Drury Lane had a theatre in Shakespeare's time, 'the Phoenix,' called also 'the Cockpit.' It was destroyed in 1617 by a Puritan mob, re-built, and occupied again till the stoppage of stage-plays in 1648. In that theatre Marlowe's Jew of Malta, Massinger's New Way to Pay Old Debts, and other pieces of good literature, were first produced. Its players under James I were 'the Queen's servants.' In 1656 Davenant broke through the restriction upon stage-plays, and took actors and musicians to 'the Cockpit,' from Aldersgate Street. After the Restoration, Davenant having obtained a patent, occupied, in Portugal Row, the Lincoln's Inn Theatre, and afterwards one on the site of Dorset House, west of Whitefriars, the last theatre to which people went in boats. Sir William Davenant, under the patronage of the Duke of York, called his the Duke's Players. Thomas Killigrew then had 'the Cockpit' in Drury Lane, his company being that of the King's Players, and it was Killigrew who, dissatisfied with the old 'Cockpit,' opened, in 1663, the first Drury Lane Theatre, nearly upon the site now occupied by D.L. No. 4. The original theatre, burnt in 1671-2, was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, and opened in 1674 with a Prologue by Dryden. That (D.L. No. 2) was the house visited by The Spectator. It required rebuilding in 1741 (D.L. No. 3); and was burnt down, and again rebuilt, in 1809, as we now have it (D.L. No. 4). There was no Covent Garden Theatre till after The Spectator's time, in 1733, when that house was first opened by Rich, the harlequin, under the patent granted to the Duke's Company.
In 1711 the other great house was the theatre in the Haymarket, recently built by Sir John Vanbrugh, author of The Provoked Wife, and architect of Blenheim. This Haymarket Theatre, on the site of that known as 'Her Majesty's,' was designed and opened by Vanbrugh in 1706, thirty persons of quality having subscribed a hundred pounds each towards the cost of it. He and Congreve were to write the plays, and Betterton was to take charge of their performance. The speculation was a failure; partly because the fields and meadows of the west end of the town cut off the poorer playgoers of the City, who could not afford coach-hire; partly because the house was too large, and its architecture swallowed up the voices of the actors. Vanbrugh and Congreve opened their grand west-end theatre with concession to the new taste of the fashionable for Italian Opera. They began with a translated opera set to Italian music, which ran only for three nights. Sir John Vanbrugh then produced his comedy of The Confederacy, with less success than it deserved. In a few months Congreve abandoned his share in the undertaking. Vanbrugh proceeded to adapt for his new house three plays of Molière. Then Vanbrugh, still failing, let the Haymarket to Mr. Owen Swiney, a trusted agent of the manager of Drury Lane, who was to allow him to draw what actors he pleased from Drury Lane and divide profits. The recruited actors in the Haymarket had better success. The secret league between the two theatres was broken. In 1707 the Haymarket was supported by a subscription headed by Lord Halifax. But presently a new joint patentee brought energy into the counsels of Drury Lane. Amicable restoration was made to the Theatre Royal of the actors under Swiney at the Haymarket; and to compensate Swiney for his loss of profit, it was agreed that while Drury Lane confined itself to the acting of plays, he should profit by the new taste for Italian music, and devote the house in the Haymarket to opera. Swiney was content. The famous singer Nicolini had come over, and the town was impatient to hear him. This compact held for a short time. It was broken then by quarrels behind the scenes. In 1709 Wilks, Dogget, Cibber, and Mrs. Oldfield negotiated with Swiney to be sharers with him in the Haymarket as heads of a dramatic company. They contracted the width of the theatre, brought down its enormously high ceiling, thus made the words of the plays audible, and had the town to themselves, till a lawyer, Mr. William Collier, M.P. for Truro, in spite of the counter-attraction of the trial of Sacheverell, obtained a license to open Drury Lane, and produced an actress who drew money to Charles Shadwell's comedy, The Fair Quaker of Deal. At the close of the season Collier agreed with Swiney and his actor-colleagues to give up to them Drury Lane with its actors, take in exchange the Haymarket with its singers, and be sole Director of the Opera; the actors to pay Collier two hundred a year for the use of his license, and to close their house on the Wednesdays when an opera was played.
This was the relative position of Drury Lane and the Haymarket theatres when the Spectator first appeared. Drury Lane had entered upon a long season of greater prosperity than it had enjoyed for thirty years before. Collier, not finding the Haymarket as prosperous as it was fashionable, was planning a change of place with Swiney, and he so contrived, by lawyer's wit and court influence, that in the winter following 1711 Collier was at Drury Lane with a new license for himself, Wilks, Dogget, and Cibber; while Swiney, transferred to the Opera, was suffering a ruin that caused him to go abroad, and be for twenty years afterwards an exile from his country.