The Play House and the Calcutta Theatre - Legend of the Lost
11-10-2018    58 times
Play House

Even during the seventeenth century the present Chowringhee area was a desolate tiger-infested wasteland and long before its growth as the entertainment centre for the Europeans in Calcutta, the locality around the Tank Square was their centre of attraction. In those days, the white population of the city was centred near the Fort and extended around the Tank Square area. Naturally, their entertainment centres also came up in the locality. The Harmonic Tavern, located in the present Lalbazar area, was the most favoured and popular among the Europeans for its concerts, balls and suppers during the winter days.

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However, they badly missed a theatre, as they missed the performance of dramas and musicals. Ultimately, for encouraging dance and drama, they established the ‘Play House’, the earliest theatre in Calcutta in 1755, a year before the battle of Lal Dighi. However, as there was no Gazette or newspaper in those days, there is no documentary evidence regarding the construction of the building, the names of the plays that were performed on its stage and the names of the performers as well. It is likely that, though it was built by voluntary subscriptions, the Play House was patronised by the British India Company. Messrs. Drake and Holwell also took some active personal interest in it. During the siege of Calcutta in 1756, Siraj ud-Dullah seized it and it served as an advantageous position for his offense. The Play House probably ceased to exist sometime between Oct.1781 and 1784 AD, but it is difficult to confirm anything about it. In fact, it is impossible to differentiate the accounts of the Old Fort Play House and the Calcutta Theatre that came up in the Lalbazar area in 1776, which was often called the ‘New Play House’ to distinguish it from the 'Old Fort Play House'.

Old Fort Play House, by Thomas Daniell
Old Fort Play House, by Thomas Daniell

The plot of land that was allotted for the construction of the Calcutta Theatre in 1775, had been previously occupied by a gentleman named Mr. Eyre, who lost his life during the siege of Calcutta in 1756. In the old maps, the location of the Calcutta Theatre was shown at the northwest corner of Lyon’s Range, behind the Writers’ Buildings. It was founded by Mr. George William during the time of Warren Hastings and apart from Hastings, Richard Barwell, a member of council in Bengal and Sir Elijah Impe, the infamous first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William, were the ardent patrons behind its foundation. The construction cost of about Rs 100,000/ was collected through public subscription and the new theatre was opened to the public sometime in autumn 1776 or a little earlier. By that time the old Play House had been erased from the face of the earth.

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The hall of the Calcutta Theatre was as spacious as London’s Bath Theatre, and it was said that the standard of shows performed on this board was comparable to any European stage. Mr. Barnard Messink was called from England to take the charge and look after the business of the theatre and the Europeans were engaged even for works like gate-keeping. The price of tickets depended on the seating arrangements like, pit and box, upper boxes and gallery. Apart from the popular farces and slapsticks of its time like, ‘Neck or Nothing’ and the musical Entertainment of The Waterman, ‘Barnaby Brittle’ or a new musical entertainment called ‘Rule Britannia’, the outstanding productions of this theatre were 'Merchant of Venice', 'The Poor Soldiers', 'The Irish Widow', 'The Revenge', 'Venice Preserved', 'Boston' etc.

Within no time, the hall became a popular venue of the Europeans for socialization. Apart from enjoying the theatrical shows, they also gathered there to dance on its imposing ballroom floor and enjoyed the drinks and foods served in the foyer. Its cordial ambiance was also aptly utilized for business meetings with important persons.

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Calcutta Theatre had a successful run for thirty-three years till 1808, when the building, along with the adjoining buildings were purchased by Gopimohan Tagore, a member of the Pathuriaghata Tagore family. He converted the whole area to a big marketplace, a bazaar, which he called the New China Bazar and subsequently renamed Royal Exchange Place in 1913.

The Calcutta Theatre or the New Play House, as it was called in those days, is undoubtedly the most important English theatre that inspired the foundation of the Bengali Stage. According to the reports published in government gazettes, it is evident that it was situated in 15 Clive Row, which also housed the James Finlay, Muir & Co. After a few years, they shifted to 21 Canning Street, (now known as Biplabi Rashbehari Basu Road) and finally moved to their own palatial building decorated with majestic pillars in Royal Exchange Place. The beautiful building is now occupied by a local branch of Allahabad Bank.

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Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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