In an age when it’s hard to get a cigarette paper between the ideology of the leaders of our three main political parties, it’s hard to imagine a time when views were so much more polarised and one’s political allegiances were very much more manifest 200 years ago. The Whigs (who transmogrified into the Liberals or anyone else they could form a coalition with) would belong to Brooks’ Club, while White’s was, and still is, for your blue blooded Tories.
Part of this ritual of taking sides was played out at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, now celebrating two centuries since it was rebuilt in 1811. The theatre is the fourth to have been built on the site, and I suppose the original actually was in Drury Lane unfortunately Knowledge students these days are surprised to find that the theatre’s main, and only, entrance is facing away from Drury Lane in Catherine Street.
Two hundred years ago when a new play opened there, the great and the good would attend the first night, but here was their dilemma: King George III and his son the Prince Regent hated each other and would refuse to sit in the same room, let along speak to each other.
In the days when Royalty would attend a first night (they hardly do now when for instance the theatre’s current offering is Shrek: The Musical) the theatre’s staff ensured that the King and his son would sit at opposite sides of the auditorium.
The problem for their acolytes was to make sure they were seen to go up the correct staircase according to whether they supported George or Prinny. They needn’t have bothered to follow either; the King was going mad and in the year the theatre opened he had given up most of his powers to his eldest son but not before he had lost us most of the American colonies in the War of Independence, while the son’s extravagant lifestyle including the building of the Brighton Pavilion did little to endear him to the public.
This tradition of taking sides continues to this day as theatregoers are directed up ‘The King’s Side’ or ‘The Prince’s Side’. It’s just a shame they didn’t manage to put the door in the correct place.