Do haunted theatres exist? Many actors believe so, and say they have experienced the supernatural for themselves. It is this belief that theatres have ‘ghost lights’ which are placed centre stage when the premises are unoccupied.
The practical use of ghost lights is for safety – to avoid tripping over sets or falling into the orchestra pit.
Actors are a superstitious lot (see Pull the Other Leg) which is probably why a simple safety light is called a ‘ghost light’, and many thespians believe that every theatre has its own ghost. By providing illumination when the theatre is closed allows ghosts to perform on stage, thus appeasing them and preventing their apparition from cursing the theatre or current production.
London’s most haunted
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane lays claim to being the most haunted theatre in England. It is the fourth theatre to occupy the site since 1663. In 1939 the cast of Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years were lined up on stage for a curtain call when a Man in Grey was seen to walk with a limp across the upper circle. Wearing a long cloak, white ruffled front shirt, tricorn hat, powdered wig, thigh-length boots and carrying a dress sword he then abruptly walked through a solid wall.
His appearance might be explained by the secret chamber found behind the wall that the Man in Grey would disappear. It was discovered by workmen during restoration in the 1840s, for walled up they found the skeleton of a man surrounded by remnants of grey cloth with a knife protruding from his back.
He seems to have taken his demise in good spirits for he is invariably spotted during the hours of daylight sometimes sitting in the end seat of the fourth row by the central gangway of the upper circle and his appearance portends to signal the beginning of a successful run – The King and I, South Pacific, Oklahoma and he appeared every time there was a change of cast in the long-running Miss Saigon. Or it would be he just likes musicals.
The remains are speculated to be those of a young man who comes to London during the time of Queen Anne, won the affections an actress at the theatre. Her jealous lover murdered him and hid the corpse in the secret recess where it lay undiscovered until the Victorian renovation of the theatre.
Spookier still is the legend of the face in the mirror. Accompanied by the smell of lavender and the sound of ghostly feet practising a tap routine, this apparition is said to be Dan Leno (right), popular in the 19th century for his clog dancing routine and his portrayal of a pantomime dame. At the height of his clog dancing popularity Dan Leno went mad, and died in 1904 aged just 43. He is said to pay a visit to his old dressing room, the location is kept a closely guarded secret by the management for fear of putting the willies up the present incumbent.
Murdered for a wig
Another tale is of a dispute over a wig. Actor Charles Macklin murdered a fellow actor in the Green Room. Opinions are divided as to which of these, murderer or victim return to make their grim presence felt.
There is reputedly the ghost of Joseph Grimaldi (below), who in the course of a long and distinctive theatrical career single-handedly laid the foundations of the pantomime tradition. The character of the white-faced innocent rogue that he created became so universally popular that clowns are still known ‘Joeys’ in honour of the father of modern clownery. He was overcome by a crippling disease that forced him to give up acting and in 1818 now destitute a benefit performance was organised at the Theatre Royal.
Whether in gratitude to the charity extended to him at his time of need his ghost has returned many times is renowned for administering a mischievous kick, and actors, cleaners, usherettes have all been on the receiving end of his spectral boot as they go about their everyday duties. One of Grimaldi’s final wishes was that his head should be severed from his body prior to burial. This macabre request was, apparently, carried out, and this might account for the disembodied white face, which has been seen floating around the theatre.
Phantom of the Opera
Michael Crawford once reported a pair of ghostly hands guiding him through a tricky moment on stage, female performers as they stand in the wings waiting to go on have reported wandering hands and one Drury Lane general manager was convinced that a poltergeist of some sort was at work in his office.
Theatre-speak for payday is the expression ‘the ghost is still said to walk every Friday’, which probably dates from the time when managers of touring companies invariably doubled as the ghost in Hamlet.
Picture: Most Haunted St Peters Alresford (andreas-photography/flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)
A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 17th December 2013