“Monday 9. Was a great Disturbance at the New Theatre in the Haymarket, where some French Players newly arriv’d from Paris, attempting to act the Comedy of L’Embarras des Riches, met with such rude Treatment, and were so interrupted with hissing, catcalling, ringing small Bells, knocking out the Candles, pelting, & notwithstanding the Guard of three Files of Musqueteers that they were forced at last to quit the Stage with Precipitation. The French Ambassador left the House at the Beginning of the disturbance; the Haymarket was full of People, and the Mob in the Street broke the Windows of the House all to Pieces.”
(Gentleman’s Magazine, October, 1738)
London in the middle of the eighteenth century was a relatively cosmopolitan city, and that a significant number of non-native Londoners were Protestant refugees or of Huguenot ancestry. Many of the trades catering to the culture of affluence were practiced by crafts-people from the continent, including the wigmakers whom the letter writer threatens to unleash. The writer’s true feelings are revealed in the comment about French people in London making a fortune now that there was peace. There was obvious bitterness about the state of affairs that saw peace benefiting Britain’s enemies, even if they were immigrants to the country.
A vivid example of this bitterness is seen in the riot that greeted a French Company at the Little Haymarket in 1738. The riot occurred at an auspicious time. There was a growing discontent with the policies of Robert Walpole’s administration that had failed in the early 1730s to implement a highly unpopular excise scheme. By 1738 there was much opposition to the country’s foreign policy; in particular, the administration’s ambivalent relations with Spain. In March 1738 there were debates in the House of Commons over how to deal with Spanish naval activities in the Atlantic and Caribbean and in May parliament took steps to strengthen Britain’s naval squadrons in opposition to Walpole’s policy. Within a year, the failure of the Convention of Prado (an unpopular initiative to begin with) to stop Spanish incursions against British shipping, would lead Walpole to reluctantly declare war on Spain.
More directly associated with theatre, there was significant opposition to the Licensing Act of 1737, passed by the administration of Robert Walpole. While the Act was not universally decried, it did put people on the alert for abuses. There were substantial concerns about freedom of speech and what the act might bode for the liberty of the press.
The actual effects of the Licensing Act upon London theatres were immediately discernable. Two plays were censored, and two theatres, Goodman’s Fields and the Little Theatre in the Haymarket were closed down. One consequential effect was an increase in the level of unemployment in the theatre. Moreover, unemployed English actors had been imprisoned for debt. In the midst of these developments came the news that a French company was being granted a license to perform at the vacant Little Theatre in the Haymarket. The company in question, led by Francisque Moylen, had arrived in London in early October 1738 and numbered some seventy persons. In the press the connection was made immediately between the official sanction of the company and the recently enacted prohibitory power of the administration through the Lord Chamberlain’s office. A correspondent to the Daily Advertiser remarked that it “seem[ed] to be a little unnatural that French Strollers should have a Superior Privilege to those of Our own Country.” A piece in the London Evening Post continued the attack.
With this sort of pre-publicity, it was not surprising that the theatre was extremely crowded when the Company eventually appeared on Monday, October 9th. Benjamin Victor, a theatrical writer and occasional administrator, arrived early and had a place “in the Centre of the Pit.” Victor provides an extremely vivid account of the evening’s events. Amongst the audience members assembling in the pit, he noted there were the justices
DeVeil and Manning, two Westminster magistrates. Justice DeVeil had been prominent during the Footman’s riots at Drury Lane theatre the previous year.
As was often the case with an evening’s theatrical entertainment, people began gathering in the house several hours before the performance was scheduled to begin. “The Leaders, that had the Conduct of the Opposition” were in the pit and “called aloud for the Song in Praise of English Roast Beef, which was accordingly Sung in the Gallery by a Person prepared for that purpose.” The whole house joined in on the choruses and “saluted the Close with three huzzas!” Whether or not everyone present actually sang, as Victor claimed in his rather enthusiastic eye-witness account of the events, others reported that there was a remarkable sense of unanimity amongst the audience. This is not something that was often a part of theatre riots. In most theatre riots there were divisions along class lines, attenuated by the tripartite seating arrangements. Very often sides were aligned according to the theatre section in which they sat. However, that was not the case on this occasion.
“Never appear’d at any Theatre a greater Unanimity,” wrote the correspondent for the London Evening Post.
At this point, with the play still some time off, Magistrate DeVeil decided to cal1 this exuberant display on the part of the audience a riot and made preparations to read the Riot Act. However, in the close quarters of the theatre auditorium his judgment was immediately disputed, and a public discussion was “carried on with some Degree of Decency on both Sides” as to whether or not this was actually the case. DeVeil then explained that he was there by the King’s command to maintain the monarch’s authority and was backed by a Company of guards, waiting outside the theatre. While no doubt DeVeil was concerned with the rapidly escalating demonstration, and was anxious to exert some sort of authority over the situation, these were the wrong words to use under the circumstances. Victor noted however, that there was a reasoned response from the audience to “these most arbitrary Threatenings” and “Abuse” of the King’s name. Purportedly they replied back to DeVeil:
That the Audience had a legal Right to shew their Dislike to any Play or Actor; that the common Laws of the Land were nothing but common Custom, and the antient Usage of the People; that the Judicature of the Pit had been acknowledged and acquiesced to, Time immemorial; and as the present Set of Actors were to take their Fate £rom the Public, they were free to receive them as they pleased.
