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The Building of the Royal English Opera House, London in 1891 - Now The Palace Theatre

From the Royal Institute of British Architects edition of 1892

See Also - Improvements in Stage Machinery - From the ERA, 24th January 1891

Fig. 18. - The Principle Front, Facing Cambridge Circus

Above - Fig. 18. - The Principle Front, Facing Cambridge Circus

The Royal Institute of British Architects in 1892The Royal English Opera House was built in 1891 and is today known as the Palace Theatre. The article below comprises of text and images from a book by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1892, (shown right.) Other images are from my own collection.

The book is principally concerned with American Theatres but the article on the Royal English Opera House is interesting enough to warrant inclusion on the site, not least because very little written material on the original building exists.

This magnificent building was designed by Richard D’Oyly Carte with G. H. Holloway providing the drawings and J. G. Buckle as consultant. The architect was T. E. Collcutt.

The Royal English Opera House was unfortunately a major failure and the building was quickly converted, only a year later, in 1892, to a Variety Theatre by Walter Emden, and renamed The Palace Theatre of Varieties.

For more information on the building in its current form, see The Palace Theatre page here.

The Royal Institute of British Architects article follows:

The Palace Theatre in 2005 - Photo M.L.There is perhaps no class of building which has received so much attention during the past ten or twelve years, and shown such rapid strides of improvement, both in construction and planning, as the modern theatre.

Right - The Palace Theatre in 2005 - Photo M.L.

The Royal English Opera House on it's opening in 1891 - Courtesy Really Useful Theatres.In his excellent Paper on American Theatres, comparisons have been drawn by Mr. Townsend between the American and the English theatre; but he has not been happy in his choice of an example of a London playhouse, as he selected for illustration one of the smallest English houses, erected upon a site on which it would be difficult for an architect to produce a "model" theatre.

Left - The Royal English Opera House on its opening in 1891 - Courtesy Really Useful Theatres.

Although I cannot go so far as to say the theatre, which it is now my duty to endeavour to describe, is a "model" one, without any fault, I think it is a fair example of what has been and is being done in London, in advancing and perfecting the planning of public buildings devoted to the drama.Far be it from me to depreciate the merits of the example chosen by Mr. Townsend, or to draw comparisons between that house and the Royal English Opera House, the plans of which are here reproduced by the special permission of Mr. D'Oyly Carte, to whose energy London owes such a valuable addition to her public buildings.

The Side elevation of the Palace Theatre in 2005.The crux of the whole question of theatre planning is the suitability of the site; a perfect site is an isolated one, and the Royal English Opera House could claim such perfection, were it not for the introduction of the two shops (W W) shown on the plan taken at the street pavement level [fig. 17].

Right - The Side elevation of the Palace Theatre in 2005.

Following the line of Cambridge Circus, the principal facade takes a concave form, and from the ends of this concave the "return" facades"- that is to say, the north and south walls - strike off each at a somewhat oblique angle. The angles of the front facade, which were the weak points, had to have imparted to them "strength, dignity, and grace," qualities which the architect of this theatre, Mr. Collcutt, has secured [fig. 18]. Each angle of the principal facade has been finished with an octagonal turret, starting about twelve feet from the ground, and ending beyond the top level of the building in an octagonal dome. The space between these angle turrets-in other words, the whole facade-is divided into three vertical parts by two smaller octagonal piers or turrets; and the centre division is subdivided into three vertical parts by piers, each of which ends in a pinnacle surmounted by a figure holding an electric light. The horizontal sections of the facade correspond to the internal distribution into circles and galleries. The materials employed for the elevations are red Ellistown brick and Doulton terra cotta.

The principal approach to the theatre is in Cambridge Circus; here the occupants of the stalls, private boxes, and dress circle enter the vestibule (V) [fig. 17], the walls of which are of white Italian veined marble, the dado being green, with a capping on the plinth of marble of darker hue.

Fig 19. - Plan of First Floor (Dress Circle).

Fig 19. - Plan of First Floor (Dress Circle).

Above - Fig 19. - Plan of First Floor (Dress Circle).

