Monday, April 23, 2007

A Rollicking Good Riot!

The new Covent Garden opened on 18 September 1809. The cost of this vast theatre was so high that the management decided to raise the prices: from six shillings to seven shillings for the boxes; from 3 shillings and 6 pence to 4 shillings for the pit; the third tier, usually reserved for the public, was converted into private boxes at the rent of £300 a year.

On the night of the opening, audience and actors stood loyally to sing
the national anthem, but, the moment it was ended, pandemonium broke loose. As Kemble stepped forward proudly on to the stage of this new theatre, he was greeted with a tempest of hissing, shouting and whistling which continued throughout the performance of Macbeth which followed.

Reiterated shouts of ‘Old prices Old prices’ greeted both Kemble
and Mrs. Siddons each time they appeared on stage. The noise was such that 500 soldiers were dispatched to the gallery, but the rioters climbed down to the lower galleries, the sight of the soldiers merely increasing the antagonism of the house.

‘It was a noble sight’ said the Times, ‘to see so much just
indignation in the public mind’. Most of the women in the private boxes left early in the evening. The shouting rioters stood with their backs to the stage, while the actors continued doggedly with their performance of Macbeth. When the programme was over and the audience still refused to leave, Kemble sent for the police (Bow Street being opposite the theatre). This aroused the rioters to even greater protest so that the constables tactfully withdrew. It was not until two in the morning that the audience finally dispersed.

Night after night, week after week, the old price riots continued,
except that after the first night, the rioters only came in at half price time. The inside of the theatre resembled a fairground with its banners and placards painted with slogans. Protests were made nightly against the exorbitant salaries received by the Kembles and ‘the clothes on the backs worth £500’ said the Times.

Magistrates appeared on stage to read the Riot Act while lawyers
addressed the house from the boxes, encouraging the rioters. A coffin was carried in, inscribed ‘here lies the body of new price, who died of the whooping cough 23 September, 1809, aged 6 days. The rioters continued to whoop it up for another 64 days.

Unlike earlier riots, however, no damage was done to the theatre and the whole affair was, in fact, conducted in a spirit of fun, the combatants declaring they would obtain their end by perseverance. After almost 3 months of rioting, Kemble was finally obliged to accept the Old Price terms and to make a public apology from the stage. He was greeted by loud applause. Thus ended the
famous Old Price War.

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