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Theatre culture was widespread in Britain even before the 1840s | Letters | Stage

Mark Lewinski (Letters, 6 March) is not quite correct in claiming that “for the best part of 200 years until the 1840s, theatre was more or less banned from most places outside London”. It is true that the three royal patent theatres (as well as the opera) dominated theatre during the season from September to May. But after that, players from the London stage dispersed across Britain, performing their repertoire in all the major cities and towns. In the early 18th century, many towns acquired a royal licence from the Lord Chamberlain and were able to establish their own Theatres Royal.

But this overlooks the many travelling “fit-up” companies performing in all sorts of places: taverns, town halls, even cockpits and barns, as William Hogarth’s Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn testifies. Shakespeare himself was a member of one such troupe. There was also much reading of plays – borrowed from circulating libraries – and, as evidenced by Mansfield Park, amateur performances in gentlemen’s residences. So there was a widespread theatre culture before 1840.
Lionel Burman
West Kirby, Wirral

Between 1758 (establishment of Norwich Theatre Royal) and 1800 (establishment of Northallerton Theatre Royal) I can name at least 43 provincial theatres that were opened, including the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, Yorkshire, which still operates. And most of them served as a centre for touring circuits, which took in five or six other performance venues. That makes at least 200 places to watch plays in the provinces before 1800. After that date, the numbers only grew.
Robert Leach
Selkirk, Scottish Borders

To alleviate their despair, Mark Lewinski and Joanna Lumley (A rebuke from stage left: young actors ignore our theatrical history, says Lumley, 4 March) should join the Society for Theatre Research. For more than 70 years, it has been at the vanguard of research into British theatre history and practice. The only qualification for membership is enthusiasm for the subject. The society offers a regular programme of lectures and conferences and publishes a journal and book each year. All these are included in the reasonable membership fee.

It also offers funding and prizes to students and researchers. As a recipient of one such prize, I am also fortunate that the society recently published my book, Sarah Baker and Her Kentish Theatres, 1737-1816: Challenging the Status Quo.
Dr Jean Baker
Folkestone, Kent

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