Richmond House Private Theatricals

Much evidence as to just how these grand theatricals were organised is to be found in the Theatre Museums Archive (in particular, Charles Burney’s Theatrical Register 1777-1797). I have also had access to the archive at Goodwood House the home of the current Duke of Richmond, in Sussex.

Elizabeth Farren, the very famous actress, supervised and directed these performances from 1778 at the invitation of the third Duke.

The plays were performed at Richmond House in the Strand.

At first there was no theatre as such: James Wyatt, the most fashionable architect of the time was commissioned to adapt two rooms in the house to theatrical use.

The plays at Richmond House gained a reputation for being very original with regard to choice of plays. Many were translated from French. Indeed Mrs Inchbald was recruited (possibly by Horace Walpole) to help with the adaptations of many of the plays performed there.

They were also well up to the mark with regard to special lighting effects, and the standards of the scenery used was high. Equally as good as that found at the two patent theatres of Covent Garden and Drury Lane.

The plays were all performed not by professionals but by friends of the Duke and his family. Frankly it was all by invitation only. Indeed, it had to be private to keep within the law, and to preserve the reputations of the ‘actresses’ taking part.
They chose a number of plays to perform as a repertory company.

Rehearsals were taken very seriously and some were even reported in the press;
Theatrical intelligence

Last Thursday night, there was a rehearsal before some select friends to the amount of three-score, of the comedy “The Way to Keep Him”; the particulars of which we give on the authority of an honourable person who was present. To compare this reproduction with the smoothness and mechanical uninterruption of common stage plays, it may be found somewhat deficient; but this we are warranted to say, that there were situations and points of expression in the acting, that would do credit to the most expert performers.

(18th April 1787, Publick Advertiser)

The Duke limited the number in the audience of the plays.

He had an elaborate system of issuing tickets, rather as if he were inviting people to a ball. Usually the Duke issued 20 tickets to himself, 12 for the Duchess and each actress performing in the play, six for the writer of the Prologues and Epilogues, and one for Elizabeth Farren as supervisor.

The invitations were worded as follows:

“The Duke and Duchess of Richmond present their compliments to Mr. X. And have the Honour of sending to him His Ticket as a performer and four tickets at his Disposal for the Play of…for Thursday the…of… 178x. Mr. X is requested to insert in his own Hand Writing, on each Ticket, the Name of the Person to be admitted, and to sign and seal it with his Arms. Mr. X is also requested to send to Richmond House on the Day before the Performance, a list of Persons for whom his tickets are made out, without which they cannot be admitted.”

The plays began at 8pm and everyone had to be seated by 7:30pm. The Prince of Wales could attend; he had a special ticket;

“The Prince of Wales has been furnished with a Ticket to admit himself and friends to the Private Theatre in Richmond House during three nights performances.”

(Charles Burney Archive, Theatre Museum)

The select audiences at the invitation only performances at Richmond House had one great advantage over the audiences in public theatres. They were much better behaved.

One German visitor to England – Wendeborn – being appalled by the behaviour of the audiences recalled the events in his journal:

“Not only orange peels but sometimes glasses of water or other liquids were thrown from the gallery into the pit and boxes, so that frequently spectators are wounded and their clothing soiled… one forgets one is in a play house which claims in its advertisements the title of a Royal theatre. In Germany such disorder would never be tolerated even at a marionette show in a village inn. At Drury Lane I wished to look around the gallery in order to examine its structure but a heap of orange peels, Striking me with considerable force in the face robbed me of all curiosity. The best plan is to keep your face turned to the stage, and thus quietly submit to the hail of oranges on your back.”

On February the 7th, 1789 the first performance of their season took place. The fashionable audience included the Prince of Wales, the Dukes of York, Gloucester and Devonshire.

The costumes were splendid; real jewelry (not paste) was worn. The costumes for the play were very elegant clothes provided by the actors themselves, and even the men in true Mr. Rushworth style, had the opportunity to indulge their taste for sumptuous clothing.

“Lord Derby and Mr. Edgecumbe were most superbly habited, Lord Derby had four changes; A chintz night gown; a brown morning frock; a dauphin colour embroidered with red and sliver flowers and a very brilliant star; a rich vest with a light brown coat.”

Recalled by Lord Wilson in Mrs Cornwell, Memoirs of Harriet, Duchess of St. Albans (1839).

In 1788 the Richmond House company again assembled, to perform a season of plays. Elizabeth Farren directed the company as before and Elizabeth Inchbald was on hand to provide the prologues and epilogues, and to add dialogue to one of the plays they were to perform (which had been translated by Garrick from the French) entitled The Guardian.
This year James Wyatt was not to merely convert rooms in Richmond House, this season he was to construct a new theatre in the adjoining house to the left of Richmond House.

He introduced the innovation of this theatre begin furnished with seats which boasted backs, unlike the majority of the seats in the public theatres.

Elizabeth Farren had a special alcove created for her, from which she watched and served as a prompter.

“A box was created for the use of the Royal Family, with a crimson canopy supported by pillars, richly gilt, on top a crown; the borders of the box were enriched in superb gold fringe.”

(Gazetteer, 18th May, 1788)

There were also two small boxes to accommodate the princesses.

The scenery was commissioned from Thomas Greenwood who was the scene painter at Drury Lane.

One slight Jane Austen connection can be established here. Mrs Lybbe Powys the mother of Jane’s cousin, Edward Cooper’s wife, attended a performance of the last play to be performed at Richmond House “False Appearances” on the 23rd May 1788 and she recorded it in her diary as follows;

“The Prologue and epilogue were both very clever; wrote by General Conway and spoke with Great Spirit by Lord Derby and Mrs Damer. The whole was amazingly well acted. The house was filled with all the fine people in town.”

This extravagant theatre was eventually destroyed by fire in December 1791. It was never rebuilt and the Richmond House theatricals ended (although the theatre-mad Duke did construct a theatre at Chichester near his Goodwood estate).

N.B. the illustration below is a cartoon by Gillray entitled Blowing Up the Pic Nics – which shows the professionals (led by Sheriden) protesting against the successful amateur performers (like the actors to be found at Richmond House) whose amateur productions threatened their livelihood)