Drury Duty: How Hogarth and Boswell Depict Scenes from Drury Lane

Once upon a midnight DRURY…

In his two separate series of a vulnerable youth in decline, William Hogarth features Drury Lane as one of the chosen settings of sin. Beginning with A Harlot’s Progress, Hogarth introduces his fallen damsel to the dark Drury Lane scene in Plate 3. 16003

Amidst the fine details cluttering the busy scene are the pewter jugs on the right hand side of the picture on which is written the label “James Deacon, Drury Lane.” The subtle yet powerful implication that the jugs were obtained from the local pub demonstrates just how deeply Mary Hackabout sinks into the life of harlotry that lends the series its name. From an innocent country girl to Drury Lane resident, the deterioration that befalls Mary is meant to be understood by Hogarth’s audience as typical for the unfortunate souls who come to populate London’s dingiest areas.

In his second series following the convoluted “progress” of a misdirected victim of vice, A Rake’s Progress, Hogarth again returns to Drury Lane in, again, Plate 3 (something about the number 3, eh?)


The parallel between the Drury Lane of the two engravings is not only in the plate number in which they appear, but also in the shenanigans displayed in the scene. Even more chaotic than in the Harlot plate, this plate takes place in Rose Tavern. Unlike Harlot, this scene is a public place of disarray and vice rather than a domestic one. However, both plates share the element of SO MUCH GOING ON. Clothes not entirely on, walls marked by portraits of unsavory characters (did you notice that Macheath made a sweet cameo in Harlot?), lust going uncontrolled, both plates attest to the sheer volume of naughtiness that characterizes Drury Lane. By blending together such an aggregation of subtle indicators of uh-oh, Hogarth demonstrates a certain moral judgment of his memorable main characters and on the areas they inhabit.

As an amusing and notable contrast to Hogarth’s artfully critical representation of the squalor and temptations in Drury Lane, James Boswell merely peppers the location onto his complex smorgasbord of London-based meandering in his London Journal. Because Boswell’s entries lack the moral geography that would restrict him and, thereby, his readers, from venturing into the underbelly of London life, we join him on his ride through the abyss. One stop on this roller coaster of locales? The notorious Drury Lane gallery, where he and Donaldson saw an underwhelming rendition of Macbeth. Not only is Drury Lane found in one of the most disreputable sectors of 18th century London, St. Giles, but it itself was considered the seediest street within it.

Why so shady?

Here’s a clue:


Not during this era, sweetie.

That’s right. Drury Lane’s association with the theater was its tramp stamp. No issue for Boswell of course, he galavants where he darn well pleases. And because he floats so easily, the dreaded Drury Lane doesn’t need to be dwelled upon, as evidenced by the fact that Boswell only dedicates a couple of lines to it. There’s no judgment offered about the location itself, only the actor playing Macbeth.

Drury Lane is rich with immoral goings on and ill-regarded figures of society, but it is this cheeky reputation that makes it so fascinating to pick apart and so popular among writers of the era.



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