How Many Dancers Can You Fit on an Early 18th-Century London Stage?

Watching several excerpts from baroque operas performed in period style recently, I was struck by how crowded the stage was – particularly when there were also dancers. I couldn’t help wondering how this might relate to dancing in London’s theatres during the 1700s and what this might tell us about the view seen from the audience. These operas were not performed in an 18th-century theatre, although the stage and its scenery emulated its much earlier predecessors. The main differences (so far as London is concerned) were that there was no forestage (the area in front of the proscenium arch which projected into the auditorium) and the stage was not raked. I have been told that the overall space for the dancers to perform, with some variation between individual productions, was 24 feet across the front of the stage, narrowing to around 15 feet upstage and with a depth of some 10 to 12 feet. How does this compare with London’s Drury Lane, Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Covent Garden Theatres in the early decades of the 18th century?

Stages in London’s Theatres

By 1714, London had three theatres with either a patent or a license which allowed them to present a variety of entertainments to the public. Drury Lane, built in 1674, and Lincoln’s Inn Fields, reopened in 1714 after the rebuilding of an earlier theatre, offered plays and related genres with a variety of entr’acte entertainments. The King’s Theatre, known as the Queen’s Theatre when it opened in 1705, was to all intents and purposes London’s opera house offering the newly-fashionable Italian opera. Covent Garden, like the King’s Theatre an entirely new playhouse, opened in 1732 and took over the repertoire previously given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, although it also offered Italian opera from time to time. Drury Lane, Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Covent Garden all included entr’acte dances and danced afterpieces on their bills.

The three theatres used for drama accommodated their audiences on several levels. The pit was in front of and a little below the stage, the front boxes faced the stage on a level with it and the side boxes ran along the sides of the auditorium from the stage in two or more tiers at stage level and above. Some of the side boxes were within the stage area. Above the front boxes rose one or two galleries. There were no separate numbered seats and no fixed capacity at any of the theatres. On special occasions, for example performer benefits, seating could be altered by railing part of the pit into boxes and at many performances members of the audience might sit on the stage itself. Drury Lane could hold around 1000 spectators, while at Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Covent Garden there could be as many as 1400. The auditoriums were fan-shaped, rather than the horse-shoe shape more familiar to us now, and provided good sightlines from most parts of the house. The whole of each theatre was illuminated by candles, with footlights at the front of the stage, and both the auditorium and stage remained fully lit throughout the performance.

The stage itself had three distinct parts. The forestage was in front of the proscenium arch and was wider than it was deep. It was well in front of the scenery and the most brightly lit of the stage areas. The scenic stage was immediately behind the proscenium arch.  It was deeper than the forestage and narrowed progressively towards the upstage area. It was enclosed by the wings and shutters which formed the scenery, and was also the area where machines were used for special effects like flying or transformations. It contained traps for surprise appearances and disappearances. Beyond the scenic stage was the vista stage used for deep perspective scenes, an area not used for acting or dancing.  Dance historians are divided on whether dancers were able to perform within the scenic stage, because of the traps and the placing of the grooves which held the scenes and shutters. There is some evidence that the first set of shutters was normally placed some nine feet upstage of the proscenium arch, which could have allowed dancers to use the area in front of them.

This plan of the Covent Garden Theatre of 1732, published in Paris some forty years later, shows the layout of the stage and points to the area most likely to have been used by dancers.

The incomplete data from the three theatres does not readily translate into precise measurements. In The Development of the English Playhouse, Richard Leacroft provides detailed drawings for conjectural reconstructions of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, but he does not try to do the same for Lincoln’s Inn Fields. His drawings are difficult to interpret in any detail by those of us who are non-specialists in architecture. Using Leacroft together with an essay by Edward A. Langhans and a pamphlet by Paul Sawyer it is possible to provide some indicative figures (references for all these sources are given at the end of this post). At Drury Lane the forestage was some 30 feet wide and 20 feet deep, while at Covent Garden it was 30 feet wide but only 12 feet deep. The scenic stage at Drury Lane was 25 feet wide and 30 feet deep. At Covent Garden it was 30 feet wide and 30 feet deep. There are no certain figures for Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but the forestage may have been some 25 feet wide and its depth has been estimated at only 12 to 15 feet. However, a visitor who saw the playhouse more than a dozen years after it had fallen out of use for performances said that it ‘stretched itself to nearly the center of the house greatly to the dimunation of the Pit’, suggesting that it was in fact deeper than the forestage at its contemporary Drury Lane.

