A Royal Command Performance is any musical, theatrical or, more recently, cinematic performance that occurs upon the instruction or request of a reigning monarch. On those terms, it is virtually impossible to define just when the first Royal Command Performance took place since such events certainly far pre-date the keeping of any written records. Since the earliest days of the monarchy, both in England and elsewhere, Kings and Queens have maintained minstrels and court jesters, and employed travelling troubadours to provide them with entertainment, and in its broadest sense any of these performances could be termed to be a 'royal command performance'.
If we discount these types of ad hoc performances in favour of recognisable theatre (ie. staged plays), then the history of the royal command performance in England can be traced back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, during which time the foundations of modern day theatre were first laid down. The young Elizabeth was a highly educated woman and a lover of music and the arts. The first permanent purpose built theatre was erected during her reign and by the time of her death in 1603 as many as ten commercial playhouses were in operation. Whilst it is doubtful that Elizabeth herself ever visited any of these (she would have been too vulnerable), she had built her own theatre to house plays performed by her own company of players - formed in 1583 by Tilney and known as 'Queen Elizabeths Men'. The company made its first appearance at court in December 1583 and made frequent court appearances in subsequent years as well as appearing in the London Playhouses and touring in the provinces.
Subsequent monarchs continued the tradition of sponsoring their own theatrical troupes until the temporary dissolution of the monarchy (and the abolition of theatre) during the protectorship of Oliver Cromwell. The reinstatement of the monarchy following the death of Cromwell restored the relationship between the Crown and theatre on a similar basis as had existed before.
During the reign of King George III a Royal Command Performance of "The Winter's Tale" led to a Royal affair when the 17 year old Prince of Wales was smitten with the productions leading lady, 21 year old Mary Robinson. The prince pursued Mary with letter after letter and eventually she became his mistress. The affair, which was a poorly kept secret, lasted four years and Mary became known to the public as 'Perdita' after the role which had brought her to the Prince's attention. When the Prince tired of Mary and failed to pay her the annuity he had promised she ransomed his letters to the king for the considerable sum of five thousand pounds.
By the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign (20th June, 1837), the command performance was an established part of Britains theatrical heritage. Even so, the first Royal Command Performance in the modern sense is generally reckoned to have been that staged at Windsor Castle on 28th December, 1848, by order of Queen Victoria. The play that was staged on that occasion was "The Merchant of Venice" and the cast included Mr and Mrs Charles Kean, Mr and Mrs Keeley, Henry Lowe, Leigh Murray and Alfred Wigan. Thereafter, frequent Command Performances were staged, often calling upon 'all star' casts from the London theatres, until the death of the Prince Consort in December 1861. For the next twenty years there would be no further Command Performances until the series resumed at Abergeldie on 4th October, 1881 with a production of "The Colonel" by Edgar Bruce's company.
On 21st July, 1896, the first Royal Command Film Performance was held at Marlborough House. The film showed the Prince and Princess of Wales at the Cardiff Exhibition, and when the cinematographer, Birt Acres, requested permission to exhibit it in public the Prince asked to view it himself before granting consent. It was screened before forty royal guests in a specially erected marquee along with a collection of other short films.
On 27th June 1911 a Great 'Gala' performance was given by the theatrical profession at His Majesties Theatre in London in celebration of the coronation of His Majesty King George V. The proceeds from this event were used to found the King George's Pension Fund for Actors and Actresses. From 1913 it was decided to make this a regular annual 'all-star' event to continue contributing to the fund. The 1913 event was a production of the Dion Boucicault comedy "London Assurance" at the St James theatre on 27th June and raised a total of £1093.
A similar celebratory event by the Music Hall industry was due to have been held at the Empire Palace Theatre in Edinburgh in 1911 but was cancelled when that theatre burned down some weeks before the event killing some of the performers. It was staged successfully the following year at the Palace Theatre in London on 1st July 1912 before their Majesties King George V and Queen Mary. This was the first Royal Variety Performance (although then it was called the Royal Music Hall Performance) and the bill listed over one hundred and forty artistes. The top music hall attraction of the day, Marie Lloyd, however, was not invited as it was felt her repertoire was too risque for the royal sensibilities. The event was not repeated until 1919, whereafter it too became an annual event in benefit of the Variety Artistes Benevolent Fund.
