There have been two Theatres Royal in Edinburgh, both now long gone. The Theatre Royal, Broughton Street first opened as the Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1793 and was demolished in the late 1950s. But the earliest, and historically most important, was the Theatre Royal in Shakespeare Square, situated at the east end of Princes Street, Edinburgh, which opened on the 9th of December 1769. A description of the Theatre can be read below.
Right - An early watercolour of the Theatre Royal, Shakespeare Square, Edinburgh.
The Theatre had a long and involved career and was substantially altered in 1830.
However, the Theatre was to close only 30 years later when it was demolished to make way for the construction of a new Post Office in 1859.
The Theatre's last performance was on Wednesday the 25th of May 1859 and a programme for this event can be found here. The next day the Caledonian Mercury printed a report on the Theatre's history and its demise in their 26th of May, 1859 edition which can be read below.
There is also some information and images for the Theatre Royal, Shakespeare Square here.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
The Caledonian Mercury, 26th May 1859
The Theatre Royal has now fulfilled the purposes for which it was built. It is about to be removed, that its site may be occupied by a new Post Office worthy of the capital of Scotland; it occurs to us, therefore, that this is a fitting occasion to give a short outline of its history, with some general reflections on its rise and fall.
The introduction of regular dramatic performances into Scotland may properly be dated from the year 1680, when the Duke of York, afterwards James VII., resided for a time at Holyrood Palace. At the Restoration, two companies of players had bean formed in London, the one called the "Ring's Servants," the other the "Duke's Servants." They wore a kind of livery for distinction, and followed the courts of their respective patrons. "No salary, however, or certain emolument being annexed to their service, the royal patronage was found insufficient for the subsistence of the rival companies, and therefore they were united by letters patent in 1684." The Duke of York brought his company to Scotland with him, and they were considered part of his household. In an address to the University of Oxford, written by Dryden, he thus refers to the departure of the Duke's servants for Edinburgh in 1680:-
"Our brethren have from Thames to Tweed departed,
On the Duke's return to England the stage fell into disuse in Edinburgh, and during all the ferment caused by the Revolution, and subsequently by the Union, and throughout the whole of the reign of Queen Anne, dramatic performances were entirely unknown in Scotland. It was not till after the confusion occasioned by the rebellion of 1715 had subsided that any stage adventurer thought of reviving them on this side of the Tweed.
Previous to the Reformation, almost every town of note in Scotland had its open playground, where such rude dramas - principally pieces full of humour and grossness - were performed as had succeeded the old monastic mysteries and moralities. Sir David Lindsay of the Mount's well-known play or satire of the "Three Estates," 1535, was acted in the open air, in presence of the Court, both on the Castlehill, Cupar, and at the Greenside Well, Edinburgh - the latter, the usual playground of the capital, lying below the now doomed Theatre Royal, and near the Queen's Theatre, head of Leith Walk.
The first stage performers who appeared in Edinburgh, after the period referred to, were an Italian company under Signora Violante, an exhibitor of feats of activity on the tight-rope, in whose company of Lilliputian actors the celebrated Mrs Woffington, daughter of a huckster in Dublin, commenced her theatrical career as a pupil, when only nine years old, and attracted much notice as the representative of Macheath, in the "Beggar's Opera." On her arrival, she fitted up as a theatre a house at the bottom of Carrubber's Close, on the north side of the High Street; and so encouraging seems to have been her success that she subsequently collected a company of English comedians, and once more visited Edinburgh with her troop. For some years after this period the city was annually visited by a strolling company of players, who rented for their performances the Tailors' Hall, in the Cowgate. In 1727 the Magistrates and Presbytery of Edinburgh endeavoured to expel the players from the town, the former prohibiting them from acting within the limits of their jurisdiction, while a committee of the latter, to whom the subject had been remitted, drew up, against the frequenting of stage plays, an Act and Exhortation, which was read from all the pulpits within the Presbytery bounds. The players, on their part, obtained from the Court of Session a suspension of the Magistrates' interdict, and continued their performances in spite of the denunciations of the clergy. It may be interesting to play-goers of the present day to know that the prices of admission to the Tailors' Hall Theatre were 2s 6d for boxes and pit, and is 6d for gallery. A full house brought about L.45.