It is hard to assess how far the dancers moved upstage as they were performing, as this will have depended on the scenery and props for individual productions as well as the amount of upstage lighting. With this fresh review of the evidence, I think that dancers might have had a maximum space of some 30 feet by 30 feet (across and up the stage) at each of the playhouses.

Dancers on London’s Stages

How many dancers did London’s theatres have on stage at any one time in mainpieces, afterpieces and the entr’actes? I can’t answer this question definitively. For now, I will concentrate on the 1720s when, for some reason, advertisements were more detailed and specific than they were in the surrounding decades.

There were a handful of mainpieces with dancing that were given in many seasons. They were, essentially, dramatic operas. One from the Drury Lane repertoire was The Tempest and another, given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, was The Island Princess. I hope to take a closer look at each of them in due course, but for now here is an estimate of the maximum number of dancers they each put on stage at any one time – so far as I can tell from their published texts and the bills published in the newspapers and elsewhere.

The 1674 production of The Tempest (when Shakespeare’s play became a dramatic opera with alterations by Dryden, Davenant and Thomas Shadwell) called for as many as 12 Tritons for the dancing in the concluding masque of Neptune and Amphitrite. The Tritons seem to have disappeared from the cast as the masque changed in the early years of the 18th century, but none of the bills are clear as to which and how many dancing characters replaced them. The Drury Lane performance on 15 May 1734 announced a ‘Grand Dance of Spirits’ but provided no further information.

The Island Princess was first given as a dramatic opera in 1699, with swains and shepherdesses dancing in act 2 (we don’t know how many there were) and a concluding masque of the ‘Four Seasons or Love in Every Age’. The text published at the time of the 1699 performances lists at least 12 dancing characters for the masque, which ends as ‘Cupid with the four ages and four seasons, mingle in a dance’ while a chorus is sung. The stage directions are not clear about the dancers in this final choreography, but there must have been at least nine and perhaps as many as fifteen. When The Island Princess was revived at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 24 October 1729, the bill announced dancing ‘Incident to the Play’ by some 14 dancers (nine men and five women). There seems to be no way of telling how many of them performed in the masque’s concluding dance.

The Grand Dances and Grand Ballets are the most likely of the many entr’acte dances given in London’s theatres to have deployed larger numbers of dancers. Eight to ten dancers seem to have been quite usual in the 1720s and early 1730s, but there were sometimes more (particularly at Lincoln’s Inn Fields). On 6 May 1728 a ‘new Grand Dance’ was given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields by Glover with five men and five women at his benefit. On 19 April 1729 at the same theatre there was a ‘new Grand Ballet (English, French, Dutch Characters) composed by Moreau’ with six couples including Moreau and his wife. On 14 November 1724, Drury Lane had advertised a ‘new Grand Dance’ with six men and three women, a pattern that was repeated with another ‘new Grand Dance’ on 14 April 1729. Of course, there is no way of knowing if all the dancers in these choreographies actually appeared on stage together – these Grand Dances and Grand Ballets may have been divertissements rather than single dances – but it would have enhanced the spectacle if they did.

Then, there are the afterpieces. Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus, first given in 1717 ad revived as late as 1724, ends with a Grand Dance by ‘Mars, with the rest of the Gods, and Goddesses’, so there were nine or perhaps ten dancers, if Cupid also joined in. I am assuming, perhaps wrongly, that the Cyclops have already left the stage. The Lincoln’s Inn Fields Apollo and Daphne; or, the Burgomaster Tricked, first given on 14 January 1726, included the triumph of Cupid with a ‘Grand Entry’ centred on Zephyrus and Flora. According to advertisements, this must have had eight dancers, with Spanish, Polish and French couples alongside Zephyrus and Flora. Drury Lane’s Cephalus and Procris, first given on 28 October 1730, culminated in a masque for Neptune and Amphitrite (which must surely have drawn on that for The Tempest) which ended with a ‘Grand Dance’. It is impossible to be sure how many dancers appeared together but there must have been between eight and fifteen.

The deployment of dancers in mainpieces and afterpieces may have taken them further into the scenic stage than would have been the case for entr’acte dances, in which the performers may well have kept to the forestage. Apart from space for the dancers to perform steps and figures, there is also the question of what the audience could see. How might a stage crowded with dancers have influenced choreographies created for them? The forestage allowed dancers to be seen from three sides as well as from above, while the rake would have helped to make dancers upstage more visible to the audience seated in the pit and boxes. We need to think beyond what we know from the notated dances, to the theatres and stages where these were performed, if we are to understand the dancing in 18th-century London theatres.

