Built in 1812, Theatre Royal Drury Lane is London’s most stately theatre. The present theatre, fronting on Catherine Street in the Covent Garden area of London, is the fourth venue of that name since 1663. Though the early buildings have long disappeared, some thespians‘ performances continue long after their deaths. Theatrical spirits of performers’ past have been reported to appear on the stages (often during a performance), sit in their favorite seats, change costumes with the ‘living’ cast, and even reach out to touch unsuspecting individuals to make their presences known.
The Ghosts of Drury Lane
On the spooky side of the Theatre on Royal Drury Lane, the long history of apparitions include, strange sounds, moving objects, and physical contact with the unseen. Ghostly stories have emanated from old theatres around the world, and this one is no exception as its deceased personnel return to the sites of their greatest successes. Is Drury Lane Theatre the most haunted playhouse as many have suggested?
Man in Grey 1780
During renovations in the mid 1800s, workers discovered a man’s skeleton bearing grey cloth fragments and a knife protruding from the rib cage. Speculation regarding the victim’s identity continues, with many believing he was a young fellow murdered by an actress’ jealous suitor during Queen Anne’s reign .
A limping ghost invariably appears during daytime, moves across the upper circle to a wall where the workers found the skeleton, and vanishes. Occasionally, he sits in the fourth row end seat by the upper circle’s central gangway. A cleaner, unaware of the ‘man in grey’ legend, noticed him one morning, and set her equipment down before approaching him. When she turned to speak, he was gone. Observers describe the ghost as dressed in a long grey coat, buckled shoes, knee britches, white shirt, long powdered wig, and a three-cornered hat. Included in his costume is a sword visible below the coat’s hem.
Theatre managers, famous performers, firemen, and countless staff members reported seeing the apparition through more than two centuries. He is always welcome, as his appearances occur before successful productions’ openings. “The King and I, South Pacific and Oklahoma are just three of the productions he has endorsed with his presence, and the long running Miss Saigonwas honoured with an appearance each time there was a change of cast.”
Actor Charles Macklin 1797
A “tall, thin, ugly” ghost wandering the backstage corridor of Drury Lane Theatre is thought to be that of Irish actor/playwright Charles Macklin. A man of bad temper, Macklin engaged in frequent arguments and lawsuits, and in 1735, while appearing in the farce Trick for Trick at Drury Lane, Macklin quarrelled over ownership of a wig with Thomas Hallam, another actor in the play.
Extremely angry, he pierced his adversary’s eye with his cane. The injury inflicted before many witnesses damaged the brain of Hallam who died the following day. Macklin, charged with murder, received a manslaughter conviction. The ghost said to be Macklin’s wanders the corridor near the site of the deadly altercation.
Comedian Joseph Grimaldi 1837
A benevolent ghost said to be that of the father of modern clownery Joseph Grimaldi, continues the kindnesses shown by the entertainer during his lifetime. Having spent the majority of his years since age three in theatricals, Grimaldi understood the need for special guidance among newcomers. Crippled completely by his physical activities on stage and unable to perform, he received a £100 annual pension from Theatre Royal Drury Lane in recognition of his vast contributions to his profession.
Many times, actors, usherettes, and cleaners believed that Joe Grimaldi’s ghost gave them mischievous kicks as they performed their duties. Most helpful is his spirit’s frequent assistance to nervous performers who are struggling with their roles. It holds their shoulders, gently guides them on the stage, and pats them on their shoulders upon successful completion of the performance.
According to “London’s Haunted Theatres”, “One of Grimaldi’s final wishes was that his head should be severed from his body prior to burial. This macabre request was apparently carried out, and this might account for the disembodied white face, which has been seen floating around the theatre”.
Comedian Dan Leno 1904
Famed for his pantomime dame and clog dancing, Dan Leno continues to seek the spotlight at Drury Lane. Member of a family touring company that entertained at music halls throughout Britain, Leno earned the title World Champion Clog Dancer after developing his solo act. In London where audiences preferred his comedy to the dancing, his new comic characters and pantomime dames resulted in his great popularity. Beginning in 1888, he performed as full company member at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and was the first music hall entertainer to present a Royal Command Performance.
Though seldom seen at the theatre, the lavender-scented ghost of Dan Leno makes its presence known. Leno used lavender to hide an odour caused by a medical condition. Company manager Nick Bromley felt someone pushing him from behind, but saw no one, and during the next evening, an actress standing where he had been felt someone tug at her wig. As the legend of his ‘return’ grew, people told of hearing sounds in Leno’s former dressing room, which they identified as the sound of the ghost repeatedly rehearsing his clog dancing routine. A performer using that room heard a drape move, and saw the face of Leno in the mirror, apparently revisiting his favourite room in the theatre.
Whether or not you believe such things can happen, you have to admit that Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London’s oldest working venue, is a fascinating place where make-believe reigns.
The Most Haunted Team
Using his paranormal skills Derek talks to the famous Man in Grey until the spirit of another ghost takes over his body and talks to the crew, helping uncover the murder mystery surrounding the theatre. Whilst Derek recovers, the crew split up and search the hotel in darkness where Yvette sees a man in chains. Meanwhile, three of the crew members bravely go in search of the Man in Grey…
Sources: Andrew McConnell Stott, The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, Canongate Books 2009
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