THE PLAY PICTORIAL, Vol 18, No. 107 (1911).
THE COMMAND PERFORMANCE AT DRURY LANE (19th May 1911)
Old Drury has been the scene of many memorable sights and performances, but I doubt if, in all its long and brilliant history, there has been one to eclipse the representation which was given in honour of the German Emperor on the evening of May 17th.
Before touching on the scene or the play I must congratulate His Majesty King George V. on the national spirit he has shown in publicly honouring the theatre in a manner that it has not been honoured within the memory of living people. Command performances there have been at Windsor and Sandringham for the entertainment of distinguished people and foreign potentates, but these have been of a private nature, and have been shorn of that open patronage which enhances the dignity of the stage in the eyes of the world at large.
In effect, the Royal Command, graciously bestowed on Mr. Arthur Collins, is a direct reply to those prejudiced sectarians who regard the theatre as a place of contamination, as a means of rapid transit to the foul waters of Avernus. His Majesty's presence at the premniere of "The Count of Luxembourg" at Daly's is an equally efficacious reply to those who would turn our theatres into lecture halls for the dissemination of sociological literature, or into hospital operating rooms for the dissection of the ills that flesh is heir to.
Life is real and earnest, the poet tells us, and to some of us it is grim enough in all conscience, and it is for that very reason that human nature asks there shall be some relief provided for the toilers and the moilers, for the men and women whose brains are harassed and worn in the struggle for life in a century that has cast off the leisurely manners of old times, and when men crowd as much hurried activity into ten hours as their forefathers got into as many days. Mais, revenons a nos moutons.
Mr. Arthur Collins has organised such magnificent spectacles on the stage of Drury Lane that it was a foregone conclusion that he would not miss his chance when it came to making his auditorium a feast of splendour. The grand old theatre had been transformed into a veritable Rosamund's bower of floral beauty. With a drapery of white and yellow as an appropriate background, the gorgeous array of flowers were thrown into magnificent relief, and every stall had its luxuriant bouquet.
Truly, it was a sight for the gods, although, I am afraid, the "gods" who had waited so patiently for such long and weary hours could realise but faintly the coup d'oeil which the house presented to those who could look upwards instead of downwards. They had their reward, however, in witnessing nearly all the great stars in the theatrical firmament and that will give them something to talk about when, in the evening of their days, their grandchildren gather around their knees to listen to their reminiscences of that famous night at Drury Lane when such timehonoured veterans of the stage as Sir John Hare, Sir Charles Wyndham, Mr. Edward Terry, Mr. Alfred Bishop, Mr. J. D. Beveridge, and Mr. James Fernandez, whose united ages make the respectable total of 419 years, and such distinguished artists as Sir Herbert Tree, Mr. George Alexander, Mr. Fred Terry, Mr. Cyril Maude, Mr. Arthur Bourchier, Mr. Charles Hawtrey, Mr Weedon Grossmith, Mr. Lewis Waller, and a score or more of others in minor parts, or no parts at all, were seen in Bulwer Lytton's early Victorian drama of "Money."
It is not for me to question the Royal choice, but I should have preferred that our Imperial guests from Germany had been presented with a Shakesperean production. However, "Money" served, and it had the merit of not bringing into conflict the claims of contemporary dramatists. Besides which, "Money" has many points of interest. It presented more or less faithfully to the eye the dress and manners of those who saw the accession of Queen Victoria, it provides effective roles for several actors and actresses, and it is, in spite of its garish language, a play of dramatic situations and theatrical effectiveness.
