The Playhouses of Town Calcutta

The Old Fort, Playhouse, and Holwell’s Monument. 1786 Thomas Daniell. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum


After a lull of two decades since the Play House had closed, Calcutta’s second playhouse, Calcutta Theatre, opened ceremoniously in 1776, if not a bit earlier.


Unlike the first ‘Play House’, the Calcutta Theatre, often called ‘Second Playhouse’, has left us plenty of details about its establishment and performances. The Patta, or the deed of transfer of the grand estate of 5 bighas, holds facts and figures of the property and ownership. We, however, know next to nothing of its activities during the early years until the first newspaper of India, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, appeared on 20 Jan. 1780 with an advertisement for the playhouse.

Hicky’sBengal Gazette. The first issue holds an advertisement for the Calcutta Theatre. 29 Jan. 1780. Courtesy U.C.Berkeley

Its editor, Hicky, an ardent theatre-lover, never missed any occasions to highlight the Calcutta Theatre for the next two-year of its existence. Then from 4 March 1784 onward, the Calcutta Gazette took the lead to cover the Theatre. Newspapers apart, there are two contemporary books of historical importance that provide us with insight to find the Theatre in its social context. Mrs Eliza Fay visited Calcutta many a time between 1779-1796 and sent out a series of factful letters to friends and kins not without her critical comments, subsequently brought out in her book ‘Original Letters from India‘. The other book is a representative novel, Hartley House, Calcutta anonymously penned by Mrs Phebe Gibbes. The story of Sophia Goldborne, the protagonist of the novel, speaks realistically in early colonial Calcutta of its political conditions, gendered social mores, and religious and cultural encounters. Many have a degree of uncertainty in their mind as to the authenticity of the book, and some doubt if Gibbes ever had visited India herself or was it her soldier son who died in India did send her ‘letters that formed the basis of the detailed descriptions of daily life in Calcutta’. [Gibbes] As the book begins with the coming of Lord Cornwallis to Calcutta in September 1786 and Gibbes’ son, Jonathan, a Lieutenant in the Bengal Infantry, had died 18 months before on 3 February 1785 [Hodson], there remains no room to admit such a probability. The worth of Gibbes’ book depends on the verifiability of the historical incidences it detailed most convincingly, for example, her treatments of Calcutta Theatre. On the other hand, there remain some unclear references to baffle us. Hartly House ends with a mention of “a ship now on the stocks, at Watson’s Works, of three decks (the first-ever built at Calcutta) will be launched in a few days, and receive the name of Earl Cornwallis, in honour of our Governor.” We hate to believe the reference fictitious even though no historical evidence found yet to uphold it.

The Theatre House

Calcutta Theatre
The heritage building at 15 Clive Street. Presently occupied by the Allahabad Bank Hd Qtr. Image credit: Double-Dolphin

Calcutta’s second playhouse, the famous Calcutta Theatre, opened cheerily in 1776, if not a bit earlier [Dasgupta], after a lull of two decades since the first English theatre, named Play House, had closed down. It was run by the white people, where even the doorkeepers were Europeans, as ‘black people in an office of that nature would have no authority with the public.’ [Gibbes] During a span of thirty-three years, the theatre had entertained the English settlers in particular with classical and contemporary dramas to their taste besides providing them with a lavish space for celebrations and socialization. A Ball Room was attached. When the Old Court House was dismantled in 1792, the theatre was for a long time used for large gatherings such as public dinners, meetings, etc. [Dasgupta] The importance of Calcutta Theatre in public life is evident from the naming of ‘Theatre Street’ to the by-road at the northwestern corner of Lyon’s Range behind Writers’ Buildings where it fared until 1808.

