In Jane Austen's day, actors like Edmund Kean and the tragedienne Sarah Siddons brought audiences flocking to the theatres. Kean’s acting was so emotive and overpowering that women (including his fellow actresses) fainted during his performances. Jane Austen often visited Covent Garden and other theatres when staying in London; she saw The Hypocrite at the Lyceum (which was lit by gas) in April 1811, and was 'well entertained' by the performance. Jane was disappointed, however, as she had hoped to see Mrs Siddons in Constance, but missed her owing to a mix-up: 'I could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me', she confided to Cassandra. But she had better luck with Kean, who she saw in 1814. ‘I cannot imagine better acting’, Jane wrote to her sister.
Although all classes of society visited the theatre, only members of the nobility could afford a regular box at the Opera House, which cost a hefty 200 guineas annually. Other famous venues in the capital included Drury Lane Theatre, Covent Garden, the Haymarket, and Sadler’s Wells.
New Theatre Royal, Bath. © Sue Wilkes. The theatre opened in 1805, when Jane Austen was living in the city.
Edmund Kean as Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts. Pocket Book, c.1833. Author's collection.
Sarah Siddons. Engraving by Theodor Kensing from the portrait by Thomas Gainsborough. English Illustrated Magazine 1883-1884, Macmillan & Co., 1884. Author's collection.
The Old House, Lydbrook, Gloucestershire (left), reputed to be the home of Sarah Siddons. © Sue Wilkes.
Drury Lane Theatre, London, as it appeared in 1775 (above right). Author's collection.