'Our theatrical attempts in this distant Quarter': the British stage in eighteenth-century Calcutta.
On 26 March 1768 four gentlemen of the Hon. East India Company's service in Calcutta gave a commission for the purchase of theatrical scenery and scripts to the captain of one of the Company's vessels about to depart for home. Addressed to 'Captain Thomas Riddle of Pocock', the letter of commission reads:
The Theatre of Calcutta being in want of Scenery, we shall esteem ourselves oblig'd to you if upon your Arrival in England you will request on our behalf one of the Captains bound to this Port to get a set of new Scenes of following Dimensions painted upon Canvas & bring them out in his Privilege, we agreeing to allow him 50 pr. Cent on the prime Cost, viz:
2 Scenes 29 feet broad 16 feet high 3 do. 26 do. do. 16 do. do. 2 do. 24 do. do. 16 do. do.
As Also 5 Copies of all the Acting Plays & Farces half bound with the Words Calcutta Theatre stamp'd on the Backs of each, together with a Book of Copper Plates representing the different Habits of the Theatre if such a Work is to be had.
We desire that one of the Scenes 29 feet broad may represent a Street and the other a Bedchamber one of the Scenes of 26 a Street another a Parlour and the third a Hall one of the Scenes of 24 feet, a Park with Trees and the other a Garden.
If the Time will permit for painting the full Length Figures of Tragedy and Comedy we request they may be added to the above Commissions.
We heartily wish you a good Voyage and are with great regard
Your most obedient humble Servants
L [?] Holte [?] // Thos. Pearson // Edw. Baber // Jas. Ellis
A True Copy
This is the first of three items, designated 'Calcutta account', in the Victoria and Albert Museum's Forster Collection of Garrick papers; separate sources reveal that Capt. Thomas Riddell commanded the merchantman Admiral Pocock (632 tons, launched 1758) on hire to the East India Company for three voyages in 1761-2, 1766-7 [1767-8?] and 1769-70. (1)
The order for books seems rather a tall one, '5 Copies of all the Acting Plays & Farces' and handsomely bound and embossed at that. Presumably the intention was for pieces only in the current repertory. The order for scenery is sensible and suggests that this part of the order, at least, was produced by someone who knew what he was talking about.
The next paper of the three in the 'Calcutta account' is a sheet of figures detailing the cost of purchases. It is headed 'London 3d. of December 1768'. The categories itemised in it were written up by different hands. The first one shows practised penmanship and is possibly the writing of William Hopkins, the Drury Lane prompter (stage manager) who is mentioned in the accounts. The others are less neat, and the final three lines are careless and partly illegible. The firms' names are preceded by abbreviations for Messrs, standardised here as Mss. The accounts read:
Bought for the Calcutta Company-- N 1-- Mss. Griffin Bookseller and Stationers Bill 60.17. 0 [pounds sterling] 2 Mss. Johnstons Bill for Music 4.4. 0 3 Boxes and Cords 16. 0 Portridge &c 3. 0 66.0. 0 [pounds sterling] 3 Mss. French's Bill for painting Scenes 138. 12. 0 4 Mss. Sandersons Bill for 44. 0. 0 Carpenters work 248. 12. 0 [pounds sterling] To the Prompter Mr. Hopkins of Drury Lane Theatre for his cutting & care of the books 12. 12. 0 To a tot (1) [?] of Dresses 4. 4. 0 Total 265. 8. 0 given to Hopkins for[?] G[riffins?] m[an?] 3. 3. 0 Total. 268. 11. 0
The width and height of the 'Scenes' give some idea of the dimensions of the stage for which they were meant. It was sizable. It allowed some opportunity for perspective depth. It was comparable, perhaps, to that of a minor London playhouse like Sadler's Wells, the proscenium of which stretched just beyond the width of the stage tank later installed by Charles Dibdin the Younger, a dimension given in different sources as 24 or 30 feet. The playhouse for which the scenes were intended was described by a contemporary as 'about the size of the Bath Theatre'. (2)
The total sum spent on these scenes was large for the time, equivalent to an ample year's income when the humble worked for 1 [pounds sterling] a week or less. Each 'scene' cost an average of 19.16s [pounds sterling]. to paint. The average of 6.5.8 [pounds sterling] (1)/2d. per scene for 'Carpenters work' gives some indication that the term 'scene' was used correctly according to the usage of the day for a pair of dimidiate shutters (the varied breadth also suggesting three sets of grooves to run in), rather than 'drops' which were full-width drop-cloths needing much less in the way of timber. If the figures given seem high, perhaps they are not excessive if the work was carefully done; paint could be expensive, and the cost included materials as well as time.
