Victorian London - Entertainment - Theatre - Theatres and Venues - Olympic Theatre

Olympic Theatre, The ... The season here, since the secession of Madame Vestris, under whose management it was open from Michaelmas to Easter, is now of very uncertain duration. Admission to the boxes 2s.; pit, 1s; gallery, 6d.

The Olympic Theatre, in Wych Street, Drury Lane, was originally built by the late Mr. Philip Astley, in 1806, as a place of exhibition, during the winter season, for equestrian performances and rope-dancing; it was afterwards purchased by Mr. Elliston, and by that gentleman entirely altered, and appropriated to the representation of stage performances only ; it was subsequently let to, and was for some years conducted by, Madame Vestris, an accomplished and elegant actress, whose constant succession of novelties, and superior style and judgment in the conduct of theatrical affairs, attracted numerous and fashionable audiences to this establishment; and proved, to use her own words, in a celebrated farewell address, that women are the best managers after all.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

Penny Illustrated News, 1849

OLYMPIC THEATRE, WYCH STREET, DRURY LANE. Built in 1805 by Philip Astley, of Astley's Amphitheatre, on the garden ground of old Craven House; opened Sept. 18th 1806, as the Olympic Pavilion; burnt to the ground March 29th, 1849, and rebuilt and reopened Dec. 26th 1849.  The first house was built of the timbers of the French man-of-war La Ville de Paris, in which William IV. went out as a midshipman. The masts of the vessels formed the flies, and were seen still erect long after the roof fell in. It was leased by Elliston, after his Drury-lane failure; but its best days were under Madame Vestris.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850


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Is our Journal of December 29 we recorded the opening of this New Theatre, which has risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the old house, destroyed by fire In March last; and felicitously referred to in the opening Address, a clever piece de circonstance from the pen of Mr. Albert Smith.
    The New Theatre has the form of an elongated horse-shoe, with but few projections, so as not to present any interruptions to sight or sound.
    The Pit Seats are circular in plan, so that each person looks directly to the centre of the stage. The ceiling and proscenium are match boarded, and canvassed for decorations. The height from the Pit floor to the highest part of the ceiling is about 36 feet. The Stalls contain 38 sittings; the Pit will hold from 800 to 850 persons, the Boxes about 200, and the Gallery 700 to 750. The decorations were entrusted to Mr. Aglio, and executed conjointly by him and his son. The ceiling is divided into four compartments, representing the Seasons - each compartment being separated by ornamental designs in the Arabesque style, connected in the centre in an ornament, giving apparent support to the chandelier. The front of the gallery and box tiers is divided into seven compartments, by the gilded and bronzed columns supporting the boxes and gallery. Each compartment in the gallery tier is decorated with arabesque ornaments, within which are introduced masks, musical instruments, and cameos, in chiaroscuro, on gold ground. The proscenium is intended simply to form a frame to the decorations of the stage. The decorations were designed and painted in the short space of seven weeks. The stage and machinery were designed and executed by R. J. Strachan, the well-known stage-machinist, who, as he tells us, has designed and constructed the machinery of eight of the principal London theatres. The front of the house is lighted by a large chandelier, manufactured by Mr. Apsley Pellatt. The gas-fittings were put up by Mr. J. Palmer, jun., and present several useful precautionary measures. The exact cost of the theatre has not been arrived at, but it is stated by the architect, Mr. F. W. Bushill, as under £10,000, including the cost of purchasing some adjoining property. The act drop, representing an "Italian loggia opening on a cortile," was painted by Messrs. Dayes and Gordon, and is a very creditable work.
    We quote these details from the Builder, wherein also are given some instances of construction peculiarly adapted to secure the safety and comfort of the audience. Among these are two fire-proof (stone) staircases to the gallery, one for entrance and both for exit. There are also two ways out of the pit, and separate way from stalls and boxes-so that the house may be cleared in a few minutes. The whole of the entrances, passages, &c., including staircases (slate) to the private boxes and slips, are fire-proof.
    Among the commendable points of management before the curtain of this theatre is the abolition of all fees to attendants, who present gratuitously to each visitor to the boxes, stalls, and pit, a bill of the night's performances. The gratuity system, at the best, insures but an ad valorem degree of civility; and we hope soon to see it forbidden in all our places of amusement.

