Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Rise and Fall of the New Edinburgh Theatre Royal, 1767-1859: Archival Documents and Performance History

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Rise and Fall of the New Edinburgh Theatre Royal, 1767-1859: Archival Documents and Performance History

Article excerpt

In 1859, the Edinburgh house of Wood and Company published a Sketch of the History of the Edinburgh Theatre-Royal in honor of its final performance and closing, its author lamenting that "This House, which has been a scene of amusement to the citizens of Edinburgh for as long as most of them have lived, has at length come to the termination of its own existence" (3). The brief booklet provided the playbill as a frontispiece, recording the full evening s entertainment that included Tom Taylor's Masks and Faces) a farewell address, William Bayle Bernard's farce His Last Legs,1 2 W. H. Murrays national drama Cramond Brig3 a valedictory sketch, and the national anthem performed by the entire company. It was a long evening to commemorate the theatre buildings ninety years of careworn performance history (Sketch, frontispiece).

While the following essay incorporates evidence about the Edinburgh Theatre Royal from early publications, these sources are sketchy; and it takes some effort to combine their narratives to draw a more complete historical conclusion about the theatres past. The object of the new research herein is to answer questions about the theatres ambitious number of performances, about its religious and political confrontations, about the fiscal issues that impeded its success, about its supporters and actors, and about its reliance on talent from the "south." The following archival summary is important to the essays conclusions as well.

Archival research on the Edinburgh Theatre presents some interesting findings as well as challenges. The National Archives/Public Record Office at Kew contains several boxes of complex material from the Lord Chamberlains Offices, the licensing body for English theatres; but none of the information on the Edinburgh Theatre, mixed in among the English theatre items in the LC boxes, is in the LC indexes. One has to sort through the contents of the actual LC boxes, but mostly LC 5/181 and LC 7/4 contain the Edinburgh documents.4 Judith Milhous and Robert Hume's "Annotated Guide to the Theatrical Documents in PRO LC 7/1, 7/2 and 7/3" provides help with London theatre items but doesn't address items in those boxes beyond 7/3.

The National Library of Scotland houses an amazing amount of information on the Edinburgh Theatre, including original playbills in AP 6.213 01 (not yet digitized) that begin with the year 1775. The NLS has a significant amount of published and digital material as well, particularly playbills, scattered between the years 1808 and 1825. The British Library holds substantial early-published work on the theatre, including a View of the Edinburgh Theatre['s] summer season of 1759 attributed to James Boswell, along with a number of playbills on microfilm. Finally, the Parliamentary Archives hold "An Act for extending the Royalty of the City of Edinburgh over certain adjoining Lands; and for giving Powers to the Magistrates of Edinburgh for the Benefit of the said City; and to enable His Majesty to grant Letters Patent for establishing a Theatre in the City of Edinburgh, or Suburbs thereof," along with a paper on manager John Jacksons bankruptcy; and Guildhall owns a document on Stephen Kembles lease for the theatre property in 1793.

Establishment, Opposition, and Management

According to the National Library of Scotland, the Edinburgh Theatre's initial performance as the patented theatre was launched in December 1767 as a part of the New Town project which included the establishment of a theatre to be built in Shakespeare Square at the east end of Princes Street ("Playbills"). A Sketch of the History of the Edinburgh Theatre-Royal records that Mr. David Ross, who had earlier managed the small theatre in Canongate, "patronized to a moderate extent by such fashionable society as then existed in Edinburgh," obtained the patent for the theatre; and construction on the new building began in 1768. The house cost Mr. Ross nearly £7,000, and the cornerstone inscription ended thusly:

James Boswell commemorated the occasion of the new theatre's first performance, The Earl of Essex,5 in the refitted Canongate Concert Hall in 1767, before the new building was finished, with the following prologue:

Scotland for learning and for arms renown'd

In ancient annals, is with lustre crown'd,

And still she shares whate'er the world can yield,

Of lettered fame, or glory in the field:

In every distant clime Great Britain knows,

The Thistle springs promiscuous with the Rose. …

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