Most of the daily papers have contained special and lengthy articles either in half-hearted praise or downright condemnation of Lytton's work, and so I do not propose to enter on any discussion of the piece, nor, in the circumstances is it necessary to criticise the production. Failing Mrs. John Wood or Lady Bancroft, who have moved into complete retirement, it would have been difficult to have found a more genial representative for Lady Franklin than Miss Winifred Emery. Miss Irene Vanbrugh and Miss Alexandra Carlisle were quaintly attractive in the curls and hoops of the period. Without being invidious, the honours of the performance undoubtedly fell to Mr. George Alexander, who made the character of Alfred Evelyn a vivid and vigorous representation, and I must say that, having seen Mr. Alexander in every character he has played in London since he made his debut with Irving as Caleb Deecie in "The Two Roses" in 1881, I have never seen him to greater advantage. Mr. Cyril Maude was intensely amusing as the fop, and Fred Terry was equally effective as Lord Glossmore. The three Knights were admirable in their respective roles, and Wyndham looked ridiculously young as Dudley Smooth.
The performance began at 9 p.m. and ended at 12.25, but very few of the audience left before the finish, and when I say that the whole of the floor had been converted into stalls, and that gleaming shoulders and sparkling jewels met one's gaze in every direction, the brilliancy of the occasion may be easily imagined. The receipts amounted to £10,000, and when the expenses have been met, including £4,000 for the decorations, the proceeds will be handed to His Majesty to devote to charity.
B. W. FINDON.
Every Woman's Encyclopaedia, Vol 7 (circa. 1911).
COMMAND PERFORMANCES, By RUDOLPH DE CORDOVA
Queen Elizabeth and the Drama - An Old Custom Revived by Queen Victoria - Dress at a Command Performance - Preparations and Rehearsals - The Performance and its Etiquette - Honouring the Actors - From a Royal Banquet to a Coffee-stall
It was Queen Elizabeth who first instituted the idea of command performances. Many of Shakespeare's plays were performed at her Court, and there is a story to the effect that the "Merry Wives of Windsor" owed its origin to the fact that, having seen Falstaff in the historical plays, her Majesty was anxious to see him in a play in which he was represented in love. Like the modern dramatist, who takes his facts and incidents from real life, Shakespeare introduced a "command performance" into one of his tragedies. The play scene in "Hamlet," which the Prince of Denmark himself describes as "a play before the King," is to all intents and purposes a command performance, for the actors played at the palace by his command. In the great hall they set up their stage, and they even introduced a speech, which Hamlet himself wrote, in order to give special point to the play in its relation to the circumstance of his father's murder. During the reigns succeeding that of Elizabeth, masques and similar entertainments, as well as plays, were often "commanded" to the Court, but after a time the custom fell into abeyance.
A Victorian Revival
It was reserved for Queen Victoria to revive the custom of "command performances." In the early years of her reign, and during the life of the Prince Consort, her late Majesty took a great deal of interest in the theatre as an enlightening and inspiring force. Charles Kean, the most noted Shakespearean actor of the day, whose productions were on a scale of magnificence which not even those of the late Sir Henry Irving or of Sir Herbert Tree have ever surpassed, constantly directed these special performances, and had for his associates the most renowned actors of the time, such as Benjamin Webster, the grandfather of Mr. Ben Webster, now one of our most popular actors, or Mrs. Kean, John Ryder, Buckstone, etc.
After the death of the Prince Consort, Queen Victoria lived in seclusion for very many years, and never saw a play. In the later years of her life, however, her Majesty relaxed the austerity of her outlook, and after consenting to be present at a theatrical entertainment which was specially arranged by his late Majesty King Edward, then Prince of Wales, occasionally commanded performances at Balmoral and Windsor. In this way, the Queen was able to see some of the leading actors of the day.
The custom of command performances was greatly extended by King Edward, and rarely or never was any crowned head of Europe a guest of the nation but one or more command performances were given in honour of the event.
Its Sphere of Usefulness
The same thing, it may be assumed, will occur in the future, for these Court performances are very pleasing to our Imperial and Royal guests. Naturally, they offer opportunities for the display of costumes which would be out of place at an ordinary performance, unless it were a gala, which involves a great deal of special preparation, as well as for a certain stateliness which is always imposing in its ceremonial.
