The First-ever English Theatre instituted by a non-Briton under British Raj
Sans Souci appeared on the scene in 1839 after over a dozen renowned and lesser-known English theatres had fared in Calcutta and gone. It had a short life but a long legacy. Till recently the history of English theatre in colonial India had been entangled with the struggle of the Britishers in India to uphold British cultural supremacy, racially discriminating against the people of the land to take their share in social, political and cultural life.
The British residents were intensely proud of the city they built up and prided themselves that it equalled any capital in the world. ‘Their fashionable balls, their levies, their learned societies, their race-meetings and their bonnet-shops’, to their mind, were every bit as good as anything that London could boast of, while their ‘elegant public buildings’ and ‘handsome detached mansions in broad, tree-lined avenues’ were a good deal better. [Shaw] Chowringhee Theatre was an emblem of their pride and prejudice, intolerant of any interference from the natives of the land. The scenario turned around in 1835 when the Theatre was re-established under the stewardship of Dwarkanath Tagore in the company of his libertarian friends like Richardson, Parker, and Stocqueler adopting an interracial policy for the first time in the colonial regime. The policy helped the Theatre rear up a new generation of unbigoted audiences and invented new bondage between them and their theatre. All said and done, the re-established Chowringhee Theatre, which was a novel institution, radically different from its original state of being, existed with a borrowed identity as it had none of its own. It is recognised as one of the most illuminating chapters added to the logbook of Chowringhee Theatre. The liberalised Chowringhee Theatre with its diffused identity walked the line with a burden of the past it inherited, for example, accommodating in the same old house encumbered with chronic structural issues.
In contrast, Sans Souci was born with an identity of its own, a people’s theatre out of the dream of Mrs Esther Leach, a non-Briton theatre entrepreneur and artiste, who ended the British legacy of English theatre in India almost single-handedly.
Sans Souci (literally ‘carefree’) was said to be the dream child of Mrs Esther Leach – a manifestation of the endless wishes she cherished since she, a little girl, had her first copy of Shakespeare presented by the Gazeepore cantonment soldiers enchanted with her dramatic and recitational talents. Later, along with her rising career, starting with the Dumdum Garrison Theatre around 1824 and ending in 1839 at Chowringhee Theatre as the leading lady of the Calcutta stage, she must have gathered plentiful unfulfilled wishes that went into the shaping of Sans Souci, her new world of theatre.
Sans Souci provided the people of Calcutta with a far grander alternative stage open for all. It was not just a replacement for the Chowringhee Theatre that was gutted on 31 May 1839 sending a terrible shock to the citizens of Calcutta. The Theatre had caught fire often. “The fire god has a particular appetite for theatres. He spared the old Chowringhee edifice for a good many years, and at length swallowed it at a mouthful.”[Stocqueler]
The tragic news reached Mrs Leach in June while she was returning on the Justine after one and a half years of stay in England recovering her health. The long-time association intertwined between Mrs Leach and the Chowringhee Theatre suddenly snapped. She made her last appearance on the stage of Chowringhee Theatre on 12 January 1838. However gravely she was aggrieved, Mrs Leach never let her down with frustration. She immediately set to work on opening a temporary theatre before its permanent abode gets constructed. In her endeavour, she had the wholehearted support of some of her close friends, particularly Joachim Hayward Stocqueler (1801-1886), the Editor of the Englishman.
SANS SOUCI Hall of Theatre
Before long Mrs Leach searched out a stand-in venue for her new theatre, Sans Souci. Stocqueler, who was as much involved in her search, briefly describes the place as ‘a long room beneath a bookseller’s store’ that was engaged and converted into a temporary home for the Drama under the title of the Sans Souci’. [Stocqueler] Stocqueler, however, never left any hint of its exact situation. Later writers, including historians, memorialists, and wordsmiths added pieces of information that are being used in determining the spot indisputably through a process of verification against established facts as follows:
- James Long allots the place to Sir John Clavering’s house, who was known to live and die in his home at no. 8 Rope Way (now Mission Row) as Cotton pointed out. [Cotton]
- Dr Busteed says it was the ‘upper flat’ of ‘Ezra Mansions’ while we know by now that Ezra Mansions was not yet raised, and it was not the upper flat but ‘beneath a bookseller’s store’ contradicting what Stocqueler had said. [Busteed]
- Cotton provides more details of the venue, located at the corner of Old Court House Street and Waterloo Street, upon the site of the premises which is now known as ‘Ezra Buildings’ (actually ‘Ezra Mansions’). The ground floor was occupied by Messrs Cuthbertson and Harper the saddlers and, as he suggests, the St. Andrews’ Library, owned by Messrs W. Thacker & Co., occupied the upper floor. Mrs Leach engaged the lower flat, which appeared little better than a godown, and transformed it into a theatre capable of holding 400 persons. [Cotton]
Going by the documentary evidence we may accept Cotton’s statements as plausible except for his mentions of the St Andrews’ Library, which lacked enough material evidence to establish. Following the history of Messrs Thacker, Spink & co. of Calcutta we find in insertion in Bengal Directory (1857) revealing that W Thacker & co. as it was then called, had their first business house at Old Court House Corner, facing the St. Andrews’ Church, and it was after the Church that the Library was named. In the course of a few years, the business was moved to the southern portion of the premises now occupied by the Great Eastern Hotel and stayed there till 1839. [Bengal.1857]. This confirms that the St Andrews’ Library was situated on the opposite side of Waterloo Street facing the present site of Ezra Mansions where Cotton maintains that the Sans Souci had its temporary stage. If we discard the reference to the St Andrews’ Library provided by Cotton, it becomes an onus on us to name the ‘bookseller’s store’ that Stocqueler witnessed operating on the floor above the ‘long room’. Whatever little Stocqueler says are precious being the first-hand information that serves the basis of our argumentation. Luckily, we have found one highly probable name of a bookstore printed in the Alphabetical List of Calcutta Streets incorporated in the Bengal Directory for 1876. [Bengal. 1876] Under the street name ‘Government Place East’ one can find the entry of House no.10 with the names of the existent occupants enlisted in reverse order as follows:
GOVERNMENT PLACE East
(Here are Old Court House Street and Waterloo street. East
10 Cuthbertson and Harper. F. W Harper.
Calcutta School-book and Vernacular Literature Society’s Depository.
