The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe

By James Van Horn Melton | Go to book overview
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From courts to consumers: theater publics

In the theater, as in other areas of Enlightenment culture, the public assumed a newsignificance. For one, many theaters expanded their seating capacity. Drury Lane, London's most renowned theater, held around a thousand people in 1732. An expansion in 1762 enabled it to house around 2,360 patrons, and further renovations in 1792 boosted Drury Lane's capacity to more than 3,600. Its archrival, Covent Garden, experienced a similar expansion. Renovations in 1782 increased its capacity from 1,335 to 2,170 spectators, and another expansion in 1792 brought it to 3,013. Attendance at the Comédie Française, the leading stage in Paris, averaged 117,000 spectators annually between 1715 and 1750. Between 1750 and 1770 annual attendance reached 165,000 and it continued to growinto the Revolution.1

It was not just larger audiences that made theater publics more visible. Just as “public opinion” came to be seen as the ultimate arbiter in the political realm, so did writers on the theater come to view the audience as the ultimate arbiter of taste. A critic in London's Daily Journal (1737) accepted the public's dominion over the stage as a matter of course: “I believe we shall find the town [here the theater public-JVHM] in general to be justly and actually the governor of the stage, as it now stands: for tho' it be in the power of a manager to produce what actors and what pieces he pleases, yet the town, if they differ from him in opinion, will immediately bring him over to theirs. 2 The metaphor of the public as supreme tribunal, so prevalent in eighteenth-century political discourse, was commonly employed in reference to the theater as well. London's Theatrical Guardian proclaimed in 1791 that “the public is the

Figures are taken from Harry William Pedicord, The Theatrical Public in the Time of Garrick (NewYork, 1954), 6; Joseph Donohue, “The London Theater at the End of the Eighteenth Century, in Robert D. Hume, ed., The London Theater World, 1660–1800 (Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill., 1980), 366; John Lough, Paris Theatre Audiences in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (London, 1959), 173–74.
Quoted in Leo Hughes, The Drama's Patrons: A Study of the Eighteenth-Century London Audience (Austin and London, 1971), 11.


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