The final relevant item in the Forster Collection's Garrick Papers is a letter of acknowledgement to 'To David Garrick Esq.' from Calcutta dated 21 April 1772. The letter bears the grandiose but not always legible signatures of seven of the Gentlemen at Calcutta. They include Richard Barwell, a name writ large in East India Company history, and James Ellis, who had been one of the signatories to the earlier commission for scenery. The letter reads:
The Gentlemen of the Coy[?] Management having by an unaccountable Omission neglecting to make any Acknowledgement for the trouble you have taken to promote our Theatrical Attempts in this distant Quarter: we now Sir take the Liberty to fulfill their Intentions & as a trifling Testimony of the Esteem & Respect we bear you, we request your Acceptance of the two Pipes of Madeira Wine Capt. Morris has in charge to deliver you,
We are, Sir,
Your very Ot. hble Servants --
Did David Garrick, then, foot the bill for the scenery and books sent out to Calcutta? Or merely facilitate the transaction by lending the services of his stage manager? Further documents from different sources confirm his active assistance without indicating who actually paid.
A note saying more about Garrick's help is supplied by the editors of Garrick's Letters and quotes the London Chronicle for 10-13 December 1774:
The Officers of the Companies troops, and the Gentlemen of the factory at Calcutta, in BENGAL, having erected a most elegant theatre for their amusement, applied to Mr. GARRICK, through their friends in England, for his assistance and advice, respecting the conduct of it: In consequence of which, he sent them over the best dramatic works in our language, together with complete setts of scenery, under the care of an ingenious young Mechanist from Drury-lane, whom he recommended to superintend that department. The theatre thus embellished, was opened to a most brilliant audience. (3)
It is time to introduce what may seem to be a digression: The Doleful Affair of the Chintz.
Garrick's wife Eva Maria was the possessor of a fourposter with much-prized Indian chintz hangings. It is possible that the bedframe was Indian as well, because reference to 'the chintz' in the relevant correspondence sometimes implies the entire item. In the spring of 1775 she sent the bed with its curtains to Thomas Chippendale for refurbishment. Somehow H.M. Customs became alerted, and impounded the lot on the grounds that 'the chintz' had apparently not been cleared through Customs when imported. The Garricks' servant, Charles Hart, was entrusted to approach the customs officials about the matter, only to report back to his mistress that material with an Indian origin was 'so very Strongly prohibited that if the King Was to Send his Signmanul down they could not Deliver it'.
Poor Mrs Garrick was not only in deep grief about this disaster but clearly giving her husband a hard time. Garrick applied to an influential friend. In a letter of 2 June 1775 to Grey Cooper, Secretary to the Treasury in Lord North's ministry, he mentions having received a gift of madeira together with chintz for Mrs Garrick, which had been sent from India four years previously. But his wife is now in bitter tears:
Not Rachel weeping for her Children could shew more sorrow than Mrs Garrick--not weeping for her Children for Children she has none, nor indeed for her husband for ... she can be as philosophical upon that Subject as any of her betters ... it is for the loss of a Chintz bed, & curtains.... I have taken great pains to Oblige the Gentlemen at Calcutta by sending them plays Scenes & other little service - in return they have sent me Madeira and poor Rachel this unfortunate Chintz - She has had it 4 years, & upon making some Alteration in our little place at Hampton, she intended shewg away with her prohibited present- she had prepar'd paper, Chairs &c for this favourite token of East indian Gratitude- but alass, as all human felicity is frail No care having been taken on my wife's part, & some treachery being exerted against her, it was seiz'd the very bed-- By The coarse hands of filthy Dungeon Villans And thrown amongst ye [begin strikethrough]Common[end strikethrough] smuggled lumber. If you have ye least pity for a distressed Female, any regard for her Husband, for he has a sad time of it, or any Wishes to see ye environs of Bushy Park made tolerably neat and clean, You may put yr thum & finger to ye business, & take ye thorn out of poor Rachel's side--
The reply Grey Cooper made to Garrick's appeal, dated on the same day, was no more sanguine than Charles Hart's earlier report:
I have ... sent a Supplication to my friend Stanley [secretary of the Customs Board] to use his best offices to prevail with the Harpies to come into a reasonable Composition for the restitution of the Chintz & yet the Linnen drapers and Cotton Printers & all that Cursed Bourgeoisie, I fear will be as powerfull as they merciless. But let Mrs Garrick be assured that all that the Secular arm can do shall be done.