About 1736 Allan Ramsay, who was strongly attached to the drama, entered into a speculation for its encouragement, at great expense to himself, by rebuilding the old playhouse at the foot of Carrubber's Close - the same house which was afterwards used as a chapel by successive congregations of different sects, and in our own day as a cheap concert room. He who was the first to establish a circulating library in Scotland found himself thwarted, by the bigotry of the age, in his favourite scheme of being proprietor of a theatre; for before it could be opened the Act 10 George II, cap. 28, for suppressing stage plays throughout Great Britain, except Westminster, or places of his Majesty's residence, and during such residence only, was passed in the year 1737, and in consequence the enterprising poet lost all the money he had expended upon it.
The clergy now renewed their crusade against the stage. The Presbytery of Edinburgh, at their own expense, brought an action against the Tailors' Hall company for performing without a license, and succeeded in the suit. The players appealed to the House of Lords, and application was made to Parliament for a bill to enable his Majesty to license a theatre at Edinburgh. Petitions against the bill were presented from the Magistrates and Town Council, from the Principal and Protessors of the University, and from the Dean of Guild and his Council, and the bill was dropped.
All this opposition, however, only had the effect of causing the theatre to be unusually frequented; and the Tailors' Hall having been found too small for the audiences that crowded to it, a subscription was set on foot for a new theatre. A site was selected at the head of the Canongate, and in August 1746, four months after the battle of Culloden, the foundation stone was laid by Mr John Ryan of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, an actor of acknowledged merit in his time. So promising appeared the prospects of success that the tradesmen who were employed in building it agreed to depend for their payment on the proceeds of the performance at the new theatre. To evade the Act of Parliament, the entertainments at this house, during its whole career, were given under the name of a Concert of Music, with a play between the acts. Some of the most eminent of the London actors occasionally visited it as stars; and it was tolerably successful till the year 1752, when the remaining proprietors being unable, from want of funds, to carry it on, the theatre was disposed of to Mr Lee, at that time the most popular actor of the Edinburgh company. The price he paid for it was L.648, and L.100 a year during life to the surviving lessees. The new manager, however, soon got into arrear with his payments, and sixteen gentlemen of the city, several of whom were Judges of the Court of Session, became security for him, on his granting them in return a deed of conveyance of the property. Mr Lee found himself unable to discharge the debts at the theatre, and his securities took possession of it, appointing Mr James Callender, a merchant of the city, to look after their interests, and engaging as their manager Mr Digges of the Dublin stage, who soon acquired great popularity. Mr Lee, thus summarily turned out, brought an action against his securities before the Court of Session, but soon abandoned it.
For a few seasons the Canongate theatre carried on an appearance of prosperity, during which, among other stars brought from London, was the celebrated Mrs Bellamy. One of the most memorable events in its history was the production, on the 14th of December, 1756, of Home's tragedy of Douglas, then acted for the first time, Mr Digges being Young Norval, then called Norman, and Mrs Warde Lady Randolph. It attracted a crowded audience, among whom were several of the clergy. This fact, and the circumstance of the author being himself a minister of the Established Church, created a great excitement in Edinburgh, which was increased rather than diminished by the proceedings of the Church on the occasion. Six months afterwards Mr Home, to avoid deposition, resigned his living, while those of his clerical friends who had countenanced him in the production of his tragedy received a greater or less degree of censure from their respective Presbyteries.
