Drury Lane Theatre became known for many things, and among them a remarkable riot that occurred in November of 1755 because of a dancing spectacle called Les Fêtes Chinoises (Chinese Festival). The foreboding of a problem began in the summer of 1755 when David Garrick, an English actor, playwright, and theatre manager, entered into an agreement with the renowned French dancer and ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre, who promised that for the upcoming winter he would “compose such dances as would surprise and captivate all ranks of people.” In fact, Noverre did surprise and captive the people, but not in the way he and Garrick would have liked.
Noverre’s Les Fêtes Chinoises involved multifarious figures “in which the dresses and customs of the Chinese were exhibited in almost innumerable shapes and characters.” The exact date of the ballet’s composition is unknown, but it was likely created in 1751 for the Marseilles audience. It was Noverre’s first success and revivals of the ballet followed. It was performed in Lyons and Strasbourg, as well as in Paris on 1 July 1754 at the Opéra-Comique.
Les Fêtes Chinoises had little in the way of a plot or theme. Rather it was a series of danced pictures inspired by the Chinoiserie designs of the Rococo period based on descriptions of China given by European travelers and explorers. An eyewitness at the performance wrote:
“[A] public square decorated for a festival with, in the background, an amphitheater on which are seated sixteen Chinese [and] thirty-two are seen on the gradins (stepped tiers) going through a pantomime. As the first group descends, sixteen further Chinese, both mandarins and slaves, come out of their habitations. … All these form eight rows of dancers who, rising and dipping in succession, imitate fairly well the billows of a stormy sea. All the Chinese, having descended, begin a character march. There are a mandarin, borne in a rich palanquin by six white slaves, whilst two negros draw a chariot on which a young Chinese woman is seated. They are preceded and followed by a host of Chinese playing various musical instruments. … This march concluded, the ballet begins and leaves nothing to be desired either in the diversity or in the neatness of the figures. It ends in a contredanse of thirty-two persons whose movements trace a prodigious number of new and perfectly designed attitudes, which form and dissolve with the greatest of ease. At the end … the Chinese return to their place on the amphitheater, which is transformed into a china cabinet. Thirty-two vases, which rise up, conceal … the thirty-two Chinese one saw before.
In England, to ensure success, Noverre hired the most skillful and costly European dancers, many of whom were French. But, somehow, “between the planning of this publick diversion, and the representation of it, hostilities commenced between England France.” The conflict with France made the English public unhappy to see even one French foreigner on the English stage. In fact, the English were so unhappy, they vociferously contested the entertainment. Complaints to Garrick were incessant and critics insisted that Garrick should not employ foreigners. Hoping to end the complaints and smooth things over, King George II decided to publicly sanction the event and attended Les Fêtes Chinoises on opening night. However, the King’s presence was not sufficient to repress the indignation of the whipped up public.
Garrick had invested heavily in Noverre’s Les Fêtes Chinoises and hoped that the “audience would relent, and permit him to reimburse himself at least. But all endeavours to bring the enemies of France to temper were in vain.” Crowds began to disrupt the performances. Moreover, the situation soon turned into an altercation between social groups: The upper class inhabited the boxes, and they could hardly constrain their outward contempt for the lower classes (the common plebeians) sitting in the pits and galleries below them. Moreover, the lower classes booed, complained, and caused a fray.
Several aristocratic gentlemen decided to “conquer the obstinacy of [those below].” This made things worse as they jumped from their boxes into the pit where they inquired of several ladies to point out the ringer leaders of the fray. The ladies did so and according to a witness:
“[S]words were mutually drawn, and blood shed occurred. The females at last gave way to their natural timidity, they screamed out loudly, and a mighty uproar ensued [as the women swooned].”
The same month and year that Marie Antoinette was born, The Caledonian Mercury also gave this account of the fray in November 1755:
“On Tuesday Night there was a great Riot at Drury-Lane Theatre, on account of the French Dancers performing there, on which Occasion the Audience was divided into two Parties, and some Mischief was done on both Sides, tho’ not so much as might have been expected. The Advocates of the Dancers being the Strongest Side, drove a great Part of their Opponents out of the Pit, and the Performance was executed, but in great Confusion, and the Managers though proper to promise that it should never be repeated.”
The altercation at Les Fêtes Chinoises resulted in five successive days of conflict and damage to the theatre: Scenes were demolished, benches damaged, sconces broken, chandeliers ruined, and lustres and girandoles broken. In addition, the incident also caused much more than monetary losses to Garrick and physical damage to the Drury Lane Theatre.
Garrick’s popularity was temporarily upended. The man, with the easy nature and relaxed manner, who had been so beloved by the public, was “not only abused and execrated [but he also] … found himself reduced to the necessity of seeking protection from the soldiery [as they attempted to break his windows].” One writer summed up the event, noting that Garrick discovered what others already knew: uncertainty exists in “that so coveted delusion [known as] Popularity!”
-  Davies, Thomas, Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick, Esq., 1818, p. 134.
-  Ibid., p. 135.
-  Kirstein, Lincoln, Four Centuries of Ballet: Fifty Masterworks, 1970, p. 111.
-  Davies, Thomas, p. 214.
-  Davies, Thomas, p. 136.
-  Ibid., p. 137.
-  The European Magazine, and London Review, Volume 56, 1809 p. 344.
-  “London,” in Caledonian Mercury, 27 Nov. 1755, p. 1.
-  Davies, Thomas, p. 137.
-  Britton, John, etal., Illustrations of the Public Buildings of London, 1825, p. 234.