There are a variety of important eighteenth century themes woven into this response. At the heart of the issue was the belief on the part of the audience that they had a legal right to show their displeasure based on principles of common law and precedent. Once again we see the idea of judgment as being a right and responsibility on the part of the audience. The ‘rule of law’ was a cherished idea in the minds of Englishmen and central to their political identit~.)~L egal matters were the subjects of much interest for the contemporary observer, including questions about the status of common law versus parliamentary statute.
This initial interaction between the magistrate DeVeil and the audience was a detailed example of the bargaining that was involved with’ the reading of the Riot Act in the confined, well lit theatre space. In outdoor demonstrations the Riot Act was sometimes read in absentia and was not guaranteed the same degree of focus as it was most times in the theatre. The confines of the auditorium made the reading of the Act even more theatrical than was the case outdoors. This is not to Say that negotiating didn’t take place outdoors, but that inside the theatre the process was enacted in a place that was constructed for performance. On this occasion Victor was able to pin down accurately the essentials of the bargaining that took place.
This initial encounter between DeVeil and the audience was only the beginning of a series of statements and counter statements from both sides in the dispute. Moreover events soon overtook the discussion. Near six o’clock, just prior to the beginning of the performance, the honoured guests of the evening arrived, including the French and Spanish Ambassadors with their wives, and Lord and Lady Gage as well as Sir T- R- (possibly Sir Thomas Robinson), who “all appeared in the Stage Box together!” Very soon after their arrival the stage curtain was raised, revealing several files of Grenadiers, with fixed bayonets , bracketing the performers onstage. “At this the whole Pit rose, and unanimously turned to the Justices, who sat in the Middle of it, to demand the Reason of such arbitrary Proceedings?” Again the justices were caught in the spotlight.
They claimed to know nothing about the troops being called onstage. Outraged members of the pit insisted that Colonel DeVeil, who earlier had acknowledged that he was their commanding officer, should order the troops off the stage. He quickly acquiesced and then disappeared.
With the troops routed, volleys of sound, both vocal and instrumental, greeted the initial dramatic performance. The level of noise drowned out any spoken words and a grand dance of 12 men and 12 women was begun. However “they were directly saluted with a Bushel or two of Peas, which made their Capering very unsafe.” The entertainment, Arlequin Poli par L’Amour was then attempted, but that, too, was impossible above the noise.
Finally magistrate DeVeil again made his presence known, standing on his seat in the pit, motioning for silence, and making the following proposal to the house:
“That if they persisted in the Opposition, he must read the Proclamation; that if they would permit the Play to go on, and to be acted through that Night, he would promise, (on his Honour) to lay their Dislikes, and Resentments to the Actors, before the King, and he doubted not but that a speedy End would be put to their acting.”
The audience replied “No Treaties, No Treaties!” indicating their impatience with diplomacy.
DeVeil then ordered the Guards to be readied and proceeded to ask for a candle to read the Riot Act. Victor suggests that DeVeil was only stopped by the reasoning of an individual close by him in the pit, who warned that the appearance of soldiers in the pit would lead to violence and the loss of life. Turning ”pale and passive,” DeVeil heeded the proffered advice. The performance onstage was restarted, but the uproar in the house resumed as well, and soon after the resumption of the programme, the French and Spanish ambassadors left amidst cheers from the house. Eventually, after the audience’s repeated insistence, the great curtain was finally brought down and the performance was over .
During the course of the riot inside the theatre, there had been little violence, either against the theatre property, or between individuals. Victor points to this with pride in his closing remarks on the riot. He was informed by a “Person of Distinction” that his name was seen on a list “lying on the Table of a great Duke” of individuals opposing the French players. When asked about it, Victor replied “that as the Opposition was conducted without Mischief” he was “honoured by being in that List.” Outside the theatre was a different matter. The torch of protest was passed, so to speak, and “the Mob in the Street broke the Windows of the House all to pieces” Furthermore the Spanish ambassadors, having been driven from the house, had the traces to their coaches cut.
In this instance, Victor no doubt summarises the spirit of many of the protesters, comparing the event to the heights of Britain’s military greatness: “I will venture to Say, that at no Battle gained over the French by the immortal MARLBOROUGH, the Shoutings could be more joyous than on this Occasion.” While Victor’s hyperbole situates the riot in the context of Britain’s conflict with her traditional enemies, France and Spain, the riot had also been a successful skirmish against the administration and a government that would pass a law so contrary to the spirit of British freedom as the Licensing Act.
As has been noted above, during the French Strollers riot there was a strong spirit of common cause among the various sections of the audience and the demonstration was a cooperative effort between the pit and the gallery, with the elite in the boxes offering little support to the French performers. The combined wrath of the audience was directed at a very select target, one in absentia, an administration that had exerted itself in a significant restrictive manner regarding the stage.
It was directly prompted by the Ambassadorial parties and their hosts, the soldiers onstage and Justice DeVeil, and finally by the blatant unfairness of a French Company being allowed to perform when the administration was preventing and indeed imprisoning English actors, even though only for debt.
(from GENTLE RIOTS? THEATRE RIOTS IN LONDON, 1730-1780, Richard Gorrie)
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.