Treasures Tuesday - Going to the Theatre in 1883

For many visitors to London part of the trip is going to the theatre, seeing a famous star, eating very tiny ice creams and buying a programme. In the SoG Special Collections we know someone who did just that on Thursday July 12th 1883. They kept their programme and we can look it 134 years later.

For anyone who has ancestors that worked in the theatre in the 19th or 20th century, programmes give us a wonderful image of their lives. Just as they do today, programmes include lists of all the actors, all the stage hands, and sometimes all the orchestra. So your ancestor doesn’t have to be a famous star to be featured.

London in the 1880s was growing and changing in many ways. Queen Victoria encouraged theatre going and many new theatres were built, with acting schools attached. New roads and the developing railways brought people into the city on days out. Maybe the person that left us their programme had come into London for the day.

The programme we have is for Hamlet at the Lyceum Theatre.

Of course, the Lyceum was also a bit of a star. It has been on the same site since 1765 but often burned down. The person who went to the theatre in July 1883, would have seen that very grand portico, a very ornate stage and a very stylish circle. The Lyceum was the only theatre that had a balcony hanging over the dress circle. It had a resident ghost apparently, although so do many other London theatres. 

This programme lists Mr Henry Irving as the actor playing Hamlet. Irving was the Kenneth Branagh of his day – considered to be one of the great British actors. By 1883, he was the resident player-manager, starring in most of the plays and managing all the productions. And like Branagh, he was famous for his Shakespearean characters, especially Hamlet and Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice.

At the very bottom of the cast list, with that all-important ‘And’ is the leading lady of Irving’s productions: Ellen Terry. The programme shows that she is playing Ophelia. Ellen also played Portia in The Merchant of Venice and was considered to be Britain’s leading Shakespearean actress. Apparently the 1879 production of The Merchant of Venice ran for 250 nights. It must have been a golden age and very exciting to see these two actors on stage. No wonder they kept the programme. Ellen Terry didn’t just act. She designed many of her own costumes, working with seamstresses. She was fascinated in understanding how a costume could help to create a character. Some of her costumes are at the V&A but many of them are held by the National Trust at Smallhythe Place near Swindon.

Page 3 of the programme lists H. J. Loveday as the Stage Manager, Meredith Ball as the Musical Director and Bram Stoker as the Acting Manager. These three men were part of Iriving’s team and feature in most of his productions, including those in New York. And, yes, it really is that Bram Stoker. Apparently he modelled bits of his Dracula on Henry Irving.

The Lyceum is still going strong, currently playing The Lion King. What would Irving think of the electronics and lighting? And imagine inviting Ellen Terry to look at all the costumes and make up.


   -Sherryl Abrahart

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