The theatre world of 18th-century London was very different from ours today. There were only two theatres allowed by law to perform plays, an arrangement that went back to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. By 1717, one of these playhouses was Drury Lane (on the same site as the present theatre, but much smaller) while the other was Lincoln’s Inn Fields (demolished in 1848, but on a site now occupied by the Royal College of Surgeons of England). There was also the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket (on the site now occupied by Her Majesty’s Theatre) which presented only Italian opera. The most capacious of the three (at least when it was full to bursting) was Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which could hold some 1400 people. Drury Lane and the King’s Theatre could seat around 800 – 1000 patrons.
Drury Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields were both wholly commercial ventures and thus dependant on paying audiences for their survival. They were, of necessity, rivals. Dancing was a key element in their struggle to fill their auditoriums each night. Most dancing, at both houses, took place in the entr’actes, i.e. between the acts of the plays which were the main part of the bills. John Rich, manager of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, was well aware of the popularity of dancing and made it an important feature as soon as he took over the theatre in 1714.
At Drury Lane, the actor-managers Colley Cibber, Robert Wilks and Barton Booth, together with their fellow manager Sir Richard Steele, favoured drama – not least because they had the best actors in London. Despite their serious intent, they were forced to try and emulate Rich as his success drew away their audiences.
This was the world within which John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus was first produced.
Theatre seasons ran from September or October to June or July the following year. So, The Loves of Mars and Venus received its first performance some way through Drury Lane’s 1716-1717 season. During that season, the playhouse offered some nine afterpieces (short farces or other entertainments performed after the main comedy or tragedy), but only The Loves of Mars and Venus and The Shipwreck; or, Perseus and Andromeda, a ‘New Dramatick Entertainment of Dancing in Grotesque Characters’ also by Weaver, were danced. In their first season the former received seven performances before the end of March 1717, while the latter had three in April.
More than twenty years later, in his Apology, Colley Cibber explained how and why Weaver’s experimental ballet was allowed to go ahead. He began with the disparity between the two companies, and Lincoln’s Inn Fields’s need ‘to exhibit some new-fangled Foppery’ if it was to compete with Drury Lane’s higher reputation.
‘Dancing therefore was, now, the only Weight in the opposite Scale, and as the New Theatre [Lincoln’s Inn Fields] sometimes found their Account in it, it could not be safe for us, wholly to neglect it. To give even Dancing therefore some Improvement, and to make it something more than Motion without Meaning, the Fable of Mars and Venus, was form’d into a connected Presentation of Dances in Character, wherein the Passions were so happily express’d, and the whole Story so intelligibly told, by a mute Narration of Gesture only, that even thinking Spectators allow’d it both a pleasing, and a rational Entertainment; tho’, at the same time, from our Distrust of its Reception, we durst not venture to decorate it, with any extraordinary Expence of Scenes, or Habits; but upon the Success of this Attempt, it was rightly concluded, that if a visible Expence in both, were added to something of the same Nature, it could not fail of drawing the Town proportionably after it.’
Colley Cibber obviously had no great respect for dancing, but he had to admit that Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus was not only completely new, it was also a proper drama and a success.
The Loves of Mars and Venus was given another sixteen performances in 1717-1718, seven performances in 1718-1719 and eight more in 1719-1720. It then disappeared from the repertoire until 1723-1724, when it was performed five times before it was dropped completely. Its success in all the seasons when it was performed suggests that there may have been other reasons why it did not survive beyond the mid-1720s.
However, there were later dance pieces titled Mars and Venus and at least one of these may have been a revival of Weaver’s ballet. This was given at Drury Lane on 2 May 1739 at a benefit for the dancer Essex. He was, very probably, William Essex the son of John Essex who translated Rameau’s Le Maître a danser for publication in London in 1728. William Essex danced Vulcan, with Desnoyer as Mars and Mrs Walter as Venus. All three had worked with John Weaver. Essex had danced in Drury Lane’s 1728 pantomime Perseus and Andromeda. With the Rape of Colombine: or, The Flying Lovers, for which Roger had created the serious scenes while Weaver had undertaken the comic action. Even though Essex had danced in Roger’s scenes, he must have worked alongside Weaver. Desnoyer had created the role of Paris in Weaver’s last dance drama The Judgment of Paris, given at Drury Lane in 1733. Mrs Walter had also danced in The Judgment of Paris, as the goddess Juno.
There were, therefore, many opportunities for Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus to influence other, later dance works even beyond its last certain performances in the 1723-1724 season.