Much as we long to know the fate of Mrs Garrick's 'favourite token of East indian Gratitude', no more is heard of it. (4)
We do know more about Calcutta's theatrical activity. In the second half of the eighteenth century the East India Company's settlement at Fort William/Calcutta was not short of theatres. The earliest known is stated by Geoffrey Moorhouse in his book Calcutta to have been established in 1745: 'It was demolished when Calcutta was sacked by Siraj-ud-Daula [in 1756], but a replacement had been built in 1772 and the New Playhouse followed three years later'. (5) An Indian authority on the drama in Bengal, P. Guha-Thakurta, lists the early Calcutta playhouses:
The first English theatre to be established in Calcutta was at Lal Bazaar.... It was probably situated somewhere on the eastern side of the junction of the present Lal Bazar Street and Mission Row, opposite to the site where the old Court House originally stood. Among the English theatres established after 1756, the Calcutta Theatre and the Chowringhee Theatre were the two most popular and best known. The [New or Second] 'Calcutta Theatre' established about 1775 was somewhere near the northern section of Clive Street to the north of Writers' Buildings.
That was in a district known as 'Lyons' Range'. The same author tells of later 'English theatres of a rather ephemeral nature' in the wider neighbourhood, at Chandernagore (1808), Kidderpore (1815) and Dum Dum (1817, a cantonment theatre), and others named as the Athenaeum (1812), the fashionable Private Subscription Theatre (1813) and the Sans Souci (1839, rebuilt 1841). Another writer, S.K. Mukherjee, adds two further short-lived theatres, those of Wheler Place (1797) and Boitaconnah (1824). (6)
Of this surprising glut the most prominent was the new theatre raised in 1774-75. Another commentator tells us that subscribers included Warren Hastings, General Monson, Richard Barwell, Sir Elijah Impey, and Justices Hyde, Chambers, and Lemaistre. It had a ball-room attached, and was furnished with wind-sails on its roof 'to promote coolness by a free circulation of air'. It survived until 1808. (7)
The letter of acknowledgement to Garrick from Calcutta on 21 April 1772 mentions the gift of madeira but not the chintz, possibly because it was prohibited and to be smuggled in. If it was delivered in 1772, we have to infer that Garrick in 1775 slipped a year in saying Mrs Garrick 'has had it 4 years'. However, agonising over conflicting details can cause loss of focus on the main conclusions, which are summarised as follows. Playhouses were built for theatricals in Calcutta from 1745 and onwards. In 1768 it is clear that either at least one playhouse was active or that a new one was planned, or both. Items of scenes and plays were commissioned in that year. David Garrick was applied to, and purchase of the items was facilitated by the resources of Drury Lane. The items were despatched to Calcutta, and belatedly acknowledged in 1772. During the first half of the 1770s they were brought into play in the prominent playhouse or successive prominent playhouses generally spoken of as the 'Calcutta Theatre'. As asserted by the London Chronicle in 1774, their use was supervised by an 'ingenious young Mechanist from Drury-lane'.
The 'Mechanist' who set off on this adventure has been confused with James Messink (1721-1789), Garrick's theatrical machinist and deviser of elaborate pantomimes who served at Drury Lane for about ten years from 1767. The young man was in fact James Messink's son, who had joined his father on the theatre's staff. His surname appears as Messink or Messinck and his Christian name as Barnard or Bernard.
With the cachet of having been sent from the Theatre Royal with David Garrick's recommendation, Barnard Messink flourished in Calcutta. Short years after his advent the esteem in which he was held is shown by this passage quoted from the Biographical Dictionary of Actors, etc., in London 1660-1800:
On 2 August 1775 Gilbert Ironside, evidently a Colonel in the East India Company's forces, wrote to Garrick from Patna, praising Mr Messink for help in setting up a theatre at Fort William and assuring Garrick that he would do anything he could to advance the young man's fortune. 'I have some thoughts,' wrote Ironside, 'of setting at work his happy invention for Machinery, and the skill he has in the artificial slights or deceptions of the Stage, in the manufacturing a Pantomime by way of Vehicle for the introduction of the fashions habits dances and music of this Country.' (8)
After this promising start, Barnard Messink ascended high on the ladder of Calcutta theatricals.
It is needful here to penetrate the underside of the brilliant, if grossly exploitative, world of spawning expatriate culture in 'Modern Calcutta'- said to date from 1757 following the consolidation of John Company rule after the Battle of Plassey. Some scurrilities of the intemperate Augustus Hicky must be noticed, albeit with a cold eye.