The founder of the new theatre was Lieutenant Colonel George Williamson, popularly known as ‘Vend master’. [Mukhrtjee] Formerly, as mentioned in the patta, the plot belonged to John Carlier Esquire who used to pay the subscribers’ rent Rs. 17-13-3 per annum in the Cutchery of the Calcutta Division. The Patta (No. 27) was granted unto seventy-four gentlemen including Warren Hastings, General Monson, Richard Barwell, Chief justice Sir Elijah Impey, and justices J. Hyde, John Chambers, and S. C. Lemaistre, for 5 bighas 19 cuttas and 12 chhataks of ground situated in Bazar Calcutta for the New Theatre on 1st June 1775. The location was best suited for a theatre being in the neighbourhood of Calcutta elites like Philip Francis who lived behind “in the finest house in Bengal with hundred servants, a country house and spacious gardens, horses and carriages, etc.” [Busteed] The two maps, prepared by Markwood and Upjohn, indicate that the house was evidently large and beautiful. The Theatre was built at the cost of about “one lac rupees” raised by a subscription from the leading members of Calcutta society of those days including the Governor-General, the Chief Justice, and the gentlemen named in the Patta. ‘It is, therefore, no wonder that the house was about the size of the Bath Theatre’. [Fay] The auditorium consists of pit and boxes only, first an area in the centre, the second a range of separated seats around it, from one corner of the stage to the other. It is lighted 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. [Fay] No expense has been spared to gratify either the eye or the ear. David Garrick helped the theatre by sending an artist named Bernard Messink and a number of scenes painted under his direction. Mrs, Fay says ” It is very neatly fitted up, and the scenery and decorators quite equal to what could be expected here. The scenery was beautiful and the dress superb. “Here Golconda’s wealth in all its genuine lustre astonished the beholder and a profusion of ornamental pearls were disposed of 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, my native country, my Arabella and my mother and for the only period of my residence at Bengal was completely happy”. [Gibbes]

Warren Hastings.
Artist: Lemuel Francis Abbott. c1795. Courtesy Art Gallery NSW
Charles Cornwallis
Artist: Daniel Gardner (1750 – 1805) Courtesy Commons

Bills of Fare

The Calcutta Theatre staged numerous plays between 1786 and 1808 predominantly Shakespearean and scores of prominent restoration dramas. Calcutta’s audience flocked to see the delightful presentations of works already endeared to London theatre-goers. Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet, Richard the Third, Macbeth, Marchant of Venice, Thomas Otway’s Revenge, Orphan, George Farquhar’s Beaux Stratagem, Richard Sheridan’s ‘School of Scandal‘, Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent, Isaac Bickerstaffe’s the Padlock, John O’Keeffe’s The Poor Soldier, David Garrick’s The Irish Widow, Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. Besides a few other English and Irish dramas, there was at least one of French origin and other of Indian origin. Charles Nodier ‘s The trip to Scotland – a French travelogue steeped in the romantic literature of his time. The mention however looks anomalous as Nodier happened to visit Scotland in 1821 some thirteen years after the closure of Calcutta Theatre. [McFarlane] and one of Sanskrit origin, a new comedy of three Acts, the Fatal Ring, the ‘Indian drama of Sakuntolla’ ‘liberally given by the learned translator’ Sir William Jones as ‘a most pleasing and authentic picture of old Hindu manners and must be considered as one of the greatest curiosities the Literature of Asia has produced’. [Dasgupta] Among other musicals that the audience of the 1880s loved was Handel’s Messiah. It is quite a surprise that in 1784, a time when the instrument was still new in Vienna, the clarinet was in favour of the Calcutta audience. By 1797, there was a wide enough range of instruments in Calcutta for the British community to mount a surprisingly monumental performance of Handel’s Messiah.[Roca]

