Opened: 9th April 1705
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, is one of the oldest London theatres still in existence: only Drury Lane and Sadlers Wells have a longer history of continuous theatrical use on one site. Over its history the theatre has changed name – and gender – five times, according to the current monarch. It was also briefly known as the Italian Opera House, reflecting its main use during the first half of its life.
Her Majesty’s in 1896
At the start of the eighteenth century there were two competing theatre companies in London: the United Company led by Christopher Rich and based in Drury Lane Theatre, and a breakaway group led by the actor Thomas Betterton, who were performing at a much smaller theatre in a converted tennis court in Lincolns Inn Fields. Around 1704 the poet and dramatist William Congreve joined in partnership with the amateur architect Sir John Vanbrugh, himself a dramatist, to build a theatre in the Haymarket as a new home for Betterton's company.
The theatre was designed by Vanbrugh himself and built by subscription from thirty ‘persons of quality’. It was opened in 1705 with the authority of Queen Anne, and so was called The Queen’s Theatre. The design of the new theatre seems to have been rather unusual, as described by the Diverting Post in April 1705:
- When I their Boxes, Pit, and Stage did see,
- Their Musick Room, and Middle Gallery,
- In Semi-circles all of them to be;
- I well perceiv’d they took peculiar Care
- Nothing to make, or do, upon the Square.
The theatre had been intended to present plays by Congreve and Vanbrugh, but proved to be so large that the actors’ voices were swallowed up. Facing stiff competition from Drury Lane, Vanbrugh decided on a new strategy. Both Rich’s and Betterton’s companies had up till now performed a mixture of plays and what were then called ‘operas’ – productions with spoken dialogue and incidental music, which could range from occasional songs to full-scale masques. Among some of the theatres’ audiences, particularly young aristocrats who had travelled to Italy, a taste was growing for ‘Italian’ – i.e. completely sung – opera, and it was this new taste that The Queen’s Theatre began to cater to.
Sir John Vanbrugh
Despite problems with its acoustics, the theatre quickly became successful in its new role. In 1711 it staged the first opera composed in London by the 26-year-old George Frideric Handel: Rinaldo, a fantasy based on the Crusades which incorporated both a thunder machine and live songbirds into the score. The opera was a huge success, and marked the start of a long association between Handel and the theatre. He was granted a pension by the queen, and after her death in 1714 he went on to compose for the new George I. Five years later, members of the nobility created an Italian opera company in London with the king’s support, calling it ‘The Royal Academy of Music’. Handel was appointed musical director, and the company was based at Vanbrugh’s theatre – now renamed The King’s Theatre. Over the next decade, Handel managed to attract both English and Italian stars to perform at the theatre, often in his own operas.
George Frideric Handel
The King’s Theatre would remain the home of opera and other musical performances for the next century, surviving two fires and numerous rebuildings to become the biggest theatre in the United Kingdom. In the 1760s the theatre premiered three operas by J.C. Bach, who had come to London specifically to work there. The King’s Theatre was destroyed by fire in 1789, and was rebuilt over two years by the celebrated architect Michael Novosielski. The restored theatre went on to stage the first London performances of several works by Mozart including Cosi Fan Tutti (1811) and Don Giovanni (1816). The new manager, William Taylor, also began to include ballet performances, which became extremely popular by the end of the century.
Performance of Le Delire d’un Peintre at Her Majesty’s
In the 19th century a number of new alterations were made to the theatre, including the Royal Opera Arcade along the rear of the building, designed by the royal architect John Nash, which still stands today. The theatre was renamed Her Majesty’s Theatre, Italian Opera House, when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837; the ‘Italian Opera House’ part of the name was dropped ten years later when the title was transferred to Covent Garden.
Interior of the theatre (now called The Italian Opera House) in 1843
Then in 1867 the theatre was badly damaged by fire again.
Her Majesty’s after the1867 fire
The third incarnation was built by Charles Lee and reopened in 1875, once again as a popular venue for opera. But this theatre was demolished in 1892, leaving only Nash’s Royal Arcade standing.
In 1897 the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who was then managing the Haymarket, bought the site of Her Majesty’s Theatre and commissioned a new design by C. J. Phipps. This became the theatre we know today. Built in French Renaissance style with an imposing central dome, and seating over twelve hundred people in four tiers, it has been called ‘one of the best-planned theatres in London’. The top gallery, providing cheaper seats than the rest of the house, was initially viewed as a mistake by Tree, who planned to close it as a loss-maker. He was dissuaded by George Bernard Shaw, who argued that cheap seats were vital ‘for such faithful supporters of high art as the working man with a taste for serious drama – especially Shakespeare – and the impecunious student, male and female, who will go to the stalls and balcony later in life…’ The gallery remained open.
Elevation drawing of the new theatre showing the tiers of seating and Tree’s studio at the top
Tree had his own suite of rooms on the top floor of the building, and also ran an ‘acting academy’ there, as can be seen in Phipps’s original plans. This academy, founded in 1904, would later become the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Part of Phipps’s plans for the theatre.
The roof section shows Tree’s own quarters and the ‘theatre school’.
During Tree’s ten-year management of the theatre (renamed His Majesty’s between 1901 and 1952) the repertoire focused on plays rather than opera, ranging from children’s drama to Shakespeare and stagings of Dickens novels. Tree’s lavishly staged Shakespeare productions, in which he frequently starred, drew audiences from all over the world.
Beerbohm Tree as D’Artagnan
Memorial to Beerbohm Tree at the theatre, being visited by Sir Lawrence Olivier
In common with most London theatres, His Majesty’s moved towards musicals and reviews after the outbreak of World War I. One show, Chu Chin Chow, originally put on just as a Christmas entertainment, proved so massively popular that it finally ran for a record 2,238 performances, with regular revamps throughout the run to make it more topical. The theatre returned to plays in the 20’s, but since the Second World War has mostly presented musicals, including Brigadoon (1949), West Side Story (1958) and Fiddler on the Roof (1967) which ran for over 2000 performances.
The theatre in the 1970s
Her Majesty’s Theatre today is a Grade II listed building, important not just because of the exterior and the grand auditorium, but also because so much of the original wooden stage machinery has survived. Sub-stage bridges, a grave trap, rotating cellar drums for raising parts of the stage, a thunder machine and many other devices are still in excellent condition. The Theatres Trust Guide calls the whole complex ‘the most important survival of its kind recorded in London’ and adds that it could be restored to working order. Meanwhile, the modern machinery needed for the effects in recent productions has been carefully installed in and around the old timbers to avoid altering them.
Poster for Brigadoon at Her Majesty’s
Timber drums under the stage: part of the complex of original stage machinery
The theatre’s musical tradition continues today with its current production of The Phantom of the Opera. The grand exterior of the building and luxurious interior, with its three tiers of boxes and gold statuary around the stage, make it an ideal site for this Gothic tale of the theatre, which has now run there for 18 years.
Her Majesty’s interior