Illustrated London News, January 12, 1850

   Dr. Keif and Mr. Baxter are seated in the pit of the Olympic Theatre, which is small enough to enable even a short-sighted person to make the public in the boxes and the galleries the subject of a physiognomical study. The “Caucasian population” of Mr. Disraeli’s novels may be seen in large numbers enjoying their sabbath. The pit and the upper gallery are filled with sentimental cooks and housemaids, intermixed with a sprink­ling of females, to whom we do but justice if we describe them as lorettes in a small way. They enjoy the patronage of a select assembly of beardless shopmen and attorneys’ clerks, who treat them to ginger-beer, soda-water, lemonade, and oranges. The curtain has just fallen.
    “How do you like it?” asks Mr. Baxter.
    “Why I think we have seen enough.”
    “Wait one moment, I want to look at some one I know. Am I to understand that you didn’t like the piece?” said Mr. Baxter.
    “On the contrary; I like it very much. There’s nothing like a piece of tragical clap-trap in your English theatres.”
    “Ay !—well !—just so ! But then the piece was ‘done’ from the French.”
    “The natural source of the modern British drama. But never mind the piece ; it ‘s the acting which amuses me. Mrs. Lackaday telling young Ronsay of her boding dream, and Ronsay pitching into her with a declaration of love—you must confess that the scene would have done credit to the most wooden marionettes.
    “Yes, indeed! That scene was capital!”
    “Was’nt it! The fellow stood there, like a big gun, until his turn came, and then he went off! He turned his eyes upwards, that you might have seen the whites at the distance of a mile and be sparred with his bands, as if preparing for a set-to with the moon; and all of a sudden he stood stock still again, exactly like a gun, and the audience was fairly enraptured! And did it not strike you, that the two people had. the same modulation and declamation, as a married couple of forty years’ standing, whose features have acquired the same expression, and whose limbs have fallen into the same mode of movement? At times I am inclined to believe, that the tragic actors, male and female, have been ground their trade to the tune of one and the same patent barrrel-organ. Their pathos is set to music. They all delight in the same pause between the article, the adjective, and the substantive; they all make endless stops, and utter the word which follows with a kind of explosion. I presume these poor fellows try to imitate Macready.”
    “That is to say,” remarked Mr. Baxter, “they caricature him.”
    “But do you know whom  Macready caricatures or imitates? I have read a good deal about Garrick, Kemble, and Mrs. Siddons, and I ought to swear by them, as you all do; but still I cannot help suspecting that, even in the golden period of English tragedy, ‘all was not gold that glittered.’ There is no originality. There is too much respect for antiquated traditions among the craft.”
    “Certainly there is a good deal of tradition about it. But our actors are not at liberty to depart from those ancient ways; and the slightest deviation would raise a storm against the unfortunate innovator. The taste of the public demands—”
    “Indeed! and how does it happen that the period of the Garrick, Kembles, and Siddons did not crests and lead you to a better taste? Has England gone back in education and refinement Why it is just the reverse. The art of tragic acting must formerly have been subject to the same vices as in our days. What you say about the taste of the public is a very lame excuse. I am of opinion that your English public might be trained to a better taste; they are not fond of criticising; their feelings are not used up, and they are eminently grateful. Their taste is unrefined, but they are inclined to respect grace and dignity. Look at Madame Celeste. She carries everything before her by the grins of her untraditional movements.”
    “But then she is a pretty French woman,” said Mr. Baxter, laughing, “and pretty women, you know, will carry every thing before them. But now come before the curtain is up, for Mr. Ronsay will certainly deafen us this time.”
    “Good evening, Mr. Brimley,” whispered Mr. Baxter, as we went out, touching the shoulders of a young man who sat in the darkest corner of the pit with his hat slouched over his face, his great-coat buttoned up to his chin, and a large shawl tied round his neck, as though he were occupying the box-seat of an omnibus instead of a pit-seat in a hot and crowded theatre. The young man jumped up, blushed over and over, seized Mr. Baxter’s hands, and talked to him very earnestly, and, as it appeared, imploringly.
    “Adventure No. 2,” said Mr. Baxter, when the two friends had gained the street. “That tall young fellow with the red whiskers is a Mr. Brimley; he is twenty-five years of age; he manages his father’s business in the city; he is likely to have £200,000 or £300,000 of his own, and he trembles like a school-boy lest his papa should hear of his secret escapades.”
    “What escapades are those? if it is a fair question.”
    “Perfectly fair. His great crime is, that this evening, for the first time in his life, he has gone to the theatre.”
    “But fact. I know Peter Brimley, Esq., and Mrs. Brimley, and the whole family. A set of more honest, respectable people does not exist between the Thames and the Clyde ; but if they were to understand that Mr. Ebenezer Brimley, their son, had crossed the threshold of frivolity, and placed himself on a seat of ungodly vanity, there would be more lamenting and howling among the uncles and aunts of Brimley House than there would be over a bankruptcy of the firm of Brimley and Co. These people are Methodists, and yet Ebenezer the Bold has taken the first step. Since stolen water is more sweet and intoxicating than brandy honestly purchased, I am afraid Ebenezer will drink the poisonous cup to the dregs. Some of these fine days we shall hear of his having gone off with Mrs. Lackaday. Poor fellow! he has not the least idea that she is on the wrong side of forty, and he is evidently much taken with her painted beauties. Never mind, I will be silent as to the past, because I have promised him. He wont sleep this night, I tell you, that little boy of twenty-five, for fear lest some incautious word of mine might betray the secret.”

