Welcome to the Theater-Royal in Drury Lane, also known as the Drury Lane Theater! It was in this location that George Lillos The London Merchant, still a popular favorite on the London stage, was performed for the first time on June 21st, 1731. Despite the summers heat that evening, Lillos remarkable new play, which celebrated the merchant class and advocated bourgeois values, achieved great success. Indeed, the praise for The London Merchant (originally billed as The Merchant; or the True History of George Barnwell) was almost universal. In addition to the overwhelming middle-class approval, Her Royal Majesty Queen Caroline requested that a manuscript of The London Merchant be brought to her at Hampton Court,"1 and the play even won over literary skeptics, like Henry Fielding and Alexander Pope, who is said to have attended the first performance.2
The title page from an early edition of George Lillo's The London Merchant.
The newly remodeled front of the Drury Lane Theater, 1775.
The new playwright chose the location and
timing of his play deliberately. Aware of his own obscurity in the theater
world and conscious of the unusual style and low subject
matter of his play, Lillo presented his work to Theophilus Cibber and
his company of out-of-season
young actors in Drury
Lane.3 It seemed doubtful that Londons high society would accept
the bourgeois tragedy during the Season, and therefore, Lillo felt rather
should take its fate in the summer than run the more hazardous fate
of encountering the winter critics." After its initial favorable
reception, the play was performed at least 16 additional times at Drury
Lane that summer, and approximately seventy times during Lillos
The plays novelty lay in its heightened
and serious presentation of middle-class tragedy. Lillo believed strongly
in the importance of representing universal misfortune, not merely that
of the aristocracy. Indeed, as Lillo proclaims in his Dedication that:
Theophilus Cibber, actor (George Barnwell) and manager
of the Theater-Royal, on the smashing success of The London Merchant:
|An advertisement for an eighteenth-century production of George Barnwell in the States, evidence of the play's sweeping appeal!|
| On the
The Theater Royal in Drury Lane was first built at its present site in 1663 for Thomas Killigrew and his acting troop, the King's Company. Unfortunately, in 1672, the building burned to the ground, but a second theater was rebuilt in 1672-4 following the design of Christopher Wren. Those who had attended the winter season of 1730-31 would have been able to see several wonderful representations of the high tragedy tradition. Shakespeares Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello, as well as works by Dryden, Otoway, Rowe, and many others.