Since the early 1790s, we find in the bills of affairs a shift in the theatrical genres when comedies were being substituted with farces, tragedies with melodramas. Plays enacted on the stage of the Calcutta Theatre are enlisted in the Indian Stage; volume 2, which is not complete but demonstrative. We may notice there that at the beginning of 1789, on the 22nd of January, when such a ‘uniformly well-acted play of The School for Lovers was staged ‘where each character was so distinguished by peculiar excellence’ there were in fact very few in the thinly populated auditorium to appreciate. Before the end of the year, the Indian drama of Sakuntolla or the Fatal Ring was played being liberally provided by its translator Sir William Jones. The play was a very different kind from the popular English hilarious dramas and comic operas such as The Road to Ruin, William Wycherley’s The Country Girl, Mrs Hannah Cowley’s farce The Barnaby Brittle, Henry Carey’s Comic tragedy of Chrononhotonthologos, or the famous musical Rule Britannia. The Calcutta spectators rushed to witness those enactments time and again until Calcutta Theatre finally dropped its curtain. There was not much difference in the mood of the theatre-goers of London and of Calcutta toward the end of the eighteenth century. Hannah Cowley’s popular and enduring comedy, The Belle’s Stratagem, first produced at Covent Garden in 1780 was performed a hundred and eighteen times in London before the end of the century. [Finberg]

Subscription Dance Nights

The last decade of the eighteenth century appears to be the beginning of its road to ruin when the theatregoers turned out more for amusements than for appreciation of theatricals. A series of subscription dances at the Calcutta Theatre was started in 1792 offering wonderful opportunities to mix with fair companions in fancy dresses dining and dancing till the wee hours. Curiously, as Carey points out, ‘a ball in India is a different affair from the same scene in England … The absence of elderly persons in British Indian society is one of the first things that strike a new arrival. At a certain age, people usually leave the country, and thus there is always a degree of youthfulness about the company one meets. [Carey] There had been, however, some extraordinary rules for the subscribers to maintain etiquacy on the dancing floors with the young ladies. Subscription dances were held on the nights of dress assemblies only. Ladies were to be taken out to dance minuets according to the rank their husbands hold in the King’s or Hon’ble Company’s service, otherwise in the order of their coming into the room. There were regulative instructions for ladies participating in a country dance as well. Interestingly, similar to the recent time smokers, hookers were not free to smoke everywhere. They were barred from entering the ballroom but free to enter the dining room, the card room, and the assembly room.

The Minuet.
A slow, stately ballroom dance, popular especially in the 18th century. Courtesy Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Art UK

Subscription Theatre

The experience of the Subscription Dance events might have prompted the idea of holding the Subscription Theatre for better manipulation of the sale money. During the last phase of the Theatre, its income reached a new low with increasingly fewer audiences to justify the show expenses. As a strategy to ensure the optimum sale of admission tickets, Calcutta Theatre introduced ‘Subscription Theatre’ in October 1795 offering six performances in one Season. A subscriber was to pay 120 sicca rupees for a season ticket ‘for himself and everybody in his family’. Single tickets were 64 rupees each. The first subscription play took place on the 30th of October when the farce of Trick upon Trick or the Winter in the Suds with the musical entertainment of The Poor soldier was represented. Pit and boxes were sixteen rupees, upper boxes twelve rupees, and gallery eight rupees. Sadly, no such clever strategies proved good for saving the Theatre from its imminent fall. The floors of the temple of histrionics opened up for the celebrations of the John Company in commemoration of the victories won by the British arms at Seringapatam. On the anniversary of that day (February 1793) a superb entertainment was given at the Calcutta Theatre, by the principal gentlemen of the Civil Establishment to the achiever Lord Cornwallis, who was incidentally known as one of the worst critics of the institution of theatre. A few days after, on 27th March 1793, the senior military officers gave a ball and supper at the Theatre celebrating the peace of Seringapatam. The same year on the 3rd of December, on the occasion of the King’s birthday a grand ball opened by Mrs Chapman and Sir George Leigh was very numerously attended at the Calcutta Theatre and the minutes continued till near 12 o’clock when the company retired to a very elegant supper. Another example of public ceremonies hosted at the Theatre was the St. Andrew’s Dinner, held in 1794, and whereat a very numerous party were gathered, the usual loyal and other toasts were drunk, and then followed these two unique toasts —

“May the British constitution pervade the earth and trample anarchy underfoot,”
“May the British empire in all its parts ever exhibit the same harmony and unanimity that animate the present company.”

