Welcome to the Theater-Royal in Drury Lane, also known as the Drury Lane Theater! It was in this location that George Lillo’s The London Merchant, still a popular favorite on the London stage, was performed for the first time on June 21st, 1731. Despite the summer’s heat that evening, Lillo’s 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 London’s high society would accept the bourgeois tragedy during the Season, and therefore, Lillo felt “rather…it 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 Lillo’s own lifetime.

The play’s 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:

"tragedy is so far from losing its dignity by being accommodated to the circumstances of the generality of mankind that it is more truly august in proportion to the extent of its influence and the numbers that are properly affected by it, as it is more truly great to many who stand in need of our assistance than to a very small part of that number".4

Even the moralizing tone of Lillo’s play was thought by many to be a highly positive feature. Although Charles Lamb deemed George Barnwell “a nauseous sermon,"5 the Daily Post reported that “most of the eminent Merchants of the City of London were present at an early Drury Lane performance, “appear’d greatly pleased with the Play and the Performance,” no doubt because it reflected their own values.6 Moreover, the play’s sermonizing also directly influenced individual lives: it has been noted that one “youthful embezzler…was so struck by the similarity between his situation and that of Barnwell that he wished death, but was happily reclaimed by his father, became an eminent merchant, and annually presented to the actor Ross ten guineas” for his performance of George Barnwell.7

Theophilus Cibber, actor (George Barnwell) and manager of the Theater-Royal, on the smashing success of The London Merchant:
“The old ballad of George Barnwell (on which the story was founded) was on this occasion reprinted and many thousands sold in one day. Many gaily-disposed spirits brought the ballad with them to the play, intending to make their pleasing remarks (as some afterwards owned) and ludicrous comparisons between the ancient ditty and the modern play….But the play was very carefully got up, and universally allowed to be well performed…[and] in general, spoke so much to the heart, that the gay persons before mentioned confessed, they were drawn in to drop their ballads, and pull out their handkerchiefs.”8

An advertisement for an eighteenth-century production of George Barnwell in the States, evidence of the play's sweeping appeal!
On the Theater-Royal itself:
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. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello, as well as works by Dryden, Otoway, Rowe, and many others.