A history of Theatre Royal Haymarket and its struggle to break through London’s restrictions on Shakespeare

Haymarket theater
William Capon. Theatre Royal Haymarket. August 1803. Folger Shakespeare Library.

During a time when performing Shakespeare in London was a legal right belonging only to certain theaters, the Haymarket theater’s rise to greatness is directly linked to its struggle to break through these restrictions.  To celebrate its 300th birthday this year, we wanted to share some highlights from its history, its fight to produce Shakespeare, and how its success in doing so led to its emergence as London’s third theatre royal.

At the time that the Haymarket was constructed in 1720, the Theatres Royal at Covent Garden and Drury Lane had already dominated theater in London for decades, having been granted royal patents in the 1660s.  With this royal favor, they garnered reputations as national theaters, recruiting the highest level of talent in the country. After Parliament passed the Licensing Act of 1737, these theaters officially had a legal joint monopoly over legitimate drama, or spoken-word serious drama. This meant that the plays of Shakespeare were reserved only for Covent Garden and Drury Lane.

Samuel Foote
Portrait of Samuel Foote, printed by Samuel Freeman in 1809. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare was a money-making staple of the stage, but because the Haymarket was unpatented, Shakespeare was off-limits there, so the years following the passing of the Licensing Act were turbulent and financially uncertain for the theater. Jane Moody, writing in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, notes that in 1766, the theater reached a turning point when theater manager Samuel Foote suffered a horseback riding accident while with the Duke of York. In an attempt to alleviate Foote’s suffering, the Duke managed to get him a lifetime patent for his theater to perform legitimate drama during the summer. With this special patent, Shakespeare’s plays could finally be performed on the Haymarket’s stage legally for the first time, and the theater then became the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

While the patents for Covent Garden and Drury Lane were for perpetuity, the Haymarket’s patent was only through Foote’s lifetime. Following Foote’s death in 1777, Haymarket theater managers had to continue to operate under special licenses renewed every summer to produce legitimate drama and Shakespeare. The Haymarket’s fight to produce Shakespeare continued on.

In 1832, Parliament formed the Select Committee on Dramatic Literature and tasked its members with investigating the laws governing legitimate drama. The committee interviewed people within the London theater scene, including theater managers, playwrights, and actors, about the effectiveness of the current laws. In its report, the committee found that “In respect to the exclusive privileges claimed by the two Metropolitan Theatres of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, it appears manifest that such privileges have neither preserved the dignity of the Drama, nor…been of much advantage to the Proprietors of the Theatres themselves.” Because Covent Garden and Drury Lane were known as national theaters, their managers were responsible for consistently producing immense talent and spectacle, which came at a huge financial loss year after year. This report showed that confidence in the patent theaters was waning due to their constant struggle to reach an almost impossible standard of production, which meant that the opportunity for other theaters to produce Shakespeare year-round was soon to come.

Richard III playbill at Theatre Royal Haymarket
Playbill for Richard III and other plays at Theatre Royal Haymarket. June 30, 1843. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Strategically, the Haymarket hosted celebrity actors in the effort to build its name, including Charles Kean. Having his name on a playbill was huge for any theater because audiences would come specifically to see him. On June 30, 1843, Kean took the stage as the title character in Shakespeare’s Richard III. The theater showcased his name as one of the biggest items on the bill in order to capitalize on Kean’s celebrity. By hosting the best actors of the day, the Haymarket steadily grew into a theater of status. This production of Richard III came just two months before the passing of the historic Theatres Regulation Act, which officially disbanded the patent theaters’ joint monopoly. The Haymarket would no longer be restricted to performing Shakespeare in the summer months, but was finally free to produce Shakespeare during the regular season alongside Covent Garden and Drury Lane.

Another performance of note offers a further glimpse into the Haymarket’s growth in status. William Charles Macready was the “eminent tragedian” of his era, as newspapers of the day deemed him, and his performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear in 1851 came just before his farewell from the stage. Writing in his diary on the night of February 3, 1851, Macready says, “Acted King Lear, certainly in a superior style to what I ever did before…My theatrical engagement is concluded. My professional life may be said to be ended…I have attained the loftiest position in the art to which my destiny directed me…” Throughout Macready’s career, he held a love/hate relationship with the Haymarket, but his choice to have this final performance of his best-known role take place at the Haymarket demonstrates the theater’s rise in rank. Macready viewed this performance of King Lear as the culminating moment of his 58-year career, having acted better on the Haymarket stage than he ever had before. By this point, the Haymarket was seen as a legitimate, important theater, contributing to the theatrical history of its time.

Promptbook of Macready playing King Lear
Promptbook from the production of King Lear with William Charles Macready in the title role. Folger Shakespeare Library.

From its beginnings in 1720, the Theatre Royal Haymarket fought to be recognized in the realm of London theaters by fighting for its right to perform Shakespeare. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Haymarket had risen to be London’s third theatre royal. Three hundred years later, it continues to endure as a major force in London’s theatrical landscape.