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

Georgian Era Theatre, History

‘Bridgerton’ and the Plight of the Female Theatrical Performer

 I am always up for a good period drama series, and so I binge-watched the delightful series of Bridgerton on Netflix recently. As an author of a novel set in a late Georgian-era theatre, I was particularly pleased to see some scenes taking place at an opera house (presumably a portrayal of the King’s Theatre in Haymarket). I often find my eye homing in on minute details, such as the stage settings, lighting, seating for the audience (all very well done, I might add) and other trivial matters that most probably don’t even notice. But one area that drew my attention was perhaps one of the most touching side stories in the whole show: the plight of the opera singer Siena Rosso (beautifully portrayed by Sabrina Bartlett).

Ladies in the theatre business had some challenging social mores to try and manage.

Bridgerton is hardly a reference work for the realities of Regency life, but the story of Siena probably came the closest to authenticity out of all the characters in the drama. Life for a woman in theatre was not easy. Primarily, it was still not a path that was considered respectable for a woman to follow. Despite the requirement for a great deal of talent, women in the profession were often perceived to be of a lesser order, even ladies of ill repute. There were many associations with performers of the past who were notorious for being high class courtesans: mistress of Charles II – the witty and brazen Nell Gwynn, talented Irish actress Peg Woffington, the astoundingly beautiful Frances Abington, among countless others. The stage was a showcase for a beautiful woman, and it could afford her the opportunity to be introduced to men of the upper class. From that point, perhaps financial arrangements could be secured to garner funds from wealthy protectors and suitors. A wise woman would be able to save up for a rainy day – when one’s looks had faded and the wandering eye of the affluent rake had moved elsewhere. It was a precarious and dangerous business, as men held all the power and sometimes (well – maybe often) reneged on their promises of support. This was the situation the actress Mary Robinson found herself in when the prince, George IV, promised her the moon for her attention (or £20,000) – then didn’t cough up the funds when his interests began to wane. It was an oft repeated situation and there was little recourse for the betrayed woman – unless they were skilled at blackmail. Even for someone as talented and admired as Dora Jordan, destitution was only a broken promise away. The Duke of Clarence was quick to abandon her and all their children together when the opportunity to accede to the throne as king came up, but with the requirement that he had a ‘respectable’ wife.

Mary Robinson, named as ‘Perdita’ by George IV – who promised her his undying love and devotion.

Women at the time had few options as far as career choice went. All importance was placed on a beneficial matrimonial match. Mere actresses were of a lowly status and would not even be in the competition alongside the fine and honourable ladies of the Ton, with their attractive dowries and respectable titles to lure a worthy husband. But times were beginning to change at the end of the 18th Century and there were some key figures that contributed to elevating the status of the female performer. First was the highly respected actress Sarah Siddons. A consummate professional, she was among the first women to be recognised for her talents and had a most honourable reputation. But the actress that really blew the doors wide open was the sensational Elizabeth Farren. Glamorously painted by the up and coming artist Thomas Lawrence, she persevered until she became the Countess of Derby. How accepted she truly was, I do not know but the barn door had been unbolted and the opportunity was there – it was possible for an actress, a singer or a dancer to move to a more prominent stage; as wife of a man of fortune and title. The path had been paved and there was a precedent.

Miss Farren, later to become Countess of Derby

However, it still was not easy to battle the stigma of the entertainment world that stubbornly persisted. Even Drury Lane Theatre owner and manager Richard Brinsley Sheridan forbade his wife, Elizabeth Linley – a talented soprano and well-known beauty, from ever performing again in public once they had married. Essayist Leigh Hunt explored the phenomenon in great detail in several of his essays in the late 1820s, including Duchess of St. Albans and Marriages from the Stage. Mr. Hunt uses Harriet Mellon as a case study of sorts (eventually she became the Duchess of St. Albans). She was a minor character in my novel An Actress of Repute, and her lovely countenance graces the cover of my book most handsomely. Mr. Hunt was eventually a champion of the women of the stage, admiring their talents. He noted their patience with having to put up with the tiresome men of great means and stating that they were often better suited than the ladies of the ‘Ton’ as life partners. Indeed, as he wrote – “When an actress of celebrity now marries, the surprise of the public is, that she puts up with a private gentleman.” Slowly, some modicum of respectability was becoming achievable by women that were lucky enough to marry into title and good fortune. Hunt listed the names of these fortunate performers – one being a certain Miss Elizabeth Searle, who also just happens to be the main character of my novel. She may have to wait to find her dream match (a couple of sequels down the road, I suspect), but I am so happy that Miss Searle’s future is indicating that prosperity and success may be just around the corner for her.