Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lungs like Boreas

People in the early modern period took their theater seriously. I've been reading a bit recently on the Old Price riots, which occurred when Covent Garden, one of London's most important theaters, was rebuilt in 1809 after a fire had destroyed it. Since the other major London theater, Drury Lane, also ended up burning down in the meantime, Covent Garden was the theater. The expense of rebuilding was considerable, so when it reopened, the manager, John Kemble, raised the prices across the board.

The result was remarkable. On its first opening night, the crowd coming in was no more rowdy than any other theater crowd of the time. But once Kemble was on the stage (the play was Macbeth, I think), the people in the pit and gallery heckled the play all the way through, getting more and more rambunctious. When the play ended, the audience refused to leave, so Kemble brought in the police, which made things worse: there were too many people in the audience for the police to handle, so it did no good, and it was held against him as a grudge. After that first night, people would come during the half-price time with banners and placards attacking Kemble and the theater for raising the prices and heckle and riot as they had before.

Kemble attempted to argue his case in the press, but this, too, only made things worse; people in response began to organize into a movement, the Old Price movement, or the OPs. The OPs started having parties in the crowded pit and in the gallery; instead of watching the play, they'd tell jokes and sing songs and have dances. Aristocrats started attending to watch the fun; younger aristocrats started coming out of the private boxes to soak up the atmosphere. Coins and buttons were distributed so that gentlemen could wear them on their hats. The Old Price riots are interesting in that, while very boisterous and noisy, they were largely nonviolent -- the crowd only descended into actual brawls when Kemble brought the police in, or (at one point) some boxing toughs to keep them in line. The theater suffered no damage whatsoever, and this is remarkable, because one of the grievances of the OP movement was the enclosed private boxes.

Part of Kemble's problem was that Covent Garden was a patent theater: it had something like a public charter, and this led the theater-goers to regard it as at least partly a public venue that was being mishandled for private gain. Part of it was the architecture of the new theater. As I said, one of the major grievances of the OP movement was the enclosed private boxes; these reduced the seats available to the general public, interfered with what most people regarded as one of the most important entertainments of the theater (seeing who else was there), and were regarded as denigrating to people who couldn't afford the best seats (because the seats they could afford were not very good at all -- in the 'pigeon hole' seats you could only see the actors' legs). The riots cut across all lines of social and economic class; everybody felt that Kemble was out of line.

Kemble held out for a bit more than two months, then finally cracked and made an apology. Everything went quiet until it was discovered in the next theater season that he intended to keep about half the enclosed private boxes. The riots broke out again, and he had to give in on that as well.

I was amused by this anthem of the OP movement (one of several):

Old Prices
A parody of God Save the King circulated in Covent Garden Theatre, on the night of October 18, 1809, during the celebrated O.P. riots.

God save great Johnny Bull,
Long live our noble Bull,
God save John Bull.
Send him victorious,
Loud and uproarious,
With lungs like Boreas,
God save John Bull!

O Johnny Bull be true,
Oppose the prices new,
And make them fall;
Curse Kemble's politics,
Frustrate his knavish tricks,
On thee our hopes we fix.
Confound them all!

No private boxes let
Intriguing ladies get
Thy right, John Bull.
From little pigeon-holes
Defend us jolly souls;
And we will sing, by goles,
God save John Bull!

It would be hard to find protesters with such a sense of humor these days.

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