Mr Digges' private debts at last obliged him to withdraw from the management, which was assumed by Messrs Callender and Love. It was during the sway of the latter gentlemen that the celebrated footmen's row occurred, one effect of which was to put an end to a very pernicious practice then prevalent of giving vails to servants, in name of card-money, drink-money, or on any other pretext, references to which will be found in many of the old novels and plays. It still has its traces in the gratuities, instead of wages, given to waiters at hotels, coffeehouses, &c., and called by them "their chance." The extravagance and affectation of servants, in aping the manners of their masters, had risen to such a height at that period that the Rev. Mr Townley, master of the Merchant Tailors' School, London, produced a burlesque called "High Life Below Stairs," which had the effect, by a well-timed and successful exposure, of correcting the pride and insufferable insolence of the class against which it was directed. On the production of this piece for the first time in Edinburgh, the footmen of this city, considering it an insult to their tribe, resolved upon summarily putting a stop to its representation. In those days the upper gallery of the theatre was set apart for footmen in attendance upon their masters at the performance, to which they had admission gratis. This was done to avoid their being obliged to stand about outside in the cold, or driven to the neighbouring public-houses to spend their time in drinking. On the second night of the farce, the lackeys mustered in great force. Many were in the gallery that night without their masters, bent upon a disturbance. On the drawing up of the curtain, Mr Love, one of the managers, came forward and read a letter which he had that day received, full of the most violent threats if the piece was not instantly withdrawn; for that, so the letter declared, upwards of seventy people had agreed to sacrifice "fame, honour, and profit," rather than allow it to be performed. The audience, indignant at such intimidation, ordered the farce to be proceeded with instanter. No sooner, however, was it begun than the footmen's gallery was in an uproar. The masters in the boxes singled out their own serving-men, and commanded them to be quiet or leave the theatre; but the insolent and disorderly crew set them and their authority at defiance. This was not to be tolerated. The gentlemen, assisted by the respectable part of the audience, proceeded to the gallery for the purpose of turning them out, neck and crop, and, after a desperate battle, succeeded in expelling them from the theatre. From that night they were deprived of the privilege of free admission, and the "veils" system thenceforth was for ever abolished.
Messrs Dawson and Beat were the next lessees of the Canongate Theatre. These men, the first belonging to Newcastle and the other to this city, were mere speculators, and knew very little of theatrical management. The result we give in the words of Hugo Arnot :- "Dissensions soon arose among the performers, which the managers were unable to allay. Each party had their friends among the public. The gentlemen of the long robe took a deep concern in the quarrel; the students of the University did not remain neutral. In a riot which ensued the Canongate Theatre was totally demolished, and the performers, who bad drawn this ruin upon themselves, were left in extreme necessity. The proprietors, at this time involved in a debt of L.900 on account of the theatre, brought an action of damages against the principal parties engaged in the riot, but, with consummate address, the latter traversed it by a counter action against the pursuers, for allowing plays to be acted in their house contrary to Act of Parliament. Some of these proprietors were on the bench, and without them there was not a quorum of Judges to decide the question, and, in consequence, both actions were allowed to drop. The site of the Canongate Theatre is in Playhouse Close, nearly opposite the head of New Street. The prices of admission there were 2s 6d, 1s 6d, and 1s; and when full the house held between L.70 and L.80.
The prejudice against the stage had much abated in Edinburgh; and the attention of the public being now in earnest turned to theatrical representations, it was resolved to apply for the authority of Parliament towards obtaining a properly licensed theatre. The commencement of the New Town afforded an excellent opportunity for this, and a clause to that effect was, at the expense of the proprietors of the former theatre, added to the bill then before the House of Commons for the extension of the royalty. In those days players were classed with vagrants and sturdy beggars. Perhaps our readers would like to see the clause as it stands in the Act 6 George III., chapter 27 (A.D. 1757). Here it is:-
Of this new theatre Mr Ross, then one of the principal actors at Covent Garden, obtained the patent, on his paying L. 1100 to the proprietors of the Canon-gate Theatre, being the amount of the debt and expenses incurred by them, and he immediately set about erecting it. The sum of L.2500 was raised in shares of L.1100 each, for which Mr Ross gave security on the new theatre, wardrobe, and patent, and engaged to pay interest at three per cent., with the usual admission privilege to shareholders.
Right - An early watercolour of the Theatre Royal, Shakespeare Square, Edinburgh.
The building was begun at the north end of the North Bridge in 1768, and opened for the first time in December 1769, the whole expense of its erection, with the wardrobe and scenery, amounting to L.5000, Externally the plainest public building in Edinburgh, it was well described as "of a barn-like appearance, with a front just sufficiently ornamented to indicate that the designer had seen in his boyhood, or imagined in his dreams, something more elegant than a dead wall perforated with doors." Upon the point of the roof in front there was originally a statue of Shakspere, and on the sides appeared statues of the Tragic and Comic Muse. These, however, were removed in 1830 by Mr. W. H. Murray, the then Manager, and Shakspere was displaced that a chimney might be erected where he stood. Internally, the arrangements of the theatre were - we may now speak of them in the past - neat and comfortable, and when full it could hold 1500 people. The admission prices were at first as boxes and pit, with a 2s gallery, and a 1s ditto. Afterwards the boxes were charged 5s and the pit 3s, and these rates continued till the introduction of the second-price system about 1830, when something like the former scale was adopted. The succeeding managers were Messrs Leys, Foote, Woodward, Weston, Digges, and Bland.
In 1784 the great Mrs Siddons appeared in Edinburgh, when the desire to witness her performances was so universal that visitors to the theatre took possession of their seats at two o'clock in the afternoon. The same year the celebrated Henderson performed here for several nights. In 1815 the famous Miss O'Neil came to Edinburgh, and the furore was as great as on occasion of the Siddons' visit. Porters were actually engaged to wait all night outside the box-office door to secure places in the morning. In 1816 the elder Kean appeared, when their excitement was equally intense. After that year he frequently renewed his visits, as did Young, Macready, and all the great actors of the day. Indeed; from the opening of the Theatre Royal, which, as we have shown, was the first licensed theatre in Edinburgh, every London actor of any note, except Garrick, appeared on its boards.
On the 27th of' August 1822, the Theatre Royal was honoured with the presence of George the Fourth, during his visit to Edinburgh. The company of actors was always considered one of the best out of London; but its palmiest days may be said to have been when it was under the management of Mr Henry Siddons, who died in 1824, and of his brother-in-law, Mr William Henry Murray - especially of the latter. During Mr Murray's reign, the best company that Edinburgh ever had were members of the Theatre Royal. Actors of the varied talents and great genius of Mackay, Jones, Denham, Pritchard, Stanley, Mrs Henry Siddons, Mis Nicol; Mrs Renaud, old Mason, and Murray himself, cannot be expected ever to be found together again in any company in any theatre in Scotland. The production of the dramas of the Waverley Novels forms a memorable era in the history of the Theatre Royal; and in connection with it the divulgement of the secret of the authorship of Waverley by Sir Walter Scott himself, at the first anniversary dinner of the Edinburgh Theatrical Fund Association in February 1827, invests its annals with an imperishable interest.
The Queen's Theatre and Opera House at the head of Leith Walk is not so well situated for a place of public performances as the Theatre Royal, but internally it is more elegant and commodious, and when full it can accommodate 1700 persons. It occupies the site of what was originally Corri's Rooms, for concerts, afterwards converted into a theatre, under the name, first of the Caledonian, and subsequently of the Adelphi. At one time it was Used as a rival to the Theatre Royal, but latterly as a conjunct speculation with it, when the regular Theatre Royal season was over. It has now the prospect of being for some time the only theatre in Edinburgh.
The management of Mr and Mrs Wyndham, since it came into their hands, has given great satisfaction to every playgoer in the city; and a well-merited compliment was paid to them last night when the curtain rose for the last time over the time-honoured stage of the Theatre Royal.
The closing performance and public demonstration passed off with all the eclat that a fashionable and crowded attendance, a strong feeling of enthusiasm in the audience, and an evident determination in the actors to play their best, could impart to them. The comedy of Masks and Faces was produced in perfection, the principal parts being taken by Mr and Mrs Wyndham, and Mr Edmund Glover, of the Theatre-Royal, Glasgow - all of whom were at the close called before the curtain, Mrs Wyndham receiving a shower of bouquets. Mr Wyndham then delivered a poetical address, calling up to memory many of the past glories of the old house, and the names of the notable illustrators of the drama who had figured on its stage. The address was frequently applauded, particularly at the allusions to Murray and Miss Nicol. The following appropriate reference to the immediate occasion also called forth considerable applause:-
"This classic ground, thus hallowed by the past,
This was followed by the farce of "His Last Legs," the national drama of "Cramond Brig," and the valedictory sketch which we have before noticed. The performances concluded by the company singing the anthem, and also "Auld Langsyne," the audience joining heartily in the chorus of the latter.
The above article on The Stage in Edinburgh was first published in The Caledonian Mercury, 26th May 1859.
Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.
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