in the case of Cox -v- Kean, for adultery with Charlotte Cox. His wife divorced him and the case aroused such bitter feelings, that he was booed and pelted with fruit on stage. He became dependent on drugs which led to a decline in his powers, and whilst playing Othello to the Iago of his son Charles Kean, he collapsed on stage on 25th March 1833 and fell into his son’s arms. He died two months later in Richmond.
We now crossed Drury Lane and walked into Tavistock Street, then up Gresham Street to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. This is considered the oldest operating theatre in the world. The original theatre opened in 1663 in Bridges Street, now Catherine Street with seating for 700 people. All theatre had been banned during the Cromwellian period, but once Charles II was restored to the throne, he granted patents for legitimate theatre (meaning spoken plays as opposed to opera, dance, concerts or plays with music). One was for the Kings’ Company based at The Theatre Royal and the other was for the Duke’s Company who were based at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Thomas Killigrew built the first theatre and among his actors were Nell Gwynn, who became the mistress of the king and Charles Hart. Restoration Comedy was very popular with the public.
In 1672 the theatre was destroyed by fire, when footmen annoyed at the increase in prices set fire to the building. It was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1674 to seat 2000 people and it became the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. It was here on 28th September 1745 that God Save the King was performed publicly for the first time, when Bonnie Prince Charlie was landing in Scotland and the country wished to support the English monarchy.
David Garrick became manager in 1747 and remained there until 1766. He introduced a ban of the then custom of spectators sitting on the stage during performances. If they chose to move during the performance chaos would often ensue. If you get the chance to look at the painting by William Hogarth “The Beggars Opera” you can see the audience sitting on the stage.
When Richard Brinsley Sheridan became manager the building was demolished to make way for an even larger theatre which opened in 1794, but this building only survived for 15 years before being destroyed yet again by fire in 1809. The building that stands here today was opened in 1812. It was designed by Benjamin Wyatt to seat 3060. The blue columns along the side of the building were added in 1831. The last major renovation took place in 1922 reducing the capacity to between 2200 and 2300 in four tiers. The theatre closed during World War II, suffering some slight damage and became the Headquarters of the Entertainments National Service Association. The theatre reopened in 1946.
The Theatre Royal Drury Lane is also believed to be one of the most haunted theatres in the world. The appearance of any of the ghosts is said to bring good luck for an actor or production. The 'Man in Grey’ is perhaps the most famous. He appears dressed as an 18th century nobleman with a powered wig beneath his tricorn hat, a dress jacket and cloak, riding boots and a sword. He is believed to be the ghost of the body found in a wall, discovered in 1848 with the knife that stabbed him still sticking in his ribs.
Another ghost is Joe Grimaldi, a comedian, who is a helpful apparition guiding nervous actors about the stage.
Then there is Charles Macklin, but more of him later.
We now walked back to Drury Lane and then turned into Betterton Street. Named for Thomas Betterton (1635 - 1710) he lived in nearby Russell Street. He was Samuel Pepys favourite actor and was considered by many to be the best actor of the entire Restoration period. He was the son of an under-cook to Charles II born in London. He was apprenticed to John Holden, a publisher and then possibly later to a bookseller called John Rhodes who had been wardrobe keeper at the Blackfriars Theatre. In 1659 Rhodes obtained a licence to set up a company of players at The Cockpit Theatre in Drury Lane and it was here that Betterton made his debut on stage. His abilities quickly brought him to prominence and he became a favourite with Charles II. He became a member of and later manager of The Dukes’ Company and then in 1695 set up a cooperative company in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He retired with ill health but gave a benefit performance which raised £500. His last appearance on stage was in 1710 and he died shortly afterwards and is buried in the Cloisters of Westminster Abbey.
We walked past The Fortune Theatre which stands today on the site of the Cockpit Theatre. It operated from 1616 to around 1665 when it could no longer stand the competition from the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The Cockpit began life literally as a Cock pit or a place where cock fights were held. It was the first theatre in Drury Lane, but having suffered fire damage following riots was rebuilt and rechristened The Phoenix, although the old name still stuck. It closed under the Commonwealth and was used as a school but plays continued illegally. In 1660 with the restoration it could become a theatre once more, but it was shut out of ‘legitimate drama’ by the monopoly of the Kings and Dukes companies and could not compete. There is no record of a play being staged after 1665 and it is not known of what eventually happened to the building.
We now walked on to Macklin Street, our final stop. This is named after Charles Macklin (1690 - 1797) an actor and dramatist born in County Donegal, Ireland. He was one of the most distinguished actors of his day, equally at home in comedy or tragedy. He was best known for his portrayal of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, and introduced a more natural style of acting, He lived in nearby Bow Street. Two of the best known of his plays are The Man of the World (1781) and Love a la Mode (1759). He was a tempestuous character often involved in lawsuits, sometimes acting as his own lawyer as he did most successfully in his murder trial. He was charged with murdering Thomas Hallam in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, after an argument over a wig. He is said to have shouted at Hallam “Goddamn you for a blackguard, scrub, rascal!” and thrust a cane into Hallam’s left eye, piercing it. Hallam died the next day. He was so skilful in his own defence that he was acquitted and given a fine. It is said he now haunts the spot in the theatre where Hallam died.
His exact age when he died is a slight mystery. His wife gave his year of birth as 1690, which would make him 107, however both 1699 and 1710 have been given as alternate dates. Macklin is still remembered today in his native Ireland, with the Charles Macklin Autumn School which is held each October in the village of Culdaff.
Well that’s all for this week. Hope you found it as interesting to read as I did to write!