Royal Reception Dance Party. The tradition continued. Reported on 29 Jan.1876. Courtesy Illustrated Graphic.

The Mirror, the Indian daily, had no need to tell its readers, that at this time “the bottle had a rapid circulation”. [Carey]
The Theatre also served as an auction house to entertain the fashionable gentry who frequented there as one of the few recreational places around Calcutta. There have been regular advertisements of the auctions in the Calcutta Gazette like the one published on 1 November 1808. [Calcutta Gazette] It must be a gruesome phase that the Theatre had to pass through with the kind of awkward and erratic functionalities it was never designed for. The apathetic attitude of the guardians, as well as the unseasonable audience, ultimately obliged Calcutta Theatre to bid adieu.


Amateures vs Professionals

The artists of Calcutta Theatre were all non-professional gentlemen of British and European origin, with rare exceptions. Like insiders, they received no compensation of any kind but seemingly took much pleasure in doing theatre, that is, acting, organizing and sharing space and experience with an audience. To cut expenses of the house they form a fund out of the admission money. Gibbes assured us that the plays at the Calcutta Theatre were performed entirely by amateurs without any support from hired artists, ‘in a manner that would not disgrace any European stage’. [Gibbes] Bengal Gazette reports on 27 January 1781 that the play Venice Preserved was exhibited by Captain Call of the Army. Mr Droz, a member of the Board of Trade, and lieutenant Narfar in Jaffier, Pierra, and Belvidera showed very superior theatrical talents. “Captain Call and lieutenant Narfar in Jaffier, Pierra, and Belvidera showed very superior theatrical talents. Captain Call play’d Jaffir admirably well and maybe justly styled the ‘Garrick of the East‘. [Bengal Gazzette]

David Garrick in the Character of Richard III
June 20, 1746, William Hogarth. Courtesy Met Museum

There have been some downsides too of such a model because of its being overly dependent on the amateur performers as was the case in Calcutta Theatre. It was not unnatural for the independent-minded amateur performers to persist in doing an inappropriate role, or ‘ to which their abilities are by no means adequate’. Fay was quick to point out that this “throws an air of ridicule over the whole as the spectators are too apt to indulge their mirth on the least opening of that kind. In fact, many go to see a tragedy for the express purpose of enjoying a laugh which is certainly very ill-liberal and must prove detrimental to the hopes of an infant institution like the one in question.” [Fay]

Gender Preferences

Calcutta Theatre, unlike the contemporary practice in London stages, for a long time followed the old convention of representing female characters by male artists, Gibbes was beside herself with joy on seeing the male actors superbly playing roles of female characters. She even names a few male talents. ‘Hawthorn‘ was performed by an adjutant in the artillery, ‘Deborah Woodcock‘ by poor Doyly’s patron who has many pleasantries, ‘Rosetta‘ by a young gentleman in the law department, ‘Lucinda‘ by the son of an East India Captain and in like manner were other characters filled up. Gibbes declared upon her word and honour that she was as ‘well entertained as if the female parts had been sustained by females’. She was particularly happy about this mode of acting and expressly wished that the custom could be re-established in England for the cause of morality. She feared the newfangled female theatrical would do more harm than good to London society. The custom, however, never changed back in London; but Calcutta leapt forward to introduce female artists on 3 January 1788 when the last subscription assembly of the season was held at the Old Court House where Mrs Bristow presented her musical soiree. Mr William Camac graced the occasion with his presence. ‘From the songs and dances of the lady and her indication to open in near future a theatre with female artists, the Calcutta Theatre got the clue and towards the latter part of the year engaged a lady artist whose acting and charm made the Calcutta Theatre very attractive’. Calcutta Gazette reports on 18 December 1788: “A numerous assembly was attracted by the novel appearance of a lady whose condescension to grace the Calcutta stage would alone entitle her to lasting remembrance and whose representation of the most ingenious captivating character of Celia will assure for her the perpetual admiration of all who had the happiness to observe it.” [Calcutta Gazette] We have no clue as yet who the lady artist happened to be.

