Untold lives blog

06 January 2014

George I and the French and Italian comedians

When he became King of Great Britain in 1714, George I was fifty-four years old.  He has routinely been dismissed in popular histories as an old, dull German prince who spoke no English.  In fact, the king had some spoken and written English.  He had good French, German and Latin.  He preferred to use French, a language also popular with the British upper classes.  As the ruler of Hanover, George had enjoyed and fostered a court culture strongly influenced by France and Italy.  He brought these tastes with him to England.

George IGeorge I, frontispiece. The Annals of King George, Year the First. London, 1716. (1568/8697) Noc

In London, George I occasionally attended the public theatres – his preference was for musical works, particularly the newly imported Italian opera.  However, in November 1718 a troupe of French comedians arrived in London to play at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre.  On 26 November the King attended a performance. He saw two farces adapted from plays by Molière and the Original Weekly Journal  for 29 November reported ‘we hear, his Majesty gave 100 guineas’ to the company. George had obviously enjoyed the show.

In later years, George I occasionally attended English plays and as a patron of Handel he continued to go to the opera.  By the 1720s, the most popular entertainment in London’s theatres was the pantomime – a show which used dancing, singing and farcical action derived from the commedia dell’arte, with sophisticated scenes and machines intended to dazzle audiences.  In January 1726, the new pantomime at Lincoln’s Inn Fields was Apollo and Daphne. The Daily Post for 18 March recorded the King’s visit:

Last Night His Majesty went to the Theatre Royal in Lincoln’s-Inn Fields to see the Play of the Country Wife, and the Entertainment of Apollo and Daphne, in which was Perform’d a particular Flying on that Occasion, of a Cupid descending, and presenting his Majesty with a Book of the Entertainment, and then ascended.

The newspaper said nothing of the King’s reaction, but ‘the Audience seem’d much pleas’d’.  It is likely that the King enjoyed it too.

In the autumn of 1726 a company of Italian comedians arrived in London.  Their first performance, at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on 28 September 1726, was both commanded and attended by the King with the Prince and Princess of Wales.  George I commanded every performance by the troupe while they were in London and attended at least eleven times.  He must have been among the company’s patrons. He obviously enjoyed the commedia dell’arte plays, with their swift, lively and bawdy action intermingled with dancing, which must surely have reminded him of the court entertainments of his younger years.

So, was George I really that dull?

Moira Goff
Curator Printed Historical Sources 1501-1800 Cc-by

Further reading:
Ragnhild Hatton. George I. New haven and London, 2001
Harry William Pedicord. “By Their Majesties’ Command”. The House of Hanover at the London Theatres, 1714-1800. London, 1991.

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