Theatre (Patents)

We need to go back in time to understand the way theatres were organised in 18th century England, and just how they developed. To set the scene, as it were.

At the beginning of the 18th century there were three patent theatres in London, so called because they were awarded a patent to operate, by King Charles II, three months after he was restored to the throne in 1660.

Why were these theatres so important?

Well, the patents, which were legal documents gave the recipients the legal right to build a playhouse and to perform in it. Note, it was the recipient who owned the Patent and NOT the theatre. There were cases of individuals transferring their rights under patents from theatre to theatre during the eighteenth century.

The first patent granted was to Thomas Killigrew who opened the theatre Royal Drury Lane. The second patent was granted to Sir William Davenant of Covent Garden.

The owners of these patents now had the legal right to perform plays. Without this legal protection playhouses, which had been suppressed during the Interregnum, were liable to harassment and prosecution for harbouring vagrants.

From Elizabethan times (indeed from the introduction of the Vagrancy Act of 1563) actors, travelling players-that is ‘common players wandering abroad’, could be treated as vagrants and subject to prosecution.

The actors who performed in the Repertory Company of the patent theatres had, therefore, a privileged position.

A permanent home in a repertory company in a theatre sanctioned by the Crown gave the actors great protection from this law. And criminal prosecution. Which must have helped their art, if nothing else.

The patents, also in effect gave these playhouses (or the owners of the patent, more correctly!) the sole right to perform plays in the capital. And therefore a monopoly was created, which was likely to prove lucrative.

The patents had to be renewed every 21 years. Sometimes they were revoked or transferred by the courts. During the late 17th century/early 18th century efforts were made by others to break this monopoly.

The Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 clarified the legal positions of the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres, because this Act unequivocally declared that, by virtue of their patents, they were the only theatres under the law who could legally perform plays – by which the Act meant the spoken word and not operas. The Kings Opera House in the Haymarket was given a Royal Patent in 1704, and opera was performed there from that date, throughout the 18th century.

From 1737 Drury Lane and Covent Garden therefore had a monopoly on legalised theatrical activity in the capital.

You might be interested to note that the Act of 1737 also gave the Lord Chamberlain the important right to inspect all new plays and to censor them. This practice continued until 1968.

A parallel system grew up in the 18th century where playhouses were permitted to exist on the issuing of an annual license from the Lord Chamberlain. But this was not a permanent arrangement and therefore was not a powerful a position as having a royal patent.

An interesting occurrence broke the monopoly of the two existing London patent theatres,

Samuel Foote the actor and playwright tried to circumvent the law by opening a playhouse and performing plays, but evaded prosecution and the revoking of his license (and a £50 fine) by selling tickets which invited the public to “drink a dish of chocolate with him at noon”, and he provided the entertainments free of charge.

He broke his leg whilst out hunting with the Duke of York. It was so badly damaged it had to be amputated, and the Duke of York felt responsible, it was his unruly horse that had caused this tragedy.

As restitution for his injuries, the Duke persuaded the King to grant Foote a patent for his theatre, the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, London, which had been operating under one of the Lord Chamberlains annual licenses.

This patent was limited to the lifetime of Samuel Foote, but no matter. The monopoly had been breached for the first time.
But as mentioned above, the patent theatre’s monopoly on performing plays was not totally broken till the 19th century by the growth of the illegitimate theatre.