The arrangements for these performances are, like the arrangements made when the King and Queen go to the theatre, left in the hands of Mr. George Ashton, who has been associated with the theatre-going of the Royal family for more than thirty years. As soon as his Majesty has decided which manager he will honour with a command, the play to be produced is chosen. Very often it is one which is running in the ordinary way at the manager's theatre. Sometimes, however, it is not, but is selected from a list which the manager is asked to submit for his Majesty's selection.
In the latter case the piece is specially cast, and the actors who have played in it before are often invited to take up their old parts, even though they are acting in other theatres at the time. Permission has then to be obtained from the manager with whom they are under contract. It need hardly be said this permission is never asked in vain, even though it puts a manager to the trouble of having special rehearsals, so that the understudy who takes the place of the actor may be thoroughly efficient in his duties and able to give a performance which will reflect credit on himself and the management on that one night.
If the play has to be arranged in this way, the rehearsals are conducted in London just as if the piece were designed for a run. While rehearsals are going on, the scenery is prepared. This is always exactly like that of the original performances. As, however, the space available at Windsor, Sandringham, or Balmoral, at one of which places the command performance will be given, is very much less than that in a theatre, the scenes are all on a much smaller scale. To allow, time for the scenery to be made and painted, a sufficient notice of the date selected for the performance is always given to the manager.
His representative, accompanied by the scenic artist and the carpenters, go down to the Royal residence which is to be the scene of the performance and take careful and accurate measurements of the stage, so that the scenery may be made to fit it. On their return to London the work is begun. The woodwork of the scene is put together, the canvas is stretched on it, and the old models which were originally made for the scene are got out, or the scene itself is carefully studied by the artist, who paints it so as to reproduce his original design with the utmost minuteness of detail. When it is ready it is sent down to the palace to be fitted in its place. Some of the stage carpenters go with it, and they may be away for three or four days or longer, getting all in readiness under the direction of the manager's representative.
The proper lighting of the stage is nowadays an important factor in every production. In these preliminary preparations the electricians are equally concerned, and are kept busy with the installation of the lights and the placing of the lamps so that the necessary effects may be accurately obtained. In this way is assured perfect smoothness of working on the great night.
And it is a great night for the actors, for nothing is more flattering in the theatrical world than to play before the King. It is an honour which is very highly prized. In the earlier days of his career, Sir Herbert Tree, when commanded to Balmoral to play the "Ballad Monger" and another play before Queen Victoria, included in the cast his daughter, now known to the play-going world as the accomplished Miss Viola Tree, and she appeared as one of the pages to Louis XI. She was a little girl at the time, and had the honour of being presented, with her father and mother, to the Queen, who was greatly taken with her, for no one will need reminding that her late Majesty was very fond of children.
By reason of its proximity to London, Windsor has, of late, been the scene of the larger number of command performances. They are given in the Waterloo Chamber, which is best adapted for the purpose. In anticipation of the coming of the actors, the stage is prepared there and the large Hall is arranged for the reception of the guests.
How the Actors Travel
At a convenient hour on the day of the performance the actors go down to Windsor by train. On their arrival a number of Royal carriages are in waiting to take them to the Castle for the final rehearsal, which is always held on the stage. This is necessary, because the stage in the Waterloo Chamber is very much smaller than the one on which they usually act. In fact, it is no bigger than what is commonly known as a "fit-up stage," used when plays are given in town halls and similar buildings in the smaller towns, which have no theatre. At this rehearsal the actors get accustomed to moving about on the restricted space available.
While the stage has been decorated to fit it for its purpose, the auditorium has, equally, been made suitable for the reception of the Royal family and their guests. Gay flowers and tropical plants are added to the fine works of art which ordinarily adorn the walls, and rows of seats are arranged down the room, with armchairs in the front row for the Royal party. By the side of the armchairs are small tables for the programmes. These are specially printed on white satin, and opera-glasses are provided for the exalted personages.
There is one striking difference in which the appearance of the auditorium differs at a command performance from that of the ordinary theatre, even when the latter is commanded for a gala. In the ordinary theatre, as everyone knows, the stalls go right up to the orchestra, and, in the theatres in which the orchestra is under the stage, right up to the stage itself. In the Royal theatre, however, there is a great gap between the stage and the front seats. This is necessary, because the King and Queen and their most exalted guests and the members of the Royal family sit in the front row, and they must be placed at a convenient distance from the stage that they may see everything to the best advantage. If seats were placed in front of their own, the King would be sitting with the backs of his subjects turned to him, and this would be a gross breach of Court etiquette.