Augustus Hicky was the founder and editor of the Bengal Gazette which rampaged from January 1780 until it was forcibly closed in March 1782. Hicky's excesses include both his malice towards many (male) personalities and his barbed recognition of the queens of the Calcutta scene, identified by initials. The Gazette contains advertisements for plays and occasional nods towards players (all men), but comment on theatrical matters is mostly satirical. The playhouse's manager during Hicky's time, characterised as 'Sir Barnaby Grizzle', was a major focus of derision. Here the manager is made a butt following a mishap with his washing:
We hear that the overgrown manager Sir Barnaby Grizzel will exhibit his Puppets on Thursday next in Venice Preserv'd or the Plot discover'd and it is said that the Tragedy King (notwithstanding the unsavory trial which his Theatrical small Cloaths underwent in the late Gale) will attempt the part of Jaffeir, to the no small Mortification of the refined sensations of Belvedira.
We know no more of that incident and need not dwell on it, save for noticing that the Calcutta theatre had an actor-manager capable of playing major heroic roles.
Towards the end of 1780 there was hostility between Hicky's newspaper and a competitor. In successive issues Hicky writes about the theatre as an image reflecting his battle with authorities and his rivalry with the upstart India Gazette, one of the founders of that organ being the theatre manager:
Ye Gods what Havock does ambition make. The Ambition of a certain Theatric Manager, who after playing a variety of parts, with universal applause, has been seized with the strange infatuation of making his appearance in the character of a Printer's Devil. This is likely to prove the destruction of Dramatic amusements in Calcutta. (9)
'Sir Barnaby Grizzle' was none other than Barnard Messink. S.C. Saniel has information on him and the India Gazette:
This journal was started in November, 1780, as a rival organ to Hicky's Bengal Gazette by Bernard Messinck, the actor, sent out by David Garrick in 1776 [sic] from London, for the Calcutta Theatre (in Lyons' Range), and by Mr Peter Reed, a salt agent. Hicky always alludes to these journalist opponents of his, as 'Barnaby Grizzle' and 'Peter Nimmuck'. (10)
Thus Garrick's emissary Barnard Messink, Hicky's 'Barnaby Grizzle', rapidly established himself as an inventive theatrical machinist and then as a redoubtable actor and administrator who moved up to become the 'Theatric Manager' of the main Calcutta playhouse. Finally, by the end of 1780, he reached out as co-proprietor of the new India Gazette, which became Calcutta's newspaper of record. Within a year or so he ceased to manage the theatre. During about ten years in India he had made some money and decided to return home. He never arrived, for he died on the way.
Charles Lee Lewis, years later, said of Barnard that his 'once loved Messink' had been worth 27,000 [pounds sterling]. Such a nabob-like fortune is challenged by the evidence of Barnard's father James, who was put in the tragic position of a parent outliving his offspring. In his will of 1787 James Messink deposed that '... By the last will and Testament of my late son Barnard Messink I am appointed one of his ... Executors ... by which will a Sum of two thousand pounds is given to myself upon Trust to invest... for the use and benefit of his Natural Daughter Sarah now under my care'. James appointed his wife Jane as Sarah's next legal trustee and guardian. (11) If Lee Lewis was right, much of the fortune vanished untraceably before these wills were made. Barnard may have had gaming losses, or made opulent provision for Sarah's unknown mother, though this would seem unlikely with Sarah coming into her grandfather's charge. Or unknown to posterity Barnard may have given massive sums away; if he did so they appear not to have gone to his parental family, because from James Messink's will elsewhere it is clear that he was not a man of great riches. James bequeaths his furniture and 1,000 [pounds sterling] 'good and lawful money' to Jane, while the proceeds of the sale of remaining property are to be shared between his daughters Elizabeth, Frances, and Henrietta, save that a ring valued at 50 gns. goes to his married daughter Gertrude Talfrey 'who has enriched herself already from a fortunate marriage.' (12) This was a respectable inheritance for James to leave, but modest in comparison with the figure Lee Lewis mentioned for his son. It looks as though Barnard Messink's wealth had been seriously over-stated, perhaps by one nought too many.
Following Messink's departure from Calcutta the management of the theatre was taken over by Francis Rundell, a Company surgeon and aspiring actor. This was to the approbation of the other Hick[e]y, William Hickey, whose Memoirs give racy insight into the Calcutta scene of the later eighteenth century. Rundell not only proceeded to introduce theatrical betterment but, being 'a fine dissipated fellow', became William Hickey's boon companion.
