St James's Theatre

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Coordinates: 51°30′24″N 0°8′13″W / 51.50667°N 0.13694°W / 51.50667; -0.13694

For other theatres with a similar name, see St James Theatre (disambiguation)
Illustration of the interior by John Gregory Crace

The St James's Theatre (est. 1835) was a 1,200-seat theatre located in King Street, at Duke Street, St James's, London. The elaborate theatre was designed with a neo-classical exterior and a Louis XIV style interior by Samuel Beazley and built by the partnership of Peto & Grissell for the tenor and theatre director, John Braham. The interior was decorated by the Frederick Crace Company.

History[edit]

The theatre opened on 14 December 1835 with a mixed programme of an operatic burletta, Agnes Sorel, starring Braham, and two farces by Gilbert Abbott à Beckett. In 1840, it changed its name to "Prince's Theatre", but changed it back in 1841. The theatre was rebuilt several times: in 1869, 1879-80.[1] It closed on 27 July 1957 and was demolished and rebuilt as an office building.

Early years at the theatre[edit]

Productions at the theatre included opera, Shakespearian readings, burlesques of opera, ballet, foreign plays, magicians, operetta, and new plays. Braham's company struggled financially, and after a few seasons he gave up. In 1842, John Mitchell took over the theatre, producing mostly French comedies and plays with the greatest stars of the French stage, and the Theatre was a success and became fashionable for a dozen years, even being visited frequently by the Queen Victoria.

Exterior of the theatre in 1836

In 1846, an amateur performance of Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour included Charles Dickens playing Captain Bobadil. In 1846, the Ethiopian Serenaders infected London with the American craze for minstrel shows, a form of entertainment which was to remain popular until the turn of the century. Not long afterwards, the Christy Minstrels opened in London at the theatre on 3 August 1857 before moving to other venues. Their success led to the phrase "Christy Minstrels" coming to mean any blackface minstrel show.[2] F. C. Burnand produced his first major play at the St James's, a burlesque called Dido, in 1860. Benjamin Nottingham Webster was the manager of the theatre for a time.

In 1866, the theatre presented Henry Irving's first big success in London as Rawdon Scudamore in Hunted Down; or, The Two Lives of Mary Leigh, by Dion Boucicault. In addition, that year saw one of W. S. Gilbert's earliest plays, Dulcamara! or, The Little Duck and the Great Quack, a parody of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore. In 1869, the newly renovated theatre presented Mrs. John Wood, then the proprietress, in a long run (for those days, 160 performances) of She Stoops to Conquer. Thomas W. Robertson's last play, War, was produced in 1871, and he died the following month. In 1875, Gilbert's collaborator, Arthur Sullivan (they had just produced their one-act opera, Trial by Jury at another theatre), produced The Zoo, and Gilbert was back the same year with his farce, Tom Cobb; or, Fortune's Toy, and in 1888 with a drama, Brantinghame Hall, under the management of Rutland Barrington, that flopped badly. Barrington had previously produced The Dean's Daughter by Sydney Grundy at the theatre that year, another flop.[3]

After Mrs. Wood, Madge Kendal and her husband William Hunter Kendal took over the theatre together with John Hare, renovating it again in 1879. In 1880, Tom Taylor's Still Waters Run Deep was produced, the first of several of his works. About a dozen Arthur Wing Pinero plays also followed. Some of their notable successes included The Squire, Impulse, The Ironmaster, and A Scrap of Paper. Lillie Langtry took over briefly in 1890, presenting As You Like It and Sydney Grundy's Esther Sandraz.