When the rehearsal is over the actors are driven to the hotel where rooms have been engaged for them. They dine together, and either rest or go for a walk, as they like until the time when the Royal carriages arrive to take them to the Castle, so that they may dress and "make-up" for the performance. While this is happening the guests who have had the honour of being commanded to the play arrive, and are shown to the seats allotted to them. They invariably include members of the nobility who are staying at the Castle, and others who, with distinguished men and women, have come down specially from London for the entertainment, in addition to certain notable residents in the neighbourhood and the members of the Household, who are accommodated in the gallery which runs across the Waterloo Chamber at the end opposite the stage.
It need hardly be said that the guests make a point of being in their seats before the hour fixed for the commencement of the performance. When the hour strikes, the Royal party enters to the strains of the National Anthem, played by the orchestra. At the first note the guests rise in their places and await the coming of their Majesties. If it is an affair of state, the Royal party is in ceremonial dress, the men in such uniforms as are appropriate to the occasion. If, however, it is merely a family and not a state occasion, the Royal party wear ordinary evening dress.
On state occasions, the formal entrance of the Royal party in procession is an imposing one. Arrived in his place, the King bows to his guests and takes his seat. As soon as the members of the Royal party are seated the general company does the same. When the audience is comfortably settled, the curtain rises and the play begins. The actors, naturally, are all on their mettle, anxious to give as fine a performance as they can. In one noteworthy respect, however, the performance differs from the regular one. There is little or no applause; indeed, there is never any applause at all unless the King himself starts it.
As soon as the performance is over the orchestra plays the National Anthem; the whole audience rises, and remains standing while the Royal party retires from the Waterloo Chamber to the supper-rooms. As soon as the actors have changed from their stage clothes into ordinary evening dress, they assemble in one of the banqueting halls, where supper is served for them. At supper one of the Court officials always represents the King, and conveys his Majesty's appreciation of the efforts of the actors in a complimentary message to the manager.
On state occasions none of the actors are received by his Majesty, but if the performance is not a purely formal one, the "stars" may have the honour of being commanded to the Sovereign's presence to receive the Royal congratulations in person. Naturally, they wear evening dress to be received in this manner.
On one occasion, however, this rule was relaxed in the most gracious manner. It was at a command performance, given at Sandringham when the German Emperor was visiting King Edward. Mr. Arthur Bourchier and Miss Violet Vanbrugh, with their company, had been playing in "Dr. Johnson," and King Edward sent a message that he would like Mr. Bourchier to sup with the Emperor and himself. As Dr. Johnson, Mr. Bourchier wore an old, greasy suit of clothes, and his costume and make-up were so elaborate that they took some time to remove. King Edward was apprised of this fact, and he graciously had Mr. Bourchier informed that he might go to supper in the costume he had been wearing as Dr. Johnson instead of waiting to change into conventional evening dress.
After supper the actors are driven from the Castle to the station, and return by train to town. Next day some of them are happier, because they have been presented by the Sovereign, or on his behalf, with some souvenir of their association with what is, necessarily, a great event in their life.
After one of these commands at Sandringham an amusing incident happened to an actor. He had had supper after the performance, and left on the special train which brought the actors and guests back to town. When he arrived at King's Cross there was not a cab to be had, and as he lived in Brixton, he and a friend began to walk home. The weather was exceedingly cold, and by the time they reached the other side of Waterloo Bridge they were nearly frozen and very hungry. To their delight, they found a coffee-stall, and the two who had a few hours before supped as guests of the King breakfasted there cheerfully in company with some of the poorest of his Majesty's subjects.
To the actor, however, such a sharp contrast is all in the picture, for in the mimic life of the stage he does indeed play many parts, and becomes as well acquainted with the fustian of the poor man as the velvet of the monarch.
List of Private Command Performances and Benefits for King George's Pension Fund