To have a theatre named after you must be the height of achievement for anyone associated with the theatre. So I’ve two to share for you.
Harold Pinter – Nobel prize winner, producer, playwright and actor – had a career that lasted fifty years. Famed for plays such as Sleuth, The Go-Between and The French Lieutenant’s Wife, he was prolific. He sadly died in 2008. In 2011 that Ambassador Theatre Group, who own many theatres, renamed the Comedy Theatre to the Harold Pinter Theatre in tribute to the great man. The original theatre opened in 1881 as the Royal Comedy Theatre and the three tiers of the auditorium survived reconstructions intact. Finished in white and gold, it doesn’t quite seem to me to fit the image I have of Harold Pinter, however some of its activities were controversial.
In 1956 the theatre established the New Watergate Club under producer Anthony Field, its purpose was to counter the restrictions of censorship that were still in place at the time – see my post on Acts and Angles. Instead of performing them under ‘theatre’ conditions, plays were performed under ‘club’ conditions, circumventing the need to watch language and subject. Plays produced included A View from a Bridge and Cat on a hot tin roof. The censorship law was revoked in 1968 but even before then, the conditions improved sufficiently for the club to disband. Harold Pinter was a conscientious objector, and I find this use of the theatre was probably in keeping with his views on oppression. Perhaps another reason why the theatre was chosen to honour him?
There is always one person who will have a theatre named after them in England – the monarch. Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End started out in 1705 as the Queen’s Theatre. The architect John Vanbrugh was also a dramatist. He designed Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, he also wrote controversial Restoration plays. A political activist, he was imprisoned by the French in the Bastille, and managed to offend society by daring to add sexually explicit material to his plays, and champion the rights of women in marriage. Unfortunately, he wasn’t adept at managing theatres. What the public wanted was entertainment (opera, pantomime, juggling, dancing and animal acts), which made money, not his kind of plays. The only theatres permitted to produce spoken drama during the Restoration period of Charles II were patent theatres. The king wasn’t keen on the serious stuff and hardly any theatres received a licence. The Queen’s Theatre wasn’t a patent theatre, so it ended up doing opera, many of them by Handel and Haydn. With actors’ salaries to pay, a palace or two to build, Vanbrugh was forced to borrow money. But not once did he shirk from paying the salaries of either his actors or workmen, which was unusual for the time. The theatre burnt down in 1789.
The site was reused for a second theatre, but that one also burnt down in 1867. A third theatre was built, using brick fire walls and iron roof trusses to reduce the fire risk. It continued to host operas, including a premier of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
The name of the theatre changed sex in 1714 to the King’s Theatre (also known as the Italian Opera House), then renamed Her Majesty’s in 1937 with Victoria, then in 1901 back to His Majesty’s before finally become Her Majesty’s again in 1952. I suspect it will become His Majesty’s again.
The current theatre (the 4th) was designed by CJ Phipps in 1896, an established theatre architect, it was his last project, and considered his finest work. The theatre premiered Phantom of the Opera in 1986 and continues to be a venue for musicals and is owned by the Really Useful Theatre Co. So though Vanbrugh didn’t get his serious drama on stage, at least the quality of shows has improved dramatically from juggling acts. I’m sure the Queen would agree too.