It is evident that in 1876 the building continued to have Cuthbertson and Harper on the ground floor. On the first floor lived one H Nightingale, and on the floor above: the book depository of the Calcutta Schoolbook Society. It may claim to be a consistent and verisimilitude alternative to the paradoxical St Andrews’ Library. However, before we accept it we must ascertain that the Society’s Book Depository was also there back in 1839 coexisting with Sans Souci on the floor underneath (in place of H Nightingale), otherwise, the new findings will remain just another possibility and the location issues of the interim Sans Souci logically inconclusive.
This was how I felt two months back while bringing out the original version of this essay last November 15. Today, it is a matter of great satisfaction for all of us that within this very short passage of time some documentary sources unearthed by Evans Cotton and Devasis Chattopadhyay revealed sufficient information to conclusively establish the exact location of the interim Sans Souci.
I am obliged to Devasis Chattopadhyay for drawing my attention to the preopening advertisement of David William’s Auckland Hotel that he had referred to in one of his essays. [Chattopadhyay] The advertisement articulated the fact that the Hotel was housed at the old premises of the Thacker, Spink and Company and the old Sans Souci theatre. Though I had a chance to read his essay I could not make use of his precious findings because of my inability to inspect the full text of the insertion. I was also a bit uncomfortable hearing that the advertisement mentions Spink as a partner of Thacker & Co. though the partnership took place much later in 1851 and much after the Company moved out in 1842.
Recently, I had the luck to find a very significant article that Evan Cotton published in Bengal Past and Present in 1931 [Cotton 1931]. The article corroborated the view of Chattopadhyay quite convincingly proving that the interim Sans Souci had not been really at the site of Ezra Mansion which many of us seriously considered so, but in the premises where the Great Eastern Hotel now stands.
Cotton found that the Bengal Directory of 1836 contained the entry: ‘William Thacker and Co., St. Andrews’ Library, 1 Old Court House Street ‘. As we verified, the business house had the Old Court House address in the previous year as well as per the 1835 Directory [Bengal 1835], whereas in the 1832 Directory they were still at ‘Loll Bazar’ [Bengal 1832]. The 1 Old Court House premises were at the corner of Waterloo Street and Old Court House Street, next door to Dykes and Co. the coach-builders. Cotton also suggests that the Library “was carried on upon the upper floor of this building; for an unexpected use was found for the basement in 1839,” wherein Sans Souci secured temporary accommodation in ‘ a long room beneath a bookseller’s store’ as Stocqueler described. Cotton in his article never touched upon any of the gross misstatements he made in his book of 1907, as it was expected from him, yet he spared not Madge for falling ‘into the error of locating the building on the opposite side of Waterloo Street occupied by Messrs. Cuthbertson and Harper. Did not Cotton commit the same error in his 1907 book, Calcutta Old and New, by citing the ‘Ezra Building’ (Ezra Mansion)?
Nevertheless, it was Cotton who in his long-forgotten article of 1931, discarding views of earlier writers, including himself, evidently ascertained that the interim Sans Souci was set up at the site of the present Great Eastern Hotel sharing space with Messrs. W. Thacker and Co. For a long while his observations remained out of sight until recently. In the meantime, we must acknowledge that Chattopadhyay arrived at the same conclusion independently in his 2021 article based on a piece of different evidence.
The investigation took a pretty long time. It could have been much shorter had any of us ever questioned if the plot of Ezra Mansions was roomy enough to accommodate 400-strong seats, alleys, and stage areas. A glance at Bourne & Shephard’s photograph of its modest frontage taken in the 1880s [see above] should frustrate the notion at once. And by looking at the older structure on the same plot that Frederick Fiebig had captured in his photograph of 1851 [see below] we should have instantly realised that the depicted building, next to the Auckland Hotel, was in reality a one-storied accommodation and could never be the place for Sans Souci to stay with a bookshop on the floor above. On the other hand, Auckland Hotel was a huge three-storied mansion in complete agreement with Stocquler’s descriptions, and there is nothing to disbelieve that this is where Sans Souci had been. To my mind, here is a striking case to illuminate the importance of visual documentation in reconstructing our past.
The vacant floor was converted into an elegant theatre hall, with the help of Carver’s and Gilder’s, Cossitollah [Dasgupta] It was a small but delightful interior made out following the design of Mrs Leach. The stage, the stage front and the walls – all were decorated appropriately. There was also an orchestra pit. The auditorium accommodated 400 seats, 108 seats for stalls priced at Rupees 6 each, Box Rupees 5 each, and Upper Box Rs 4 only for each. There was no fan, as Emily Eden writes [Eden].