Reading List

Edward A. Langhans, ‘The Theatres’ in The London Theatre World, 1660-1800, ed. Robert D. Hume (Carbondale, 1980), 35-65

Richard Leacroft, The Development of the English Playhouse (London, 1988)

Paul Sawyer, The New Theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (London, 1979)

Richard Southern, Changeable Scenery: its Origin and Development in the British Theatre (London, 1952)

2 thoughts on “How Many Dancers Can You Fit on an Early 18th-Century London Stage?

  1. Sigrid T´Hooft

    Dear Moira,

    as an avid reader of your great posts, I couldn’t but react on this one.

    Unfortunately you haven’t witnessed one of my period stagings with dance (Handel/London: Radamisto 1720, Imeneo 1740 & Amadigi 1715; Broschi/Turin: Merope 1732) which all had raked stages, wooden floors with traps and grooves between the boards, a distinct forestage, often candle lit, a scenic stage narrowing progressively etc… sometimes constructed in a modern theatre, sometimes using existing historical stages like Drottningholm or Goethetheater. Other colleagues (Momm, Badenhop, Kazarova …) have done the same.

    My dance companies varied form 10 to 6, which has only been a result of the available budgets, not of my preferences based on research. Often I would have liked a bigger company, but then I wouldn’t been able to pay them a fair fee… I’m convinced that these financial elements would sometimes have had an impact on the size (or even the presence) of a dance company as well in the past, don’t you think?

    My dancing varied (all in Italian opera seria, not french tragedie lyrique which is definitely a different issue)
    from entr’acte entertainment, to dancing between or even during arias or chorusses,
    from the whole company dancing at the same time, to solo/couple/trio-dances,
    from being only dancers on stage, to the whole company intermingling with the whole cast of singers as well as extras…

    I used the fore- and frontstage the most, occasionally including midstage, very rarely backstage; I adapted my choreographies to the narrowing stage-space, but very rarely to the difficulties of the raked stage (provided there was a raked rehearsal-stage available for at least 3 weeks before the premiere!).

    You wondered how the contemporary performances you witnessed
    – might relate to dancing in London’s theatres during the 1700s
    – and what this might tell us about the view seen from the audience?
    But apart from the absence of a raked stage and the distinct forestage, there are many other elements that might have been well integrated in these productions but are not mentioned by you. So the answer remains open.
    And as the inconclusive evidence on how many members of the companies where on stage at the same time in London in the 1720ies, it makes answering your 2nd question equally impossible.

    To my experience the audience today reacts most outspoken to a very crowded stage, but I imagine this is because the vocal cast in an opera seria is quite reduced anyway. And by using mainly the forestage for arias in my HIP staging concept, dance thus offers a welcome variety for the eye.

    The size of a crowd arouses in an audience a very distinct emotional impact and dimension of the affect/emotion that dominates the scene.
    one person “outside” on a deep stage of 5 pair of wings (eg. a royal gardens), or a group of singers/dancers “inside” in an undeep set of 2 pair of wings (eg. a private room) moves the soul of ear and eye in quite a different way.
    To me that is one of the ways to solve the voids in research: use the known elements in “baroque” contrasting dimensions and apply their effectiveness in a rhetoric way.
    If a raked stage or a forestage is not available, I think that we can nonetheless create lots of value that transmits the core of the original.

    1. moiragoff Post author

      Dear Sigrid,
      Thank you very much for your detailed and informative comments, which are very helpful for my research. You will understand that, here in England, I have had no real opportunities to see baroque dance performances in anything like a baroque theatre. As I am only now discovering, a great deal of valuable work has been done over many years in Europe which researchers like myself can benefit from. As you know, the emphasis here is always on the spoken drama, which of course was also the main offering in London’s 18th-century theatres (and the backdrop to much of the dancing), so theatre historians have paid too little attention to dance.

      In answer to your question about the size of the dance companies in the past, I was going to put something in about that but I didn’t want to make the post too long. I will take up that question in another post, in which I can look across several decades in London’s 18th-century theatres. London’s theatres were wholly commercial. There was no state subsidy as there was in France, but dancing was popular and drew audiences – so perhaps it helped to pay for itself.

      I have a couple of questions for you, if you have time to answer them. How do traps and grooves on wooden floors affect the dancers and the dancing? People here feel that it prevented dancers from performing in certain areas of the stage at all. Is that true? I wonder, too, if there are other elements relating to the dancing in productions that you thought I should have mentioned ? I should add that with more detailed research, I might be able to get much closer to answering some of the questions I posed about the number of dancers on stage at any one time.

      I am very grateful for your comments on how the different placing of performers on stage affects the audience. I will try to keep your observations in mind as I continue to research dancing on the 17th- and 18th-century London stage.
      All best wishes, Moira.


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