Lisle's Tennis Court

Coordinates: 51°30′55″N 0°6′55″W / 51.51528°N 0.11528°W / 51.51528; -0.11528

William Davenant had Lisle's Tennis Court converted into a theatre in 1661. His troupe continued to perform there after his death in 1668, until 1671.

Lisle's Tennis Court was a building off Portugal Street in Lincoln's Inn Fields in London. Originally built as a real tennis court, it was used as a playhouse during two periods, 16611674 and 16951705. During the early period, the theatre was called Lincoln's Inn Fields Playhouse, also known as "The Duke's Playhouse", "The New Theatre" or "The Opera". The building was demolished and replaced by a purpose-built theatre for a third period, 17141728. The tennis court theatre was the first public playhouse in London to feature the moveable scenery that would become a standard feature of Restoration theatres.

Historical Background

The period beginning in England in 1642 and lasting until 1660 is known as the Interregnum, meaning "between kings." At this time, there was no monarch on the throne, and theatre was against the law. Spanning from 1642 to 1649, the English Civil War occurred. This war was an uprising against the current King of England, King Charles I, led by Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan. Cromwell’s opposition to the throne was religious but political, as well, which led him to build up an army with the ability to imprison King Charles, who was beheaded in 1649, ending the war. After his death, the King’s wife and children were given permission to leave the country, so they travelled to France to escape and receive protection.

The years following became known as the Commonwealth Era (1649-1660) because Cromwell, who established himself as the monarch figure without assuming any official authority, ruled the nation with Parliament support and renamed the England Republic to the English Commonwealth. These were tough times for England as Cromwell persecuted many families, especially those who fought on the behalf of King Charles I and Irish families that held rustic Catholic beliefs. Needless to say, Oliver Cromwell quickly fell out of the majority’s favour, and he died in 1658 of natural causes. Two years later, Charles II, the beheaded king’s son, returned to England and began the Restoration by restoring the throne and claiming his role as the proper King of England.

In addition, King Charles II’s return restored the legality of theatre. This history is significant because it explains that since Charles II spent most of his life in France, he, as King, appreciated French culture, which prominently impressed upon England during the Restoration, particularly Restoration theatre.


There are no extant photos, elaborate diagrams, paintings, or other forms of visual evidence of the inside of the Lincoln’s Inn theatre, but certain aspects are understood of the theatre according to its time period. However, a great example of the layout of the inside is the Theatre Royal in Richmond, England, which contains components of Restoration theatre spaces and still stands today. Lincoln’s Inn Fields Playhouse was very small. In fact, Milhous believes that "the smaller seating capacity… hurt the [Duke’s] company in the long run" as they moved as newer theatres came along (Milhous 71). It was around 75 feet long by 30 feet wide with about a 650-person audience seating maximum capacity (The Restoration Theater; Wilson and Goldfarb 249). It was originally an indoor tennis court; courts were used as theatre spaces because they had a similar structure with a narrow, rectangular shape and gallery seating. The stage was raked, sloping upward toward the back of the stage, in order to help with perspective. The audience was divided into the pit, boxes, and galleries. The pit had backless benches and a raked floor that rose toward the back of the audience to help sightlines. Mostly single men sat here, and it was the noisiest, rowdiest area in the theatre. Boxes sat upper class aristocrats—mostly married couples with wives who wanted to be seen. Galleries held the lower class, including servants of the upper classes in attendance.

The English stage, unlike French or Italian theatres, had a very deep apron to provide adequate acting space, and the background and perspective scenery served as solely as scenery. The Lincoln’s Inn Fields Playhouse orchestra was housed beneath the stage, and the apron was extended two feet to cover completely the orchestra pit and obtain close proximity between the actors and the audience, creating an intimate atmosphere. Another uniqueness of English theatres is that there were typically two pairs of doors, one on each side of the stage, called proscenium doors with balconies above them for the actors to utilize in performances. Proscenium doors served as entrances and exits disregarding the possibility of multiple locations. Candelabras provided light for the space, and manual moveable scenery was used to move the show along (The Restoration Theater).

