Covent Garden



  • The familiar name of a theater in Bow Street in the CoventGarden district of London; it is now known officially as the RoyalOpera House, home of the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet.

    Covent Garden is a corruption of Convent Garden, fromthe former garden and burial ground of the convent or Abbey of Westminster.A famous fruit, flower, and vegetable market was held in the districtfrom the 17th century until 1974, when it moved to Battersea. In the17th and 18th centuries the area was the stamping ground of the Mohocksand other semi-fashionable ruffians, and its coffee houses, bagnios,and taverns the favourite resorts of poets, actors, and artists.

    The present theater is the third on the Bow Street site. Thefirst, the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, was built in 1732 by JohnRich the Harlequin (see the Riches). For the next100 years Covent Garden and Drury Lane were the only fully licensedtheaters in London (see patent theaters). Plays andoperas (including several by Handel) alternated at the venue. PegWoffington made her debut there in 1740 and gave her farewell performancein 1757. Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer received its premiereat Covent Garden in 1773 as did Sheridan's The Rivals two yearslater.

    In the 18th century Covent Garden audiences were notoriouslyunrestrained. On one night alone, a riot started because "gentryin the upper gallery" demanded an unscheduled hornpipe, twoplaygoers fought a duel with swords, and an orange thrown at an actor"dented the iron of his false nose and drove it into his head."

    John Kemble (see Kemble family) became managerin 1803 and appeared frequently with his sister, Sarah Siddons. Otherleading attractions included the child prodigies Miss Mudie (seeTheatrical Phenomenon) and Master Betty, known as theYoung Roscius. In 1808 the theater was destroyed by a blazein which 23 firemen died; also lost were Handel's organ and some ofhis original scores. A new theater, modelled on the Temple of Minerva,opened in 1809. With its capacity of 3013 it was said to be the largestin Europe.

    The great clown Joseph Grimaldi appeared regularlyfrom 1806 to 1823. Sarah Siddons made her farewell appearance in 1812and William Macready his debut four years later. In 1817,the year the theater was lit by gas, the management passed to JohnKemble's brother Charles. The theater then declined somewhat, untilit was saved by the popularity of Charles Kemble's actress daughter,Fanny.

    In 1833 Edmund Kean made a dramatic final appearancewhile playing Othello to his son Charles's Iago. Suddenly taken ill,he rested his head on his son's shoulder and whispered, "I'mdying, speak to them for me." He was carried from the stageand died weeks later.

    In 1837 Charles Macready became manager in succession tohis bête noir, the notorious 'Poet' Bunn; hisinnovations included restoring the full texts of Shakespeare's plays andintroducing limelight to the theater. He was succeeded in 1839 byMadame Vestris and her husband Charles Mathews. In 1847 the theaterwas reopened as the Royal Italian Opera House and in 1856 it again burneddown.

    The present opera house, designed by Sir Edward M. Barry,opened in 1858. Sir Thomas Beecham was musical director in 1919 - 20and artistic director from 1933 until World War II. In 1946 the venuebecame the home of the Covent Garden Opera, renamed the Royal OperaCompany in 1968, and of the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company, renamedthe Royal Ballet in 1956. A major reconstruction was carried out between1996 and 2000 at a cost of some £200 million; the house is now regardedas having perhaps the most sophisticated staging facilities in Europe.