The Exeter Theatre Fire (Historical series)

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Administrative / Biographical History
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However, by this time, theatre buildings began to change, influenced by those in Europe. They were now roofed, with stages for changeable scenery that was slid into position using grooves in their floors. Other scenery was flown in from above. To accommodate these elaborate stage sets more space was needed behind the stage.

Celia Anderson

The Licensing Act of tightened censorship of drama, placing it under the control of the Lord Chamberlain. Only patent theatres were able to perform drama — known as legitimate theatre. Non-patent theatres performed melodrama, pantomime, ballet, opera and music hall burlesque. As these involved music or musical interludes they could not be classed as plays and were regarded as illegitimate theatre so were not subject to the Licensing Act. Later, a series of royal patents were granted to cities outside London. Many still operate and were built in a restrained neo-classical style.

Also in the eighteenth century, companies of players began to travel on regular circuits between market towns. They set up their own theatres, called playhouses, which were similar in shape and size. This enabled stock scenery to be easily erected and reused, which made touring easier. Hundreds were built, of modest size and exterior. Their interiors were simple, consisting of a rectangular flat-floored room with a stage that projected into the audience. People sat on benched seating on the floor in front of the stage, or on balconies against the three remaining walls supported by columns or wooden posts.

Any scenery was placed at the rear of the stage. The rich could pay a little more in order to sit on the stage, not only for better viewing, but also to be seen by the rest of the audience and the cast. These theatres were open for limited periods, and when not needed for performances could be used for other functions, for example as assembly rooms or ballrooms. Theatres had mainly wooden interiors which were always at risk of fire.

In the Drury Lane Theatre, London introduced the first iron safety curtain, which would eventually become a statutory requirement in all large theatres. It also had a large water tank on its roof — a feature that was adopted by other theatres — to extinguish fire in the stage area. The theatre also began to make its scenery more fire-resistant. Some even had porticoes, similar to those seen on the front of large city homes or country houses.

They were added mainly for show, but a few enabled the rich to descend from their carriages and enter the theatre without being exposed to any inclement weather. In the early s, theatre attendance lessened, owing partly to economic decline and poor standards of acting and production. Consequently many theatres closed or were converted to other uses. The Industrial Revolution saw many people from the country migrate to the expanding industrial towns. This resulted in the decline of rural theatres, although some touring companies around the country continued to operate, but mainly from barn fit-ups.

However, in the more populated urban centres there was a significant increase in theatre building. In , the Theatres Act removed the patent monopoly and allowed the Lord Chamberlain to grant a theatre license to any suitable person. This encouraged the building of new theatres, invariably by speculators seeking profit. This led to the closure of many small saloon theatres, which relied upon alcohol sales to stay in business.

Theatre & Performing Arts in Exeter

Yet, the same legislation enabled magistrates to grant public houses licences to offer a variety of entertainment, which led to the creation of a new form of popular theatrical entertainment known as music hall. Very soon, concert or supper rooms were built onto public houses which could sell alcohol and serve meals during their musical productions.

They were usually well-lit rooms with a flat floor and a simple open platform stage with little or no scenery. The audience would sit on benches or at tables in front of the stage, or on balconies against one or more of the walls. They could come and go freely during the evening and were not restricted to performance times. Eventually a specific type of theatre building was developed to cater for this new form of entertainment, called a music hall. They had fewer tables in front of the stage, using the space for benched seating to accommodate more people.

Official Historic Exeter Fire Appeal - Karime Hassan

Hundreds were built in working class areas as money-making concerns. Image showing Wilton's Music Hall, London.

By the middle of the nineteenth century theatre building was becoming a specialist architectural discipline, led by architects such as J. Robinson and C. They were tasked with building even bigger theatres, with grander front of house arrangements and more luxurious social areas. Often, older theatres were demolished and rebuilt to accommodate larger audiences.

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  5. In the auditorium, rectangular galleries began to be replaced by horseshoe-shaped balconies that enveloped the stage and provided better viewing. The intention was to bring respectability to theatre-going and make it more socially acceptable for the middle classes. To achieve this, different classes were segregated: financially by the cost of the tickets; and physically by the requirement to use separate entrances and exits and circulation routes. The rich entered via illuminated entrances, with grand staircases and rich carpets: the cheaper seats via smaller side or rear entrances, with less grand staircases and public areas.

    Also, the benched pits in front of stages were replaced by more comfortable seats and carpeted aisles for the rich. Although theatre was enjoyed by much of the population, it was not always accessible throughout Britain. In rural areas of Wales the portable theatre was popular.

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    6. These theatres toured the country and could be dismantled and moved easily. A terrible catastrophe, a correspondent telegraphed from Exeter late last night, has just happened at Exeter. The new theatre opened but last autumn caught fire during a performance of the Romany Rye. The pit and gallery were crowded.

      The fire, which broke out on the stage, spread with such rapidity that there was an immediate panic, and the exits became blocked. After a dreadful struggle the pit doors were cleared and the people got out from this part of the house, suffering, however, from severe injuries. There was but one gallery exit, and this was blocked so completely that to a great number of people escape was made impossible.

      Accident Form

      By great efforts, some got clear, but the flames soon had such a firm hold of this part of the house that a great loss of life became inevitable. The loss of life it is feared may not be far short of souls. Exeter New Theatre was destroyed by fire last night. At a quarter past 10, during the performance of the drama Romany Rye , fire was discovered in the flies.

      Ten theatres that burned to the ground

      The curtain was at once dropped and the play ceased. The flames spread with great rapidity, and in less than half an hour the whole building was ablaze, the flames rushing forth from every window and illuminating the district for a great distance. Fortuanately, the spectators in the lower part of the house were got out in comparative safety, but unfortunately the occupants of the gallery, uhich is situate at the back of the second circle, could not escape before the fire had reached that part of the building, there being only one exit.

      The consequence was that the loss of life was apalling. Up to half-past 11 60 bodies had been taken out of the building, and 20 injured persons conveyed to the hospital. Two of the latter expired shortly after their admission. The fire was still burning at an ear1y hour this morning. They would get a lot more drama than they bargained for, in an event whose repercussions are still felt today.

      How has the design of theatre buildings changed over time?

      All went uneventfully until the end of the fourth act. She has come third in the Manchester Cathedral prize and has appeared in various magazines, including The Rialto and The North. She is currently exploring the relationship between creativity, spirituality and the natural world. Her website is www. Sally Flint is a poet and creative writing lecturer. She is working with scientists on climate change poems and stories.

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      The Exeter Theatre Fire (Historical series) The Exeter Theatre Fire (Historical series)
      The Exeter Theatre Fire (Historical series) The Exeter Theatre Fire (Historical series)
      The Exeter Theatre Fire (Historical series) The Exeter Theatre Fire (Historical series)
      The Exeter Theatre Fire (Historical series) The Exeter Theatre Fire (Historical series)
      The Exeter Theatre Fire (Historical series) The Exeter Theatre Fire (Historical series)
      The Exeter Theatre Fire (Historical series) The Exeter Theatre Fire (Historical series)

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