May 15th – The New Covent Garden Opens

1858

The new building which still forms the nucleus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, but at the time was still the Covent Garden Theatre, reopened after being destroyed by fire two years earlier.

The first performance on May 15th was Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots which was an extremely popular work at the time and was performed to an overflowing house, reportedly with at least 300 more patrons than the seating could hold.

E M Barry's 1858 facade as it looks today

E M Barry’s 1858 facade as it looks today

The new theatre was said to be the same size as La Scala in Milan which was at the time the largest theatre in Europe. Designed by architect E. M. Barry, the grand new building sat next to the Floral Hall, and faced onto Bow Street and Hart Street. The costs went over budget, coming in at £70,000 which had been raised by loans from the great and good including the Duke of Bedford and even Barry himself.

Until the 1840s, Her Majestys Theatre in the Haymarket had been the centre of ballet and opera but after some management disputes, the conductor and his company transferred their allegiance to Covent Garden. In 1858, the Royal English Opera Company also transferred from Drury Lane to Covent Garden and in 1892 the theatre official became the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

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March 17th – Dear Liar

1960

Opening today in New York at the Billy Rose Theatre is “Dear Liar” – a play based on the fiercely passionate, yet unconsummated, relationship between Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and English stage actress Mrs Patricia Campbell.

Mrs Patricia Campbell as Eliza Doolittle

Mrs Patricia Campbell as Eliza Doolittle

Written by Jerome Kilty and starring Brian Aherne and Katharine Cornell, the play is based on Shaw and Campbell’s prolific letter writing.

Despite having already been his muse in several instances, the pair did not meet until 1897 and in 1912, while negotiations were underway for her to star as Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion” (a role he had written especially for her despite her age of 49 when it debuted), Shaw developed an intense infatuation which resulted in a love affair of great passion.

When she ended things in shortly before rehearsals for “Pygmalion” commenced, they remained friends however Shaw forbade an impoverished Campbell in later years from selling or publishing any of their letters, except heavily edited, for fear of upsetting his wife.

“Dear Liar” had a successful run in New York and has been revived many times.

“I want my dark lady. I want my angel. I want my tempter. I want my Freia with her apples. I want the lighter of my seven lamps of beauty, honour, laughter, music, love, life and immortality. I want my inspiration, my folly, my happiness, my divinity, my madness, my selfishness, my final sanity and sanctification, my transfiguration, my purification, my light across the sea, my palm across the desert, my garden of lovely flowers, my million nameless joys, my day’s wage, my night’s dream, my darling and my star.” – George Bernard Shaw in a letter to Campbell, publ. in “George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century” by Archibald Henderson

May 1st – Junius Brutus Booth

1796

Born today in St Pancras, London is Junius Brutus Booth.

If the name sounds oddly familiar, it could be because he became a popular actor at Drury Lane before emigrating to America in 1821 with a flower girl (abandoning his young wife and son). In America he was even more successful, compared favourably with Edmund Kean, and remained at the top of his profession for over thirty years.

Junius Brutus Booth

Junius Brutus Booth

It could also be because he had a turbulent personality, depending increasingly on alcohol and becoming notoriously unpredictable, often tumbling over the line into madness. He wrote a letter threatening to assassinate President Jackson, and surely enough his first marriage caught up with him towards the end of his life.

His name might be familiar because he was named after Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the lead assassins in “Julius Caesar”.

But it’s probably because he was the father of John Wilkes Booth, the man who (continuing his father’s legacy) assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC.

March 23rd – Wyndham

1837

Charles Wyndham aged 22 as US Army Surgeon

Charles Wyndham aged 22 as US Army Surgeon

Today, born to Liverpool doctor Robert James Culverwell, a son Charles.

Despite being educated for a medical career, young Charles was to ultimately change his surname to Wyndham and become one of the best known actor-managers in British theatre history.

Lured to the stage by performing in local amateur dramatics, he made his professional debut alongside Ellen Terry in 1862. After moving to America he struggled to find work and returned to medicine. With America in the throes of the Civil War, surgeons were heavily in demand and he served in several of the major battles.

The stage however was too strong a draw and he returned to England to develop a solid career in the popular comedies and melodramas of the mid-late 19th century. He was best known for his roles as Charles Surface in Sheridan’s “School for Scandal” and in James Albery’s “Pink Dominoes” .

In 1876 he took over the Criterion Theatre to much success and in 1899 built his own, the Wyndham’s Theatre. In 1903 his New Theatre completed the trio.

In 1916 after the death of his first wife he married his leading lady and business partner of 30 years, Mary Moore, and is buried with them both in Hampstead Cemetery.

Wyndham's Theatre

Wyndham’s Theatre