The millions of tourists who come to London each year have no doubt where ‘Theatreland’ lies. ‘The West End’ is synonymous with the London stage, with dozens of playhouses clustered around Shaftesbury Avenue, Drury Lane and the Strand.
Yet as we’ve argued in these pages before, the East End of London has every claim to be the cradle of London theatre. The eponymous ‘Theatre’ and the ‘Curtain’, early homes to Shakespeare, and the first English theatres proper, were in Shoreditch. And, in the 19th century, with the rise of the Yiddish theatres and the early music halls, the East End was the lively hub of London dramatic life… if not always of the most respectable kind. You could get away with stuff on the East End stage that the West End would tut at: but that didn’t stop the toffs coming down to watch.
It was this position, just east of respectability, that allowed one of the greatest-ever talents in English theatre to flourish. David Garrick would go on to reinvent English acting and become famed around the English speaking world, but it was at the Goodman’s Fields Theatre in Aldgate that he made his starring debut on October 9, 1741.
The Garric family had arrived in Spitalfields in 1685. Note the pre-Anglicised spelling. Garrick’s grandfather (also David) had fled the chaos following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The Garrics, as Protestant Huguenots, faced persecution and possible death. Along with thousands of others they decamped to London, and changed their surname. By the time of David junior’s birth, in 1717, they were living in Hereford, and then Lichfield, where he went to the grammar school.
Now comes the first lucky chance in the young David’s life. After leaving Lichfield Grammar, he enrolled in Edial Hall School, run by an impoverished local scholar named Samuel Johnson. Johnson, the brilliant son of a Lichfield bookseller, had already been forced to come down from Oxford, unable to pay his fees, and was scratching a living stitching books for his father. In desperation he decided to set up his own school, to teach young men Latin and Greek.
Johnson was brilliant but no businessman. His school closed after a year, having attracted precisely three pupils (including David and his younger brother George). But Johnson, in his mid-twenties, had become firm friends with Garrick, a few years younger, and the pair elected to move to London to seek (if not their fortune) then a more interesting existence than the backwoods of Staffordshire. They would be friends for life.
In 1737, Garrick and another brother Peter set up a wine import business in the Strand, though with David pouring his energies into amateur dramatics (he had made his debut as an 11-year-old Sgt Kite in a school production of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer), and watching plays at the nearby Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. His attempts to join the company were rebuffed, though: he would have to enter theatre by the back door. Henry Giffard, a customer of his wine business, was running his own theatre in the East End.
And so in 1741, visitors to the Goodman’s Fields Theatre in Aldgate would have seen the young Garrick in a succession of bit parts, quickly progressing to understudying the lead role in Richard III.
It was a pivotal time in London theatre. Most playhouses in London had been shut down, under the draconian licensing acts brought forward by Prime Minister Robert Walpole (largely aimed at quashing satire and criticism of the Government). Those few that remained open were severely limited in the plays they might stage (the beginning of the Lord Chancellor’s censorship of the theatre which would last until the 1960s). The effective banning of new plays was perhaps indirectly responsible for a renewed interest in Shakespeare’s plays, from a century and a half before.
But if the landscape of drama was altering, then the night the man playing Richard did the 1741 equivalent of phoning in sick changed theatre forever. Garrick eagerly stepped up, but his performance of the villainous Richard was nothing like the Shakespeare the London audiences were used to. Rather than sonorously and loudly declaiming the lines, in exaggerated actorly style, Garrick gave a naturalistic performance of light shade, using mannerisms, gestures, body movements … and adjusting the volume to suit the text.
He was a sensation (though not to everyone’s taste), and Goodman’s Fields was soon having to put on extra shows as audiences flocked from around London and further afield to see this reinvention of acting. But that created a problem for the theatre. Giffard had flown under the radar by billing his shows ‘musical entertainments’ and playing down the dramatic side. This though was impossible for the authorities to miss, especially as Horace Walpole, son of the prime minister was in the audience on occasions, writing ‘There was a dozen dukes a night at Goodman’s Fields.’
Garrick had also caught the eye of Charles Fleetwood, manager of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, who delivered a cruel double blow to the East End theatre: stealing their leading man and forcing the closure Goodman’s Fields. Within three years, Garrick, now a huge star, would take over the licence of Drury Lane from Fleetwood and run it himself.
He was the London stage’s biggest star, a manager, a businessman, and an able restorer of Shakespeare’s plays — removing some of the worst bowdlerisation that had taken place over the previous century and a half and reviving some of the rarely performed plays. He also played a major role in transforming Shakespeare from popular writer into our ‘national’ playwright and poet — a position he’s held ever since. And for 30 years, he expertly balanced high art with popular taste, keeping the punters flowing through the doors of the Theatre Royal. West End theatre as we know it was born — but its gestation was in the East End of London.