In his Memoirs Hickey has much to say about Rundell's talents in both those directions. Without irony he quotes William Burke as thinking Rundell's Hamlet 'quite equal to Garrick'. He praises Rundell for his Jaffier and Pierre, his Lear, Othello, and Richard III, his Orestes in The Distressed Mother and his Townly in The Provoked Husband. In a lengthy passage he admires Rundell's enterprise in making new financial arrangements with the theatre's proprietors, which resulted in great improvements both to its facilities and the standard of performance. These included 'getting three very tolerable female performers from London and some male understrappers.' And on Rundell's debauchery Hickey writes:
My habits of life being congenial with Mr Rundell's scarce a day passed that we were not together some part of it. In his drunken frolics he had met with various disasters, and at different times [had] broken both arms and one leg.... [But in early 1791] Mr Rundell became so reduced from constant rheumatic attacks, which ... totally prevented his attending to the business of the stage, that he resolved to try change of air by making a voyage to Bombay as soon as ever he could bear to be moved.
The attempt was unavailing: in transit Rundell died at sea. He had made Hickey one of his executors. Regarding the Calcutta Theatre's lease, he willed 'that it be returned to the proprietors at large and a compliment of my thanks herewith'. Francis Rundell died on 2 September 1791, aged 42 according to his tombstone in Calcutta's South Park Street Burial Ground, and was 'universally lamented', says Hickey, 'particularly so by those who, like me, were intimate with him and knew all his merits'.
Hickey then remembers 'the sudden departure of a Mr Pollard, a man of considerable talents not only in the line of acting, but as a painter of scenes, etc., and composer of music'. Pollard was extravagant. This led to personal losses which he tried to remedy by defalcation. He absconded to Philadelphia where he died soon after from fever. (13)
But enough of the seamier side of Calcutta life. The preserved letters home and memoirs of British officials and visitors, including the 'missy-sahibs' of the Fishing Fleet, abound in less skewed observations and anecdotes about play-going and the exertions of Calcutta's players. These were amateurs to a man, save for Messink and such shadowy imports as those Rundell brought from the London stage who seem lost to further identification. Aspects of Calcutta's entertainment scene have been synthesised in studies by social historians and biographers during the course of the last 100 years.
One of the first and most valuable of these is H.E. Busteed's Echoes from Old Calcutta. Following his account of the experiences and humane behaviour of James Mills, a survivor of the Black Hole (1756), we learn that Calcutta was to be honoured with the presence of a real live English actress. This was Isabella Birchell, later Mrs Vincent:
When on leave in England a few years later, [Mills] married a bewitching widow who loved him for the dangers he had passed. The lady who became Mrs Mills, and returned with him to India, was a celebrity on the English stage, much admired both as Miss Birchell and as Mrs Vincent for her melodious voice and amiable, simple disposition.
She was the Polly Peachum of Drury Lane's Beggar's Opera of 1760 and featured in Churchill's Rosciad (1765). Mr and Mrs Mills returned home on James's retirement from Company service, probably well before the end of the century. (14)
There is no apparent record of Isabella Vincent/Mills having acted in Calcutta. Indeed it would be most surprising if she had, as her time there coincided with that of the original theatre and the early days of the 'New' theatre of 1775 in which women's parts were all unquestionably played by men. It is, however, open to imagination to wonder if her services were besought to advise the Gentlemen Amateurs.
Evidence there is, though, to show that come the 1780s actresses did trip it on the Calcutta stage, whether Rundell's 'three very tolerable female performers from London' or Lady Amateurs. In a lengthy section about one of the 'queens' of local society, Busteed credits her 'with the honour of being the first in Calcutta who brought lady actors into fashion'.
This was the teen-aged belle Miss Amelia (Emma) Wrangham. The feverish race for her hand was won in 1782 by John Bristowe, one of the senior merchants. Together they set up house in the desirable neighbourhood of Chowringee. In an annexe Emma's husband built a fully-fitted bijou theatre for her. It was there as Mrs Bristowe that she developed powers as a comedy actress and singer, at first privately. As Polly Honeycombe, a favourite role, she caused one critic to go into an ungrammatical ecstasy: 'Magnificently decorated by Art, and more beautifully adorned by Nature, the extravagances of the amorous Sultan seemed justified by her charms'. Busteed adds in a note: 'But the lady amateurs, once started, soon became more ambitious, and took a turn occasionally at some of the male characters', one of whom in 1790 made her mark as Lucius in Julius Caesar. (15)
Useful as the historians' studies are, they can give but a shadow of the immediacy and spirit of the original writers of letters and memoirs on which they draw. Meet, for example, the pseudonymous 'Sophie Goldborne'.