The success of Sans Souci was perfectly astonishing. Persons of all ranks, but chiefly of the upper class, crowded to the performances, which in the course of six months were twenty-five in number, and the question of the existence of a penchant for the drama amongst the people of Calcutta was considered to be satisfactorily solved. Accordingly, it was resolved to attempt to raise a new theatre by subscription. [Bengal. 1841]
SANS SOUCI House of Theatre
Sans Souci at Governor Place East had to disappoint many intending visitors for lack of accommodation. Mrs Leach, the actress, had issued proposals for building a new theatre by subscription; the list is beaded by a donation of Rs. 1,000. from Lord Auckland, and another of the same amount from ‘Dwarkanauth’ Tagore. The subscriptions came in with liberal rapidity. Stocqueler found it ‘so encouraging an aspect’ that he wrote to his agent in England to send out two or three actresses, a couple of good general ‘utility actors’, and a scene-painter. At length, the masons and bricklayers laid the foundation of the edifice, and the walls rose three or four feet above the surface. But it required much more money than the subscriptions yielded to complete the building. Money had to be raised by the mortgage of the property, and all it was to contain. “It seems to be the fate of theatres and churches to open under these disadvantages”. [Stocqueler]
The outside cost of its erection, including all the property in costumes, chandeliers, lamps, chairs, and benches for the accommodation of several hundreds of visitors, music books, ornaments, and the endless variety of articles required in the preparation and correct exhibition of performances, amounted to nearly 70,000 rupees, or 7,000 sterling, of which the manageress herself contributed nearly a third, or 2,000 (in rupee) [Madge] equal the amount contributed by Lord Auckland and Prince Dwarkanath together. Dwarkanath apart, there were more Indian contributors, namely, Motilal Sil, Radhamadhab Banerjee, Romanath Tagore, and a few others. [Sushil] The total amount of the subscription rose to Rs. 16,000. Beyond the generosity of these moneyed patrons, Calcutta middle class raised an additional 80,000 rupees, which was used to outfit the theatre with the necessary stage appointments, costumes and instruments. [Rocha]
The foundation stone of the new theatre was laid in May 1840. [Madge] It was a magnificent temple of theatre constructed on No.10 Park Street on the site where the St Xaviers’ College now stands. The enormous building resembling the Greek Parthenon was elegantly designed by the architect, Mr J. W. Collins. The dimensions were about 200 feet in length and over 50 in breadth. A handsome portico in front, covering a fine flight of steps, led into a spacious saloon. The auditorium comprised of a pit and tier of boxes in which five rows of armchairs were raised one above the other amphitheatrically, the gallery running behind. The stage occupied 28 ft of breadth and 50 of depth, the space concealed from the audience above and below being appropriated to the green rooms, etc. [Stocqueler]
The Opening Night
A banquet was held to celebrate the opening of the new theatre and many speeches were made and more toasts were drunk. Shakespeare was congratulated on having found a new home in Calcutta and Calcutta was congratulated on having provided it. A word of praise was found for “our own Mrs Leach whose determination had supplied the driving force. The Bard of Avon was not immediately admitted to his new home, as the opening play was The Wife by Sheridan Knowles, and even afterwards his residence there was but intermittent, as the most popular productions were the modern comedies in which Esther Leach excelled. [Shaw]
Monday, March 8, 1841, previous to the rising of the curtain before a brilliant audience, Mrs Leach delivered an air address written for the occasion by Mr John William Kaye. [Stocqueler] Sans Souci thus started its fascinating theatrical journey throughout the year, including summertime when punkahs were being pulled. Some writers contrarily suggest that it began with You Can’t Marry Your Grandmother instead, followed by two farces: But, however, and My Little Adopted. Sans Souci became a popular theatre with the presentation of such plays as One Hour or The Carnival Ball, Naval Engagements, The Shocking Events, The Welsh Girl, The Original, The Lady of Lyons, The Weather Cock, The Hunchback, The Wandering Minstrel, Pleasant Dreams, etc. [Mukherjee]
The corps dramatique of the Sans Souci consists, as far as the gentlemen are concerned, of amateurs, belonging to the service of the East India Company; but the ladies are professional actresses, and importations from England—the principals being Mrs Leach, Madame de Ligny, Mrs Deacle, Mrs Francis, Mrs Barry, and Miss Cowley. [Malcolm]
The amateur performers in India adopt theatrical aliases in preference to affording ostensible publicity to their real names. However, there is hardly a Calcutta play-goer that is deceived by the false patronymics. The European soldiery and the clerks of the civilians constitute the majority of the play-going class, and they do not fail to recognize the persons of these stage-struck officers and employees through the tinselled disguises of the stage. [Malcolm]
Among the amateurs who had joined the new theatre was Mr H. W. Torrens, a versatile Bengal civilian, and his biographer, Mr James Hume, afterwards a Magistrate of Calcutta. Mr Stocqueler had also imported some actors from England. They were, to begin with, a Mr Barry and his wife. This gentleman, Mr Barry, had a tendency of developing a croaking voice all of a sudden with a broken throat. Whenever his ‘capricious voice’ failed him at a critical point, Mr Barry in spite of his inhalations of vinegar steam, had to wind up immediately with a dumb show. Then there was Mrs Deacle who, as Miss Caroline Darling, had made a gorgeous Cleopatra at the Adelphi. There was also a Miss Cowley, who afterwards (1846) became Mrs Marshall. Regarding her, as Stocqueler noticed, Miss Eden, praising hugely but with a reservation, had remarked, “one of the best comic actresses I have seen and had great success … She is very ugly.” [Stocqueler]
The fortes of individual performers belonging to the Sans Souci company may be guessed at by going through the newspaper advertisement quoted by Malcolm:—
For two years Mrs Leach was nominally proprietress of the Sans Souci, but the expenses incurred by the management, many of them incidental to a new undertaking, plunged her into difficulties which rendered it necessary to make arrangements by which the concern passed into other hands. Her services were at once engaged as a member of the Company on a liberal salary.
