The Day They Trashed London’s Oldest Theatre

Image via Wikimedia

Image via Wikimedia

“Do not be so open minded,” GK Chesterton once said, “that your brains fall out.”

Excellent advice. Yet it so often goes unheeded.

Today I relate a short tale of woe and the bad behaviour of British crowds. The country that latterly brought you football loutishnness has been practicing mass mayhem for centuries, as my story will show.

Once upon a time, one cold dark January around a decade before the polar middle of the eighteenth century, someone put an advertisement in all the right English newspapers.

It announced grandly that something very odd would be happening at the Little Theatre in Haymarket, London.

A person would walk onto the stage and request a walking stick from a member of the audience. And on this, the advertisment claimed, the man would play music.

Not only that, but he would change the quality of the music, playing the music of every instrument in use at the time, singing to perfection as he did so.

But that was not the big pull. No; people wanted to see the second feat in which a grown man brought out a wine bottle, which any of the spectators were free solemnly to examine. the bottle would be placed on a table in the middle of the stage and he (without any equivocation) would go into it in full sight of all the spectators.

Once inside, just to give everyone their full money’s worth, he would sing.  “During his stay in the bottle,” the advertiser declares with uncommon largesse, “any person may handle it, and see plainly that it does not exceed a common tavern bottle.”

Just for good measure the advertisment concludes: “Those on the stage or in the boxes may come in masked habits (if agreeable to them); and the performer (if desired) will inform them who they are.”

Who could resist?

Not ten thousand Londoners, apparently. They swarmed to the Little Theatre and about 7pm on the night of the great spectatular, the lights went up on a packed room.

And nothing happened.

No music, nothing. As time wore on the crowd got more and more restless. Some card shouted raucously that if the audience paid double, the Conjuror would fit himself into a pint bottle.

But still, no-one came. A member of the theatre staff braved the stage and told everyone they could have their money back. There would be no-one singing inside a bottle tonight, he regretted.

What to do on a January night when your evening entertainment does not appear?

Why, trash the theatre, of course. Someone threw a candle on stage.

And at this point all the sensible ones got up and left in a hurry, even if it meant losing their wig or their hat.

Behind them, things were warming up. Benches were pulled out and apart, scenery was trashed, and the boxes were boxes no more. The thwarted theatregoers made a great big fire outside the theatre and lit it.

And all because a conjuror forewent to get into a wine bottle and sing a little song.

The newspapers and the streets of London were full of it because, they brayed, how could anyone be as gullible as to pay to see such a claim? No-one seemed to question the high price paid by the Little Theatre manager, or owner, for their failure to check this performer’s credentials.

Who would do such a thing? Ah, Britain has had its top one per cent for a long time. There are claims that John Montagu, the Second Duke of Montagu, did it for a bet that with a claim that a man could “creep into a quart bottle”, he could fill a theatre.

And he did.

But as far as I know, though he may have won his bet, he did not bear the consequences.

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30 thoughts on “The Day They Trashed London’s Oldest Theatre

  1. This reminds me of a joke about a drunk who bet an angry bartender he could pee into a bottle placed on the far end of the bar.

    Wager accepted, the drunk peed all over the bar, missing his mark by meters, while the bartender laughed at having won the bet.

    Unperturbed, the drunk paid the bartender off on the failed wager and then crossed the room to collect on his winning wager with another gentlemen

    That bet? ~ “I bet I can pee all over the bar while the bartender stands idle and laughs.”

    1. Reminds me of another joke: what goes ha-ha-bonk? A man laughing his head off. (There was even a great joke book for kids entitled The Ha Ha Bonk Book, if I remember rightly.)

      Still, an open mind at risking of spilling out can’t be worse than a closed mind, can it?

  2. Goodness! This is a terrible tale in some ways! “A sucker is born every minute” has been true since time began, I suppose, but the crowd’s behavior and trashing the place I would have thought a more recent tradition. I gave previous generations more credit than that! We get to see some of the best of the best each time the Los Angeles Lakers win the basketball playoffs. We have the opportunity to watch the masses trash the city in celebration, not disappointment. Good times!

  3. That’s how the carnies pull them in, and the snake oil salesmen. And, still people fall for the extravagant claims. Thanks for letting us see that man hasn’t evolved all that much – at least as far as swallowing a tall tale hook, line and sinker.

  4. Loved this one Kate. The actual perpetrators never bear the consequences do they? All the more reason why we should heed Chesterton’s advice 🙂

  5. People are strange creatures, aren’t they. We’ll always want to believe in something that can’t possibly be true. As for trashing the theater afterwards, well, that’s a bit of an overreaction but maybe not so much for the 18th century.

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