The vestibule and Grand Staircase in 2005.On the left of the vestibule is the grand staircase (S), descending to the stalls and stage boxes, and ascending to the dress circle, the second circle, the saloons and smoking rooms, which are situated on the dress circle and second circle levels (S S) over the vestibule [fig. 19].

Right - The vestibule and Grand Staircase of the Palace Theatre in 2005.

The whole of the grand staircase (S) is constructed of marble, and is supported upon rich green columns of the same material; the handrail and plinth are of grand antique, the balusters of alabaster, and the steps of veined marble, the walls being lined with Derbyshire alabaster.

Fig. 20. - Plan of Second Floor (Second Circle).

Fig. 20. - Plan of Second Floor (Second Circle).

Above - Fig. 20. - Plan of Second Floor (Second Circle).

The grand saloon (S S) [fig. 19] is treated in the same richness of style; here the walls are lined with Pavonazz, an Italian marble of great beauty; the dado is of red jasper, and the shafts and pillars are of an Algerian marble.

The grand tier is entered, as already described, from Cambridge Circus, and has a separate exit staircase (o) [fig. 17]. The second circle entrance (d), in Shaftesbury Avenue, has a separate staircase (H) [fig. 19], and the two staircases to the amphitheatre and gallery on the topmost floor of the house are well planned and of ample width; they are marked (G G) in the plan [fig. 20], and deliver the one into Church Street at (h), the other into Shaftesbury Avenue at (c) [fig. 17]. Generally the exits and entrances are admirable.

Fig. 17. - Plan at Level of Street Pavement

 Fig. 17. - Plan at Level of Street Pavement

Above - Fig. 17. - Plan at Level of Street Pavement

Fig. 21. - Royal English Opera House, London

Fig. 21. - Royal English Opera House, London

Above - Fig. 21. - Royal English Opera House, London

The auditorium of the Palace Theatre in 2005.The arrangements made for the sighting and for the acoustics of the auditorium have proved a great success. To Mr. J. G. Buckle, who was consulted upon this point, much is due, as he originated the idea of "making up" the sides of the rows of seats to improve the sight-line. The accompanying longitudinal section [fig. 21] shows how the form of ceiling adopted, sloping upwards towards the gallery, in no way breaks up the sound waves proceeding from the mouth of the actor on the stage, but leads the sound into the deepest recess of the gallery. It has been stated that the sloping in of the main walls and narrowing the auditorium as it recedes from the stage is an advantage for sound. This is, however, quite adverse to the most accepted authorities, and in direct opposition to the principles of the plan adopted by the great composer Richard Wagner in his Bayreuth Theatre.

Right - The auditorium of the Palace Theatre in 2005.

It will be noticed that the front rows of the circles fall towards the stage, while the back rows are gradually sloped up towards the side walls. This is to secure as good sight-lines for the side seats as for the centre ones [fig. 21].

Modern improvements in the construction of theatres demand the abolition of all columns in the auditorium; such obstructions to the sight are a constant source of annoyance to the playgoer. There are no columns supporting the three tiers of the Royal English Opera House, but steel cantilevers, probably the largest that have been used in theatre-building, which are firmly built into the back walls, and do all the required work without further support. The tiers, corridors, staircases, landings are all constructed of concrete, and the "front" of the house may be said to be as "fireproof " as any in the world.

Boxes and circle fronts of the Palace Theatre in 2005.Space will not allow me to describe the marble proscenium frame, or the decorative treatment of the private boxes, the circle fronts, or the ceiling.

Right - Boxes and circle fronts of the Palace Theatre in 2005.

I must pass on to the stage and its appurtenances, where the provisions for the performers are on the most luxurious scale; where the dressing-rooms are all amply lighted and ventilated, with hot and cold water laid on to the washing basins in each room - a luxury fully appreciated by the performers. The introduction of the lift (A S) to the floors of dressing-rooms is an excellent innovation, due to Mr. D'Oyly Carte. The ballet room (F) and the wardrobe rooms (D E) will be found on the amphitheatre level [fig. 22].