The management of the Sans Souci stage was entrusted with Mr James Barry, an accomplished performer of soubrette roles, whom Stocqueler had brought from Cambridge to join Sans Souci along with his actress wife since its inception. Towards the end of 1843, it was announced that the Sans Souci was about to enter a new epoch with the arrival of a professional leading man and Stage Manager, who would be joining the theatre as its Director. He was James Vining, a member of a well-known theatrical family, one of whom, Fanny, was to marry, in 1849, America’s Edward Davenport.
James Vining arrived in Calcutta on the Hindostan in October 1843, and his first appearance, as Shylock, was advertised as a gala night. It was, however, felt that his attractions could not safely be expected to stand without support from Esther Leach the famous actress of Calcutta comparable with the greatest London artist Mrs Siddon. So when a farce was being chosen to follow the Shakespeare play in accordance with Calcutta’s custom, The Handsome Husband was selected because it contained Esther’s most popular role, that of ‘Mrs. Wyndham’, which should doubly ensure a grand success of the gala night. [Shaw]
The crowds packed the Sans Souci on that night, the 2nd of November. 1843, little guessed how tragically the ‘gala’ was to end. The Merchant of Venice was well received and everyone was delighted by James Vining’s reforms: only a few minutes to wait between the acts, vastly improved scenic properties, and extremely efficient scene shifting. It was all too good till that moment.
DEATH OF ESTHER LEACH
The next moment, the brutal anticlimax was suddenly struck to end the gala evening when the play ‘The Handsome Husband’ just started. The newspaper, The Bengal Hurkaru, brought out the horrid incident the next morning.
Madge provides us with every detail of how all it happened on 2 November 1843. In the first event, Vining appeared as Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice with Mrs Deacle as ‘Portia’ and Mrs Leach as ‘Jessica’. In the play that followed, ‘The Handsome Husband’, Mrs Leach was playing the part of ‘Mrs Wyndham’. Amid all the laughter and merriment, while waiting for her cue at the upper right-hand entrance to the stage, Mrs Leach’s dress caught fire from an oil lamp, one of a row placed on the floor, and in an instant, she was in a blaze. For a moment she strove to extinguish the flame, but it was hopeless, and she rushed onto the stage calling for help. Assistance was promptly afforded, including the professional services of Doctors O’Shaughnessy and Thomson who happened to be among the audience—the Bengal Hurkaru adds that Dr Robert Stuart was also present. She was instantly thrown down and the flames extinguished, but not before she had been severely burnt on both hands, arms and shoulders. Of course, the curtain fell instantly, and the injured lady was carried to her dressing room and thence to ‘her residence adjoining the theatre, where the Archbishop’s house is now’. [Madge]
All the newspapers informed their readers that her injuries were not ‘ of a dangerous character ‘. Everybody believed this reassuring news except Esther herself. She rapidly grew worse and was for days in great pain. At 1 a.m. on the 18th of November, being perfectly sensible to the last, and having settled such worldly matters as were on her mind, she died at the age of 34 years, 4 weeks and 4 days. She was buried in the Military Cemetery beside Sergeant Leach. The old records kept in Bishop’s House tell us that it was a triangle-shaped grave covered with weeds in plot “E” number 49, where eternally rests the actress ‘the first favourite, adored by all Calcutta.’ [Shaw]
Leach died, probably because of a moral breakdown, as none of the three attending doctors warned of any life-threatening danger. At her deathbed, the foremost among the worldly matters that tormented her sense was the future of her children. Her husband had died seven years before, while on pension, and she left three orphan children unprovided for: a boy of twelve, John Bolton Francis, in England, and two girls, Esther Alice (afterwards Mrs Anderson) and Julia, out here. Before passing away she transferred the ownership of Sans Souci to her colleague Mrs Nina Baxter, better known as Madame de Ligny [Malcolm].
Her friends did what they could for the children. The following week the theatre management, who had intended to close the theatre as a mark of respect, was persuaded that active charity is better than mute sympathy and instead held a benefit performance for the orphans. The proprietress, Madame Nina Baxter, gave up the house for their benefit on November 22, but the result was not gratifying. A subscription list on their behalf was opened by Mr T. P. Morrell, a Calcutta merchant, one of the four executors under the will another being Babu Moti Lai Seal, and it was headed by a donation from Sir Lawrence Peel, c.j. [Madge] The subscribers included a number of Bengalee as well as Esther’s European admirers.
Sans Souci sans Esther Leach
The Queen of the Calcutta Stages Passed in Silence. The younger generation who is, in Ibsen’s phrase, ‘knocking at the door’, knows nothing of Esther Leach. [Madge] When alive her talent was considered an elfin spirit that seemed to bring success to any theatre she joined, and to take it away when she left. [Shaw] After her death, the fortunes of Sans Souci steadily declined: James Vining packed up and left for England after placing only three leading roles and the standard of production and performance started to deteriorate. A new leading lady, some Mrs Ormonde, arrived from England where she had been ‘ a noted pantomimist in Cambridge’ but in a matter of weeks, she had died of cholera. [Shaw] The proprietress next leased out the Sans Souci for three months to ‘La Companie Française de Batavie’ – the last opera company to come to Calcutta. Mrs Baxter’s management was a complete fiasco; her mismanagement undermined the ability of the company to succeed in Calcutta.
The last regular performance, when the curtain rose on ‘Othello’ enacted for Madame Baxter’s own benefit, took place on April 24, 1844. [Madge] It may be the same day or some other day of the same week when the professional members of the theatre were obliged to take possession of the building for one night for a special benefit to raise their arrears of salary. [Shaw] As time went on the playhouse was periodically closed for longer and longer intervals, until one day an announcement came that next season the building would be used to accommodate a circus!
