Covent Garden Theatre Opens in London

Rivaled only by the Drury Lane Theatre and rebuilt three times after fire damage, Covent Garden Theatre was home to many of the best plays and musical productions of the eighteenth century. It has since become the foremost opera house in England.

Summary of Event

The first half of the eighteenth century was a time of tremendous progress in the London theater world. The number and size of theaters increased significantly, and the audiences grew to include citizens from other than the upper class. An important new stage was that of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, one of two theaters with royal designation. Its founder, John Rich, began the plans for the theater in 1730. The unprecedented financial successes of his pantomimes and productions of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr., pb. 1728) were largely responsible for his ability to embark upon the new venture. Rich, a famous actor and theater manager, had succeeded his father, Christopher Rich, in 1714 as the manager of the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theater, also located in the Covent Garden area. Rich employed the architect Edward Shepherd, who designed many other areas of Covent Garden, including the Goodman’s Fields Theater, which he finished first. [kw]Covent Garden Theatre Opens in London (Dec. 7, 1732)
[kw]London, Covent Garden Theatre Opens in (Dec. 7, 1732)
[kw]Opens in London, Covent Garden Theatre (Dec. 7, 1732)
[kw]Theatre Opens in London, Covent Garden (Dec. 7, 1732)
[kw]Garden Theatre Opens in London, Covent (Dec. 7, 1732)
Covent Garden Theatre, London
[g]England;Dec. 7, 1732: Covent Garden Theatre Opens in London[0790]
[c]Theater;Dec. 7, 1732: Covent Garden Theatre Opens in London[0790]
Rich, John
Shepherd, Edward
Davenant, Sir William
Woffington, Peg
Garrick, David
Kemble, John Philip
Siddons, Sarah

Permission to build the theater was granted because Rich had been the successor to one of the letters of patent originally granted by Charles II to Sir William Davenant in 1660. The other such letter was that for the Drury Lane Theatre. Drury Lane Theatre, London The patent stated that the theaters were to produce all types of entertainment, including comic and tragic plays, opera, and other musical events. The duke of Bedford leased Rich a parcel of land 120 feet in length and 100 feet in width on Bow Street in Covent Garden, on a site originally that of a nunnery attached to Westminster Abbey. After two years of planning and recruiting subscribers, the Covent Garden Theatre celebrated its grand opening on December 7, 1732.

The elegant theater had a ceiling design showing Apollo in a group of muses along with William Shakespeare wearing a laurel wreath. It was acoustically far superior to older theaters in the area, as draperies in front and side boxes created a short reverberation time and flat ceilings helped avoid echoes. Orchestral tone was enhanced by the use of wood as the predominant building material. The theater had an orchestra pit, side boxes, a scene room, coffee room, wardrobe, and privies, the large number of which was quite a luxury for the time. Although little exact information is available as to seating capacity, financial records indicate that there were approximately thirteen hundred to fourteen hundred seats. Admission prices for the fifty-five boxes were five shillings (sixty pence) each. A seat in the pit cost one-half crown (thirty pence), and one in the gallery was one shilling (twelve pence). Seats on the stage itself, which were customary in the era, cost ten shillings. It was also a custom to allow servants to arrive on the afternoon of the performance to save places on the stage for their masters and mistresses. The revenue from opening night was £115.

The Covent Garden Theatre in London, in a drawing from around 1821. The theater had been rebuilt after a fire in 1806.

(Library of Congress)

The opening night production was a comedy, The Way of the World (pr., pb. 1700), by William Congreve, reputed to be the greatest English master of pure comedy. The theater continued to thrive with productions of both new works and older plays in new productions. The Beggar’s Opera, Rich’s earlier ticket to financial success, remained a standard in the repertory. Among Rich’s greatest stars were performers such as the great tragedian James Quin and the beautiful Irish actress Peg Woffington, who lived openly with the actor and manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, David Garrick, who also performed on the stage of Covent Garden. Garrick was known for the natural style of acting that he brought to eighteenth century theater, breaking the tradition of the more formal tragic style customary on the British stage.

