A Season of Dancing: 1725-1726

I have written quite a number of posts on individual dances or groups of dances performed on the London stage during the 18th century. I thought it would be interesting to look in detail at just one season, to get a more rounded view of dancing in London’s theatres. I have chosen, not quite at random, 1725-1726. London’s theatre seasons ran from September to the following June and during the earlier 1700s there were often summer seasons at one or more of the playhouses that extended into July or August. The information I will set out is mostly taken from the calendar of performances provided by The London Stage, 1660-1800.

In 1725-1726, London had four theatres offering stage performances. Chief among them were the Theatres Royal in Drury Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Only they were allowed to present serious drama, under the patents granted by King Charles II following his restoration in 1660. Drury Lane is shown on the left and Lincoln’s Inn Fields on the right, both depictions are later than the period I am looking at.

Although there is an illustration of the Drury Lane auditorium, following the changes made for David Garrick by Robert Adam later in the 18th century, there is no such image for Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The Little Theatre in the Haymarket presented a variety of entertainments even though it was, to all intents and purposes, unlicensed. The King’s Theatre, also in the Haymarket and almost opposite the Little Theatre, was London’s opera house. The Little Theatre is on the left and the King’s Theatre is on the right. Again, both images are later.

The following images show the auditoriums of both theatres. The Little Theatre is on the left (this image is much later) and the King’s Theatre on the right (this image is dated 1724 and shows a masquerade in progress).

It is interesting to note that the present Drury Lane Theatre occupies the same site as its much smaller predecessor, while today’s Theatre Royal Haymarket is right next to the site of the Little Theatre. Her Majesty’s Theatre is where the King’s Theatre once stood. The Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre has entirely disappeared – it was finally demolished to make way for the Royal College of Surgeons of England in the early 19th century – but its successor is the Royal Opera House, on the same site as the new Covent Garden Theatre built for the Lincoln’s Inn Fields company in 1732.

The 1725-1726 season opened at Drury Lane on 4 September 1725 and closed at the King’s Theatre on 7 June 1726. There was also a summer season at Lincoln’s Inn Fields which ran from 17 June to 23 August 1726. Apart from two isolated performances in December 1725 and February 1726, the Haymarket Theatre hosted a company of French players from 24 March to 7 May 1726. In total, there were 186 performances at Drury Lane, 193 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (including the 16 performances of the summer season), 53 at the King’s Theatre and 25 at the Haymarket Theatre.

At this period much of the dancing was given in the entr’actes and in the newly popular pantomime afterpieces. A little straightforward statistical analysis provides an indication of the amount of dancing at the various theatres. At Drury Lane, 91 performances (around 49%) included entr’acte dancing and 44 (about 24%) included afterpieces with dancing. At Lincoln’s Inn Fields there were 97 performances with entr’acte dances (around 50%, although every performance during the summer season had dancing) and 85 (around 44%) included afterpieces with dancing. At both houses far less music was advertised explicitly in the entr’actes, but there would have been a great deal of music associated with the performance in general as well as in the plays and afterpieces – this was taken for granted and not mentioned in the bills. About 13% of performances at Drury Lane and 26% at Lincoln’s Inn Fields had entr’acte music advertised. No dancing of any sort was advertised at the King’s Theatre this season. At the Haymarket, the repertoire of commedia dell’arte pieces was quite different from the fare at the other theatres. The distinction between mainpieces and afterpieces, with or without dancing, is not meaningful. Nevertheless, 16 performances (64%) were advertised with entr’acte dancing. Such analyses for individual seasons can be revealing – the patterns that might emerge over longer periods are yet to be investigated.

How many dancers did Drury Lane, Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the Haymarket Theatre employ? The short answer is, we don’t really know. It is possible to chart those dancers who performed regularly in the entr’actes, as well as those who appeared in the pantomime afterpieces, but without the company’s accounts (which rarely survive) it is difficult to be sure of their status.  The leading dancers in the afterpieces were usually those who appeared most frequently in the entr’actes and may have formed ‘a company within the company’. However, some of these professional dancers (usually the women) were also actors. The afterpieces also employed minor players within the company as supporting dancers. In 1725-1726, 19 dancers (12 men and 7 women) were billed in the entr’actes at Drury Lane. At Lincoln’s Inn Fields, there were 21 entr’acte dancers (14 men and 7 women). At the Haymarket Theatre, 11 dancers (7 men and 4 women) were billed in the entr’actes during the short season given by the French comedians. I will come back to all of these dancers in a later post.

Then, there is the repertoire performed in the entr’actes by these dancers. How many and what sort of dances were performed each season in London’s theatres? This is another question which cannot be answered definitively. Dances with similar titles may or may not be the same (a clue sometimes lies in their performers). Dances with the same title but billed as solos or duets may be the same dance (if the billing is obviously inaccurate), or related versions of a dance, or different dances altogether (again a clue might be in the performers). Very occasionally, a dance with a common title might be attributed to a particular dancer, pointing to a specific choreography – although we do not know how much such choreographies made use of conventional elements. With these caveats in mind, I have interpreted the titles of the dances billed in the entr’actes, dividing them into solos, duets, trios and group dances.

At Drury Lane, 28 dances were billed in the entr’actes: 10 solos, 13 duets, one trio and 4 group dances. Only one dance, the Dutch Skipper, was billed as both a duet and a solo. Lincoln’s Inn Fields advertised 43 entr’acte dances: 12 solos, 22 duets, two trios and 7 group dances. At the Little Theatre in the Haymarket there were only 13 entr’acte dances: 2 solos, 3 duets, one trio and 7 group dances. There was, of course, an overlap in titles (and perhaps choreographies, too) between the three theatres. I will return to these dances in a later post.

In 1725-1726, the most significant dancing beyond the entr’actes came in the pantomime afterpieces. There were three pantomimes in repertoire at Drury Lane: The Escapes of Harlequin, Harlequin Doctor Faustus and Apollo and Daphne. All were by John Thurmond Jr and none were new. At Lincoln’s Inn Fields, seven afterpieces included dancing – one of these, St. Ceciliae; or The Union of the Three Sister Arts, was a masque and not a pantomime. The Lincoln’s Inn Fields pantomimes were Jupiter and Europa, The Necromancer, Harlequin a Sorcerer, Apollo and Daphne, The Cheats; or, The Tavern Bilkers and The Jealous Doctor. Only Lewis Theobald’s Apollo and Daphne was new. I will return to all these pantomimes in a later post.

There is one final element in this survey of dancing in London’s theatres in 1725-1726. Some 50 to 60 mainpiece plays, or more, were given each season at the two patent theatres. A small number of these included a significant amount of dancing (enough to be mentioned in the bills with the dancers listed) and were performed season after season over many decades. At Drury Lane, Macbeth (Shakespeare’s play, but with significant revisions and additions by Sir William Davenant) and The Tempest (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play by Davenant, Dryden and Thomas Shadwell) were part of the repertoire. At Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Macbeth (but not The Tempest), The Prophetess, The Island Princess and The Emperor of the Moon were given. In 1725-1726 there was also The Pilgrim, with the group dance The Humours of Bedlam (which I have written about elsewhere). The Capricious Lovers by Gabriel Odingsells was given with ‘proper Dances’ (that is dances within the play) but it did not last beyond three performances. I will continue to look at these mainpieces with dancing in separate blog posts.

As you can see from this brief analysis, dancing formed a significant part of the entertainments given each evening in London’s theatres but it is not straightforward to chart what was danced, when and by whom. It is safe to say, however, that although much of that dancing was very different to what we see today, it influenced many aspects of the enormous range of dance styles we have in the twenty-first century.

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