The stage appearance of women side by side with the male artists was a definite headway in the history of Calcutta’s English theatre. The Calcutta Theatre went a step further by taking a curious turn toward playing male characters by the female artists. Apparently, it all started again with Mrs Bristow who actually had inspired female histrionics in Calcutta with her performance and ideas. She excelled herself in the male part of Lucius in Julius Caesar. Following her example, the lady artists took a turn occasionally at some of the male characters.” [Busteed] The change was rapid. Sometime in the thirties of the last century, Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasure was played by a distinguished amateur group most daringly the part of Cassius played by an artist en femme as Bengal Gazette reports on 27th January 1781. [Bengal Gazette]

Performance Standard

During its long lifespan of three decades, the quality of the theatricals on the stage of Calcutta Theatre was found above board and often excellent compared to the London playhouses. This assessment by no means stands true for one and all, particularly in the beginning and during the last years of its decaying state there were more exceptions than not. Mrs Fay, whom we see on March 1781 admiring ‘characters supported in a manner that would not disgrace any European stage’, finds their play good for ‘temporary gratification’ only. After a glorious period of two decades, Calcutta Theatre encounters a changing audience who liked to be amused with fun and entertainment rather than to be fulfilled with an appreciation of histrionic art. The Theatre struggled to survive by lowing down to the popular demands by staging farce and musicals in lieu of haute dramas, and in this process affected the morale and the motivation of its artists. Carey points this issue from the opposite direction while he remarks that the ‘theatrical talent must have been at a very low web’ when such a bill of fare was the best in the way of amusement like the farce of Neck or Nothing and; the musical entertainment of The Waterman with a view of Westminister Bridge, and a representation of the Rowing match. Another instance of such performance was the Farce of Barnaby Brittle, staged in 1795 with a new musical entertainment called Rule Britannia” to which, Carey lamented ‘our ancestors crowded to see.’ [Carey]

Performing Personalities

The Performers of the Calcutta Theatre constitute the most significant component of its organization, the other components being the Management and the Audience. As we discussed before, Performers of the Theatre enjoyed a rare independent status not being on the payroll and having the privilege of taking part in decision-making. Many of those being ‘gentlemen of property, fashion, and consequence’, the artists were not easily controllable. [Williamson] Furthermore, they took full advantage of sharing space and experience with the people at the auditorium for whom they ‘do theatre’ holistically. As revealed from the press announcements, several Benefit Nights were held at the Theatre as supplementary performances in the names of its artists to make good the insufficiency of their income. The Benefit Night show was not a pioneering effort of the Calcutta Theatre as such events had been in vogue since the beginning of the Restoration when an actor was hired with a contracted salary and a guarantee of at least one benefit performance a year. [Britannica] The situation of Calcutta Theatre was nonetheless very different from all other theatres having had no salaried artists in its role, and therefore no contractual agreement ever existed to honour. Here are a few names of the bénéficiaire, supposedly all worthy performers, for whom the special supplementary shows were staged: Mrs Crucifix; Mrs Ormsley; Mrs Hughes; Mr Ferninder Batland; Mr Soubise; Mrs Soubise; Mrs Hugos; Mrs Armusley; Mr James Battle; Mr Copeland, and many others.

With respect to the merits of the gentlemen performers, Thomas Williamson never hesitates to express his appreciation. “There certainly were among them some”, he writes, “who might have appeared before a London audience without any fear of disapprobation. The names of Fleetwood, Messink, Norford, Golding, Bigger, Call, Keasberry, Robinson, &c., &c., will long be remembered by the lovers of the drama; nor will they be easily effaced from the memory of those in whose hearts their merits, as members of society, were deeply impressed. [Williamson]

