There’s a good account of ‘The Benefit’ in the critical introduction of two separate volumes to the London Stage, 1660-1800 http://explore.bl.uk/BLVU1:LSCOP-ALL:BLL01004159516 and I’ve drawn on that for this quick summary.
The principled customs of the Benefit evolved during 1660 to 1700; never an explicit edict, rather, it became a norm of theatrical tradition.
It involved five particular categories: actresses as a group; young actors; the individual performer; the dramatist; and for charities. In the earlier period, the Benefit was largely organised for the dramatist’s benefit – it was the main source of revenue for the professional dramatist
The playbills in our digitised selection generally span from the 1780s to the 1860s and by this time the Benefit had developed to include performers of all kinds – actors, dancers, singers, musicians, but also the servants of the theatre and still also for charities.
Benefits tended to be held at set points in the theatre season – performer’s benefits took place in March, charitable benefits in May or June. Leading actors had first opportunity and then the lesser performers would have their chance. The increase in the use of the Benefit meant that they changed from being occasional, special events to being the norm – and this is why we see so many playbills announcing the Benefits for different theatre workers almost every other night.
Benefits allowed the recipient the right to sell tickets or to reserve rows of seats and patrons could choose those seats knowing the money for the ticket would go to the benefit of the night’s focus. Benefits for the playwright were held on set nights – the ninth, the twelfth, and the twentieth night – so the first night would be crucial for their chance of success and for access to the ensuing benefits and share of the tickets. There are some cases where unsuccessful performances resulted in the beneficiary being liable to cover losses – so it was not without its risks, and scant returns on your benefit night could be perceived as a measure of critical reception or of levels of appreciation for different actors or theatre workers. One thing that sticks out is that some theatre ‘servants’, such as box attendants often fared very well, likely because patrons were rewarding past favours, or securing future special traeatment!
Leading actors could often make the equivalent of many weeks’ worth of salaries on just one night. ‘Bread and butter’ actors and actresses often made meagre earnings from the benefit. A ‘Theatrical Fund’ was set up in the late 18th century (something similar to the sailors’ chest for injured and old mariners), but this was linked to past earnings and left the better-off still the better-off.
Playbills were circulated many days before a benefit and sometimes adverts would be placed in newspapers – these included humble appeals to people for support and patronage (people must have grown tired or indifferent to so many appeals for benefits). Some of the appeals are beyond humble and somewhat pathetic, being almost prostrate cries for assistance. These notices would inform people where the benefit tickets could be obtained, from booksellers, particular shops (I’ve seen confectioners listed amongst these) and even from printers who often doubled as agents for newspapers adverts, theatre tickets, auctions and other services.
I’m looking forward to seeing more examples of Benefits for charities – I expect hospitals will feature mostly but perhaps there may be Benefits for veterans, for orphans and other vulnerable and excluded groups. The ubiquitous Benefits on playbills show us how the workers of the theatre largely made their living. It would be interesting to look at surviving accounts books for theatres to see if there are details of how much was being raised, or earned. Actors and other theatre workers memoirs would also be good sources. I wonder if performing animals, dogs like ‘Neptune’, were ever given a benefit (and ran off to the butchers with the takings!)?