“Then it would appear that M. Enfin is not, after all, so very wrong,” said Dr. Keif.

Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

ROYAL OLYMPIC, Wych Street, Drury Lane. The old Olympic was burnt down in March 1849. A newer and more elegant "little house" was erected in the same year. It was controlled for several seasons by the late Mr. Farren, and afterwards by Mr. Alfred Wigan, under whose able management the theatre acquired a fashionable reputation. Present lessees, Mr. Robson and Mr. Emden.
Glass of Performance Melodrama, drawing-room comedy, farce, and extravaganza.
Admission: Private boxes, 1l. 1s. to 31. 3s; stalls, 5s.; dress circle, 4s.; boxes, 4s.; pit, 2s.; gallery, 1s. Doors open at seven; curtain rises at half-past seven.

Cruchley's London in 1865 : A Handbook for Strangers, 1865

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Olympic Theatre, Wych-st, Drury-lane. A pretty little theatre, memorable for the triumphs of Vestris and Robson. In the palmy days of extravaganza it disputed the lead in that class of entertainment with the Lyceum. But it never took kindly to the modern vulgarities of burlesque, and of late years has eschewed that line altogether, and addicted itself chiefly to strong drama of a more or less romantic type. NEAREST Railway Station, Temple; Omnibus Route, Strand.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

    The old Olympic, hard by, was another nasty place to leave after the performance, except in a cab. Within fifty yards the alleys bristled with footpads. and any foolhardy pedestrian travelling the dimly-lighted Drury Lane or Newcastle Street was pretty sure not to reach civilisation without a very rough experience from the denizens of Vinegar Yard and Betterton Street.

'One of the Old Brigade' (Donald Shaw), London in the Sixties, 1908


The Olympic Pavilion opened in 1806, and was later known as the Pavilion Theatre, Olympic Saloon, Astley's Middlesex Amphitheatre, Astley's Theatre, Theatre Royal Pavilion, Little Drury Lane Theatre, Royal Olympic Theatre. Became the Olympic Theatre in 1813, and burnt down in 1849. A second theatre was built and survived to 1889 when it was demolished. A third theatre known as the New Olympic Theatre, then the Olympic Theatre of Varieties, then Olympic Palace, opened in 1893, and closed in 1899, demolished in 1905. [see Lost Theatres of London by Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson for more information]