Monday, May 5, 2014

Drury Lane: The Clown and the Man in Grey

The Theatre Royal Drury Lane is the oldest “legitimate” theatre in London. Located in the West End in Covent Garden in Westminster the present building dates from 1812, the first theatre on this site was founded in 1663.

Several ghosts haunt Drury Lane. Here are just two stories.

The Clown

Joseph Grimaldi had a long and distinguished theatrical career as the first noted pantomime. His white-faced roguish clown became the role model for most modern “joeys.” His character gave the gift of laughter, so his fans adored him.

Grimaldi’s craft took a terrible toll on his health, and he finally had to give up acting. By 1818, Grimaldi who suffered from a crippling disease was destitute, so Drury Lane arranged a benefit performance. 

It is said that Grimaldi’s clown was still able to make the audience laugh even though he by this time, was confined to a chair.

Since his death in 1837 Grimaldi’s ghost has been seen countless times at the Theatre Royal. His spirit often gives people working in the Drury a swift kick. No workers are immune to this--actors, cleaners, and ushers all have been kicked.

Before his death, Grimaldi had one last odd wish. He requested that his head be severed from his body before burial. This was evidently done for many witnesses have reported seeing a disembodied white face floating around the theatre.

Man in Grey

Insider Theatre Royal Drury Lane
The most famous ghost at Drury Lane is the Man in Grey. This apparition is a young man who is seen limping. A powdered wig adorns his head covered by a 3-cornered hat. 

He wears a ruffled white shirt and a grey riding cloak. Some witnesses report he also has a sword.

His ghost is always seen during the day, and it appears this haunting is residual in nature for he is almost always seen following the same pattern. His spirit is seen walking from one side of the upper circle * to the other side. He then just “melts into the wall.”

In 1939, half the cast of “The Dancing Years” was on stage for a photo call when they witnessed the Man in Grey cross the upper circle and then disappear through the wall. 

Over the years numerous witnesses, including famous actors, firemen, theatre managers, and other staff have all reported seeing him.

On rare occasions, his ghost has been seen sitting on an end seat in the 4th row near the central gangway of the upper circle.

One cleaner new to the Theatre Royal encountered his ghost. Thinking he was an actor, she put down her supplies and spoke to him at which point he just disappeared. 

Confused she looked around and was astonished to see him vanish into one upper circle wall.

Precisely who the Man in Grey is, remains a mystery. During a renovation of Drury in the 1870s, during the Victorian era, one worker found a concealed room behind the wall where this ghost always disappears. 

He discovered a male skeleton with a dagger sticking out of its rib cage.

Some feel this explains his ghostly presence. Stories began to circulate that this young man gained the affection of an actress who performed at the theatre during the time of Queen Anne. 

An actor who also had vied for her hand was enraged at his loss. Consumed with jealousy, he killed his rival and then hid the body.

One photo captured of Man in Grey
Click to enlarge
Whatever the reason for this ghost’s presence he is universally liked for his appearances are considered a “good omen.”

It is believed that if he appears at the theatre before or during a new production, it will have a long successful run. “The King and I,” “South Pacific,” and “Oklahoma” are just three productions that saw the Man in Grey before they opened--they all were hits.

During the long run of “Lady Saigon” at Drury Lane the Man in Grey appeared each time there was a change in cast. Not surprising--actors talk about this ghost with much affection.

*  The upper circle sometimes is called the “the gods” because it is the highest tier balcony at large theatres. These seats are usually a considerable distance from the stage. In America, they are known as the “nosebleed” seats.

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