May 7th – On this day in 1663, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane first opened its doors, to put on a performance of John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont’s Jacobean tragi-comedy “The Humorous Lieutenant”, which was originally written in 1625, although not finally published until 1647.
The theatre was built by Thomas Killigrew, who we might think of as a theatrical impresario, at the behest of the new King, Charles II, and was the first to be built in London after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 (immediately prior to which, during the inter-regnum, the performance of plays had been banned by the Puritans). It became well known for its Restoration comedies, many of them penned by the house dramatist John Dryden, and performed by the house troupe, Killigrew’s “King’s Men”.
The king himself went to the theatre often, and the favourite of his thirteen mistresses, “pretty, witty Nell”, Nell Gwyn(ne) performed there from 1665-71.
Samuel Pepys also went there, and wrote in his diary:
“The house is made with extraordinary good contrivance, and yet hath some faults, as the narrowness of the passages in and out of the Pitt, and the distance from the stage to the boxes, which I am confident cannot hear; but for all other things it is well, only, above all, the musique being below, and most of it sounding under the very stage, there is no hearing of the bases at all, nor very well of the trebles, which sure must be mended”.
The theatre was temporarily closed down during the Great Plague of 1665, but re-opened in 1666. It survived the Great Fire of that year, but was burnt down in another fire on 25 January 1672. The second theatre on the site was built in 1674, the third in 1794, and the fourth, present one, in 1812.
The present theatre is passed on our “St Paul’s to Westminster Abbey – Priories, Palaces and Parliament” standard walk.
Further details of all our walks are available in the “Our Guided Walks” section of our web-site.