In 1809 audiences at a major London theatre started a concerted campaign and won. Jacqueline Mulhallen, author of The Theatre of Shelley, tells their fascinating story

The so-called OPs at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, protested against the rise in seat prices, the reduction of the gallery (where most poor people were admitted), and the increase in the size of private boxes taken by the rich.

The audience divided themselves into the supporters of the cheaper ‘old price’ tickets, the ‘OPs’, and those who supported the management, the NPs. The campaign went on for 62 days and was completely successful in its aims.

How did this happen, how was it carried on, and why was it important?

Georgian Theatre: popular entertainment

The theatre was very popular in late Georgian Britain. Every fair-sized town had a theatre. New theatres were being built: for example, in the early 1800s the Fisher family built nine in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Schools, the armed services, different trades, aristocrats and gentry: all had their own amateur groups. When you needed a conversation topic, ‘Have you seen George Cooke’s Richard III?’ would come to mind as easily as a football match would do today.

The auditorium of a Georgian theatre was encircled with tiers of enclosed seats known as boxes, with a gallery above. The gallery was the cheapest; the first row of the boxes the most expensive.

The floor of the theatre was furnished with simple benches and called the pit. The pit had the best view of the stage; the most discriminating members of the audience sat here. It was only later that managements realised that they could put the most expensive seats there and call them the stalls. So it is not surprising that the riots took place in the pit, though people from the boxes climbed down to join them.

There was certainly a feeling, not only among the OPs but with Tories like Sir Walter Scott, that theatre should be available to everyone. Scott had patriotic and paternalistic reasons for this – provided in his ‘Essay on Drama’ – while the OPs said that working people had the right to see Shakespeare and other classics in a beautiful theatre with the best actors.

No one used the argument, often heard today, that working class people do not enjoy art and it is not ‘their’ culture. Nor did anyone argue that a theatre should be a money-making concern which should not exist unless it is profitable.

The programme started at about 6.30pm and sometimes went on until after midnight. You certainly got your money’s worth of entertainment. There was a main play, songs, dances and perhaps a tightrope walker or juggling act, and a shorter play (usually a comedy) at the end. Tickets were half price if you came at the interval.

The scenery was spectacular, particularly for pantomimes, and often painted from eye-witness drawings. One cab driver was able to say he didn’t need to go abroad as he could see the scenery from everywhere he wanted to at the theatre.

Major and minor theatres

In London there were two Theatres Royal: Covent Garden and Drury Lane (the ‘major’ theatres).

The ‘minor’ theatres which started to spring up in the late 18th century were allowed to perform songs, dances and acrobatics, but not plays with speech. The resulting musicals – mimed and with scrolls to show dialogue like silent films – were known as burlettas.

Local magistrates licensed these theatres, but the two major theatres had to send scripts to be scrutinized by the Lord Chamberlain. Nearly everything was considered politically unsafe and, in addition, a pernickety censor would refuse to allow references to God or to sex.

‘Minor’ theatres could sometimes get away with politically sensitive material. At least three of them had shows about the storming of the Bastille within a month of the event – Sadler’s Wells with eye-witness drawings – but Covent Garden’s script was banned.

To compensate for the lack of words, the burlettas became as spectacular as possible. There were water dramas and ‘hippodramas’ (with horses) and magnificent scenery. The major theatres, to compete, had to provide the excitement and splendour of the minors as well as a repertoire of classic and modern plays.

In the 1790s Drury Lane was completely rebuilt and Covent Garden renovated. They were enlarged to seat approximately 3,000 each – they squashed the audience in.

Covent Garden: from fire to new theatre

In December 1808 Covent Garden burned down, with a loss of thirty lives. In addition to this tragedy, the theatre lost Handel’s organ and much scenery and costumes, and of course the almost-new building.

To pay for the expense of an entirely new theatre, the management solicited donations from the rich – including £10.000 from the Duke of Northumberland – and borrowed money. They made the most expensive boxes luxurious and private with curtains. They hired the top soprano, Angelica Catalani, at an enormous fee to attract wealthier patrons. Prices in the gallery remained the same, but had a restricted view. More space was devoted to boxes for richer patrons.

The new theatre’s design was based on the Acropolis and its four fluted columns were the second largest in Europe. Inside was magnificent too, with red velvet curtains and a statue of Shakespeare.

While Covent Garden was being built, the other major theatre, Drury Lane, also burnt down (in March 1809). Covent Garden was now the only theatre permitted to perform plays.

Covent Garden’s manager – and one of its owners – was John Kemble, who came from a very successful group of strolling players. Kemble had managed Drury Lane for years, but the playwright-turned-politician Richard Sheridan had been so lax in paying the company that Kemble – and nearly all the best actors – had moved across to Covent Garden.

Although Kemble managed the theatre, he was not a businessman. He was a leading actor and an innovative theatre director, who asked his scenic artists to build realistic and beautifully painted scenery. He began to introduce period costume where appropriate.

Kemble was not considered as great as his sister, Sarah Siddons, the most brilliant actress of the era and the chief attraction of the Covent Garden company. Lady Macbeth was Sarah Siddons’s greatest role.

Shakespeare’s tragedy was to open the new Covent Garden. But on opening night it was not performed.

The OP Riots

A crowd of thousands was waiting to get in to the theatre when it opened on 18 September 1809. Perhaps only a quarter managed to do so. When Kemble appeared he was received with applause, but when he began to speak he was drowned out by roars, hisses and hoots which continued right through Macbeth.

Magistrates were called to read the Riot Act, which would have allowed them to force the crowd to leave. But only a few were removed. The rest stayed, singing ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’.

After that the magistrates ceased to be involved. There was a question of whether they could legally force people to leave a theatre when they had paid for a ticket.

On the succeeding nights the disturbances continued. The OPs arrived with ‘musical’ instruments – frying pans, tongs and a dustman’s bell. They began the OP dance – a kind of welly dance on the benches, accompanied by shouts of ‘OP!’

Kemble closed the theatre for six days to allow a neutral committee to decide on the prices. But they supported the new prices, so when the theatre re-opened the OPs returned with banners, placards, songs and chants. They were running races on the benches and staging mock fights, and they now started using the kind of rattle that watchmen carried: the ‘OP rattle’.

With this kind of noise going on throughout the performance, Kemble employed boxers to throw people out. There were arrests. This was a disaster: when his doorkeeper, Brandon, arrested a well-known radical barrister, Henry Clifford, he was found guilty of false arrest.

The OPs now had a moral triumph. Although Kemble had originally vowed not to give in, by 14 December 1809 he had met Clifford for dinner and agreed peace terms. The following night Kemble apologised for raising the prices, and for employing the boxers. Charges against the rioters were dropped. The OPs had won a famous victory.

Who were the OPs?

Just as those from every class attended the theatre, so OPs were drawn from all classes. There were apprentices, clerks, both skilled and unskilled workers, business and professional men and even an earl’s daughter among those arrested throughout the two and a half months of riots.

This gives the lie to contemporary accounts supporting the management that the rioters were low ruffians who were only interested in a fight. An OP committee had been formed, including Clifford, Francis Place, who was known as the ‘radical tailor’, and others with a reputation for political activity. But Marc Baer, whose book Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London (Oxford University Press, 1992) deals thoroughly with the story, emphasised that this committee was only for legal assistance and did not organise the demonstrations.

There were clearly other leaders. On a night when OPs marched on Kemble’s house the Westminster radicals were holding a dinner to celebrate the 1794 acquittals of members of the (now illegal) London Corresponding Society who had been charged with high treason. Baer’s work shows that many of the OPs lived within a short walk of the theatre, in Westminster. Lindsey German and John Rees also wrote about the Westminster radicals in A People’s History of London (Verso, 2012).

It may seem surprising to us now, but at that time Westminster was a radical place. Two years earlier they had succeeded in electing the radical, Francis Burdett, to parliament. Francis Place and others were active in that campaign, but clearly Burdett would not have won had the Westminster residents not been well-organised and highly political. Perhaps this was part of the success of the OP campaign.

What problems were there?

But there were elements to this campaign which were reactionary. Firstly, the argument over the private boxes was originally two-fold: they should not be private because all of the theatre should be open to everyone; and the privacy enabled illicit affairs. It was not surprising that the second argument was seized upon with glee, given the hypocritical attitude of the ruling class who criticised the number of prostitutes who worked round Covent Garden, but as time went on it was emphasised at the expense of the argument about freedom of access.

Secondly, the attacks on Catalani, the top soprano, became xenophobic and those on Kemble often emphasised his Catholicism, with many of the cartoons prominently showing him wearing a cross. Kemble appears to have been the only owner of the theatre who was constantly attacked, although he in fact owned only a sixth of the theatre. Obviously he was more in the public eye, but even so the attacks upon him were virulent.

Thirdly, despite its success the OP campaign was a single issue one and there was no serious attempt to broaden it. Such a well-organised group could have organised successfully over the unpopular war, the cost of bread, unemployment – the Government were certainly worried that they might.

But apart from coming together to prevent ticket prices being put up the following year, they appear to have done nothing else. Nor was there any attempt at a broader look at the question of who should pay for the arts in England. The argument was that theatre should be for everyone, yet the burden was to be carried by the owners of the theatre, not just in providing the art but also in keeping the admission prices low.

State subsidy was never discussed, although the idea was not unknown. Theatres in Europe were usually subsidised, though heavily censored. The OPs campaign was successful in keeping the prices low in 1809, but it was less successful in the broader aim to keep theatre accessible.

What lasting influence did it have?

The campaign of the minor theatres to redress the unfairness of the system which prevented them performing plays continued. It was taken sufficiently seriously for there to be a parliamentary report on the matter in 1832, the year of the Great Reform Act. The patents of the major theatres were abolished in 1843 and theatres were free to perform what they chose.

This also meant competition, however, and commercialism dominated. Few had a wide-ranging repertoire, as the old major theatres did. This led to long runs, revivals and lack of innovation. Theatre managers went for crowd-pleasers and the theatre encouraged middle class audiences at the expense of the working class. Audiences became ‘respectable’ and silent, sitting in the dark looking at the distant stage like a picture book.

Some of the vitality and rowdiness of the working class audience could be seen in the music halls. Drury Lane and Covent Garden, without their monopoly on spoken drama, were too huge and unwieldy to survive. In 1856, Covent Garden burnt down and the new theatre was opened as the Italian Opera House – which it still is.

So the various types of theatrical art became divided. But all arts belong to everyone. It is a part of human nature to respond artistically, and to be creative. It is ridiculous to think that there is only one kind of theatre which appeals to a certain class – the whole range of human emotion is available in the theatre.

The idea that theatre should be for everyone never really vanished. By the end of the 19th century the dramatist George Bernard Shaw and others were keen on establishing a ‘national theatre’. Subsidies for the arts were a part of the policy of the reforming 1945-51 Labour administration, and in the 1960s and 1970s a really lively, political and artistic theatre flourished in England.

Many of the theatre companies which existed then have since lost their funding, and the ones which have survived are in continual struggle and fear of losing their grants. Many have compromised in some way to fit into arts council ‘criteria’ which constantly change and are sometimes incomprehensible to those who are supposed to benefit. This is the result in particular of the philistinism of the Thatcher years – in fact, the first cuts Thatcher made were to the arts and to political theatre companies.

A really civilised society would enable artists to work without having to compromise their art.

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