“We, broken Banquers, half destroy’d by Fire”: The State of the King’s Company at LIF, 1671-74

Following the disastrous fire at the King’s Company’s Bridges Street theatre in January 1672 and its relocation to the recently vacated LIF Theatre, several prologues and epilogues from the company’s exile repertoire refer to its relative poverty. The most direct references to the fire itself are to be found in the epilogue to Thomas Shipman’s Henry the Third of France (LIF, 1672?), possibly written before the LIF period, and in Dryden’s prologue for a revival of Fletcher’s Beggar’s Bush, which was the first production mounted at the King’s Company’s new Drury Lane theatre in March 1674. Shipman’s epilogue claims that much of the company’s scenic stock was destroyed:

The Scenes, compos’d of Oyl and porous Firr,
Added to th’ ruine of the Theater.
And ’twas a judgement in the Poets Phrase,
That Plays and Play-house perisht by a blaze
Caus’d by those gaudy Scenes, that spoil good Plays.[1]

While Dryden’s prologue for Beggar’s Bush presents the company as still not recovered from the disaster two years on. Far from the “expected Pomp”, the prologue claims, the new theatre is but a “bare convenience” and the King’s Company diminished: “We, broken Banquers, half destroy’d by Fire,/ With our small Stock to humble roofs retire”.[2]

In between these productions Pierre Danchin records 15 other King’s Company productions at LIF (revivals with newly written prologues or epilogues in addition to new plays).[3] If the picture of ruination painted by the prologue and epilogue above were wholly accurate we might expect to find similar references in the topical addresses written for the other King’s LIF productions. However, only six of the 16 productions (including Henry III) make negative references either to LIF itself or to the company’s relative poverty. This negativity, however, is not cut and dried; it ranges from derision of the vacated LIF building as a “shed” (Fletcher’s Wit Without Money, February 1672), to the near affection of “this trusty Nook” (unknown production, June 1672?).[4] Other prologues describe the players as “poor” and the stage as being equipped with “Alehouse Scenes”.[5] There is little doubt that the fire was a major blow to the company, but the fact that only texts related to six productions make some negative comment while the majority make none at all, and in the case of Thomas Duffett’s The Empress of Morocco (LIF, 1673) even brag that the play was “Perform’d with new and costly Machines” perhaps puts some perspective on the extent of the disaster. It paints a different picture to the one of abject destitution proposed by Colin Visser in an article on the original staging of Dryden’s Amboyna.[6]

Visser is probably correct in relating the jingoism of Amboyna, one of the first post-fire King’s productions, to that of Davenant’s two pre-Restoration ‘operas’, The History of Francis Drake and The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru, which were later bundled together in Davenant’s The Play-house to be Let (LIF, 1663). However, while there are probably too many similar themes and aspects of staging for the relation to be a mere coincidence, I am not convinced by Visser’s contention that Dryden’s play “might well have been designed to exploit the settings” for the two operas, which he proposes would have been left behind by the Duke’s Company when it vacated LIF.[7] We should not assume that the production at LIF of plays designed for the simpler and smaller Siege of Rhodes stage (such as Davenant’s operas) would have been unproblematic.

Differences in dimensions and likely stage arrangements (three pairs of fixed wings for Rhodes compared to probably four pairs of changeable wings at LIF) must have meant that in 1663 Davenant either comprehensively modified the old scenery to fit the larger LIF stage, or, given the off-season, low-key production for an unsophisticated citizen audience, he used the much smaller old stage arrangements and covered up the resulting gaps above the frontispiece and to the sides with curtains or similar. The latter option seems more likely as the Duke’s Company probably never used the scenery again after The Play-house to be Let. Nor is there any record of a revival of the first part of The Siege of Rhodes after 1661.[8]

That the King’s Company in 1672 should resort to such a crude solution, as Visser implies, while it was trying to compete with the Duke’s for the same fashionable audience seems decidedly retrograde. While it is possible that the old opera scenery would have been left behind by the Duke’s Company, its reuse is not as unproblematic as Visser suggests. I argue elsewhere for a certain amount of flexibility in scenic arrangements at Restoration theatres operating in the same period.[9] We know that productions were transferred regularly and therefore presumably easily, between the public theatres and Webb’s 1665 Whitehall stage. By extension, this implies that scenic arrangements were broadly similar at Bridges Street and LIF, making Visser’s belief that any salvaged scenery from Bridges Street could not be used at LIF, and that the Duke’s Company would not have been able to transfer scenery to Dorset Garden, seem unfounded.[10]

There is no need here to rehearse arguments against the type of staging Visser proposes for The Adventures of Five Hours and which he again follows to some extent for Amboyna. Suffice to say that while I agree this production was likely to have been a minimal one, I do not believe Dryden could simply have reused the old opera scenery (assuming it were available) in the uncomplicated manner Visser suggests; it would have been technically problematic, and probably stylistically unacceptable. Moreover, it is significant that the scenic constraints that Visser proposes for Amboyna are evident neither in Henry III nor in the next King’s production, Dryden’s The Assignation (LIF, 1672). Shipman’s text may be too close to the fire to reflect LIF production, and production dates for Henry III and Amboyna are uncertain, but if Visser were correct one might expect other plays in the months following the fire to show evidence of scenic impoverishment, but this is not the case, as a glance at relevant scenery plots on this site will confirm.

[1] Pierre Danchin, Prologues 1.2, op cit p.469.

[2] Ibid. p.580-1.

[3] Ibid. pp.464-579.

[4] The prologue to Fletcher’s play is headed, The Prologue to Witt without money: being the first Play acted after the Fire (Danchin, Prologues 1.2, op cit p.465). The later prologue is printed in Dryden’s Miscellany Poems, 1684 (ibid. p.495).

[5] Respectively, the epilogue to The Widow, Thomas Middleton, LIF 1672-3? (ibid. p.511), and the prologue to Lodowick Carlell’s Arviragus and Philicia, LIF 1672-3? (ibid. p.506).

[6] See Colin Visser, ‘John Dryden’s Amboyna at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 1673’, Restoration and Eighteenth Century Theatre Research, vol.15, no.1, Loyola University of Chicago, 1976, pp.1-11.

[7] Ibid. p.2.

[8] Betterton’s company staged The Play-house at the Queen’s theatre in 1706, but Genest (op cit vol.2, p.352) is probably right in surmising it was performed without the by-then thoroughly old-fashioned Acts 3 & 4 (the two American operas). By contrast, the London Stage lists revivals of part two of The Siege of Rhodes (which may have been designed for LIF) in 1662, 1663, 1667, and 1677 (DG).

[9] Tim Keenan, Restoration Staging, 1660-74, Routledge, 2016, p.76.

[10] Visser, ‘John Dryden’s Amboyna’, op. cit., p.1.

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