Theatrical Custom Versus Rights: The Performers' Dispute with the Proprietors of Covent Garden in 1800. - Theatre Notebook

Theatrical Custom Versus Rights: The Performers' Dispute with the Proprietors of Covent Garden in 1800.

By Theatre Notebook

  • Release Date: 2009-06-01
  • Genre: Performing Arts
Theatrical Custom Versus Rights: The Performers' Dispute with the Proprietors of Covent Garden in 1800. book review score

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Theatrical Custom Versus Rights: The Performers' Dispute with the Proprietors of Covent Garden in 1800. Theatre Notebook Book Review Score: ★★★★★ 5/5 stars

Actors' 'rebellions' against what they regarded as tyrannical management were an occasional but notable feature of London theatre in the long eighteenth century. Four of the five principal instances occupy conspicuous places in theatre history, but the fifth, our subject here, has attracted only desultory attention. Everyone knows of the revolt against Christopher Rich at Drury Lane in 1695 led by Thomas Betterton, Elizabeth Barry, and Anne Bracegirdle that resulted in the re-establishment of a second company at Lincoln's Inn Fields. (1) The closure of Drury Lane in 1709 because Rich was seizing one-third of the actors' benefit profits has been celebrated as a victory for justice, though what the Lord Chamberlain did was clearly illegal. (2) Less enthusiasm has been felt for the 1733 walkout incited by Theophilus Cibber in protest against the amateur ownership of John Highmore, when the actors also triumphed. (3) The uprising against Charles Fleetwood's oppressive and dishonest management headed by David Garrick and Charles Macklin in 1743 was arbitrarily quashed by a Lord Chamberlain who was prejudiced against actors--evidence of the ugly effects of the duopoly enforced by Walpole's Licensing Act of 1737. (4) The failure of the 1743 protests against appalling mistreatment of both actors and house servants cannot have encouraged actors to stick their necks out. Neither had they much reason to, since after 1747 both patent theatres paid their performers in full the salaries they were owed by contract. During the second half of the century actors sometimes grumbled, but mostly accepted their lot. The alternative was Dublin, the provinces, or strolling--none of which had much appeal for anyone who could get work in London. During the season of 1799-1800, however, the imposition of some new rules by the Covent Garden management generated a drawn-out effort to force their abandonment--and thereby hangs our tale. The importance of this episode in London theatre history lies more in the evidence of company rules and operational norms than in results. The actors publicly challenged policies laid down by management, appealed to the Lord Chamberlain for redress, and lost their case. At issue were such matters as the amount of the house charge deducted from benefit receipts, rights to roles (and to refuse roles), the 'sick clause' under which management held the power to withhold salary from a performer who claimed to be too ill to perform, and the alleged right of actors to issue free 'orders' of admission to the theatre. All of these are important parts of the working conditions for late eighteenth-century actors, and none of them is fully documented in surviving records of the patent theatres. The claims, counterclaims, and public controversy in the dispute turn out to contain valuable information about theatrical practice of the time.

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