Georgian Era Theatre, History

Cinderella: the First Theatrical Performance

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical production, a musical version of the story of Cinderella, has been receiving plaudits and rave reviews. As one of the oldest and best loved fairy-tales, it seems as if the story is as old as time itself. Versions of the story have long been a staple of the Christmas pantomime circuit in British theatres. But how did it all begin?

There are many variations of the ‘rags to riches’ stories, going back to even the times of the ancient Greeks. But to get a glimpse of the story that is most familiar to us today, we need to go back to 17th Century Italy. Giambattista Basile compiled a collection of oral folk tales, which was published in 1634. One of the stories was that of Cenerentola. Although there are many differences from the traditional tale that we are familiar with, it did introduce the reader to many of the key elements that we identify with the story to this day: the wicked stepmother, evil stepsisters, magic, a missing slipper. The story becomes even more familiar when in 1697, Charles Perrault wrote a French version of the story that updated the tale with some key elements that the modern person knows best. The tale of Cendrillon included a pumpkin, fairy-godmother and glass slippers.

The first known stage production of Cendrillon was as an opera, composed by Frenchman Jean-Louis Laruette in 1749. But the first British pantomime production of the story which was designed to enchant audiences of all ages was the 1804 Drury Lane Theatre Royal performance of Cinderella. This play holds a special place in my heart as it provides the primary backdrop to my novel, An Actress of Repute. Described as “A new Grand Allegorical Pantomimic Spectacle”, theatre manager Richard Brinsley Sheridan was hoping for a hit to assist the venue’s waning fortunes. It was a heavy investment, as this was a lavish production on a scale rarely seen in a theatre before. Ballet dancer James Byrne was put in charge of directing all of the proceedings, Irish tenor Michael Kelly composed a delightful score, Miss Rein designed and executed the beautiful costuming worn by the female performers; but perhaps the greatest role was reserved for the set designers who were in charge of the amazing metamorphosis onstage which astounded audiences at the time. These included many of the magical transformations that we have come to expect to this day: pumpkin into a chariot, mice into horses, lizards into footmen and turning the bare kitchen table into an elegant toilette.

Drury Lane Theatre 1808

There were many elements of Greek mythology sprinkled into the story, so no fairy godmother as such – with the role usurped by Venus, Cupid, Hymen and various nymphs and graces. Perhaps this was to lend a slight air of seriousness and intelligence into what could be perceived as a frivolous entertainment. The management of the theatre expressed that the introduction of such mythical beings allowed for even more scope for attractive scenery and breath-taking settings. The top performers of Drury Lane were enlisted to ensure the success of the show. The well-known clown Joseph Grimaldi was brought onboard, but was rather limited in his straightforward role as Pedro the servant, giving little chance to fully display his comedic talents. It was the female performers who truly had the chance to shine onstage. The very best actresses, dancers and singers were present – amongst them Rosamund Mountain, Miss Tyrer, Arabella Menage and the incomparable Miss Maria Decamp as Cinderella herself. Cinderella proved to be a resounding success, being performed no less than 51 times, and adding considerable profits to the theatre’s accounts. It had also met with considerable critical acclaim, setting the bar very high for future pantomime productions.

Drury Lane Theatre Playbill 24th of April 1804 as Miss Searle first replaces an ill Miss Decamp as Cinderella

The fairy-tale proved to be transformative for my novel’s main character as well. Miss Elizabeth Searle graduated from the chorus of peasants and other minor roles in previous plays at the theatre to be highlighted in the prominent role in the most talked about production of the winter season as one of the three graces. She also served as an understudy to Miss Decamp, and had the opportunity and great honour to become one of the very first actresses to portray Cinderella on the British stage. I can only imagine the great excitement she must have felt, as she stepped onto the stage of Britain’s largest and grandest theatre – a Cinderella story come true.

Miss Searle as Miranda in the Tempest, by John Opie 1807. Original in Grimsthorpe Castle

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