Her book, Hartly House Calcutta, was first published in 1789. It presents social memoirs relating to the years 1784-86 as if from a recent arrival, written fictionally in the form of letters addressed by 'Sophie' to her friend 'Arabella'. While entertaining, they are of their time in snobbishness of class and race. Despite the narrator's characterised combination of artlessness, archness and occasional light mockery, it is held that, so far as it goes, the book's factual matter can be taken at face value. (16)
Sophie describes the location of the Calcutta Theatre as 'at the back of the Writers' Buildings'. That is the Second or New playhouse, under the attentive management of Francis Rundell during Sophie's day. She has not yet been inside (the season has not started) but passes on some details. 'The performers, Arabella, are all gentlemen, who receive no kind of compensation, but form a fund of admission-money, to defray the expenses of the house. It consists only of pit and boxes: to be admitted to the first of which, you pay eight rupees (twenty shillings); to the last, a gold mohr (forty shillings)'. Admission costing 1 [pounds sterling] or 2 [pounds sterling] seems a lot for the time, even for British India.
Further letters show Sophie going to a concert and telling Arabella that 'Three of the gentlemen, who so largely contributed to our entertainment at the concert, are, I find, theatrical performers: the Patty and Miss Sycamore of The Maid of the Mill, the Rosetta and Lucinda of Love in a Village'. Then at last Sophie is able to tell her friend: 'The theatre, Arabella, is opened and tonight will be honoured with my presence. The door-keepers are, I am told, Europeans.... The doors will be opened at eight o'clock; but the performance seldom terminates ... till twelve or one in the morning.'
Bickerstaffe's Love in a Village was the play toward. The next day Sophie hastens to pour out her pleasure in a long letter timed as 'Morn. 4 o'clock'. It is difficult to estimate the degree of irony that the original author introduced to accompany Sophie's gushing account of her experience. It might be profound, an in-joke for the cynical amongst old Calcutta hands; or it might be slight, a layer of amusement born of giving Sophie's character a lack of sophistication. Valid information remains, whether or not the reader is meant to take with a pinch of salt the giddy young heroine's delight in what she saw.
I have been greatly entertained- the company, Arabella, was brilliant.... The house is about the size of the Bath Theatre, and consists ... of pit and boxes only: the first, an area in the centre; the second, a range of commodious enclosed, or rather separated, seats around it, from one corner of the stage to the other. No expence has, Arabella, been spared to gratify either the eye or the ear- a very pleasing band of music saluted the present Governor on his entrance- and the pit was crouded with spectators. It is lighted up upon the English plan, with lamps at the bottom of the stage, and girandoles at proper distances, with wax candles covered with glass shades, as in the verandahs, to prevent their extinction; the windows being Venetian blinds, and the free circulation of air delightfully promoted by their situation.
In general terms the writer glows about the acting, including cross-dressing which Sophie approves--'and I do declare upon my word and honour, that I was as well entertained as if the female parts had been sustained by females'. She goes on:
The scenery was beautiful, and the dresses superb. Here Golconda's wealth in all its genuine lustre astonished the beholder, and a profusion of oriental pearls were disposed with good taste; in a word, whether it was the poet, or the performers, or the diamonds, or the air of enchantment they all together certainly wore, I know not; but so pleasing an effect had the whole upon my mind, that I forgot Doyly [her much-missed absent suitor], my native country, my Arabella, and my mother, and, for the only period of my residence at Bengal, was completely happy.
Golconda was the place in which diamonds were cut and set; it was not their source, though many thought so. The audience was restricted to Europeans and people of mixed race, as Sophie relates:
Several country-born ladies figured away in the boxes, and by candle-light had absolutely the advantage of the Europeans; for their dark complexions and sparkling eyes gave them the appearance of animation and health the Europeans had no pretensions to; and their persons are genteel, and their dress magnificent.... The pit was full of gentlemen of every determination, which gentlemen paid their compliments, at convenient pauses, to the ladies; who, by the aids of perfumes and verandahs, of fruit and of flattery, went through the fatigue of the evening with a good grace, and were conveyed home ... in their palanquins, in very tolerable spirits. As for myself, my attention was so engaged by the piece, that my heart several times asked if it could be possible I was at the distance of 4,000 miles from the British metropolis?
