The first Theatre Royal at Covent Garden was built in 1728, but destroyed in a fire in 1808. John Philip Kemble rebuilt the theatre and reopened it the following year with a production of Macbeth. He also introduced higher prices and created more private boxes by taking space away from seating in the gallery. This led to the infamous “Old Price Riots” in which theatre fans forced Kemble to capitulate, lowering prices and restoring space to the gallery. The retirement of Kemble’s sister, Sarah Siddons, left Covent Garden without a major tragic actress, but in 1814 Eliza O’Neill made her debut as Juliet, drawing in new crowds. The theatre lasted until 1856, when it was again destroyed by fire.
Since the Restoration, a succession of three different buildings had held the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane. In 1809, the third such building burned down, and since the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden had not yet been rebuilt, the two London patent companies were both temporarily without permanent homes. A new theatre at Drury Lane opened in 1812, with a production of Hamlet. The following year, the theatre introduced gas lighting to the stage. Edmund Kean made memorable use of this new lighting when he first appeared at Drury Lane as Shylock in 1814. His tremendous popularity almost single-handedly saved the theatre’s finances. During the Regency, Drury Lane was run by committee, until the actor Robert William Elliston took over its lease in 1819.
In addition to the two main patent theatres in London, the Haymarket was licensed to perform legitimate drama during the summer months when Covent Garden and Drury Lane were typically closed. During the late 18th century, it was run by George Colman the Elder, and then by his son, George Colman the Younger. The Haymarket was home to the younger Coleman’s hit plays from the 1790s, including The Iron Chest and Blue-Beard. The Drury Lane company temporarily took over the Haymarket after its own building burned down in 1809. The Haymarket Theatre was destroyed in 1821, and a new theatre was built slightly to the south of the previous building.
The original Lyceum was built in the 18th century for the Society of Artists to house a large exhibition hall. The society was soon forced to lease the hall out for music and dancing, and in 1809 it was renovated and reopened as the home of the English Opera. The theatre was torn down and rebuilt in 1816, but it was only allowed to offer performances during the summer, making it a direct competitor of the Haymarket. Starting in 1817, the stage was lit entirely with gas lighting. A specially designed trap door at the theatre, used famously in J.R. Planché’s 1820 melodrama The Vampire, became known as the “vampire trap.”
One of the “minor” theatres of London, the Olympic presented burlettas and pantomimes. It began its life as the Olympic Pavilion in 1806, showing equestrian shows, but Robert William Elliston took it over in 1813 and converted it to a regular theatre. In 1815, Elliston had James Winston redecorate the interior, installing gas lighting for the exterior, the saloon, and part of the auditorium, but not for the stage.
In 1818, a group of men founded a theatre across the river from the Theatres Royal at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Gaining the patronage of Princess Charlotte (the popular daughter of the unpopular Prince Regent) and her husband, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, they named the new institution the “Royal Coburg Theatre.” While it still was not licensed to perform “legitimate” drama, the theatre’s presence in the City of London proper rather than Westminster allowed it to skirt censorship laws. In 1834 it was renamed the Royal Victoria Theatre, and today it is known as the Old Vic.
Located in Islington, north of London, Sadler’s Wells had played host to a variety of entertainments since the seventeenth century. Though it was not licensed to perform “legitimate” drama, the theatre at Sadler’s Wells produced plays described as “burlettas” which increasingly drew audiences away from the patent theatres.
Founded in 1809 by John Scott and his daughter Jane, the Sans Pareil performed “illegitimate” dramas including melodrama, pantomime, and burletta. Many of these were written by, organized by, and starred Jane Scott. Located on the Strand, the theatre could hold around 1,500 spectators. In 1819, the same year Jane Scott married and retired from the stage, the Sans Pareil was re-christened the Adelphi, becoming known for sensational melodramas nicknamed Adelphi Screamers.