It’s a bit odd to be doing a second article in a row on a historic theater, but I just couldn’t resist this one. In the Covent Garden section of London stands to this day one of the great institutions of England’s dramatic and literary history: the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The building that stands there now was constructed in 1812, and definitely looks it, but it’s the fourth theater to occupy this site since the 17th century. Two hundred and seven years ago today, on February 24, 1809, the third version of the Theatre Royal–then one of the largest theaters ever built, and an institution in British society–burned to the ground. Though no one (apparently) was hurt, the grand old theater itself was completely destroyed, despite considerable attention having been given to “fireproofing” it during its original construction, and the Royal’s fiery curtain call has had an interesting resonance through the history and folklore of the British drama world.
The Theatre Royal had an illustrious history long before 1809. In 1660, when Charles II ascended to the restored throne of England after the Civil Wars and the Puritan interregnum of Oliver Cromwell, the new king ended the British crown’s traditional hostility to drama and theater and issued charters for some new playhouses in London which had previously been closed down. One of these, the Theatre Royal, was completed in 1663. The King himself sometimes attended performances there and the playhouse, which could seat 700, is mentioned in Samuel Pepys’s famous diaries. Miraculously the Theatre Royal survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 but itself burned down six years later. A new theater, even larger and grander, was built in 1674 and attained legendary status over the next century as the heart of London’s revived world of drama. When this old building was finally torn down in 1791, plans were made to rebuild it in its grandest and most audacious incarnation yet.
Richard Sheridan, a playwright and sometime politician, owned and operated the Drury Lane theater at the time of the fire, which ultimately ruined him.
The new, or “third” Theatre Royal was the brainchild of Irish-born playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who bought a controlling share of the theater in 1776. The new building that rose on the site in the 1790s was gargantuan, ultimately rising to be the tallest building in London that was not a church. It had five levels and numerous luxury boxes, some of which were intended to be (and were) graced by royal audience members. London in the 18th century was notoriously fire-prone, but Sheridan and his designers thought of this too. An iron curtain–literally, a curtain made of metal–was installed as a sort of blast shield against potential fire, and water tanks were built on the roof. The new Theatre Royal could seat an astonishing 3600 people. The grand new theater opened in April 1794 with a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Impressive as the production was, the real star of the show was the iron curtain, which was demonstrated for the audience by being brought down and struck with hammers. Sheridan had sunk his life savings into the rebuilding, and the cost overruns were immense, putting him in a precarious position if anything should happen to the theater.
On February 24, 1809, “something” happened. The cause of the fire was evidently unclear, but it didn’t take much for urban fires to break out at this time. As the building burned news spread through London that the Theatre Royal was on fire. News reached the House of Commons, where Sheridan was preparing to speak on a foreign policy issue. There’s a rumor that the House offered to adjourn to let him go to the scene, and he refused, but it’s probably not true. The folklore surrounding the fire holds that Sheridan went to the scene, witnessed his grand theater melting to ashes, and promptly went into a bar across the street and ordered a bottle of wine. Supposedly he remarked, “May a man not be allowed to drink a glass of wine by his own fireside?” Given the state of firefighting in the early 19th century, once the blaze got going there was little anyone could do. Evidently an iron curtain and water tanks weren’t enough.
The Drury Lane theater was gigantic and magnificent, and could seat over 3,000 people. This view from 1808, just before the fire, shows its great expanse.
The fire completely destroyed the Theatre Royal. It was visible for miles; the illustration at the top of this article is a contemporary view of the event. Numerous artifacts of historical and traditional significance were destroyed in the blaze, including a pipe organ that had once belonged to Handel, in addition to a huge cache of valuable costumes, props and other tools of the trade that could never be replaced. Sadly, Richard Sheridan was utterly ruined. His financial position was delicate enough after the lavish rebuild, but having the theater taken away was an insurmountable loss. He turned management of the property over to his friend Samuel Whitbread, who spearheaded the effort to build the next Theatre Royal which opened in 1812, and which still stands today. Sheridan was not involved. His last years were a struggle for money, and he died in 1816.
The story of the fire, and particularly Sheridan’s alleged pithy reaction, has become a part of British theater folklore. The fire itself only added to the mystique and reputation of the Royal Theatre, which naturally is supposed to be haunted; the ghosts of several people are said to hang around the site, and indeed a human skeleton was discovered on the property in 1848. Today the Royal Theatre is as much of an institution as it ever was, but the fiery curtain call that descended unexpectedly that winter day in 1809 remains an important part of its history.