Theatre Royal

Theatre Royal Venerable theater on Drury Lane in London claimed to be home to an assortment of theater-loving ghosts. The present structure is actually the fourth theater constructed at the site during a 300-year history.

The theater’s most famous Ghost is the Man in Gray, a nonthreatening spirit that has haunted it for more than a century. Unlike most ghosts, which are regarded as ill omens, the Man in Gray is thought to bring good luck to actors and plays alike. The ghost is so highly regarded that an offer to exorcise him was once fl atly refused by the theater management.

The Man in Gray is so named because he invariably appears dressed in a long gray cloak, knee breeches and buckle shoes apparently dating to the 18th century. Observers say he is handsome, wears a powdered wig and carries a three-cornered hat. The hilt of a sword can be seen beneath the cloak. His identity is unknown, but it is believed that he may once have been a young man who was stabbed to death and walled up inside the theater. In the 19th century, workmen repairing the balcony found a hidden room behind a wall. Inside was a skeleton of a young man, whose ribs still held a dagger. Fragments of clothing were dated to the 18th century. There is no record of a murder occurring at the theater. Various suggestions have been put forward, including a romantic one that the victim was a Georgian dandy who was killed in a fight over a beautiful actress.

Only the very psychically sensitive are believed to be able to see the Man in Gray: often only one or two people in a group will spot him while the others do not. Many who have glimpsed the phantom believe him to be a flesh-and-blood actor dressed in costume, and thus do not report seeing a ghost.

The Man in Gray is most curiously a daytime ghost, and is seen between the hours of 9 A.M. and 6 P.M., never later. He appears mostly at rehearsals, when there are few people in the theater, but sometimes shows up for matinee performances. Only once has he been spotted backstage. He walks slowly from one end of the balcony to the other and disappears into the wall. Sometimes he takes a seat in the upper section, then disappears into the wall after a performance. He also vanishes if someone tries to move too close to him. King George VI made a trip to the theater specifically to catch a glimpse of the ghost, but the phantom declined to appear.

The ghost has exhibited a fine critical eye and ear for the catchy tune. Since he usually is seen at rehearsals of plays and musicals destined to be hits, his appearance is considered a lucky omen. Apparently, the ghost enjoys American musicals, for among the winners picked by the phantom are Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacifi c and The King and I.

Oklahoma, in fact, seemed to be highly popular with ghosts; several other apparitions in addition to the Man in Gray were reported seen in the audience and backstage. The ghost of Charles II, a theater lover during his life, and the ghosts of his attendants were seen at a performance of Oklahoma in 1948.

Also during the run of Oklahoma, one American actress, Betty Jo Jones, reported that her performance was not going well until she felt a ghost gently push her into a different position and guide her around the stage on two successive nights. Her performances improved and so satisfi ed the ghost that he patted her on the back.

Another ghostly pat on the back was felt by Doreen Duke, an inexperienced young actress who auditioned for The King and I. Duke felt unseen hands help her around the stage. She landed the part, but the hands still guided her during rehearsal and through her anxiety-ridden opening night.

It is thought that the helpful ghost may be that of Joe Grimaldi, a comic and singer who liked to help up-andcoming young performers when he was alive. The Theatre Royal was his favorite theater. Before Grimaldi died in 1837, he specifi ed that his head was to be severed from his body and that he was to be buried in the shade of St. James Church, Islington, which is near the Theatre Royal.

The Theatre Royal also houses at least one unpleasant ghost, believed to be Charles Macklin, a mean actor who killed a colleague, Thomas Hallam, during a brawl. Macklin was never brought to justice and reputedly lived to age 107. His ghost is said to prowl the backstage corridors.

Other ghost residents are said to be Charles Keene, a noted 19th century actor, and Dan Leno, a pantomime comic who went insane and died at the age of 43. Keene’s ghost, dressed quaintly, has been seen sitting among the audience watching performances. Leno’s ghost has been seen backstage in a certain dressing room.

See ADELPHI THEATRE.

Further Reading:

  • Cohen, Daniel. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1984.
  • Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. London: Reader’s Digest Assoc., 1977.
  • Underwood, Peter. Haunted London. London: George G. Harrup & Co., 1973.
  • Whitaker, Terence. Haunted England. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1987.

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007