March 20 1812: London Theatre Bill Killed

Burning of the Drury Lane Theatre, 1809
On March 20, 1812, the Members of Parliament that favoured the Drury Lane Theatre succeed in thwarting a bill to create a second rival theatre in the City of London. The Drury Lane Theatre had been owned by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, playwright, poet and Whig  Member of Parliament. It was operating under heavily debts when it burned down on February 24, 1809.  Samuel Whitbread then led a committee to oversee the rebuilding the theatre. Prominent supporters, such as Lord Holland, also passed the Drury Lane Theatre Bill through parliament to support the reconstruction. The new Drury Lane Theatre, designed by Benjamin Dean Wyatt, opened on October 10, 1812. It was operated in a new way with the theatre's manager, Samuel Arnold, reporting to a Committee of Gentlemen to try avoid the financial mismanagement of the past.   

Richard Brinsley Sheridan
The debate of March 20, 1812, in the House of Commons, is reproduced below. It appears that the debate of the London Theatre Bill was adjourned and may not have come back before the House of Commons again.


HC Deb 20 March 1812 vol 22 cc96-100 96

On the order of the day for the second reading of the Bill for erecting and maintaining a new Theatre for Dramatic Entertainments, within the Cities of London and Westminster, or liberties thereof,

Mr. Whitbread requested that the noble lord who had the conduct of the measure, would put off the second reading until Monday, in order to give an opportunity for a right hon. friend of his (Mr. Sheridan) who was indisposed, to be present at the discussion.

Lord Ossulston replied, that he did not feel authorised to postpone the second reading of the Bill, and must therefore move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Mr. Peter Moore rose to give his decided negative to the motion. He was fully prepared to say, that no adequate ground whatever had been laid for the proposition now submitted. It had been said, that the population was greatly increased, but it could be proved (hat the enlargement of the theatres had more than corresponded with the real increase in the number of play-going people. An account of the receipts and disbursements would even shew that this number of late had diminished, while on the contrary the expences of representation had greatly augmented. But there were other objections to the Bill, inasmuch as it went to supersede the royal prerogative of granting licences for dramatic exhibition. The patents now existing had been granted for national purposes, and ought to be defended against the encroachments of those who, on the plea of an increased population, were only seeking their own private advantage. He concluded by moving, That the Bill be read a second time that day six months.

Lord Ossulston supported the Bill in a speech of considerable length, but in a tone of voice altogether inaudible.

Sir T. Turton opposed the Bill, as ill-timed, when Drury-lane was rising like a phœnix from its ashes. The delay mentioned in the amendment, could not go the length of rejecting totally the principle of the Bill, but would give the House time to see, whether or no the public would be well accommodated at Drury-lane; and in case that establishment did not answer the expectations which had been formed, then he firmly believed, that the Bill would not want support. He had no objection to new speculations in theatres, or any thing else; but, it should be recollected, that the framers of the Bill had grounded their first application on the improbability of Drury-lane being ever rebuilt, but now the progress in the re-construction had surpassed the most sanguine expectations. He should, in consequence, vote for the amendment.

Mr. Holme Sumner maintained that the inhabitants of this vast metropolis had a right to be amply provided with rational amusements, which was not, nor could not be the case under the present system of monopoly. Indeed, the present monopolists had completely over-shot their mark in their anxiety to accommodate the greatest possible number of spectators. They had built play-houses, in which a great many could see, but no one could hear. The consequence was, that we could no longer enjoy those admirable performances which had been the delight of our ancestors, and were favourable to morals. Instead of them we had dogs, elephants and horses introduced on the stage, to the disgust of every rational man. Another objection to theatrical monopoly was, want of encouragement for meritorious per-formers. Now for instance, that Covent-garden was the only national theatre, no man, whatever might be his merit, could expect to be admitted into the company, if the line of his profession interfered with the parts allotted to Mr. Kemble, and in that case country theatres were his only resources: on these grounds he would give his hearty assent to the Bill, or to any Bill for increasing the number of places of rational amusements, which he considered as conducive to good morals.