The Duke's Company

The building was constructed as a real tennis court in 1656. Thomas Lisle’s wife Anne Tyler and a man named James Hooker developed the indoor court in the winter of 1656 and 1657.[1] Tudor-style real tennis courts were long, high-ceiling buildings, with galleries for spectators; their dimensions about 75 by 30 feet are similar to the earlier theatres, and much larger than a modern tennis court.[2]

After the English Restoration in 1660, Lincoln’s Inn Fields Playhouse received its first company through the efforts of the King himself and two men who dedicated themselves to theatre. Sir William Davenant had received a patent from Charles the I in 1639 when he was in power, but he had never used it due to the theatre ban. When theatre was restored, Davenant and a man named Thomas Killigrew wanted to create theatre in England and thus, Killigrew obtained a warrant expressing that he could "raise a company and a theatre, provided that his company and Davenant’s should be the only ones allowed to play in London" (Hotson 199). Davenant, then, drafted their joint warrant and after much debate over whether or not their role in theatre infringed on the Master of the Revels’ power, they appealed to Charles II. Charles II determined their Letters of Patent were valid and created two companies to perform "legitimate drama" in London: the Duke's Company of his brother, The Duke of York, led by William Davenant, and the his company, the King's Company, led by Thomas Killigrew. Original intentions were positive, but competition was quickly apparent between the two. Both companies briefly performed in the theatrical spaces that had survived the interregnum and civil war (including the Cockpit and Salisbury Court), but scrambled to quickly acquire facilities that were more to current tastes. Taking a hint from their new King's taste, Killigrew and Davenant both chose a solution that had been used in France: converting tennis courts into theatres.

In March 1660, Sir William Davenant contracted to lease Lisle’s Tennis Court in order to renovate it into a theatre, and he bought adjoining land to expand the building into the garden area. Killigrew's theatre on Vere Street (Gibbon's Tennis Court) opened first, in November 1660. Davenant apparently spent more time in his remodelling: Lincoln's Inn Fields opened on 28 June 1661, with the first "moveable" or "changeable" scenery used on the British public stage, and the first proscenium arch. Wings or shutters ran in grooves and could be smoothly and mechanically changed between or even within acts. The production was a revamped version of Davenant's own five-year-old opera The Siege of Rhodes where the soon-to-be famous actor, Thomas Betterton, performed the prologue.[3] The result was such a sensation that it brought Charles II to a public theatre for the first time.[4] This production at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Playhouse "emptied Killigrew’s theatre" according to Milhous (19). Milhous also explains that the companies and other theatres "deliberately engaged in vicious head-on collision[s], mounting the same plays" (19). The competing King's Company suddenly found itself playing to empty houses, as diarist and devoted playgoer Samuel Pepys notes on 4 July:

I went to the theatre [in Vere Street] and there I saw Claracilla (the first time I ever saw it), well acted. But strange to see this house, that use to be so thronged, now empty since the opera begunand so will continue for a while I believe.[5]

The Siege of Rhodes "continued acting 12 days without interruption with great applause" according to the prompter John Downes in his "historical review of the stage" Roscius Anglicanus (1708). This was a remarkable run for the limited potential audience of the time. More acclaimed productions by the Duke's Company "with scenes" followed at Lincoln's Inn Fields in the course of 1661 (including Hamlet and Twelfth Night), all highly admired by Pepys.[6] The King's Company was forced to abandon their own, technically unsophisticated tennis-court theatre and commission the construction of a new theatre in Bridges Street, where the Theatre Royal opened in 1663.