After the doldrums of about three years, Sans Souci revived to a certain extent when James Barry took over its management for the second time. Apart a dedicated artiste he was found a great mediator who ‘had always done his best to conciliate all parties connected with the theatre’. Barry was a fine gentleman. It was ‘greatly to his credit that, we may recall, he immediately resigned in deference to Mr Vining’s greater experience’ only to take back the charge of Sans Souci when there was none else to take care of the dying institution. Barry however became notoriously famous overnight after producing Shakespeare’s Othello, with “a native gentleman” playing the Moor of Venice, and Mrs Anderson, daughter of the city’s most famous actress, in the role of Desdemona in 1844. The role of Othello “immortalized by such great English actors as Richard Burbage, David Garrick, Henry Irving and others, was given to Baishnav Charan Auddy, whose appearance in this challenging role of Shakespeare’s tragic hero with an English lady, Mrs Anderson, daughter of Mrs Leach, as Desdemona, was greeted with words of applause and encouragement in contemporary papers, though his shortcomings were also pointed out. Sangbad Pravakar mentions that Baishnava Charan Addy [Variant spellings: Bustomchurn Addy, Baishnavcharan Adhya, Baishnava Charan Addy] twice played the part of Othello with great credit on Aug. 17 and Sept. 12, 1848 respectively. [Dasgupta] The crowd gathered was so large that it posed problems for the city police to control traffic and maintain law and order. This was also indicative of the presence of an irresistible public attraction toward the ‘native Moor’ in play. The conformist Britishers spitefully smirked, ‘Barry and the Nigger will make a fortune.’ The agitated civilians, and the soldiers, in particular, also made attempts to stop the shows without success. [Rocha] It is interesting to note that, long back in December 1780, Julius Soubise, a British-Caribbean black artiste, had acted Othello in the Calcutta Theatre with the famous Hickey of Bengal Gazzette in the role of Desdemona. A favourite of Garric, Soubise had charmed his audience at Calcutta Theatre in November 1780 with his gesture and elocution. Soubise and his Othello’s role was long forgotten and remains unnoticed by the eminent historians that Soubise and Baishnava Charan, the two Othellos, both blacks of different shades and victims of racism created history in Calcutta stage a century apart. [Ajantrik]
Against all odds, Barry continued tenaciously to steer Sans Souci even after the theatre house was sold out in 1846 for Rs. 40,000 to Bishop Carew, the Vicar Apostolic of Bengal, who in 1847 founded there ‘the little college of St. John’ later in 1860 re-established as the St Xavier’s College by the Belgium Jesuits. [Catholic Encyclopedia]. It was all due to the sagacity of Mr Barry and his devotion that the fond name of Sans Souci lived out for three more years beyond 1846 as a homeless institution running mostly in his residence at 14 Wellington Square. The last important English theatre was closed down with the final departure of Mr James Barry on 21 May 1849.
The ending phase of Sans Souci was far less colourful than the earlier ones reigned by the Queen of the Calcutta Theatres, Mrs Esther Leach. Yet it had its special significance for the role it played in stretching the end of the English theatrical culture of Calcutta’s Englishmen, and in ushering the new brand of the theatre-minded interracial audience born first time in colonial Calcutta.
End of the Englishmen’s Theatre
There were too many factors responsible for the disappearance of Englishmen’s theatrical adventures from the Calcutta scene before1840s.
English Plays: Socially Irrelevant
The few English theatres, which came during the second half of the nineteenth century, were both short-lived and less influential. The English companies have no doubt given performances now and then, but the Bengalees had little concern for any. [Dasgupta] One of the reasons for their nonchalance was the irrelevance of the English plays contentwise in a socio-political-cultural context. In contrast, Bengalees found the dramas produced by the firebrand dramatists like Dinabandhu Mitra, who spoke of their social and political experiences depicting highly charged colonial episodes of historic significance. As we understand, at Sans Souci, the plays were selected from overseas ‘home products ‘. It was, however, noticed that the Calcutta audience had well received some of the ‘native and to the manner born’ pieces written by European members. Captain Richardson, a literary man of recognized ability both in England and India, was said to have promised to write a five-act play expressly for the comedians of the Sans Souci. Malcolm assures us that ‘if the piece was at all written, never produced’. [Malcolm]
The Shakespearean plays, however, were among a few exceptions, being widely appreciated under the influence of many great teachers and orators like Captain Richardson, H. M. Percival, and Manmohan Ghosh.
Sans Souci: Died Friendless
Soon after Esther Leach died, Sans Souci in quick succession lost the friends and patrons she leant upon. The three comrades who had been overwhelmingly involved in making Sans Souci a success – Stocqueler, Parker and Dwarkanath all left by the time the house was disposed of. Mr Henry Meredith Parker, her most favoured partner on stage, was bidden farewell in 1842 on the eve of his retirement from Bengal Civil Service. [Stocqueler] Joachim Hayward Stocqueler sailed back home in 1843 on Hindostan. He was known as her friendly critic—‘ too friendly’ perhaps, thought to be an unkind word those times, as Madge remarks. Sans Souci closed in 1846 and Dwarkanath Tagore who was said to have been ‘an affectionate friend of Esther Leach’ did have no will to reopen it and died the same year. [King] Calcutta’s musico-theatrical culture was dealt with another blow when Lord Auckland, one of her most enthusiastic patrons passed the Governor-Generalship to Lord Ellenborough in 1842, a man who disapproved of theatres and made a point of keeping Sans Souci at a distance. Theatre was no longer as fashionable as it had been, the reasons being, to my mind, more socio-cultural than socio-political in essence.
