Former St. James’s Theatre, London SW1

From: Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1960:

“…The theatre was built in the autumn of 1835 in ‘the almost incredibly short space of thirteen weeks, six days of which were so wet as to cause the work to be suspended’. The architect was Samuel Beazley, and the contractors Messrs. Grissell and Peto. The theatre was opened on 14 December 1835 with a performance of Agnes Sorel, which was described as ‘a Grand New Original Operatic Burletta’.

The design and decoration of the new building attracted mixed comment in the press, but financially the theatre was a failure…The exterior of the building was not completed until the summer of 1836…

The theatre’s first long period of prosperity began in 1879, when John Hare and Mr. and Mrs. W. H. Kendal took it over. The theatre was redecorated, the dress circle enlarged and the approaches remodelled. The Times stated that ‘for splendour and completeness’ the appearance of the theatre was ‘greatly in excess of anything of the kind that has as yet been seen’. The Builder was critical. Playgoers would still ‘find the wretched old rococo, and the original fronts of the boxes and amphitheatre’, and the new proscenium clashed with the old work; the use of the foyer for the exhibition of pictures for sale was also deplored.

The Hare-Kendal partnership at the St. James’s lasted until 1888. After an interval of three years the theatre began its second long period of prosperity in 1891 under the management of (Sir) George Alexander, whose reign lasted until his death in 1918. His productions included the first performances of Lady Windermere’s Fan, The Importance of Being Earnest and The Second Mrs. Tanqueray

( “At this time Oscar Wilde was at the height of his success as  one of London’s most acclaimed authors, playwrights and celebrities. In April 1895, however, the scandal of his arrest for gross indecency , caused Alexander to take the ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ off the stage and remove Wilde’s name from the playbills. Despite this setback, and having a good head for business, Alexander secured the rights for ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ when Wilde was subsequently declared bankrupt. Only in the1909 revival of the play did Alexander return Wilde’s name to the programme. Nevertheless, he made voluntary payments to Wilde later, and bequeathed the rights to Wilde’s sons.)

…In 1899 the theatre was thoroughly renovated for the first time in its history. The adjoining houses on the east were remodelled as part of the theatre, and the glass canopy running along the full length of the front of the building was probably erected at this time. The stage was lowered and its depth increased, and the orchestra, which had sometimes obstructed the view, was sunk below the level of the stalls. The seating capacity of the house was increased, and all but two of the boxes were removed. The architect for these alterations was Blomfield Jackson (formerly a partner of C. J. Phipps), assisted by Emblin Walker. The decorations were designed by Percy Macquoid and were carried out by Messrs. Morant and Co. A new act-drop was described as a reproduction of a tapestry entitled ‘Pastoral Scenes’ in the South Kensington Museum, and was painted by D. T. White and H. Telbin. The total cost of the work exceeded seven thousand pounds.

The distinguished tradition established by Alexander was continued in the 1920’s and 30’s by Gilbert Miller. The theatre was damaged by enemy action in the war of 1939–45. Between 1950 and 1954 it was the scene of a number of successful productions by Sir Laurence Olivier.

The first rumours that the theatre was to be sold and demolished began in January 1955, when Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables was enjoying a successful run. The controversy over the ultimate fate of the theatre lasted for two and a half years, and evoked a government defeat in a debate in the House of Lords and a vigorous campaign led by Miss Vivien Leigh for the preservation of the building. The theatre had, however, made no profit for its owners during the previous twenty-five years, and when it became known that some half a million pounds would be needed to save the theatre, all hope of preservation was abandoned. The last performance took place on 20 July 1957, and demolition began shortly afterwards…”

From: Rosebery – Statesman in Turmoil (2005), by Leo McKinstry:

“…When threats and persuasion failed to separate Bosie and Wilde, Queensberry goaded Wilde into suing him for libel by publicly accusing him of sodomy. Wilde’s legal action collapsed after just two days, for Queensberry had hired private detectives to amass a wealth of evidence about his proclivities…

…The homophobe was Lord Queensberry, an eccentric Scottish nobleman who loathed Christianity, homosexuality and Judaism in equal measure. Ill-tempered, coarse, and perhaps clinically insane, he devoted much of his time to heckling church sermons and bullying his family. He was also a keen sportsman, and one of his few productive achievements was to codify the rules of boxing. His brutish ways led to the dissolution of his first marriage; his second was annulled within a year on the grounds of non-consummation due to impotence – a severe embarrassment for someone who made such a fetish of masculine prowess…”

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