Not everyone declared themselves to be so enchanted by the efforts of the faithful Calcutta amateurs. A review in the Calcutta Gazette of 6 May 1790 indicates that the standard could be uneven at best:
In the late performance of The Revenge, the representative of Alonzo appeared to us alone entitled to the eulogium due to eminence, and the well-known talents of Mr P. [Pollard?] render it unnecessary to say more... than that he... exhibited the character he now assumed with the same success as he did that of Zanga on a former occasion..... To the remainder, we can only return our thanks for their desire to entertain us. (17)
And desire to entertain the amateurs did, indefatigably and in large numbers. But there was more to it than a mere desire for self-display and acclamation, more even than a laudable motive to give pleasure. Certainly putting on a play was a pastime attractive to men and, in time, women who often had time on their hands. For spectators, going to a play was an activity with social bonuses beyond those of simple entertainment. Something less definable but perhaps more far-reaching than either of those factors lay in the underlying sense of exile, of belonging somewhere else. Britons came out to India, served their time, and looked to go back. Theatre gave an opportunity par excellence for feeling at home for a while with a play from home.
The theatrical efforts of the military and civilian expatriates throughout British India included much that could raise the wrong sort of smile. Male-only garrisons occasioned cross-dressing, not always to good effect. There are tales of buttocky clerks playing Victorian ladies without bustles (how scandalous), and heavily-mustached N.C.O.s playing ladies complete with the whiskers they refused to forego. On the other hand the efforts included much to admire, not just for the enterprise displayed but also, often, for the results achieved. As the eighteenth century moved into the nineteenth, and as the nineteenth century wore on into the twentieth, many more dramatic exploits could be quoted from a plenitude of sources, and all over the Raj from Madras to Darjeeling, from Quetta to Oudh. They comprised highly organised activities in the major cities and garrison towns and in hill stations such as Poona, Naini Tal, and Simla which came to boast their purpose-built playhouses. Yet they comprised also the determined victory over scratch conditions seen in less formal efforts at remote cantonments of the mofussil. Theatricals in one such up-country station, described by G.F. Atkinson in 1859, are worth quoting to show the amateurs' ingenuity (or necessity) at work. They reintroduce the classical periaktoi:
The side scenes are but three, and are on triangular frames, which revolve. One side exhibits nature in its wildest mood - beautiful pea-green trees, with dabs of various colours to portray the wild flowers of the forest. Turn the scene and you are plunged at once into the retirement of domestic and civilised life--a bookshelf in a neglige state and the portrait of a flaxen-headed cowboy doing something o'er the lea; ... and thirdly, masses of brown ochre are designed to represent rocks or whatever fancy may suggest.... (18)
The records extend on to and throughout the twentieth century with the accounts of British professionals who toured the sub-continent and elsewhere in East Asia. Amongst the performers were the Bandmann-Palmers and the Holloways, and such stars as 'Harry Lauder... Anna Pavlova, Marie Tempest, Matheson Lang and Dame Clara Butt'. (19) A recent digest by Tracy Davis of the export to the sub-continent of Savoy operas and the musical comedies of George Edwardes and others points not only to their economic handling but also to their scale. (20)
The work went on after independence in 1947 with the domiciled 'Shakespeareana' group of Geoffrey Kendal and his family, which included Felicity Kendal who starred in the memorable Merchant-Ivory film of 1965, Shakespeare Wallah. It continued with Derek Nimmo's tours, and with the British Council's parties and others that now sustain the tradition into the twenty-first century.
Calcutta about 1745 saw merely the beginning. For 200 years, during the major period of British-Indian history, theatricals kept popping up all over the place. They were as unstoppable as they were diverse. They produced a widespread permeation of the sub-culture which appeared to take little notice of concurrent social and political realignments or even military upheavals. Their compass has hardly begun to be evaluated, let alone their role and importance in social life and their influence on well-being, or their complex contribution to wider cultural and community issues. The story of British theatre under the Raj is, within its limits, as broad and intriguing as that of the Raj itself.
(1) National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum: Dyce Library, Forster Collection of Garrick papers, old numbering vol. 29, 'Calcutta account' F48/F33: (i) 43/1-2 (147-8); (ii) 44 (151); (iii) 46 (153). Anthony Farrington, Biographical Index of E.I.C. Maritime Service Officers 1600-1834 (British Library, 1999, s.v. Riddell) and Catalogue of E.I.C. Ships' Journals and Logs 1600-1834 (British Library, 1999, s.v. Admiral Pocock). Logs and ledgers for the Pocock are not available after 1763, which may account for the discrepancy between Farrington's dates for Riddell's voyages and the date on the letter of commission.
(2) See 'Water Drama' by Derek Forbes in Performance and Politics in Popular Drama, ed. David Bradby, Louis James and Bernard Sharratt, Cambridge, 1980, 95; and Goldborne, below (note 7).
(3) Letters of David Garrick, ed. David M. Little and George M. Kahrl, London, 1963, III 1009, note 2 to letter 912.