Theatre as British Cultural Icon: A Myth
The British built the Town Calcutta replicating London so that they continue to live in an exclusive English style without being interfered with the local realities. They were proudly possessive of their new home and overly anxious to preserve the sanctity of their cultural traditions as well as to maintain their sumptuous lifestyle on the pretext of British conventionalism. They already set up commercial houses and institutions of all kinds – from bonnet shops to English theatres – to take care of their imperial and personal interests. Sadly, some small miscalculations in estimating the size of the audience left the city theatres increasingly deserted while the milliners’ bonnet shops boomed selling more than one hat for every pretty head. Contrarily a theatre, the epitome of British cultural traditions, was meant only for the cultivated minds who form a small section of the total population of the Anglo-Europeans. This differential factor was overlooked, seemingly with the purpose of humbling the native society with the deceptive prevalence of the theatrical culture among the Anglo-European elitists.
In reality, Calcutta elitists barring a handful of scions of noble families never had any nor cared for cultural refinement but remained complacent with the kind of plebeian melodramas, farces and pantomimes. Despite their personal preferences, those who came to Calcutta during the height of the Raj came in to be a part of the machinery, or to exploit British rule. “Their imperial purpose, position and attitudes transformed these British civil servants, military leaders and wealthy traders into aristocrats in all but name. These pseudo-aristocrats sought the trappings of cultural authority,” [Rocha]
This delineation was soon racialised. Theatricals became a battleground of culture and politics between Bengalee and English residents, and their role as a tool of cultural colonisation continued throughout the nineteenth century. [Rocha] It goes deep into the socio-political history of the British Raj in India, while the reasons for the British cultural decadence in India deem more a matter of social analysis.
The British Lion’s Revenge on the Bengal Tiger
British Raj playing the role of the guardian of peace defending the innocents in danger at the time of the Bengal Mutiny was aptly cartoonized in John Tenniel’s painting initially published in Punch in 1857. While the immediate context was The Mutiny, the cartoon reflects the British imperialist mindset in general that they applied to win their colonial interests all time everywhere, and the theatre was no exception.
Watercolour and gouache on paper painted by Tenniel, John, in 1870. Courtesy: LC
Eventually, in 1835 Englismen’s English theatre came to a dead end. The imperial Anglo-European elitists gave way to an interracial group of theatre enthusiasts headed by Prince Dwarkanath vacating resentfully their seats on the committees of the Chowringhee Theatre they occupied since 1813. It was Mrs Esther Leach, the Anglo-Indian prima donna of Calcutta, who virtually lead the revived Chowringhee Theatre in its early phase under the patronage of her European and Asiatic friends who also backed her unfailingly in founding Sans Souci theatre. Sans Souci becomes the first-ever professional English theatre in Calcutta designed and established by a non-Briton. The next major professional public theatres, The Lyceum and the Royal Theatres, both run by George and Rose Lewis of Australia, happened to be the last English theatres in Calcutta by overseas enterprises before the Bengalees take over and launch Bengali plays on the national stage they erected after English model.
Birth of an Audience
The history of the English theatre in Calcutta manifests a straight fact that behind the toppling of each theatre house there stands an ‘unready’ audience to undermine the group morale and economic viability of the enterprise. The theatre-goer Anglo-European elitists never had the cultural orientation needed for histrionic appreciation, neither they were ever encouraged to refine their taste up and above the plebian entertainments. So it happened possibly because the British Raj had always been overmuch concerned with making the native Indians English-educated, and caring little about improving the Englishness of the British denizens in Calcutta.
Regardless of the attitudinal barriers of the British Raj, the young natives were in an incredibly favourable position to further their knowledge of English literature, art and theatricals. There were quite a few among the Anglo-European philanthropists and educationists outside the Raj machinery who had open minds and a respectful understanding of oriental values. Two of them, Horace Hayward Wilson and David Lester Richardson, both insiders of Chowringhee Theatre, were doyens of English literature and theatrics. It was Richardson who called upon his Hindu College pupils to give them exposure to English plays in play, especially, to see Shakespeare on the stage. [Dahiya] The boys were acquainted with the names of the good actors and actresses of Calcutta, and quite familiar with the names of David Garrick, Sarah Siddons, and some other famous performers of London theatres. [Mukherjee] This first batch of Bengal boys, including Derozio and his schoolmates, had also the rare privilege of securing astute knowledge of Shakespearean dramas, and English theatricals from their august masters at grammar schools.
Out of around 40 English private schools covering the period 1741 through 1849, six were found to have theatricals in curricula. There the students themselves learn dramatics by playing a part on the stage and were taught reading of English dramas, and recitation. The enacting of scenes was practised and encouraged in institutions like Drummond’s Dharamtolla Academy, followed by Sherborne’s School at Chitpore, David Hare’s Pataldaga School, and later Gour Mohan Auddy’s Oriental Seminary, and Alexander Duff’s General Assembly’s Institution. [Bandyopadhyay] Dhurramtollah Academy of David Drummond (1785-1843) had staged Home’s tragedy ‘Doglus’ in 1824 — a decade before the Hindu Theatre of Prasannakumar Tagore staged the vernacular plays under the direction of Horace Hayward Wilson, being the earliest attempt in making young minds ready to appreciate modern theatre. [Ajantrik]
Great grammar school masters and eminent college teachers like Lester Richardson, C.H. Tawney, H.M. Percival, and Hermann Geoffroy along with other mentors produced a new generation of Bengalee audience imbibed with intellectual skills and nuances needed for a critical appreciation of the English theatre. This pioneering group of enlightened theatre enthusiasts was to stay on to influence the theatregoer public over time. Derozio died in 1831 and his compeers, the theatre-loving Derozians disbanded and ultimately faded away but not before influencing the younger minds with the doctrine of fearless free thinking about anything and everything, modern theatre being one of those. After two decades, the stage Directress Rose Lewis encountered the same kind but very different homegrown audience enduringly settled themselves next to the much larger group of British and European elitists.
