Riot at the King’s Theatre on 1st May 1813

On Saturday 1st May 1813 at the King’s theatre a serious disturbance broke out, proceeding apparently a call from the audience for the reappearance of Madame Catalani, who had withdrawn her services from the theatre as they had not paid her monies owed for previous performances.

Mme Angelique Catalani de Valabregue, J.F. Moeller (1797-1871). 1829
Mme Angelique Catalani de Valabregue, J.F. Moeller, 1829. Courtesy of National Museum of Denmark

At the start of the performance (Pucitta’s La caccia di Enrico IV), there were some hisses and boos, which increased as the performance continued, with calls of ‘Off, Off’ Taylor! Manager’. No-one took any notice and the curtain dropped amidst the noise, which rendered the latter part of the performance inaudible.

After a brief interval, the curtain rose again for the next part of the performance and the boos and hisses grew louder. The performance continued with the actors playing the role of dead French soldiers strewn across the stage, noises began behind the scenes too and the performance stopped. The audience had at this point stormed the stage, the scenery of trees and mountains now began to shake; the ‘dead’ French soldiers got up and joined their companions, the dancers fled the scene like a flock of sheep.

A riot at the King's theatre, Haymarket, London, on 1 May 1813.
A riot at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London, on 1 May 1813. Coloured etching by W.H. Brooke after Satirist, 1813. Wellcome Collection

The actors in black formed a complete contrast to the soldiers. Here, in true Buonaparte style, the drop fell, to prevent the public discovery of the chaos ensuing on stage, but they could not hide it all, as the feet of the flying Frenchmen now visible due to the shortness of the drop. The drop was now torn to pieces and the audience discovered the victors who were cheered.

A gentleman now, for the time came forward, surrounded by the storming party, and after much difficulty was heard. He was addressed by an orator or two in the pit and was told that an apology for his misconduct would be expected in all the newspapers. He bowed submissively enough and gave a brief apology to the audience, although this was barely audible. The actors tried to tidy and clear the stage so that the performance could continue, but were stopped in their tracks by a party of guards who entered from the left of the stage with charged bayonets. Another fight broke out until the guards were ordered off the stage by their commanding officer. Some of the performers dressed as soldiers had their weapon thrown into the orchestra among the lamps and desks.  The orchestra panicked and fled the impending danger, gathering up every violin, bassoon and trombone and their music books as fast as possible.

Peace now seemed likely to be restored. Those who have fought bravely moved to the side boxes, shaking hands with those in the lower circle and bowing to those above, as if they had been actors performing a play. But this tranquillity was soon to come to an end as some in the gallery disapproved of the conduct of the conquerors and from among them, a short, young man walked backwards and forwards on the stage, in contempt of remonstrances, with triumphant insolence, shouting some unintelligible words in a vulgar manner. This offender was intoxicated and was dragged to the front of the proscenium and an apology insisted on upon his bended knee, or if he was not prepared to do this he would be thrown off the stage into the orchestra. They managed to get him down onto his knees, but he showed no remorse and was unwilling to apologise. His coat was pulled off, along with his waistcoat and his cravat was grabbed so tightly that he was almost throttled, he was twisted and squeezed about until he apologized properly.

The King's Theatre, Haymarket
The King’s Theatre, Haymarket by Bartholomew Howlett. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

All thoughts of resuming the performance were well and truly over, another spokesman made his appearance, none other than Mr Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates. Somewhat surprisingly, he quickly managed to get silence from the audience, which was somewhat unusual, as he was normally received with laughter and ridicule (he really was thought to be the worst actor of the day).

Lothario, as performed by Mr Coates at the Haymarket Theatre Decemr 9th 1811
Lothario, as performed by Mr Coates at the Haymarket Theatre . © The Trustees of the British Museum

He began:

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great misfortune, we must allow, to be deprived of the talents of Madame Catalani, but it is of no use for us to go a rioting.

Here the party on the stage thought fit to be content with their own exertions, and with very little ceremony they drove Mr Coates off the stage. Many now left the stage and retired to the boxes. The clock was just striking twelve and the curtain finally fell.

Mr Coates again attempted to address the audience from the pit, but without any luck at all. The company departed.

Afterwards, the Lord Chamberlain issued an order, that no-one should ever be admitted behind the scenes, under penalty of withdrawing the licence from the theatre.

Sources Used

Windsor and Eton Express 2 May 1813

London Courier and Evening Gazette 3 May 1813

Featured Image

The Gay Lothario, 16th March 1813. Courtesy of the Met Museum