(4) The Affair of the Chintz is revealed in The Letters of David Garrick, III 1008-9 (letter 912 and notes 3 and 4) and III 1012 (letter 915, containing a copy of Garrick's plea in verse to Stanley on behalf of his wife as note 1). In note 4 to letter 912 the editors assign the couplet to Venice Preserv'd, I.i, noting Garrick's deletion of 'Common' in favour of 'smuggled'. An editorial in Theatre Notebook 18, 1964, 114, brings this material to notice. Carola Oman's limited account in David Garrick (London, 1958), 190-1, contains errors and quotes Garrick's letter to Grey Cooper either with inaccuracy or from a copy other than that used for The Letters of David Garrick. In his Garrick (London, 1999), 537-8, Ian McIntyre relates essentials of the story while assuming that the term chintz applied only to hangings and not to the bed itself. This is debatable.
(5) Geoffrey Moorhouse, Calcutta, London, 1971, 25.
(6) P. Guha-Thakurta, The Bengali Drama: its origin and development, London, 1930, 40-43. Sushil Kumar Mukherjee, The Story of the Calcutta Theatres 1753-1980, Calcutta and New Delhi, 1982, 1-7 and 789.
(7) E.W. Madge, 'The Calcutta Stage', The Statesman, 22 October 1905, quoted in Hartly House Calcutta by 'Sophie Goldborne' (pseudonym), first printed 1789, reprint ed. by G.F. Barwick with notes by John Macfarlane and others (Calcutta, 1908), 313.
(8) Philip H. Highfill, Kalman A. Burnim and Edward A. Langhans (eds.), A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, etc., in London 1660-1800, Carbondale Ill., vol. X, 1984, 205-7.
(9) Augustus Hicky (ed.), Bengal Gazette and Calcutta General Advertiser, numbers LIII of 20-27 January 1781 and XLVIII of 16-23 December 1780. Many but not all issues of 1780-81 are held in the National Newspaper Library at Colindale, whence these quotations.
(10) Quoted in a note appended to Hartly House Calcutta, 317.
(11) Biographical Dictionary of Actors, etc., 207.
(12) Philip Highfill, 'Actors' Wills' in Theatre Notebook 15, 1960, 11-12 (will dated 19 February 1787; probate granted 8 December 1789).
(13) The Memoirs of William Hickey, ed. Alfred Spencer, 4 vols London, 1925, III 206-9, IV 20, 48, 493.
(14) H.E. Busteed, Echoes from Old Calcutta (Calcutta, various editions, last revised 1897), 44-6. Busteed quotes Cansick's collection of epitaphs from old St Pancras to show that Isabella died in 1802 at Hampstead, aged 67. James, pensioned by the East India Company, died at Camden Town in 1811, aged 89.
(15) Busteed, Echoes from Old Calcutta, 195-200.
(16) The extracts that follow are from the 1908 edition of Hartly House Calcutta (see note 7 above), letters and pages as numbered: IX, 58-59; XIV, 96 and 102-3; XVI, 114; XXVII, 195-6; XXVIII, 202-4.
(17) Quoted in Hilton Brown, The Sahibs London, 1948, 174-5.
(18) Brown, The Sahibs, 172, quoting A.F. Atkinson, Curry and Rice (on Forty Plates) (London, 1859).
(19) Moorhouse, Calcutta, 234.
(20) Tracy C. Davis, The Economics of the British Stage 1800-1914, Cambridge, 2000, 351-3.
The writer's case study, 'Simla: Amateur Theatrical Capital of the Raj', has been accepted for future publication in Theatre Notebook. His offer of a collection of original material, transcripts, references and other documents that could contribute resources towards any future work on British theatre in India has been approved for deposit in the archives of the Theatre Museum.
Natya Shodh Sansthan, India's National Theatre Institute at Kolkata (Calcutta), is a research and information centre with an extensive archive and answering service. 'The Sansthan welcomes enquiries from the curious and the interested anywhere about Indian theatre.' Address: Natya Shodh Sansthan, EE-8 Phase II, Bidhan Nagar, Salt Lake, Kolkata 700091, India. Website: <http://www.archive-india.org/nss_contact.html> Tel: 033-3595159, 3127667. Fax: 033-2101343. E-mail:<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Derek Forbes has been schoolmaster, County Drama Organiser, and drama lecturer, retiring as Head of Department at Middlesex Polytechnic. He was jointly or solely Hon. Secretary of the Society for Theatre Research 1981-90, and in 2006 was elected one of the Society's Vice-Presidents. His most recent books are Illustrated Playbills (STR, 2002) and The Artist and the Organist: the Luppinos of Hertford and Ware (Rockingham Press, 2005).
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|Date:||Jun 1, 2007|
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