Burning Down the House

In a rather sad moment for the thespians and theatre lovers of London, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane burned to the ground on February 24, 1809, leaving its owner, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, completely destitute.

The theatre that burned in 1809 was the third to stand on that ground (incidentally, the first one burned down too, during the Great Fire of London in 1666). Sheridan, a celebrated Irish playwright, bought his shares from David Garrick after Garrick retired from the stage in 1776. The second theatre was demolished in 1791 and rebuilt to a design by Henry Holland, reopening in 1794. The new building was enormous, capable of accommodating more than 3,600 spectators, and it was one of the tallest buildings in London. Its enormous size proved a handicap: many people disliked it, including the actress Sarah Siddons, who eventually left the Drury Lane company in 1803. The space made it difficult to hear the actors as well, so many performances began to rely heavily on expensive spectacle rather than drama.

The increasing expense and falling audience numbers pushed Sheridan towards debt, and when the theatre burned he lost everything. He turned to his old friend, Samuel Whitbread, for help and Whitbread agreed to head up a committee and manage the company to oversee the rebuilding of the Theatre Royal. Sheridan, however, was asked to withdraw from management, which he did by 1811.

The new—and final—Theatre Royal was designed by Benjamin Dean Wyatt and opened on October 10 1812 with a production of Hamlet. This theatre still stands today.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.