Flying fruit and no loos – fancy a trip back to 18th century theatre?

Here’s a great article from the Guardian Theatre Blog inspired by Bristol Old Vic’s redevelopment: Certain original features are being restored to the Bristol Old Vic. But would we want to experience the full 18th-century monty? A month into the refurbishment at Bristol Old Vic, builders and archaeologists are making exciting discoveries about the original design of Britain’s oldest working playhouse. The original King Street Theatre opened in 1766, when 50 of its original £50 investors were given “silver tickets” which ensured them free admission to all shows for themselves and their successors. Licensed in 1778 as the Theatre Royal, it has been home to the Bristol Old Vic since 1946, and new findings about the original design will help connect the building’s vibrant history to the energetic and exciting work being produced there.


But although the team at Bristol are clear they are not intending to return the theatre to its original design, their planned reintroduction of the forestage and the return of the pit floor to its original condition raise a number of questions. Is it possible to experience the past in the present? How far would we really want to go to revisit the authentic 18th-century theatre? Star players and intimate performances, for sure. But cramped and crowded seating? Noisy audiences chucking rotten fruit? No foyer? No cafe bar? No loos? The 18th-century audience at King Street would have reached their seats through an underground passage, described in Sarah Farley’s Bristol Journal in June 1766 as “rather gloomy and disagreeable”. From a seat in the pit, our spectator would have seen the candle-lit gold and green boxes, and upper and lower circles decorated with flock wallpaper commissioned from local upholsterer Marmaduke Cowle. The refurbished Bristol Old Vic will seat around 580 according to the current plan, compared to a thousand originally according to renowned Bristol theatre historian Kathleen Barker – so our 18th-century spectator may well have been rather more squashed. This astonishing number went up to 1,600 after the addition of the third tier in 1800 (perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that so many theatre-related patents in the early 19th century were to do with ventilation). But it’s with the audience that we really get a flavour of what it might have been like to go to the theatre in the 18th century. The theatre was a genuine public space, and audience behaviour constituted “people power” on a scale we can’t really imagine today. In 1766, the King Street auditorium would still have been as brightly lit as the stage. Historian Michael Booth describes the 18th-century audience “talking, laughing (but not at the stage), flirting, eating, drinking, walking about, condemning and praising with equal vociferousness, inattention and a dozen other practices that gave life and colour to the house”. When they didn’t want to watch the show, they didn’t watch the show – and were boisterous in letting the actors know their views. German tourist Karl Philipp Moritz recorded a trip to the Haymarket in 1782: “Every moment, a rotten orange came whizzing past me or my neighbour … I dared not turn round for fear one hit me in the face”. And pity the miserable EC Everard, actor, who accepted in his 1818 Memoirs of An Unfortunate Son of Thespis that oranges and apples might fly over in his direction, but querulously raised his voice against potatoes, pint pots and even quart jugs being aimed at his head. Of course issues of health and safety, never mind good manners, make it very difficult for us to experience the full 18th-century monty today. Nevertheless when Tom Morris, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, expresses the hope that “future artists, audiences, and historians could see and feel exactly what the original theatre felt like”, he might want to be careful what he wishes for. Oranges are still for sale on Bristol market, after all.


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