Archival Photos c.1904

Filed under:Research Sources — posted by Hugh Denard on March 28, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

Here are photographs of the old Abbey Theatre, provided by the Abbey Theatre, which has kindly given permission for their reproduction here on the project website. They were most likely taken around the time of the theatre’s refurbishment and opening, in December 1904.

Vestibule of the Old Abbey Theatre c.1904

Vestibule of the Old Abbey Theatre c.1904. Reproduced courtesy of the Abbey Theatre.

This image is taken from the stairs leading to the Balcony, looking down across the Vestibule towards the street entrance (left, partially hidden by pillar) and stained glass window by Sarah Purser (right).

The next image, one of the two most important historic images we have of the old Abbey’s auditorium, is taken from the steps at the foot of the stage to the left of the auditorium.

Auditorium of the old Abbey Theatre, c.1904. Reproduced courtesy of the Abbey Theatre.

Auditorium of the old Abbey Theatre, c.1904. Reproduced courtesy of the Abbey Theatre.

To the extreme left of this image, we can see the steep stairs down into the auditorium from the Vestibule and, beside it, a door (with balustrade) which led to the ladies’ lavatory.

The Stalls are formed of rows of individual, upholstered, tip-up seats, comfortably spaced. Behind them, we can make out the top of a barrier separating the Stalls from the Pit, to the rear, which consists of long, unmarked benches. Inset into the right-hand auditorium wall is a radiator.

Directly above can be seen the doorway from which patrons entered the Balcony from the Vestibule. A little to the right, between the three-headed light fittings, can be seen the round copper mirror which now resides in the Foyer of the modern Abbey Theatre. To the right of the image in the upper level can be seen one of two doorways that provided egress from the Balcony onto Lower Abbey Street.

The Balcony railings are delicate, pierced iron swags. A tall railing separates the entrance area from the seating. On close examination, we can the seating in the Balcony is composed of continuous benches, rather than the individual seats we see in the Stalls, below. However, we can also see small white dots on the backrests of the Balcony seating, and slender metal dividers / armrests confirming that from the earliest days, the Balcony seats in the Abbey were individually numbered and physically demarcated. Additional rows of Balcony seating can be discerned towards the rear of the auditorium.

This image has been central to the digital modelling process, as it provides “authoritative” documentation for the earliest phase of the Abbey Theatre, even more so than architectural drawings which must necessarily be “interpreted” for the specific conditions encountered within the building. Later photographs of the theatre, which I will blog separately, allow us to see various alterations which were carried out over the lifetime of the theatre, such as the introduction of doors around the Vestibule stairs, and changes in the seating arrangements in the Balcony and Pit.


  1. Great to see this pic. If Balcony seating is numbered and divided to some degree, and seats in the Pit are not, does that mean that the Balcony is somewhat higher social class than the Pit? Would the audience distribution be roughly a third for each section?

    Comment by Ildi Solti — March 30, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

  2. Yes, the Balcony is much higher status. The poster for the first ever performance in the newly-refurbished Abbey, on 27th December 1904, makes this completely clear:
    “Stalls, 3s. Reserved and Numbered. Balcony, 2s. Reserved and Numbered. Pit, 1s.”
    Note, no “Reserved and Numbered” seats for the poor denizens of the Pit! The poster is reproduced in Christopher Fitz-Simon’s wonderfully-illustrated book The Abbey Theatre: Ireland’s National theatre: The First 100 Years (Thames and Hudson 2003), p.21. Fitz-Simon gives the following figures: Stalls: 178 seats. Balcony: 198 seats. Pit: 186 seats (2003, p.19). These are, rightly, different to the ones that show up in the later ticket envelopes (see New discoveries at the National Library), which reflect significant changes to the seating plan of the theatre. It’ll be interesting to see if these numbers correspond with the ones we come up with through our analysis of the early photos of the theatre, and the modelling process.

    Comment by Hugh Denard — April 1, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

  3. I see, so roughly a third of the audience in each section, then. Interesting perhaps when considering the riots, as well as the feature that the three social sections occupy three very different seating arrangements – not only in terms of comfort, but also in terms of physical readiness of response, ranging from the confines of somewhat reclining chairs with armrests through regulated density but no physical division (do they have back support in the Balcony?) to plain bench seating in the Pit (least comfortable but most free physical response-wise, both in terms of the individual’s body and in terms of no restriction on physical contact between audience members). Will be interesting to see your findings re. seating and the dimensions of the theatre, because density is key.
    Recent Globe research indicates that these conditions indeed have a material impact on audience range of response.

    Comment by Ildi Solti — April 6, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace