Back in 1718, Handel had composed a highly successful masque, Hamman and Mordecai, ‘writ’ by Alexander Pope. The year after his annus horribilis, 1731, he revived the masque and things started to take a turn for the better. On 23rd February, with boys from the Chapel Royal and Bernard Gates (one of his regular soloists), Handel staged performances of it, renamed The History of Esther, at the Crown and Anchor tavern. One person who witnessed the performance, the Earl of Egmont, commented: ‘This oratoria or religious opera is exceeding fine, and the company were highly pleased, some of the parts being well performed.’
After this success, Handel proposed to stage it at the King’s Theatre, where his operas were usually performed. This caused a dreadful furore. Dr. Gibson, Bishop of London forbad it. He deemed it sacrilegious to perform a biblical work in such a theatre. Handel’s response to the ‘ban’ was to extend it to a full-length work, and he proceeded to perform it at the theatre, renamed simply Esther, on 2nd May the same year. He was very careful with the publicity though: ‘there will be no action on stage’; ‘the house will be fitted up in a decent manner’; ‘the music is so disposed after the manner of the coronation service’. On 6th May the Royal Family attended the performance in state. The new form, the English Oratorio had been born, and approved.
The issue of oratorio being performed in a theatre would rear its head some years later. In 1741 Charles Jennens had given Handel the libretto for Messiah. Famously, Handel composed it in 24 days. In April 1742 it received its first two performances in Dublin, to rapturous applause. In March the following year Handel performed it in the King’s Theatre. Here it was a disaster. The ‘public’ were offended that such a deeply religious work should be performed in a theatre. However, Handel would go on to give many performances of it, to great public acclaim, raising considerable funds for his favourite charity, the Foundling Hospital.