fires

Definition

Theater

  • In its earlier history the theater was regularly plagued byfires, especially in the eras of candle, oil, and gas lighting. Thefirst great loss was Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, which wasdestroyed by fire in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII,when a shot from a stage cannon set fire to the thatched roof. Itwas subsequently rebuilt with a tiled roof. London's patent theatershave both burned down twice; Drury Lane in 1672 and 1809 (althoughan iron safety curtain had been installed 14 years earlier) and CoventGarden in 1808, when 23 firemen lost their lives, and again in 1856.

    A fire in a Liverpool theater in 1878 prompted the passingof an act licensing English provincial theaters, but this did notprevent the worst fire disaster in the British theater, which occurrednine years later at the Theatre Royal, Exeter, when 186 people died.The same venue had burned down two years earlier.

    Fires were also a prominent feature in the early history ofthe US theater. In 1798 Boston's Federal Street Theatre burned down.During the next 78 years 75 major theater fires were recorded. One,in 1811 in Richmond, Virginia, cost 70 lives when the candles of thestage chandelier set fire to the scenery. In 1876, 300 people, includingtwo actors, died at the Brooklyn Theatre, and this led to the introductionof stringent safety regulations. America's worst loss of life, however,came in 1903 at the supposedly fireproof Iroquois Theatre in Chicago.About 600 people died after a panic in the standing-room area, despiteattempts by the performer, Eddie Foy, to calm the audience.

    Elsewhere theater fires have caused even greater loss of life.In 1837 some 800 theatregoers were killed in a fire in St Petersburg,Russia, and ten years later a similar number lost their lives in Karlsruhe,Germany. The worst-ever disaster occurred in 1845 in China, when 1670people died. The introduction of electricity, fireproof scenery, andstrict safety regulations have virtually eradicated the risk of seriousfires, although London's Savoy Theatre was closed for refurbishmentafter a fire in 1991.

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