Unfortunately, little do we know of those individual performers who were virtually responsible for the standings of Calcutta Theatre as a cultural institution of early British India. It may not be wrong to describe the players of the Calcutta Theatre collectively as an undefined group of amateur artists – all belong to the British and European community of Calcutta. This much we may claim that it was a classless group open to the whites irrespective of their social strata. Of those brought into prominence for their marked performance, many names remained scattered in old newspaper reports, memoirs and letters of contemporary writers, historical crossreferences, and a lot more remain undiscovered. The mentions of the performers, sadly, more often than not, are indicative only revealing their surnames, or just the initials, making the task of full identification extremely challenging for researchers. In an attempt to organise the names within a working timeframe, here we have added a date, either the date of the performance or of the Benefit Night against each name, wherever available:

Mr Julius Soubise 1780; Mr H (Hicky) 1780
Mr Pawson\**1781; Mr Norford 1781; M. Renault 1781; Mr Droz 1781; Lieut. Narfar 1781; Captain Call
1781; Captain Robinson 1781

Mr Bigger 1785;
Mr Ferdinand 1786;
Captain William Keasberry 1787;
Mr Whensay 1788; Mrs Pattipan 1788; Mrs Nancy Tartlet 1788; Miss Kate 1788?; Mr Copeland 1788
Captain Golding 1789; Mr Bird 1789; Captain Gladwin 1789; Don Diego 1789; Mr G. 1789; Mr P 1789;
Mrs Harlow 1789; Mr T. Roworth1789; Mr Pollard 1789

Mr James Battle 1790; Captain S. 1790; Mrs Huges 1790
Mrs Armusley 1791; Mrs Ormsley 1791;
Mungo 1792; Mrs Crucifix 1792, 94; Mr Ferninder Batland 179?;
Fleetwood 1797

A good look into the list may enlighten us on certain common features of the artists of Calcutta Theatre, and a few instances of exceptions as well, that may help us to a great extent in determining the democratic character of the Calcutta Theatre and its social significance in historical context. Theatre-enthusiasts gathered together in Calcutta Theatre for the common purpose of acting on its stage free of charge for their self-satisfaction. There were no steadfast rules for binding them together by defining their roles and privileges. Instead what they had in common was a spirit of the corp and an incredibly democratic way of interactions they practised within the purview of the Theatre in a hardcore regimental political environment under the regime of illiberal Lord Cornwallis.


We are given an understanding that all who performed in the Theatre were amateurs and none worked for money, except for a short time when the proprietors had engaged some professionals artists at liberal salaries, as a measure for enhancing the popularity of the Theatre and its income. A few army men of talents were among them. “This secession was occasioned by the marked displeasure evinced by Marquis Cornwallis towards all who took parts in the dramas.” [Wiliamson] The amateurism, however, does not always prove economic. Gentlemen of property, fashion, and consequence, were not ready to compromise with their requirements. They would have new dresses for every character and were to be kept in humour by good suppers after each rehearsal, some tickets for their friends, &c., &c., &c.; so that, when all was reckoned up, the receipts were invariably less than the disbursements.

The inclusion of Bernard Messink in our listing may suggest that although the London-based professional actor was originally sent by Garrick to help in setting up the new theatre, sometimes he did play on stage along with the amateurs, either as a guest artist or a hired professional.

Women Empowerment

When Siraj took Calcutta in 1756, there were 671 European men and 80 European women in Bengal. [Ghosh] Besides their small number, the reason for the much-delayed appearance of women in Calcutta Theatre must be the social censure that discouraged female artists to come into the open. We are not sure why Captain Williamson had omitted the lady artists who triumphed over adversities to play and even earned a high reputation when the Captain was around. Catharine Pawson, a member of the polite society, never cared much for social sanctions and taboos. A mainstreamer well-wisher, Mr Blechynden ‘thought she was very forward for a young lady’ and believed ‘her attitude undermined her class identity and social standing.’ [Ajantrik] Miss Catharine, daughter of William Pawson was a very pretty accomplished lady popularly known as ‘Miss Kate’ since the early 1780s when one love-sick poet published verses on Miss Kate Pawson:

“In fact, for two centuries, women might come here for no other purpose other than to be wives, brides, mothers, sisters,” says Gilmour. Courtesy Commons

Let some talk of Devonshire’s grace.
Let some recollect Nancy Dawson
None, sure, for a shape or a face
Can compare with my dear K-y P-n.

