Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013...1:18 pm

Tickets? Please!

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From the perspective of today’s theatregoer, the current method of admission seems like a forgone conclusion: pay ahead of time for a ticket entitling you to a specific seat for a specific performance. But it wasn’t always this way, as evidenced by a wide range of ephemera in the Harvard Theatre Collection. Surveying even one city and time period (London from the Restoration through the late 19th century) is illustrative of a very different set of practices.

In the playhouses, theatregoers pressed together before the performance, often in a tumultuous crowd, to purchase metal checks for the pit and galleries. The Theatre Collection holds many examples of these tokens, including a check for the 1671 season at what is most likely the Bridges Street Theatre, early in the Restoration. After purchase, doorkeepers for the respective sections of the house collected the checks, allowing admittance. The only available seats were on unnumbered benches, and crowds larger than the available seating area were routinely admitted, meaning checks did not necessarily guarantee a seat, let alone a specific one. After many Continental theatres adopted a system of limiting ticket sales to the available seating, some English theatregoers clamored for the same practice, but such accommodations didn’t become standard until 1884.

Metal Check for Bridges Street Theatre, 1671 (TS 553.801)

Unlike the pit and galleries, a seat in one of the boxes could be reserved ahead of time for a percentage of the cost, but those who arrived too late might lose their claim to it, as indicated on an 1820s box seat ticket for Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre.

Box Ticket, Astley's Royal Amphitheatre, Harvard Theatre Collection

The opera houses also used metal checks for admission to the pit and galleries. Ivory season tickets were issued to box subscribers, however, with the names of the subscribers inscribed on the reverse.

Ivory Subscription Ticket, 1794 (TS 553.801)

One type of event did rely on paper tickets issued for a specific performance. Benefit nights allowed recipients to keep a percentage of the night’s profits. The recipients paid for and sold the tickets themselves. Because the proceeds from these sales accounted for a substantial amount of their yearly income, recipients employed a variety of techniques to discourage forgery, such as signing tickets, assigning serial numbers, and affixing seals. Recipients with more income at their disposal could produce elaborate tickets, including ornate engravings, sometimes by notable artists, such as Hogarth or Cipriani.

Benefit Ticket (TS 553.801)

In addition to checks and paper tickets, theatre employees also issued written admission known as “orders.” Orders might be given to influential people and the press, or used to fill out the house on slow nights (hence the term “papering the house”). Performers also gave orders to friends and benefactors, who would by custom support the actor’s benefit performances by purchasing those tickets at a higher than standard price.

Order for Edmund Kean Performance at Drury Lane, 1819 (TS 553.801)

A selection of London theatre tickets will be on display in the Chaucer Case on the ground floor of Houghton Library through April 24th.

1 Comment

  • Sharon McKinley
    April 5th, 2013 at 9:49 am

    What a wonderful array of objects, and in perfect condition centuries later! thanks for the post; i love theater history.