The English lady writer and editor, Emma Roberts penned her mindful description of Calcutta and its people she observed during her stay in 1831-1832. She was among the earliest admirers of the newly admitted native audience in Chowrighee Theatre. Miss Emma was glad to see how beautifully the Bengalee gentlemen clad in white muslin sitting nearest to its stage. The management knowing their preference for tragedies obliged the native gentlemen with frequent performances of Macbeth and Othello. [Roberts] “It was a pleasure to observe” India Gazette reports “such a number of respectable natives among the audience every play night. A growing taste for the English Drama indicates an auspicious sign of the progress of general literature amongst our native friends.” [Dasgupta]
A decade after, in her letter dated 11 November 1841 Miss Emily Eden, infallibly cynical about everything native, drops a few kind words in favour of the Bengalee audience. She writes, “the house (Sans Souci) was over-full, and it must be a wonderful change to people who remember India ten years ago to see quantities of baboos, who could not get seats, standing on their benches reading their Shakspeare’s, and then looking off at the stage, and then applauding on the backs of their books. At least one-third of the audience were natives, who were hardly admitted to the theatre when first we came, and certainly did not understand what they saw (my emphasis). [Eden] This may be a perfect example of the way Emily and her British elitist fellows reacted to the emergence of the new class of ‘Bengalee audience with copies of Shakespeare in hand’. It is worth noting that contrary to Emily’s beliefs, the presence of the Bengal audience in English theatre was welcomed a decade ago by theatre management and liberal-minded Anglo-Europeans like Emma Roberts.
It was also significant to notice that Emily Eden writes only a year before about how astonished she was by witnessing the grand achievements earned by the ‘common labourers’ sons’ at ‘George’s school’ (later named after Emily Eden). ‘The first class are mad about Shakespeare’, which to her mind does them great credit. [Eden]
Two decades after Sans Souci, ‘Lewis’s theatre attracted many educated Bengalees, noted for their critical knowledge of Shakespeare.’ [Colligan] Times of India, Bombay Edition comments amusingly on 11 January 1868 about a critical review published in a native paper:
“The tone is by no means complimentary to our theatrical troupes, as their performances are very severely handled, and in many respects, I must confess, with a certain degree of justice. Shakespeare has been studied by our Baboos in their educational courses at the universities and colleges, and they regard everything below Shakespeare as something scarcely worth notice.” [Dasgupta]
This was a great compliment to the band of ‘baboos’ who had no interest in mediocre works, unlike the ‘saheb’ theatregoers.
First professional public theatre in Calcutta
Chowringhee Theatre, reestablished in 1835 under the patronage of Dwarkanath, transformed into a novel inter-racial institution, radically different from its original state of being governed by the imperialist policy of the British Raj. It continued, however, with a borrowed identity as it had none of its own. On the other hand, Sans Souci was born with an identity of its own as people’s theatre out of the dream of Mrs Esther Leach. Sans Souci provided Calcutta people with a far grander alternative stage open for all from day one.
First English theatre established by a non-Briton
Eventually, in 1835 Englismen’s English theatre came to a dead end. The imperial Anglo-European elitists gave way to an interracial group of theatre enthusiasts headed by Prince Dwarkanath. They vacated resentfully the seats on the Committees of the Chowringhee Theatre they occupied since 1813. It was Mrs Esther Leach, the Anglo-Indian prima donna of Calcutta, who virtually lead the revived Chowringhee Theatre in its early phase. It was she who created Sans Souci backed by her friends. Sans Souci becomes the first-ever professional English theatre in Calcutta designed and established by a non-Briton. She ended the British legacy of English theatre in India almost single-handedly.
Harvested the first crop of theatre-savvy audience
The history of the English theatre in Calcutta manifests that behind the toppling of each theatre house there stands an unfit and unready audience to undermine the group morale and economic viability of the enterprise. Regardless of the attitudinal barriers of the British raj, the young natives were in an incredibly advantageous position to further their knowledge of English literature, art and theatricals. Great grammar school masters and eminent college teachers like Lester Richardson, C.H. Tawney, H.M. Percival, and Hermann Geoffroy along with other mentors produced a new generation of Bengalee audience imbibed with intellectual skills and sensitivity needed for a critical appreciation of the English theatre. This pioneering group of enlightened theatre enthusiasts brought about a genial climate influencing the theatregoer public and the theatre-makers as well to let the modern vernacular theatre happen on the stages crafted following the English model exclusively for the native Bengalees.
Sans Souci has secured a unique place in the history of English theatres in colonial regimes under British Raj on the count of being the first professional public theatre, secondly, it was the first English theatre established by a non-Briton India-born entrepreneur, and more significantly it delivered a class of theatre savvy audience for the first time outside Britain.
