Break a leg or two: the stage was always set for running riot


CULTURE SHOCK:Mass disorder and the theatre share a deep connection that harks back to a time before luvvies, when theatres were seen as public spaces

THE BEST PLACE for a good riot is a theatre. The left likes to imagine rioting as the oppressed rising up against the oppressors, and the right sees it as evidence of the moral decay of society. But there’s a long history, in Dublin and London, of theatrical rioting. Indeed, to my knowledge, the longest and most sustained riots in both cities in the past three centuries happened in and around theatres. This surely says something about the nature of both theatre and riots.

In his Impressions of England 1809-10, the Swedish traveller Erik Geijer wrote of the ubiquity of the enigmatic slogan OP in the London of those years: “There were hats with OP on them. An OP medal was struck which was worn on the breast during the struggle. There were OP fans, OP handkerchiefs, OP waistcoats and caps. OP was inscribed on all the walls in London . . . I have heard children who had scarce learned to speak amusing themselves by shouting OP.”

And what was OP? Old prices.

The OP riots would seem to be the longest in London’s history. They ran for an extraordinary 67 nights in the autumn and winter of 1809, in and around Covent Garden theatre. Their cause was the reopening of the theatre after a fire. To recoup the expense of rebuilding the theatre, the manager and leading actor, John Philip Kemble, put up admission prices, from six to seven shillings for the boxes and from three shillings and sixpence to four shillings for the pit. On the opening night, in September 1809, a “great mob” descended on the theatre, paid in and staged a riot. They kept it up at every performance until mid-December, when Kemble capitulated, apologised and restored the old prices.

The OP riots are fascinating, because they developed into a kind of countertheatre. The audience members didn’t just disrupt Kemble’s performances, they staged their own display. In the auditorium, they did the OP dance, “performed with deliberate and ludicrous gravity, each person pronouncing the letters OP as loud as he could, and accompanying the pronunciation of each with a beat or blow on the floor or seat with his feet, a stick, or a bludgeon”.

In Dublin, too, the most sustained riots were in and around the main theatre, Smock Alley. There were three serious riots there while the theatre was managed by the actor Thomas Sheridan (father of the great Richard Brinsley). The most significant of these began in 1747, when a Trinity College student, Edward Kelly, attempted to mount the stage to indecently assault one of the actors, George Anne Bellamy. Sheridan remonstrated with Kelly. When Kelly continued to insult him, Sheridan replied, “I am as good a gentleman as you are.” In subsequent argument, Sheridan broke Kelly’s nose, but it was his claim to be a gentlemen that became the flashpoint for six weeks of rioting that spread from the theatre to Trinity and other parts of the city. Sheridan was vindicated but not for very long: there were more riots at Smock Alley the following year and in 1754, when the theatre was finally wrecked and Sheridan was driven into exile.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, too, the main riots in Dublin were in theatres. There was the so-called Bottle Riot in 1822, when Orangemen staged a violent demonstration inside the Theatre Royal against the lord lieutenant, the marquis of Wellesley. And, in the early 20th century, there were the infamous riots at the Abbey against Synge’s The Playboy of the Western Worldand O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars.

Why were there so many riots in theatres? Because, firstly, theatres were understood to be public spaces. Whether these riots are seen to be justified or deplorable, they shared a sense that the theatre was not private, that what went on there was part of the order of society. The OP rioters, as well as being incensed about the new cost of entrance, were aggrieved that Kemble’s new theatre had more private boxes and was therefore potentially excluding more working- and middle-class members of the audience. The Playboyrioters, for all their philistinism, believed the “wrong” theatrical image of the Irish peasantry did genuine harm to the nation.

Beyond this, though, there was a sense that the theatre is a space with an ambivalent relationship to order and disorder. On the one hand, a theatre is a rule-bound, conventional space. It has physical laws (you must sit quietly in your seat during the performance) and psychological laws (you must accept that these pretences are in some sense real). On the other, its purpose is to play with perceptions and assumptions, to unleash buried emotions and dark thoughts. The belief is that these two things will somehow balance each other out, that the theatre will be a rule-bound space in which dark things can be safely unleashed. But it’s not a large step to forget the rules and concentrate on the unleashing bit.

Finally – and this is why theatrical riots are worth remembering – there is a deeper connection between mass disorder and the theatre. Riots have all sorts of origins and purposes, from the political to the recreational. They can arise from an emotion as hot as anger or as cold as boredom. But once they get going, they always acquire an element of theatricality. They are about creating a public spectacle, and they involve a great deal of showing off to one’s peers. When commentators talk of rioters making a show of themselves, they’re right in more ways than one.

Theatre audiences are far too respectable to riot nowadays. They don’t have that passionate sense of the theatre itself as a public space. And though one would not wish to encourage a return to such disorderly conduct, something is lost. Theatre riots were unpleasant, but they were almost always contained and relatively nonviolent. Without theatres for people to behave disgracefully in, riots have fewer boundaries.