by Catherine Haill, V & A
An evening at the theatre was more exciting in the 19th and early 20th centuries than we can possibly imagine. Audiences marvelled at scenic cloths, dissolving views, panoramas and dioramas showing places they lived as much as places they would never visit. There was no cinema or television. Theatre meant escapism, and even when film first appeared in the 1890s, it was screened in variety theatres as an item in a programme of live entertainment.
Patrons of the East End theatres during the 19th century were mostly locals who lived within walking distance. Huge numbers of foreigners settled in the East End during the 19th century, but once settled, few moved away. Even with the advent of the railways from the 1830s onwards, few East Enders travelled far. They lived and died in the area, and liked plays with familiar settings, just as we like seeing local areas on screen today. With their public in mind, playwrights frequently included local scenes in plays written for East End theatres, or based plays on real local events, or stories about the area, such as T. Blake's The Man of Mile End, or the Beauty of Bethnal Green, produced at the Pavilion in April 1844.
The East End landscape was constantly changing in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Slum clearance made way for new roads, and whole areas were demolished for railway and dock construction. The river and docks were major local features, and an important source of employment. Whitechapel's New Royal Pavilion Theatre opened in April 1827, but a preliminary charity performance on 26th February included The Genii of the Thames; or, Harlequin and the Coat and Badge, a pantomime with a river setting, a river contest and characters including Father Thames. The title's `coat and badge' was the Waterman's red coat and silver badge awarded to the winner of the annual rowing race from London Bridge to Chelsea, started in 1715 by the actor-manager Thomas Doggett. Like all pantomimes, its Harlequinade would have featured many local scenes, although it was not yet common practice to list them on the playbill.
19th century audiences came to the theatre to participate; to be transported to the gas-lit world beyond the footlights - to boo the villain, and cheer the heroine escaping his clutches. Improvements in lighting and scenic effects during the 19th century increased the realism of the settings, and patrons could believe even more earnestly in the action. In line with West End practice, managers of the larger East End theatres invested more resources in scenery as the century progressed, and by 1855 when several scenic artists were often needed for one play, the Pavilion's scenic artists included Messrs Leitch, Rogers and Greiner (sometime billed Grainer), plus assistants. The playbill for The Ratcatcher's Daughter, 28 May 1855 trumpets the locations of the scenes in decorative typeface, noting Mr. W. Leitch and Mr. A. Greiner by name, and advertising `New Local and Extensive Scenery, embracing well-known Views in Whitechapel, Butcher Row, Aldgate, Ratcliff Highway and Billingsgate'. The playbill for the Pavilion 1st September 1855, notes that a new dramatisation of Dickens' Oliver Twist would feature `Twelve New Scenes!', while the playbill for its opening night, 17th September, records twenty-three scenes by Messrs Leitch and Grainer (sic), some obviously resulting in impressive painted backdrops such as the scene set on the Southwark side of London Bridge, complete with a view `of the Tower of London, and the Shipping in the Pool'.
More images on this theme
Search TermsSubject Terms: Thames River (England),Whitechapel (London, England),Billingsgate (London, England),Stepney (London, England),Spitalfields (London, England),
Keyword Terms: Any places in the locality - e.g. Mile End,Tower Hamlets,Bethnal Green,East Ham,
East London Theatre Archive