Researching the history of entertainment buildings

Buildings created purely to house amusements are a luxury. Only wealthy civilizations can invest heavily in them. We may guess that at first people simply took advantage of natural topography - any flat area with banks around it for spectators to sit on would make a good outdoor arena for racing, sports and displays. Add seats and external walls and you have the amphitheatres of Ancient Greece and Rome. Make it smaller and roof it over and you have an indoor theatre, such as the Odeon of Agrippa, built in Athens in the first century BC.

The Globe from Wenceslaus Hollar's Long View of London (1647)In the Middle Ages entertainment was offered in the halls of great men, or in the open. In the 16th century travelling players performed in great houses, guildhalls, college halls, inns of court and innyards. The Vagabonds Act (1572) obliged such companies in England and Wales to seek royal or aristocratic patronage, which drew them to London. Since the City of London banned theatres in 1574, they sprang up outside the City boundaries. The Theatre, the Curtain, the Rose, the Swan, and the Globe followed the pattern of the improvised innyard theatre. Each had a circular or hexagonal structure containing two or three galleries with an unroofed space in the middle. That made good use of natural light, but left players and audience at the mercy of the weather.

So the indoor theatre had its advantages. The first of these was Blackfriars - the converted refectory of a former friary. It was owned by the Burbage family, who had built The Theatre and then dismantled it to build the Globe. In the Jacobean period, Shakespeare and Burbage staged plays at the Globe in summer and Blackfriars in winter. Until recently it was thought that there were no English playhouses outside London in Shakespeare's day, but the mass of research for Records of Early English Drama has uncovered evidence of short-lived Jacobean theatres in Bristol, Preston and York (see sources below).

The London playhouses were closed in 1642 by Puritans. Dublin's first theatre, opened in 1637, did not survive Cromwellian government either. When the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 revived drama in London and Dublin, the new theatres followed European trends begun in Italy. Restoration theatres were fully roofed and had tiers of boxes for the upper classes. Theatres had to be licensed to perform the full range of drama, which has left a useful paper trail for researchers (see sources below.) The first letters patent issued by Charles II for theatre companies gave a monopoly in London to the theatres now known as the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.

Orchard Street Theatre at Bath, from James Winston, 'The Theatric Tourist' (1805)More purpose-built theatres sprang up in provincial towns in the 18th century. The Bath theatres were among the first. During the spa bathing season Bath was pulsating with nobility and gentry looking for entertainment. The Georgian period also saw the rise of other places of amusement for the leisured classes. By the 1770s all but the smallest English towns had assembly rooms for balls and concerts. Pleasure gardens charged an entry fee and offered music and food in a pleasant setting. The most famous were Vauxhall and Ranelagh in London, but most of the bigger provincial towns had at least one.

The coming of the railways made seaside holidays popular. With the rise of seaside resort came the building of piers, as well as theatres and ballrooms for the middle and working classes who were discovering the pleasures of a holiday.

Music-halls also catered to the working classes. They developed out of the singing rooms built onto pubs in the 1830s and 1840s. By the 1860s they were dotted around London and northern English towns. Chains of music-halls grew up. Moss Empires was formed in 1899 by a merger of three such chains and owned or built Empire variety theatres all over Scotland, Wales and London and northern England.

The motion picture had a yet wider appeal. Films could be shown in existing theatres, town halls or other venues, but as they became a truly mass entertainment, buildings were designed especially for them - movie theatres or cinemas. From 1913 lavish 'picture palaces' sprang up across the US. Other countries were swift to follow suit. One of the best known chains in Britain is the Odeon, founded by Oscar Deutsch in 1930 and owned by J. Arthur Rank 1942-2000.

Studies and gazetteers

Primary sources

Scene painter's loft at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London c.1785 by Michael 'Angelo' Rooker (British Museum)