The OP Riots
As the most extensive and the last of the great theatre riots in Britain, the Old Price Riots provide the most interesting and dramatic case study in an examination of the relationship between dramatic form and riot. Covent Garden burnt to the ground in September of 1808. In rebuilding, the managers changed the design of the theatre to accommodate a larger audience and the dramatic spectacle that increasingly characterized theatrical production. The New Covent Garden included twenty-six private boxes in place of the old third-tier of dress boxes. In order to finance the rebuilding (which was funded partly by public subscription), the management raised ticket prices slightly. The theater audience objected to the raised prices and the new architecture, as well as to the hiring of Angelica Catalani. The changes to the theatre, they claimed, had been made autocratically without public approval. Chanting "OP" for Old Prices, the protestors staged elaborately theatrical riots inside the theatre. Rioters in the pits wore OP hats, danced the OP dance, sang OP songs, raised OP placards, and circulated satirical OP handbills. At one point, rioters organized an "OP ball" to take place within the theatre. Despite high attendance, Covent Garden was rapidly losing money as most protestors arrived late in order to pay for half-price tickets-although the protestors- purchase of tickets to stage acts of rebellion is striking, indeed.
Image 05: This comic illustration criticizes what is seen as Covent Garden management's decision give the aristocratic spectators more space while crowding ordinary spectators. Here, the crowd is directly associated with lower economic classes, while private space is associated with privilege.
Nationalism, xenophobia, and religious prejudice played a central role in the Old Price Riots. Kemble-s hiring of Angelica Catalani, an Italian opera singer married to a Frenchman, functioned as one of the OP faction-s strongest grievances, although the soprano had successfully played on British stages for three years. In the early nights of the riots, before Catalani was dismissed, audience members yelled, "God Save the King-no Foreigners-no Catalani-no Kemble." Religious prejudice merged with nationalism. Kemble was blamed as being a "PAPIST." More vehement were the anti-semitic outcries. In the early nights of rioting, the Covent Garden management hired boxers-some of whom were Jewish--to maintain order within the theatre. In response, during one night of rioting, protestors pushed around an OP in the costume of a rabbi as they cried "A Jew! A Jew! Turn him out."
Image 06: This illustration considers the magistrates' reading of the Riot Act to be another performance.
Amazingly, the onstage dramas continued night after night during the riots, which lasted for sixty-seven days until Kemble brokered a deal with the leaders of the OP faction ending the riots in exchange for a public apology, restoration of the old prices, and a removal of most of the private boxes. A few weeks after the final settlement, the OP faction organized an OP banquet-which Kemble good-naturedly attended.
Image 07: Old Price Riots "Killing no murder, as Performed at the Grand National Theatre"
5. Old Price Riots. Thomas Rowlandson, "Pidgeon Hole, or a Covent Garden contrivance to coop the Gods"
6. Old Price Riots. Isaac and George Cruikshank, "Acting Magistrates, committing themselves being their first appearance on this stage as performed at the National Theatre, Covent Garden (1809)"
[can also be found in Moody, Jane. Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 200.
Credits: The Brady Collection, Christ Church College, Oxford.
Or in Baer, Marc. Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
Credits: British Museum Collection, no. 11418]
7. Old Price Riots. Isaac and George Cruikshank. "Killing no murder, as Performed at the Grand National Theatre" published November 1809
from: Baer, Marc. Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. Illustration 3.
Credits: British Museum Collection no. 11425