William Godwin's Diary


Covent Garden theatre re-opened on 18 September 1809, just under a year after it had been destroyed by fire. The manager, John Philip Kemble (1757-1823), substantially raised ticket prices in the pit and replaced some seats with expensive boxes. These changes provoked riots which started during the opening night's performance of Macbeth, in which Kemble played the title role.

The diary suggests that Godwin was at this performance: although he does not specify which theatre he attended on that night (only who he went with or met there) it is extremely unlikely that he would have missed the opening night of the new theatre. Drury Lane had not been re-built since being destroyed by fire and Godwin's failure to record the name of the play he saw is further evidence for Covent Garden, where Macbeth was largely drowned out. He similarly fails to record which theatre he attended on 21 September, although the fact that riots were continuing to drown out the actors once more points to Covent Garden.

After the performance on 23 September, Kemble announced that the theatre would temporarily close while an independent committee looked into the new prices. The management was vindicated by the committee, but when the theatre opened again on 4 October the riots continued. Again, Godwin is likely to have attended this performance, though does not record the name of the play.

The protests continued for the next two months, providing an alternative spectacle of placards, banners, singing, an 'OP dance' and fights between members of the audience and the boxers Kemble hired to restore order. The diary shows that Godwin continued to attend Covent Garden throughout this period: in all but one of the thirteen further theatre trips in this period he records what he saw and in every instance this corresponds to the play that was being staged at Covent Garden. Kemble was eventually to concede to most of the rioters' demands, including the restoration of old prices for the pit, and made an apology from the stage on 14 December.

See Marc Baer, Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992) and Godwin's theatre entries over the next three months.