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Thomas Rowlandson, 1756–1827, British

An Audience Watching a Play at Drury Lane Theatre

ca. 1785
Watercolor with pen and black ink over graphite on moderately thick, moderately textured, blued white, laid paper
Sheet: 9 3/8 x 14 5/16 inches (23.8 x 36.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
audience | costume | hats | opera glasses | play | spectators | theater
Associated Places:
Covent Garden | Drury Lane | England | Europe | London | United Kingdom
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Rowlandson’s portrayal of an audience at the theater captures the culture of display and spectatorship that lay at the heart of eighteenth-century social life (Brewer, 1995, p. 348). Few of these spectators have actually come to watch the play. Instead they are busy studying one another and being scrutinized by figures in the surrounding boxes. Because light levels in auditoriums were not dimmed during performances, London’s crowded theaters provided an ideal venue for this sport of seeing and being seen. Rowlandson was himself a regular habitué of the playhouse; his friend Jack Bannister was a leading comic actor who regularly performed at Drury Lane. Although this scene has been identified as the remodeled Drury Lane that opened in 1775, the architecture does not quite tally, making this a more generic scene of London theater life. These theatergoers occupy the first gallery level of the auditorium, a zone reserved for the polite middling orders of society. Here young gallants try their luck with the seated ladies, a practice described in a contemporary epilogue that was often delivered from the stage to close a night’s entertainment. Thomas King (“Bucks Have at Ye All,” 1768) described the gallery as “The ‘Middle Row’, whose keener Views of Bliss Are chiefly centr’d in a fav’rite Miss; A set of jovial Bucks who there resort, flushed from the Tavern—reeling ripe for Sport—Whisp’ring soft Nonsense in the fair One’s Ear, And wholly ignorant—what passes here” (Pedicord, 1980, p. 247). By dispensing with a clear narrative, Rowlandson allows for an endless range of possible plots for this human drama in the theater, something he may have learned from studying French painting on trips to France. Such open-endedness infuses the scene with an erotic charge and invites the viewer to become a fellow gallery lounger, flirting with the surrounding company in a playful exchange of glances.

John Baskett, Paul Mellon's Legacy: a Passion for British Art: Masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, pp. 272-73, no. 64, pl. 64, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

Ann Bermingham, The consumption of culture, 1600-1800, Image, object, text , Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group), New York, 1995, p. 348, DA485 C667 1995 (YCBA)

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