The George Alexander and inter-war period[edit]

The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 with Allan Aynesworth as Algernon (left) and Alexander as Jack

By the end of 1890, George Alexander had taken over the theatre, and he remained in charge for the rest of his life, until 1918. In 1892, he produced Oscar Wilde’s first great success, Lady Windermere's Fan. In 1895, Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest premiered at the theatre. Other Alexander triumphs included The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, by Pinero (1893); The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope (1896); As You Like It (1896); Much Ado About Nothing (1898); Paolo and Francesca, by Stephen Phillips (1902); If I were King, by Justin Huntly McCarthy (1902); Old Heidelberg, by Meyer Forster and Bleichmann (1903) and His House in Order, by Pinero (1906), to name only a few of the plays still remembered. Also premiered during that time was George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion in 1913.

After Alexander died, the lease was taken over by Gilbert Miller, the American impresario, who later purchased the theatre and owned it up to its eventual sale for re-development and demolition. The first play of the new era was The Eyes of Youth, which ran for 383 performances. In 1923, The Green Goddess, by William Archer, started its run of 417 performances. Sir Gerald du Maurier was actor-manager of the St James's for several years in the 1920s and 1930s. He had appeared there as Lord Arthur Dilling in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney by Frederick Lonsdale (1925), which ran for 514 performances, being succeeded in that role by Henry Daniell. Interference (1927), by Ronald Pertwee and Harold Dearden was another big success and ran for 412 performances. Daniell appeared again at the St James's in 1928 as Satollyon in The Return Journey and in 1932 as Max Lawrence in The Vinegar Tree. In 1929, Alfred Lunt made his London debut with his wife Lynn Fontanne in the Theatre Guild production of Caprice. A number of very successful plays ran at the theatre in the 1930s and 1940s, including Agatha Christie's Ten Little Niggers, which was interrupted when a bomb damaged the roof of the theatre in 1944.

Last years[edit]

Other famous actors who performed at the theatre included Charles Wyndham, William Terriss, J. L. Toole, Rutland Barrington (who became bankrupt managing the theatre for a time), Henry Ainley (who briefly co-managed with Gilbert Miller), Claude Rains, Charles Hawtrey, and Orson Welles. Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh took over the management of the theatre in 1950, opening with Christopher Fry’s new play, Venus Observed. In 1951, they produced and starred in an ambitious production of both Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra for the Festival of Britain. In 1954, a Terence Rattigan play, Separate Tables, commenced a run of 726 performances, a record for this theatre. The play (actually two one-act plays, both taking place in the same setting at a Hotel in Bournemouth, a seaside town on the south coast of England) was intended to star Olivier and Leigh, but scheduling did not permit this, and the plays starred Margaret Leighton and Eric Portman.

In 1957, St James's Theatre was scheduled for demolition. Leigh and Olivier led a nation-wide campaign to try to save the historic theatre, involving street marches and a protest in the House of Lords. A motion was carried against the Government in that house, but it was of no avail. However, the London County Council ordered that no further theatres would be demolished in central London without a planned replacement. An office building, St. James's House, was built on the theatre's site. It incorporates sculptured balcony fronts on each floor above the entrance. Four bas-relief panels by Edward Bainbridge Copnall depict the heads of Gilbert Miller, George Alexander, Oscar Wilde, and the Oliviers.

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

Interior seating plan
  • Barrington, Rutland (1908). Rutland Barrington: A Record of 34 Years' Experience on the English Stage, By Himself. London.  Preface by W. S. Gilbert.
  • Duncan, Barry, St. James's Theatre, Its Strange and Complete History, 1835-1857 (1964) London: Barrie and Rockliff
  • Mason, A. E. W., Sir George Alexander and the St. James's Theatre (1935) London: Macmillan
  • Pope, W. Macqueen, St. James's Theatre of Distinction (1958) London: W.H. Allen
  • Who's Who in the Theatre, edited by John Parker, tenth edition, revised, London, 1947, pp. 477-478.
  • Anonymous, A Chronicle of the St. James's Theatre from its origin in 1835 (1900) London
  • Mander, Raymond and Joe Mitchenson, Lost Theatres of London (1968) London: Rupert Hart-Davis

External links[edit]