New discoveries at the National Library

Filed under:Research Sources — posted by Hugh Denard on March 22, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

Back in January, I blogged about my two visits to the Prints and Drawings department of the National Library of Ireland. One of the little gems that Assistant Keeper Honora Faul unearthed was a ticket envelope from the old Abbey Theatre, on the side of which was printed a seating plan of the Balcony. Just a week ago, Honora wrote to me saying that she had, by chance, happened upon a second ticket envelope showing a plan of the Stall seats and front Pit seats. Quite unprompted, Honora has had both envelopes photographed and sent to me on CDs.

The information they provide is unparalleled in any of the documentation or plans we have had till now: they provide uniquely detailed information about the precise layout of the seating in the old Abbey.

And here they are: another project publication first, courtesy of the care and imagination of extraordinary people at the National Library of Ireland.

Ticket Envelope for Balcony of Old Abbey Theatre. Reproduced Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Ticket Envelope for Balcony of Old Abbey Theatre. Reproduced Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Ticket Envelope for Stalls and Front of Pit, Old Abbey Theatre. Reproduced Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Ticket Envelope for Stalls and Front of Pit, Old Abbey Theatre. Reproduced Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

These views give a sense of the envelopes as physical objects. To see what they have to show us about seating arrangements in the old Abbey Theatre, we’ll have to look at the drawings more closely.

Detail of Ticket Envelope for Balcony of Old Abbey Theatre. Reproduced Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Detail of Ticket Envelope for Balcony of Old Abbey Theatre. Reproduced Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

In this plan, we can see that the Balcony  is accessed by a single entrance, to the right, with two exits, one at either rear corner of the auditorium.

Two full rows, of seats 1-52 and 53-106, run from right to left around the entire curve of the Balcony, while a third row, seats 107-145, starts only part of the way along the right-hand side, perhaps designed to afford additional room near the entrance. These three rows are served by a single aisle with steps at each extreme nearest the stage, and two further sets of steps that line up with the exits.

Behind the aisle, row 4, containing seats 146-160, occupies only the centre area between the exits, while Row 5, seats 161-189, in addition to seats in this area, has a further ten seats, five to either, outer side of the exits.

In each row in the Balcony, the seats are close together, confirming what photographs of the theatre show: that seating in the Balcony consisted, not of individual tip-up chairs as in the Stalls, but of long, wooden benches, divided into separate, numbered seats only by slim, curving metal divides.

Detail of Ticket Envelope for Stalls and front Pit, old Abbey Theatre. Reproduced Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Detail of Ticket Envelope for Stalls and front Pit, old Abbey Theatre. Reproduced Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

The second envelope shows eight, numbered rows of seats in the Stalls, and a further four unnumbered rows in the Front Pit area. Dark circles in the Stalls, and scratched-in seat positions in the Front Pit, show the location of the columns that supported the Balcony. The Stall seats offer generous leg-room, unlike those in the Front Pit. Rows 1 (seats 1-18), 2 (19-37) and 3 (38-56) are truncated to the right in order to give clearance to the entrance at the front, right of the auditorium, giving them just 18 seats each. Row 4 (seats 57-76) runs nearly the full width of the auditorium, but, twice interrupted by columns, gains  just one seat. (The marks on seats 66 and 67 show the seats booked by the tickets the envelope once held.)

Row 5 (seats 77-98) and 6 (99-120) have 21 seats each, while rows 7 (121-141) and 8 (142-162), at 20 seats each, both lose a single seat to a column. Here, as in the third and fourth rows of the Front Pit, the fact that the matching columns interrupt different rows is one of the few hints the theatre-goer would have had that the plan of the auditorium was not regular, but skewed, as Scott’s plan of the site so clearly shows.

The four rows of seats in the Front Pit (seats 1-23, 24-46, 47-68 and 69-92) show the same lateral compression we observed in the Balcony; with the theatre narrowing towards the rear, the Pit rows are shorter than that of the Stalls rows, and, in addition, the third and fourth row are each interrupted once by a column shaft, but they still managed to fit in a profitable 23, 22, 21 and 23 seats.

Behind these four rows, photographs from 1951 show a further five rows of seating, corresponding with the nine steps in the Pit area that appear in Scott’s 1935 survey of the auditorium. Scott’s survey also contains the same seating totals of 162 in the Stalls and 92 in the Front Pit that we see on the envelopes. The earliest photographs of the theatre pre-date individual seating even in the front rows of the Pit: the punters in the cheap seats piled into benches without even the dignity of the metal divides to be found in the Gallery. The post-fire photographs of 1951, however, show individually upholstered, numbered seats, with reservation labels (“IN AIRITHE”), on all rows of the Pit, indicating that at some time between Scott’s survey of 1935 and the fire in 1951, the Directors had chosen to liberate the lesser mortals of the darkest Pit from ignominious anonymity.

I’ve sent these images on to Niall at NOHO so we can factor all this new information into the digital model. What a wonderful find! Honora, you are in danger of becoming the official Muse of the project!


one comment so far

  1. Good to see plans of the old Abbey Theatre have been found. This will add to the jig saw puzzle of the theatre. It seems also that some interior photographs have been found.
    Keep up the good work.

    Comment by joe monaghan conservation architect opw — March 29, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace