This is my blog, intended to provide information relevant to the history of Edinburgh in the Georgian period. I would love to hear any comments you may have.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Edinburgh's Theatre Royal in the Georgian period

Eighteenth century Edinburgh was late in welcoming the theatre, considering its worldwide reputation even then as a centre for learning and the arts. Early attempts to stage dramatics within the city's limits fell foul of the authorities, spiritual as well as temporal, as theatre was considered by the Church of Scotland as a low, immoral enterprise likely to lead towards sin. It was not until 1767 that permission was granted to an actor/manager named David Ross to erect a purpose-made venue in the aptly-named Shakespeare Square at the eastern end of Princes Street. This building was eventually demolished in 1859 to make way for the new General Post Office (now Waverley Gate, home of Creative Scotland), but in the ninety years of its life the Theatre Royal played a central role in the society of Georgian Edinburgh.

                                          Edinburgh's first theatre, the Theatre Royal

James Boswell wrote a prologue on the occasion of the first theatrical performance in 1769, in which he made clear where the blame lay for the late arrival of this event:

In every distant clime Great Britain knows,
The Thistle springs promiscuous with the Rose,
While in all points with other lands she vied,
The stage alone to Scotland was denied;
Mistaken zeal, in times of darkness bred,
O'er the best minds its gloomy vapours spread:
Taste and religion were suppos'd at strife,
And 'twas a sin - to view this glass of life!
When the Muse ventur'd the ungracious task,
To play elusive with unlicens'd mask,
Mirth was restrain'd by statutory awe,
And tragic greatness fear'd the scourge of law.

David Ross lacked the financial resources to stage plays in the style then current in London, but his successors gradually built a large and appreciative theatre-going public. Samuel Foote showed the potential on 1770 by making over a thousand pounds in a single winter season, despite vast expenditure on scenery and high quality actors. Thereafter the theatre's long-term success was assured, though not all visiting Thespians found the audiences easy to win over. In May 1784 the darling of London audiences, Sarah Siddons, made her first appearance on the Edinburgh stage. 

                                                     Portrait of Sarah Siddons, by Gainsborough (1785)

Edinburgh's citizens, in contrast to those of London and other long-established centres of theatre-going,  traditionally held back their applause until they had determined that that it was fully merited. For some time the lady performed to total silence, as if, as she said later, she were speaking to stones. At length, in a particularly moving speech, she threw herself into it heart and soul. She ended, and paused. The audience was still silent... then suddenly a single voice was raised: 'That's no bad!' A gale of laughter convulsed the house, followed by storms of applause. ¹

In 1794, at the height of the political turmoil generated by the French and American Revolutions and the rise of popular democracy, the Theatre Royal became the venue of scenes that staid Edinburgh had not seen since the Porteous Riots of 1736. A performance of a play titled King Charles the First (probably based upon Perinchief's hagiographical work) was interrupted when a group of hecklers began hissing any sentiment in favour of the monarchy and wildly applauding any that opposed it. At length some others in the audience caused the theatre band to play the national anthem, thus requiring everyone present to stand bareheaded. The hecklers would not comply and though they were at length ejected, for several successive performances the theatre was attended by large numbers of political radicals and revolutionaries, some of them apparently Irish medical students; the United Irishmen were then on the ascendancy, and a similar organisation was in the process of taking root in Scotland. There to meet them were similarly large numbers of constitutionalists and Tories, also armed. One of the latter was the young advocate Walter Scott, still with no idea of his destiny as a novelist, who was directly involved in the brutal fighting which took place in the theatre on the Saturday of the final performance, in which many men were injured and which continued for some time in the street outside.

                                                           Sir Walter Scott, by Raeburn (1822)

Yet such events were rare enough, and for most Theatre Royal performances the drama was confined to the stage. Some idea of the nature and variety of the plays produced at the Theatre Royal in the early nineteenth century can be gained by browsing the National Library of Scotland's Playbills of the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh: http://digital.nls.uk/playbills/index.html


¹ Cockburn, Henry, Lord, Memorials of his Time, Edinburgh, 1874.

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