The Coburg Theatre c.1820 (renamed the Victoria after 1832)
In modern times actors have had to deal with noises and interruptions from their audience, some accidental (like the SatNav that started giving directions during a performance I saw in Kilburn), others more deliberate (such as the heckling that provoked Lawrence Fox to react with a string of expletives). It would seem that heckling in the theatre is nothing new however, as this case from 1847 shows.
In August Robert Dixon appeared in the dock at the Southwark Police Court charged with ‘making a disturbance in the Victoria Theatre’ and assaulting the constable on duty. The magistrate heard that during the evening performance ‘a noise was heard from the gallery, which rendered it impossible for the audience to hear what was going forward’.
Murray, the constable, (whether an official Metropolitan police constable or the name given to what we might term ushers is not clear) made his may up in the direction of the disturbance and found Dixon who was:
‘standing up on one of the benches hissing the performance, and doing everything in his power to excite a disturbance , and to prevent the play from going on’.
The constable told him to be quite several times but he was ignored. Eventually he moved in to try and remove him from the auditorium. Dixon wasn’t happy about being ejected and resisted; in fact he resisted so much that it constituted an assault and he was arrested.
In court Robert Dixon was asked to explain himself. He told the justice that he was perfectly justified in expressing his displeasure at the performance he had paid to see. He felt it entirely improper that ‘the constable had dragged him out’.
Constable Murray added that this sort of disturbance was quite common in the theatre. There were ‘a number of young fellows like the defendant [who] were in the habit of frequenting the gallery, and out of mere wantonness interrupting the performance’.
The magistrate agreed that it was outrageous behaviour and had to be ‘repressed’ as he put it. He decided to send Dixon for a jury trial at the next sessions and asked him to find bail. If he was unable to do so he would have to go to gaol in the meantime. This didn’t go down well with the young man. He complained that he had already been ‘locked up since ten o’clock the night before, and he thought that was punishment enough for hissing an actor’.
The magistrate ignored his plea and Dixon’s father came forward to post bail for his son. I imagine the outcome would have been that Dixon would have had to promise to keep the peace, and possibly avoid the theatre for a period of time; entering into a personal recognisance (or one supplied by his family) to enforce it.
The Victoria Theatre (called the Coburg until it was acquired by Egerton in 1832) was on the New Cut and we know it as the ‘Old Vic’. According to an advert in Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper the entertainment that Dixon was objecting to might have been part of variety show that included the Tremont American Serenaders (who sang ‘Ethiopian melodies’) , a magician named King, and a demonstration of a chromatrope. It would only have cost him 3d (75p) to sit in the gallery.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, August 11, 1847; Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper , Sunday, August 8, 1847]