We are yet to find out what made Miss Kate such an endearing impression in the public mind. It is, however, evident from later records that she was an accomplished actress. “On March 7, 1798, ‘Kate’ (nickname of Mrs Catherine Soubise) was reportedly ‘played with great applause”. We also see that for her benefit Calcutta Theatre presented on the 12th the Comedy of the Chapter of Accidents by Miss Lee. A more rigorous investigation should reveal more of Miss Kate’s association with Calcutta Theatre and whether she had performed anytime before Mrs Emma Bistow’s public appearance on January 3, 1788, in the Old Court House. Mrs Bristow is known to be the first lady actress of Calcutta. Her own Theatre at Chowringee was, however, ‘started in May 1789, five months after the introduction of women in Calcutta Theatre’. On that count, Calcutta Theatre must have admitted actresses from the beginning of 1789, and we may easily spot on our working list (above) the name of Mrs Harlow who excited universal admiration and applause. There we may also find the names of two other female artists, Mrs Pattipan and Mrs Nancy Tartlet who had played on January 16, 1788 [Calcutta Gazette. 17 Jan. 1788], that is, in the same month when Mrs Bristow made her first performance in the Old Court House.

Racial Tolerance

In Calcutta, like all other places under British colonial dominance, the whites consent to a system of social and institutional practices that work to their benefit by disadvantaging nonwhites. The black intolerance apart, the whites were divided by political and business rivalries and cultural prejudices. It is worth noting that the ongoing inner-fights of the English and the European races never spoilt the atmosphere of affability maintained by the artists of Calcutta Theatre in the interest of theatrical eminence they wanted to achieve collectively. M. Renault, a leader of the enemy camps, was one of the amateurs who took the privilege of acting on the English stage and entertained the British and non-British spectators with his dramatic performances. The other example of the generous spirit of the team is the welcoming of the black actor Julius Soubise, to play Othello on the Indian stage, in all probability, for the first time, while every other man of the Calcutta theatre, even its gatekeepers were white. It is to be especially noted that, outside the world of Calcutta Theatre, Soubise, the British citizen of Caribbean origin, had to struggle in vain against the racial discrimination of the whites till he met his tragic end in 1798.

Classless Assemblage

There were big-wigs as well as ordinary civilians and army men who as amateur artists played the roles of male and female characters for pleasure or for passion. There were many high-profile amateurs, like Colonel William Tolly, and many with a humble background, like a Mr William Pawson, to team on the stage. For one of the plays staged in 1781 Bengal Gazette reports: “Renault was well supported by Mr Pawson who played his part also in the entertainment with uncommon applause. [Bengal Gazette] We guess this Renault was no other than M. Pierre Mathieu Renault, the Governor of Chandernagore while his co-actor Mr Pawson, was a middle-class ex-paymaster living a humble life depending on a small allowance. The huge differences in their social and economic positions in no way affected the interdependent roles they played.


Only a handful of artists of Calcutta Theatre have had a background of playing on London stages, but nothing we know about their schooling. Barring those few, all the players were self-taught talents who lived in Calcutta wherein no drama school existed to breed them. Luckily, we found one among them, named Julius Soubise, an Afro-British youth, an ace of swordsman and equestrian, who was also an acknowledged ‘British actor-musician’. [peoplepill] who played the role of Othello, the earliest instance in Calcutta, on December 10/11 1780, and also entertained the audience by performing a Moongo on that day.

