W S Penley – the first Charley’s Aunt
Busy Body: playbill from 1825
All images are copyright and reproduced by permission of the United Grand Lodge of England
Advertisements and playbills for performances illustrate that
from the early 18th century a number of fraternal societies
developed links with the theatre. There are examples of
prologues and epilogues especially written for a particular
society, performances being attended by members in their
regalia or performances held especially for the benefit of
one of their members.
The Noble Order of Bucks, a society established in the
1720s to promote the “innocent mirth of good fellowship”,
had many benefit performances at the Drury Lane and Covent
Garden Theatres for members of that fraternity.
The links between Freemasonry and the theatre go back to
the earliest days of organised Freemasonry. The words of the
Entered Apprentice’s Song, one of the oldest Masonic songs
which appeared in the first book of Constitutions in 1723,
were attributed to Matthew Birkhead, an actor-comedian
employed at the Drury Lane Playhouse.
An account of his funeral was printed in the 5 January
1723 edition of Read’s Weekly Journal, which stated that:
…At the Funeral the Pall was supported by six Freemasons
belonging to the Drury Lane playhouse; the other members of that
particular Lodge of which he was a Warden, with a vast number of
other Accepted Masons, followed two and two; both the Pall-bearers
and others were in their White Aprons.
Unfortunately the Lodge referred to has never been identified.
There is a long tradition of Masonic Lodges supporting a
particular performance for the benefit of a widow or brother
such as the one advertised in a 1799 playbill, which was for
the benefit of a Mrs Kennedy.
A playbill for the production of Busy Body at the theatre
in Barnwell by the ‘desire of the School of Plato Lodge’
dates from 1825, whilst an unusual silk playbill advertises a
special performance by members of Liverpool Dramatic Lodge
No. 1609 in aid of the local Masonic Hall Fund. This tradition
continues with the modern Masonic variety performances.