When reading about English Renaissance theatre, discussions centre on authors, theatre companies and theatre buildings in and around London. For example, the first English playhouses were the Red Lion, which opened 1567 just outside London, The Theatre, which opened in 1576, also just outside London, and the Curtain Theatre, which opened in 1577, also just outside London. Several other playhouses were constructed in the 1580s and 1590s, all just outside the City of London. (The London authorities didn't like playhouses. One reason was the influence of the puritans, who didn't like theatre in general. Another reason was that places where many people gathered together could facilitate the spread of diseases such as the Plague. Plague epidemics always led to the temporary closing of theatres.)

In all the books I have read about Shakespeare and his contemporaries, I have not found a single mention of permanent playhouses outside the London area. Theatre companies went on tour in England, especially when playhouses in London were closed because of the Plague, but it seems they performed in guildhalls and other buildings that normally did not serve as a playhouse. This leads me to the question where the first permanent playhouse outside London was constructed.

The article The Oldest Theatres in Britain mentions that Grand Theatre in Lancaster is "the third oldest theatre in England". However, I think this means that it is the third oldest surviving theatre; it is perfectly possible that other playhouses outside London were built before 1782 (the year in which the Grand Theatre opened) but that they just haven't survived.

Note: Dublin's first theatre opened in 1637, but Dublin is outside England. I am specifically looking for playhouses in England.

1 Answer 1


I can find in Annals of the Liverpool stage: from the earliest period to the present time from Google books, the following:

In June, 1759, the Drury Lane Theatre was opened with the tragedy of The Orphans.

The book states that there were playhouses around in Liverpool before that, at least since 1740, and even that the Drury Lane Theatre was around before then. However, it seems that many of these earlier theatres were actually warehouses, either temporarily or permanently converted into stages. The Drury Lane Theatre seems to have been rebuilt in 1759 specifically as a theatre, so this should satisfy the criteria of the question.

Was Liverpool the first? I don't know; I presume similar theatres in other regional English cities were established around the same time, but they may be harder to find references to.

Some of these first playhouses were illegal, although I assume that nobody ever prosecuted their owners. The Theatre: A Monthly Review and Magazine explains that dramatic performances were forbidden outside of London, and that an act of Parliament was required to make them legal. The Orchard Street Theatre in Bath had been

enlarged to double its former dimensions and had grown into a valuable property, but it was still unprotected by the law ...

The owners of the Orchard Street Theatre thus sought an act of Parliament making their theatre legal, and this became the first theatre licensed by the King.

Many more were licensed later I can find in Google books the following, although I suspect that this is not the complete list:

In 1768: An Act to enable His Majesty to licence a Playhouse in the City of Bath.

In 1768: An Act for enabling His Majesty to Licence a Playhouse in the city of York

In 1771: An Act to enable his Majesty to license a Playhouse in the Town of Liverpoole

In 1775: An act for enabling his Majesty to license a playhouse in the town of Manchester

In 1777 An act to enable his Majesty to licence a theatre in the city of Chester

In 1788: An Act to enable his Majesty to licence a Play-house in ... the Town of Newcastle upon Tyne

These acts explain that these licenses were necessary because of a law dating from the 10th year of King George's II reign (1737) that forbade playhouses outside of the City of Westminster without a license from the king.

  • Oh, pity you deleted that list of acts. It's also interesting that these dates are a century after the Restoration, much later than I expected.
    – Tsundoku
    Jul 20, 2018 at 15:14
  • I can restore them. It may take me a while to get around to it.
    – Peter Shor
    Jul 20, 2018 at 15:14
  • Isn't Drury Lane in London, or is/was there also a Drury Lane Theatre in Liverpool?
    – Tsundoku
    Jul 20, 2018 at 15:40
  • @ChristopheStrobbe: Yes. But there's also a Drury Lane in Liverpool. Both the street and the Drury Lane Theatre in Liverpool (which was built around the same time as the street) were named after Drury Lane in London.
    – Peter Shor
    Jul 20, 2018 at 16:16
  • Thanks. I will now try to get hold of the book The Theatres Trust guide to British theatres, 1750-1950 : a gazetteer.
    – Tsundoku
    Jul 21, 2018 at 16:13

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