Prince Cosimo III of Tuscany visited the Lisle theatre in 1669, and his official diarist left us this account:

[The pit] is surrounded within by separate compartments in which there are several degrees [steps] of seating for the greater comfort of the ladies and gentlemen who, according to the liberal custom of the country, share the same boxes. Down below [in the pit] there remains a broad space for other members of the audience. The scenery is entirely changeable, with various transformations and lovely perspectives. Before the play begins, to render the waiting less annoying and inconvenient, there are very graceful instrumental pieces to be heard, with the result that many go early just to enjoy this part of the entertainment.[7]

The theatre was implicated by the Grand Jury of Middlesex on 7 July 1703 for showcasing "profane, irrelevant, lewd, indecent, and immoral expressions". It was also a hot target for riots and disorderly assemblies, murders, and other misdemeanors, but despite its troubles, the theatre remained very popular including hosting the first paid performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in 1700 and Handel's final two operas (Pedicord 41).

Davenant died in 1668 and the Duke's Company, now under Thomas Betterton, performed out of Lincoln's Inns Fields until 1671, when they relocated to the elaborate new Dorset Garden Theatre which was more popular at the time. In 1672, the theatre in Bridges Street burnt down, and the King's Company temporarily occupied the recently vacated Lincoln's Inn Field, until their new theatre opened in 1674.

Betterton and Rich

The building was converted back to a tennis court and remained one for almost 20 years. During that time, the Duke's Company, occupying the Dorset Theatre, subsumed the King's Company, housed in the newly rebuilt Theatre Royal, to form the United Company, performing out of Drury Lane. Betterton, a famous English actor, was forced out as the head of the company in 1688, staying on as an actor (and filling a day-to-day managerial role) while a succession of leaders embezzled funds and cut costs by cutting actors' salaries. This uniting created many conflicts between the members of the companies. For example, each company would have one actor who would always play Hamlet, but when the companies are combined, who claims the role? Due to rivalry and competition within the United Company, Thomas Betterton petitioned to the king to separate and create his own company. So, under Christopher Rich, the United Company split. Betterton left with a band of actors and a newly issued license to perform, and from 1695 to 1705 his company performed back at Lincoln's Inn Fields Playhouse, refurbishing the abandoned building back into a theatre. The New Theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields opened in April 1695 with William Congreve's Love for Love.[8] It was later the first venue for Congreve's plays The Mourning Bride (1697) and The Way of the World (1700).

The building went unused as a theatre from 1705 until it was demolished in 1714 or shortly before, in preparation to build a new theatre. The man behind the new construction was none other than Christopher Rich, who after 16 years of management, had been pushed out of Drury lane. Rich died in 1714, but his son John Rich led a company at the theatre until 1728. On 29 January 1728, Rich's theatre hosted the first, very successful, production of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (making "Rich gay and Gay rich"). The theatre was finally abandoned in December 1732, when the company moved to the new Covent Garden Theatre, built by Rich using the capital generated by The Beggar's Opera.

The old building was used as a barracks, an auction room, a warehouse for china, and was finally demolished in 1848 to make room for an extension to the neighbouring premises of the Royal College of Surgeons.


  1. Hartnoll. Portions available online.
  2. Styan p. 238.
  3. Pepys first records attending "the Opera" on its fourth day of opening, to watch the second half of The Siege of Rhodes, attended by King Charles II and his great aunt, Elizabeth of Bohemia: The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 2 July 1661.
  4. Milhous p. 19.
  5. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 4 July 1661.
  6. Milhous p. 19; Pepys records seeing Davenant's The Wits, on Thursday 15 August 1661, and on two other occasions in the next 8 days ; Hamlet, Prince of Denmark on Saturday 24 August 1661;; Twelfth Night on Wednesday 11 September 1661 ; and Davenant's Love and Honour three times in 4 days in October ; The Bondman by Philip Massinger twice in November,, The Siege of Rhodes and Hamlet one further time each, and finishing the year with Cutter of Coleman Street by Abraham Cowley on Monday 16 December 1661, having passed his first negative review, of The Mad Lover, on Monday 2 December 1661 .
  7. Langhans p. 16. It was once believed that Cosimo III attended the Theatre Royal in Bridges Street, not the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields.
  8. Donohue p. 7.


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