Ajantrik. (2020). Julius Soubise: a magnificent horseman in 18th-century Calcutta. Puronokolkata. https://puronokolkata.com/2020/07/14/julius-soubise-a-magnificent-horseman-in-18th-century-calcutta/
Asiatic Journal. (1835). Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register. In Purbury, Allen (Vol. 16). Purbury, Allen. https://books.googleusercontent.com/books/content?req=AKW5QacnxP8qoBtcKd34CeFz0AiTHSeO3\_DSX6AQ0-ACD\_JJz7CBI616CQpsJA0vxhdyV6WVRmEh-lAgBG5-7bcqA8WqXZg7PtmDmGVTG6ZDqqJ4eS3GsLZGtKB196DNpxfEMR2b95\_cSZ7dUeMd\_N8IVcix\_purp65K5z5uOaKhx9FFjvpnQ71DUOwst-I81nWqdCkK5
Bandyopadhyay, B. (1939). বঙ্গীয় নাট্যশালার ইতিহাসঃ ১৭৯৫-১৮৭৬. Bangiya Sahitya Parishad. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.477805/page/n5/mode/2up
Bayly, C. A. (2011). Recovering Liberties Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire. Cambridge UP. https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/Recovering\_Liberties/0GLAWY6L8fIC?hl=en&gbpv=0
Bengal. (1832). The Bengal Directory And General Register. (1832) Calcutta: Samuel Smith. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.68594/page/n5/mode/2up
Bengal. (1835). The Bengal Directory And Annual Register.(1835) Calcutta: Samuel Smith.https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.68583/page/n3/mode/2up
Bengal. (1841). Bengal and Agra Annual: Guide and Gazetteer for 1841; v.1. Calcutta: W. Rushton and Co. https://archive.org/details/bengalandagraan00unkngoog\\fs32
Bengal. (1857). Bengal Directory. Calcutta: Thackers and Spink. http://nlirepository.nvli.in//handle/123456789/24765
Bengal. (1876). Bengal Directory. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink and Co. [Alphabetical List of Calcutta Streets incorporated.[ ]https://archive.org/details/dli.bengal.10689.13841/page/n5/mode/2up
Busteed, H. E. (1908). Echoes from old Calcutta; being chiefly reminiscences of the days of Warren Hastings, Francis and Impey. Thacker. https://archive.org/details/echoesfromoldcal00bustuoft
Carey, W. H. (1907). The Good old days of Honorable John Company from 1800 to 1858; compiled from newspapers and other publications; vol.2. Cambray. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.39169/page/n421
Catholic Encyclopedia. Archdiocese of Calcutta. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03152a.htm
Chattopadhyay, Devasis. (1921) The Great Eastern Hotel once the jewel of the East. Live History India. 11 January 2021. https://www.livehistoryindia.com/story/cover-story/great-eastern-hotel/
Chowdury, D. (1995). বাংলা থিয়েটারের ইতিহাস. Pustak Bipani. https://granthagara.com/boi/331880-bangla-theatrer-itihas-by-darshan-chowdhury/
Colligan, M. (2013). Circus and Stage: The theatrical adventures of Rose Edouin and GBW Lewis. State Library Victoria. [No online access]
Cotton, H. E. (1907). Calcutta, old and new: a historical and descriptive handbook to the city. Newman. https://archive.org/details/calcuttaoldandn00cottgoog
Cotton, Evan. (1931). The History of Thacker, Spink & Company. Bengal Past & Present Jan-Jun 1931. https://archive.org/details/bengalpastprese01socigoog/page/n82/mode/2up?q=Thacker
Dahiya, H. (2011). Shakespeare studies in colonial Bengal: The Early phase [Sheffield Hallam University]. https://shura.shu.ac.uk/19526/1/10694407.pdf
Dasgupta, H. (1934-38). The Indian stage; [v.1.] Calcutta: Metropolitan. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dl.2015.228113/page/n297/mode/2up
Eden, E. (1872). Letters from India; vol.1. Richard Bentley. https://ia601406.us.archive.org/27/items/LettersFromIndiaVolI/LettersFromIndiaVolI.pdf
Firminger, W. K. (1906). Thacker’s Guide to Calcutta. Thacker, Spink. https://archive.org/details/thackersguidetoc00firm
Hicky, J. A. (1781). Bengal Gazette; James Augutas Hicky (ed.). J.A. Hicky. https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/hbg
King, B. B. (1976). Partner in empire : Dwarkanath Tagore and the age of enterprise in eastern India. Berkeley U,P. https://archive.org/details/partnerinempired0000klin/page/160/mode/2up?q
Long, R. J. (1860). Calcutta in the olden time – its People. Calcutta Review, 35(Sep-Dec), 164–227. https://doi.org/https://books.google.co.in/books?id=8DMYAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA164&redir\_esc=y\#v=onepage&q&f=false
Madge, E. W. (1904). Sans Souci. Bengal Past and Present, 1(July 1904). https://ia601600.us.archive.org/0/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.459511/2015.459511.July–.pdf
Malcolm, E. H. (1843). Theatres in the British Colonies. Colonial Magazine and Commercial Maritime Journal, 3(May-Aug), 194–203. https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/Colonial\_Magazine\_and\_Commercial\_maritim/SxtEAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Mrs.+Deacle+1840+english+actress&pg=PA195&printsec=frontcover%0A%0A%0A%0A
Mukherjee, S. (1980). Story of Calcutta Theatres: 1753-1980. KP Bagchi. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.100095
Roberts, E. (1835). Scenes and characteristics of Hindostan with sketches of Anglo-Indian society; vol.3. In Allen: Vol. v.3. Allen. https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/Scenes\_and\_Characteristics\_of\_Hindostan/lcBFAAAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1
Rocha, E. (2012). Imperial Opera : The nexus between opera and Imperialism in Victorian. https://research-repository.uwa.edu.au/en/publications/imperial-opera-the-nexus-between-opera-and-imperialism-in-victori
Shaw, D. (1958). Esther Leach: The Mrs. Siddons of Bengal. Educational Theatre Journal, 10.4, 304–310. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3203830
Stocqueler, J. H. (1873). Memoirs of a journalist. In The Times of India: Vol. XXX (Enlarged.). The Times of India. https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/\_/5oGTvQEACAAJ?hl=en
Trivedi, P. (1016). Garrison Theatre in Colonial India. In Theatre History and Historiography;Cochrane, C., Robinson, J. (eds). Palgrave Macmillan. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137457288\_6