Julius Soubise Performing Moongo Macroni. Copperplate engraver Mary and Mathias Darly. Courtesy Christie’s

Before coming to Calcutta, Soubise had some precious opportunities to learn music and dramatics from London megastars. He played upon the violin with considerable taste, composed several musical pieces in the Italian style, and sang them with comic humour that would have fitted him for a primo buffo at the Opera-house. . . . Soubise was a great favourite of Garrick’s and loved by some of the brightest luminaries of his time. The elder Sheridan gave him some lessons on elocution. He studied the speeches of Othello, and declaimed at the spouting clubs, with mighty applause. [Angelo]

Esprit de Corps

Artists enjoyed a free-spirited camaraderie on the stage forgetting differences in their social and economic positions and political enmities as well.

Early December of 1780, as Bengal Gazette reports [9th-12th Dec. 1780], one Mr H., a gentleman of doubtful gender, played the part of Desdemona with the Caribbean co-actor Julius Soubise playing Othello. Mr H. was identified by scholars to be none other than the editor of Bengal Gazette, Mr Augustus Hicky. His acting in the female role was very much in tune with the contemporary practices followed on the English stage in London and in Calcutta, and not an instance of Hicky’s eccentricities as some think. [Cohen]. The relationships of Hicky with Bernard Messink and Captain Simeon Droz, who performed in the Theatre after him, were disastrous. Mr Messinc and Mr Peter Reed with a subsidy from Warren Hastings started in 1781 the ‘India Gazette‘ as a rival to Hicky’s ‘Bengal Gezette‘ where they used to be ridiculed humorously as ‘Barnaby Grizzle’ and Teter Nimuk’ in the dramatic notices. [Bengal Gazette. June 1781] Captain Simeon Droz – a member of the Board of Trade, and Bernard Messink worked for Hastings against Augustus Hicky, the editor of Bengal Gazette, which shut down because Hicky had accused Simeon Droz of supporting the rival India Gazette due to Hicky’s refusal to pay a bribe to Droz and Marian Hastings, better known as Mrs Warren Hastings.


The Theatre, as we mentioned already, ran shortly into debt, and its popularity gradually declined from the beginning of the 1790s. It continued to entertain the pleasure-seeking public by providing rooms for meetings, dancing and shopping at auctions till Babu Gopi Mohan Tagore purchased the theatre house with its sprawling backyard for settling the New China Bazar – a new market district. The Theatre lived a long life serving ‘as a tool of sociability’ balancing power relations between the patrons, performers and spectators.[Saha] Before it was sold out, famous auctioneers, like Tulloh, and Henchman, attracted fun-loving shoppers to bid for anything under the sun on auction, as we may find in the newspaper advertisement of 15 December 1795 for the sale of kitchenware, books, lady’s palankeen, ‘Tanjoons’, old Madeira and other liquors, a handsome light Chariot with a pair of mares … [Calcutta Gazette]. The theatre was, as a matter of fact, occupied for some time by an auctioneer Mr Rawroth as did Wilkinson, the Vendu-Master, who once upon a time occupied the old Play House. [Dasgupta] The two different causes of the Theatre’s downfall have been identified by James Long and other historians:

(1) the marked displeasure of Marquis Cornwallis against any Government servant who took part in the stage performance, and
(2) the locality of the Theatre becoming unfashionable, as Calcutta was then ‘moving out of town’ towards Chowringhee.

The celebrated institution that once charmed the Calcutta elites with many a great dramatic presentation, seems to have had some more deep-rooted sociological issue than the administrative apathy, or the locational disadvantage Rev. Long talked about. [Long] The Calcutta Theatre, an out-and-out English theatre, was established to run by the English for the theatre-loving English – a class that happens to become proportionately fewer against the growing section of the whites comprising English, European and Eurasian who cared little for histrionics instead took to getting amused with mundane entertainments. This changing demand pattern of Calcutta’s audience alone may explain the slow death of the Calcutta Theatre. The vacuum that was created afterwards lasted till Chowringhee Theatre made its appearance in 1813. Thereupon a new audience was born to appreciate English theatre and let it go a long way.


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2 thoughts on “The Playhouses of Town Calcutta

  1. Dear Ajantrik — received after a long time — a fascinating dish to savour up. Couldn’t resist gulping up in the very sight of it . Regards — nirmalyakumar majumder; Pondicherry.


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