Sex in the Restoration Theatre




The Laughing Audience - engraving by William Hogarth


In his book The Art of Living in London, 17th-century author Henry Peacham relates the following anecdote about a tradesman’s wife who went to see a play without her husband and there lost her purse:


“Where did I put it? Under my petticoat, between that and my smock”. “What” quoth her husband “did you feel nobody’s hand there?” “Yes” quoth she “I felt one’s hand there, but did not think he had come for that.”


In Restoration England if a gentleman was seeking an extra-marital affair, the ideal place to seek a partner was in one of the city’s many theatres, and in particular in the pit. Help (if help were needed) was available in The Young Gallant’s Academy (1674) by Sam Vincent, in which Chapter V devotes itself to ‘Instructions for a young gallant how to behave himself in the playhouse’....


Having ‘paid his half-crown and given the door-keeper his ticket’, the gentleman should ‘presently advance himself in the middle of the pit, where having made his honour to the rest of the company, but especially to the vizard-masks, [’Ladies rarely came upon the first Days of Acting but in Masks’- Colley Cibber (1704)] let him pull out his comb, and manage his flaxen wig with all the grace he can’. The next step was to buy some oranges from the ‘orange-wench’, and present one to ‘the next vizard-mask’. In this way ‘By sitting in the Pit, if you be a Knight, you may happily get you a Mistress…’ 

 If encouragement were needed this too was available on the stage itself, such as at the Dorset Garden Theatre, opened on 9 November 1671. It had a seating capacity of between 1,000 and 1,200, and a gilded baroque proscenium lavishly decorated with carvings and a heraldic emblem. A visiting Frenchman, François Brunet, wrote in his Voyage d’Angleterre (1676):

‘The auditorium is infinitely more beautiful and functional that those in the playhouses of our French actors. The pit, arranged in the form of an amphitheatre, has seats, and one never hears any noise. There are seven boxes, holding twenty persons each. The same number of boxes form the second tier, and higher still, there is the paradise.’


One of the most bawdy plays to be performed at the Dorset was The London Cuckolds by Edward Ravenscroft, first staged in 1681. Born in May 1644, Ravenscroft had been destined to follow his father and become a lawyer, but theatrical success in his adaptation of a Molière play persuaded him to give up law for a career in the theatre. He had further success with a farce entitled The Anatomist and with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. But his biggest hit by far was The London Cuckolds, an unashamedly rude play involving young rakes pursuing buxom married women. The play was so popular that it was performed each Lord Major’s Day for seventy years, until pressure from puritans caused Garrick to discontinue the tradition. 


The Four Times of the Day - Morning by William Hogarth (detail)

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