Charles Macklin, a famous actor and playwright, also appeared at Covent Garden, often causing quarrels with the management at Drury Lane, where he had been more often employed. Known especially for such Shakespearean roles as Macbeth and Shylock, his interpretation changed the role of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice from a comedic role to one much more evil. In 1789, he made his last appearance at the theater as Shylock in a performance that he was unable to finish because of his aging memory. Subscriptions from two of his best-known plays supported him in his old age. They were The Man of the World (1781) and Love à la Mode (1759). Sarah Siddons was a favorite actress, most loved for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth. Actors John Henderson and Richard Wilson were often seen at Covent Garden in productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, was also the scene of many musical productions, particularly the operas and oratorios of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Handel’s operas were the first serious musical works to be performed at the theater and were a common offering from 1735 until his death. Pastor Fido (1712, 1734) was Handel’s first opera at Covent Garden, the next one being Ariodante (1735). The following year both Alcina (1735) and Atalanta (1736) were added to the roster. Although productions were lavish, competition among cast members, high salary demands of the singers, and other complications caused Handel’s career as an opera composer to be short lived. He soon turned to oratorios, which were more financially feasible. He wrote twenty-six English oratorios. One of the most notable was a royal performance for George II of Messiah in 1743, which began the tradition of oratorio performances every Lenten season at Covent Garden. Upon his death, Handel bequeathed his organ to Covent Garden Theatre.

A licensing act passed in London in 1737 made Covent Garden and Drury Lane, the two theaters with official patents, also the two officially recognized theaters in London. The act required that all productions pass a licensing committee and that the producer obtain a license from the lord chamberlain before producing a play for the public. For the next ten years, these two main theaters flourished, but otherwise the previously rapid growth of English theater was seriously hindered, as the minor houses were limited in their ability to stage productions.


Modern English theater in many ways owes its traditions to the groundwork that was laid in the eighteenth century. Many new theaters were built, both large and small. New productions of old standards as well as productions of new plays were added to the repertory. A revolutionary aspect was in the casting of women in leading roles, something not before allowed by social customs. The social standing of all actors began to change, and the public treated them with a new respect. Acting techniques changed from rigid, formal styles to more natural, realistic interpretations, largely because of the influence of David Garrick and Charles Macklin. The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, endured three fires and reconstructions, the first of which was in 1808 under John Philip Kemble’s management. The new theater was designed by Sir Robert Smirke and rebuilt within a year. It suffered a fire in 1856. The present Covent Garden Theatre is the 1858 Italian Opera House built by E. M. Barry on the same site and refurbished in the 1980’s. Today, as the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden remains one of the major international stages for opera and ballet.

Further Reading

  • Borer, Mary. Story of Covent Garden. London: Robert Hale, 1984. Provides a good overall history of the theater with stories about actors, audiences, the surrounding neighborhood, and changes endured throughout its history. Includes illustrations of people and the theater and maps of the area.
  • Bucchianeri, E. A. Handel’s Path to Covent Garden: A Rocky Journey. Bloomington, Ind.: 1st Books Library, 2002. A detailed and provocative scholarly account of Handel’s place in the ever-changing London opera world of the eighteenth century. Highlights Handel’s apparent need for artistic control.
  • Scouten, Arthur H., ed. 1729-1747. Part 3 in The London Stage, 1660-1800. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1961. A well-indexed collection of details about productions, including plays and other entertainments, casts, financial records, and commentary.
  • Shaw-Taylor, Desmond. Covent Garden. New York: Chanticleer Press, 1948. History of the three Covent Garden Theatres from 1732 to the mid-twentieth century, with emphasis on the time since the mid-nineteenth century. Colorful illustrations.
  • Trussler, Simon. The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Highly readable, complete history of English theater through the twentieth century. Excellent overview of actors, literature, and theaters.
  • Woodiwiss, Audrey. A History of Covent Garden: Covent Garden Through the Years. London: Conway/Covent Garden, 1982. A good place to begin research for a general overview of the history of the theater and its surroundings.

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David Garrick; George II; George Frideric Handel; Sarah Siddons; Peg Woffington. Covent Garden Theatre, London