Mr. Whitbread was sorry that the noble lord could not consent to put off his motion, during the indisposition of his right hon. friend, who was so much interested in the question. He owned that he was, as he had been represented by the noble lord, a most zealous promoter of the re-building of Drury-lane, solely through motives of friendship, and of course he might be naturally expected to oppose the present Bill. In the arduous task he had thus undertaken, he had, however, received some encouragement from the speech of the hon. gentleman who spoke last, and provided Drury-lane could be built in the commodious way recommended by the hon. gentleman, and which he hoped should be the case, he trusted that the hon. gentleman would recommend him some of those excellent tragedians, which, cording to him, were so easy to be found, and which he probably kept behind the curtain until proper encouragement should be offered. The hon. gentleman had complained, that in many parts of the town, people were too far from the theatre. This objection might be pushed a great way indeed, perhaps as far as to furnish a theatre to each particular individual. Three years ago the House was petitioned for a third theatre, the petitions were then 99 referred to the crown, and their claims, after being considered by the Privy Council, were rejected. Last year the petitioners came again to the House, on the pretext that there was little or no chance of the restoration of Drury-lane theatre. If they would agree to wait another session, should that theatre be not then completed and open, he certainly would wave all his objections to this Bill, and vote neither the one way or the other. If this Bill should now pass, though it might not prevent, yet it would probably seem to retard the full restoration of the old theatre. It would tend to shake the confidence of the public, and renew the difficulties from which they had been recently extricated. They had already advanced a great way, and there were but very few outstanding claims which were not in a train of being satisfied. His noble friend had, he was sorry to say, refused to give the very short delay of postponing his motion till Monday next, when he might expect the attendance of a right hon. gentleman peculiarly interested in the question. He had not, however, to com-plain of any gentlemen within those walls, but he had to quarrel with those who had circulated gross misrepresentations with-out, affecting to know that of which they were quite ignorant, and perverting what they did know. If the persons who were now speculating in a third theatre should succeed in their application, he had no doubt they would zealously oppose a fourth, and talk of the violation of that property which had been embarked under the sanction of parliament. With respect to what had been said, as to a redundancy of population, he presumed it would not be said that the theatres were not large enough to receive the inhabitants of those parts to which they lay contiguous. But the terms of the Bill implied the whole extent of London and Westminster. Were they sure that the city of London would permit the erection within their precincts, or was it purposed to build it in the parish of Marybone. He apprehended that neither was the case, and that if built at all, this third theatre would be built in some situation not far removed from the Scite of the old ones. The hon. gentleman who preceded him, had cast an imputation on Mr. Kemble, which was altogether undeserved. He believed that he had never been guilty of suppressing any talents, distinguished as his own were among the first that had ever adorned his profession. 100 With respect to the introduction of horses and elephants, was it not notorious, that the taste of the people must be followed sometimes as well as guided? Were not the same complaints and censures made in the Augustan are a itself, and did we not find Horace satirizing the introduction of the very animal lately exhibited. 'Sive' Elephas albas vulgi converteret ora.' The greatest actor that ever lived, Mr. Garrick, had resorted to the same expedients, and it ought not to be forgotten that Mr. Kemble had done much for the stage in reviving many of our best dramas, and particularly those of Shakespeare, in a style of unusual taste and splendour. At an example he might advert to a play now acting, in which he himself performed the principal character with an excellence which, if equalled, had never been surpassed. It had been said that young candidates for dramatic honours were not fairly treated. He was disposed to think that if no monopoly existed, and no limit to the increase of theatres, the ambition or vanity natural to new performers would lead them all to assume principal characters, and that we should have as many Hamlets as we could desire at 4l. a week instead of 20l. The consequence must be, that we should have many bad actors and not one good play. Under all these considerations, he should support the motion for deferring the Bill to this day six months.

Mr. Browne supported the Bill, and thought that those interested in Drury-lane theatre opposed this application with a very bad grace, when it was considered how much parliament had done for them, to get them out of their embarrassments. Their monopoly alone would not have enabled them to re-build their theatre, if it had not been for the assistance of parliament.

The House then divided on the amendment, for postponing the second reading to this day six months, which was carried by a majority of 58 to 35.

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