There has been a theatre in this part of the Haymarket since 1720 - the first one being called The Little Theatre in the Haymarket. The theatre was granted a Royal Patent in 1766 with performances initially limited to just the summer months when the other Patent Theatre - Drury Lane and Covent Garden - were closed. The present theatre, which was designed by John Nash and opened on Wednesday 4 July 1821 with Sheridan's The Rivals, was designed so that the imposing Corinthian portico at the front could be seen from St James Square. That portico still stands today providing the theatre with an impressive frontage, but the auditorium contained within has been completely rebuilt twice since 1812.
The auditorium was firstly rebuilt under the management of Squire and Effie Bancroft in 1879 when, under the direction of C J Phipps, the stage was enclosed with a four-sided proscenium making it the first ever 'picture-framed' stage. But the alteration that brought with it the most attention was the removal of the pit - the cheap bench seats in the rear portion of the stalls (under the overhang of the Dress Circle). An account from the opening on Saturday 31 January 1880 described how "the new Haymarket Theatre is a very different building from the old. Both within the body of the theatre and in the approaches many alterations and improvements have been effected, and the house generally wears an appearance of brightness and even of magnificence much in excess of that which it has hitherto presented. One of the most important alterations has been the removal of that venerable and honoured institution, the Pit. That this change was in contemplation has been known for a considerable time, and for some days past an advertisement in the daily papers has explained the reason: 'With the present expenses of a first-class theatre,' so the advertisement ran, 'it is impractical to give up the floor of the house, its most remunerative portion, to low priced seats, and the management being unwilling to place any part of the audience in close and confined space under the balcony, the only alternative was to allot to the frequenters of the Pit, the tier usually devoted to the upper boxes, and now called the Second Circle.' The explanation might, perhaps, have been more judiciously worded, but it is certainly explicit enough, and all reasonable opportunity had thus been given to that section of the public more immediately interested to understand, if not to appreciate, the nature and cause of the change. Nevertheless, before the play began it was felt that a spirit of dissatisfaction was abroad in the upper portions of the house to which the customary occupants of the pit had been transferred, and no sooner had the curtain risen on the first scene than this spirit began to be very disagreeably manifested. A discordant Babel of tongues arose which very significantly, if not very coherently expressed dissent with the cause and effect of the new arrangement, and which quickly brought Mr Bancroft upon the stage. But expostulation and argument were alike unavailing - Mr Bancroft could not obtain a hearing, and a not unnatural agitation perhaps prevented him from making the most prompt use of such opportunities as were occasionally afforded him. We wonder, indeed, that the 15 years of management to which, with just pride, he was able to point, had not satisfied him of the uselessness of attempting to employ even the soundest argument upon rebellious 'gods' (for the constitution of the theatre is a mythological constitution - there are 'gods' of the lower world as of the upper). Those whom the obnoxious alteration agreeably affected required no argument to enable them to understand the cause and appreciate its effect; the others would not understand the one, and perhaps could not appreciate the other."
A similar thing had happened at Covent Garden in 1809 with the 'Old Price Riots' which extended over two months, though the report went on to state that "we do not suppose that there will be any repletion of such a scene, it is hardly to be expected that a manager will rebuild his theatre to gratify that portion of his audience from whom he expects to reap the smallest amount of profit. Nor is it likely that the dissatisfaction contained any genuine or determined element of hostility. That some expression of popular opinion would be manifested was perhaps to be expected, and, recalling the celebrated riot at Covent Garden on a somewhat similar occasion, Mr Bancroft may perhaps consider himself fortunate that the demonstration on Saturday night was so partial and so easily allayed. The translated playgoers [from the Pit] will probably find - have probably already found - that they are quite as well cared for under the new as under the old management; that they are as comfortably, perhaps more comfortably seated, and have as clear and comprehensive a view of the action of the stage. The general favour which Mr and Mrs Bancroft have so long and so honourably enjoyed will, we may be tolerably certain, be more than sufficient to remove any temporary feeling of irritation, founded, in all probability, more upon a popular notion of privilege than any genuine though mistaken sense of any injustice or discomfort."
Some 15 years later the interior was once again completely reconstructed. A report from when the theatre reopened on Monday 2 January 1905 highlighted that "the Haymarket has in three months been altered out of all knowledge. The number of boxes has been reduced to four. The Pit - the removal of which when Sir Squire and Lady Bancroft became the managers of the theatre led to a series of disorderly scenes has been replaced, and, as a consequence, the Dress Circle has been considerably raised. The prevailing colour of the theatre is red, the decorations being gold and white, with an agreeable economy of gold. The seats in all parts of the house are comfortable - a very important characteristic in a playhouse - and, what is not less important, a clear view or the stage can be obtained from every seat." It is this 1905 auditorium that remains down to today. More alterations were made from 1939 to 1941 which included the construction of the large bar area under the stalls seating area. In 1994 some £1.3 million was spent in a major refurbishment of the theatre. The 'Balcony' is to the rear of the 'Upper Circle'.
During the 1730s Henry Fielding produced a number of satires here attacking both political parties and the Royal Family which so incensed the government of the day that censorship of plays by the Lord Chamberlain was introduced in 1737 - the act was not repealed until September 1968. During this time plays that had been 'banned' were sometimes presented under 'private club' conditions such as at the Comedy Theatre (now Harold Pinter Theatre).
It was here that Lily Langtry made her debut in 1881. Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband and A Woman Of No Importance both premiered here. The theatre has a reputation for presenting good serious plays - and the list of actors and actresses who have appeared here over the years reads like a who's who of the British acting establishment. Disaster struck the Theatre Royal Haymarket during the evening performance of When Harry Met Sally on Saturday 15 May 2004 when, towards the end of the evening's performance, the central chandelier in the auditorium came away from the ceiling. Although it was stopped from falling too far by safety chains, some decorative auditorium plaster work fell onto the audience below. Thankfully nobody was too seriously injured though a couple of performances were cancelled.