Lisle's Tennis Court

Lisle's Tennis Court

Lisle's Tennis Court was a building off Portugal Street in Lincoln's Inn Fields in London. Originally built as a real tennis court, it was used as a playhouse during two periods, 1661–1674 and 1695–1705. During the early period, the theatre was called "the Duke's Playhouse", or "the Opera". The building was demolished and replaced by a purpose-built theatre for a third period, 1714–1728. The tennis court theatre was the first public playhouse in London to feature the moveable scenery that would become a standard feature of Restoration theatres.

The Duke's Company

The building was constructed as a real tennis court in 1656. [Hartnoll. Portions [ available online.] ] Tudor-style real tennis courts were long, high-ceiling buildings, with galleries for spectators; their dimensions — about 75 by 30 feet — are similar to the earlier theatres, and much larger than a modern tennis court. [Styan p. 238.]

After the English Restoration in 1660, Charles II granted Letters Patent to two companies to perform "legitimate drama" in London: the Duke's Company, led by William Davenant, and the King's Company, led by Thomas Killigrew. Both companies briefly performed in the theatrical spaces that had survived the interregnum and civil war (including the Cockpit and Salisbury Court), but scrambled to quickly acquire facilities that were more to current tastes. Killigrew and Davenant both chose a solution that had been used in France: converting tennis courts into theatres.

Killigrew's theatre on Vere Street (Gibbon's Tennis Court) opened first, in November 1660. Davenant apparently spent more time in his remodeling: Lincoln's Inn Fields opened on 28 June 1661, with the first "moveable" or "changeable" scenery used on the British public stage, and the first proscenium arch. Wings or shutters ran in grooves and could be smoothly and mechanically changed between or even within acts. The production was a revamped version of Davenant's own five-year-old opera "The Siege of Rhodes". [Pepys first records attending "the Opera" on its fourth day of opening, to watch the second half of "The Siege of Rhodes", attended by King Charles II and his great aunt, Elizabeth of Bohemia: [ The Diary of Samuel Pepys] , Tuesday 2 July 1661.] The result was such a sensation that it brought Charles II to a public theatre for the first time. [Milhous p. 19.] The competing King's Company suddenly found itself playing to empty houses, as diarist and devoted playgoer Samuel Pepys notes on 4 July:

I went to the theatre [in Vere Street] and there I saw "Claracilla" (the first time I ever saw it), well acted. But strange to see this house, that use to be so thronged, now empty since the opera begun—and so will continue for a while I believe. [ [ The Diary of Samuel Pepys] , Thursday 4 July 1661.]

"The Siege of Rhodes" "continued acting 12 days without interruption with great applause" according to the prompter John Downes in his "historical review of the stage" "Roscius Anglicanus" (1708). This was a remarkable run for the limited potential audience of the time. More acclaimed productions by the Duke's Company "with scenes" followed at Lincoln's Inn Fields in the course of 1661 (including "Hamlet" and "Twelfth Night"), all highly admired by Pepys. [Milhous p. 19; Pepys records seeing Davenant's "The Wits", on Thursday 15 August 1661, [] and on two other occasions in the next 8 days [] [] ; "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark" on Saturday 24 August 1661; [] ; "Twelfth Night" on Wednesday 11 September 1661 [] ; and Davenant's "Love and Honour" three times in 4 days in October [] [] [] ; "The Bondman" by Philip Massinger twice in November, [] [] , "The Siege of Rhodes" [] and "Hamlet" [] one further time each, and finishing the year with "Cutter of Coleman Street" by Abraham Cowley on Monday 16 December 1661, having passed his first negative review, of "The Mad Lover", on Monday 2 December 1661 [] .] The King's Company was forced to abandon their own, technically unsophisticated tennis-court theatre and commission the construction of a new theatre in Bridges Street, where the Theatre Royal opened in 1663.

Prince Cosimo III of Tuscany visited the Lisle theatre in 1669, and his official diarist left us this account:

[The pit] is surrounded within by separate compartments in which there are several degrees [steps] of seating for the greater comfort of the ladies and gentlemen who, according to the liberal custom of the country, share the same boxes. Down below [in the pit] there remains a broad space for other members of the audience. The scenery is entirely changeable, with various transformations and lovely perspectives. Before the play begins, to render the waiting less annoying and inconvenient, there are very graceful instrumental pieces to be heard, with the result that many go early just to enjoy this part of the entertainment. [Langhans p. 16. It was once believed that Cosimo III attended the Theatre Royal in Bridges Street, not the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields.]

Thomas Betterton painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller.]

Davenant died in 1668 and the Duke's Company, now under Thomas Betterton, performed out of Lincoln's Inns Fields until 1671, when they relocated to the elaborate new Dorset Garden Theatre. In 1672, the theatre in Bridges Street burnt down, and the King's Company temporarily occupied the recently-vacated Lincoln's Inn Field, until their new theatre opened in 1674.

Betterton and Rich

The building was converted back to a tennis court and remained one for almost 20 years. During that time, the Duke's Company subsumed the King's Company to form the United Company, performing out of Drury Lane. Betterton was forced out as the head of the company in 1688, staying on as an actor (and filling a day-to-day managerial role) while a succession of leaders embezzled funds and cut costs by cutting actors' salaries. Under Christopher Rich, the United Company split. Betterton left with a band of actors and a newly-issued license to perform, and from 1695 to 1705 his company performed back at Lincoln's Inn Fields, refurbishing the abandoned theatre. The New Theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields opened in April 1695 with William Congreve's "Love for Love". [Donohue p. 7.] It was later the first venue for Congreve's plays "The Mourning Bride" (1697) and "The Way of the World" (1700). The building went unused as a theatre from 1705 until it was demolished in 1714 or shortly before, in preparation to build a new theatre. The man behind the new construction was none other than Christopher Rich, who after 16 years had been pushed out of Drury lane. Rich died in 1714, but his son John Rich led a company at the theatre until 1728. On 29 January 1728, Rich's theatre hosted the first, very successful, production of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" (making "Rich gay and Gay rich"). The theatre was finally abandoned in December 1732, when the company moved to the new Covent Garden Theatre, built by Rich using the capital generated by "The Beggar's Opera". []

The old building was used as a barracks, an auction room, a warehouse for china, and was finally demolished in 1848 to make room for an extension to the neighbouring premises of the Royal College of Surgeons. [] []


* Donohue, Joseph ed. (2004). "The Cambridge History of British Theatre: Volume 2, 1660 to 1885". Cambridge University Press. [ Excerpt online] .
* Hartnoll, Phyllis; Found, Peter (1996). "Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre" "The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Oxford University Press.
* Langhans, Edward (2001). "The Post-1660 Theatres as Performance Spaces". Owen, Sue "A Companion to Restoration Drama". Oxford: Blackwell.
* Milhous, Judith (1979). "Thomas Betterton and the Management of Lincoln's Inn Fields 1695–1708". Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.
* Spiers, Rupert (2002). [ Indoor Tennis Courts] from the [ Restoration Theatres] site. Retrieved 14 August, 2006.
* Styan, John (1996). "The English Stage: A History of Drama and Performance". Cambridge University Press.

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