Fig. 22. - Plan of the Third Floor (Ampitheatre)

Fig. 22. - Plan of the Third Floor (Ampitheatre).

Above - Fig. 22. - Plan of the Third Floor (Ampitheatre).

The 'Forest of Timber' under the stage of the Palace Theatre in 2005.I cannot attempt in this article to describe the forest of timber which constitutes the stage, with its gridirons, double set of flies, double mezzanine, and cellar; suffice it to say that Mr. D'Oyly Carte has introduced iron construction wherever possible, and wherever he could make it compatible with the conservative usages of the stagecarpenter's law, which, strange to say, changes but little with the advance of science.

Right - The 'Forest of Timber' under the stage of the Palace Theatre in 2005.

Some idea of the extent of the stage may be formed when it is stated that the height from cellar to gridiron is ninety-eight feet. The stage and cellars are protected with a system of " sprinklers," in addition to the usual 'provision of hydrants and fire appliances. In the basement are large engine-rooms for the electric lighting and the heating apparatus.

The above article was first published in a book by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1892.

Improvements in Stage Machinery

From the ERA, 24th January 1891

Mr Walter Pfeffer Dando, the husband of Madame AEnea, and Mr D'Oyly Carte's "scenic manager " at the English Opera House, is the patentee of some remarkable improvements in stage machinery. They are now in use at the new theatre, and greatly reduce the amount of labour required to work the scenery, besides enabling it to be moved with much more rapidity and smoothness.

The Fly Ropes on stage at the Palace Theatre, formerly the English Opera House, in 2005 - Photo M.L.As many of our readers are aware, in old-fashioned playhouses the "cloths" are suspended by four or five ropes attached at intervals to the "batten" along the top of the scene. These ropes, passing each over a pulley, are led either to a windlass which is turned by men, assisted by a counterweight connected with the windlass itself, or each rope is pulled by a man using his own weight as a fulcrum. The objections to these systems are the amount of power required to raise and lower the scenes, the loss of force by the stretching of the ropes and by friction, and the "jerky" movement communicated to the "cloth."

Right - The Fly Ropes on stage at the Palace Theatre, formerly the English Opera House, in 2005 - Photo M.L.

Mr Dando's system, roughly described, is as follows: Instead of hempen ropes he employs wire ones; he joins his suspending ropes at a point above the centre of the batten, unites them in one rope, passes this over a pulley on a level with the gridiron, and suspends from this rope a pile of counterweights, exactly balancing the cloth and batten. Thus the weights and the scene are exactly in equilibrium over a fixed pulley. The slight necessary impetus upwards or downwards is conveyed by a couple of hempen ropes running down to a gallery. One of these ropes is striped and the other plain, to distinguish the raising from the lowering one. The ease with which a heavy cloth can be sent up or down by a gentle pull on one or the other of these ropes is astonishing.

The substage of the Palace Theatre, formerly the English Opera House, in 2005 - Photo M.L.Instead of the old system of "bracing" flats to the floor of the stage with iron bars falling into staples, by which plan a great deal of room and time were wasted, Mr Dando employs an improved form of the "chariot and pole," by which the flat is borne along from the wing upon an upright passing through a narrow "cut" in the stage. By a simple hinge-like contrivance, the flat can be turned vertically to any desired angle.

Left - The substage of the Palace Theatre, formerly the English Opera House, in 2005 - Photo M.L.

Descending beneath the stage, we find ourselves in a region of wires and windlasses. It is by some of these that a number of "bridges" are raised and lowered with wonderful ease to and from the level of the stage, and by others that the poles already described are made to advance and recede in the "cuts." In Ivanhoe these "bridges" will be hardly used; but in the case of any elaborate shipwreck or scene of transformation in another opera, they will materially reduce the trouble and labour of the changes.

A brief description such as the above gives little idea of the neatness and simplicity of Mr Dando's inventions. We may sum up by saying that, taken altogether, they constitute a very important "new departure " in the theory and practice of stage-management.

The above text was first published in the ERA, 24th January 1891.

Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.

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