During the early days of the seventeenth century, the area now occupied by the Maidan and Esplanade was a tiger-infested wasteland. In 1717, Chowringhee was a hamlet, surrounded by waterlogged paddy-fields and bamboo-groves, dotted here and there with isolated huts of fishermen, woodcutters, and cultivators. It is said that, Warren Hastings used to visit the area with elephants, for hunting. Subsequent to the British victory in the Battle of Plassey in June 1757 and the construction of the new Fort William in 1758, the European inhabitants gradually started to leave the Tank Square-Lalbazar area for the newly developed area around the Maidan. In the mid eighteenth century, they began to build magnificent buildings on the Chowringhee and soon it replaced the Lalbazar area to become the entertainment centre for the Europeans in Calcutta.
‘Chowringhee’ is the name given to the locality immediately south of the present day Park Street and the ‘Road to Chowringhee’ ran from Lower Circular Road (renamed AJC Bose Road) in the south to Dharmatala in the north. Along the ‘Road to Chowringhee’ from south to north, the first crossing was with Theatre Road (renamed Shakespeare Sarani) and at that corner stood the imposing building of the Chowringhee Theatre of Calcutta from 1813 to 1839.
The huge building of the Chowringhee Theatre, crowned with a beautiful dome, once occupied the total space between the Road to Chowringhee and Elysiam Row, now known as Lord Sinha Road. The adjacent building, to the north of the Theatre building, was known as Ballards’ Place, which consisted of numbers 47, 48, 49 and 50 at the corner of Chowringhee Road and Theatre Road.
Fund required for the construction, interior fittings and decorations of the hall were arranged by a circle of gentlemen subscribing the shares of Rs. 100 each. Apart from the theatre loving Europeans, the circle also included a small section of the elite Bengalis, who donated generously to raise the necessary fund. As it was founded in this manner, it was also popularly known as the ‘Subscription Theatre’. Probably, it is from this Theatre that the adjacent road got its name.
The Chowringhee Theatre ran in the city for a long time, from 1813 to 1839. During its days, it was the prime theatrical venue in the city. On 25 November 1813, it was formally inaugurated with the performance of a remarkable tragedy named ‘Castle Spectre’. With the passing of the time, several other dramas were also successfully staged here from time to time. During those early days, the female roles were enacted on the public stage by the professional artists, while the male roles were played by amateurs. One of such male actors was William Princep, a merchant with the Calcutta firm of Palmer & Company. According to him, Chowringhee Theatre had the capacity of about 800 persons in the boxes and 200 in the pit. In his memoirs he described his theatrical work in details, both as an actor and a set designer.
However, the management of the Chowringhee Theatre knew it well that they lacked the sizzling performance of a mega star, preferably a young woman, who will be the darling of the English theatre. During that time, Esther Leach, an extremely pretty woman was playing in leading roles in the Dum Dum theatre. She was the wife of Sergeant John Leach, who was posted in Rangoon. The officers of Calcutta who frequented outings to Dum Dum were completely taken over by her charm, musical voice and ability as an actor. As they reported in every known quarter about the acting powers of Esther, she was invited to join the Calcutta theatre. Consequently, Sergeant Leach was brought back to Fort William and Esther Leach, the greatest female actor of the age, made her debut at Chowringhee Theatre on 27 July 1827, when she was only 17. She was launched at a gala production of ‘School for Scandal’ which was attended by the Governor General along with the fashionable everybody of Calcutta and Esther impressed everybody by her passionate performance. In fact, Esther was not a comet in the English theatre in Calcutta and she proved to be the star for eleven long years. All through her career, she had played in comedy, farce, melodrama, and ‘classical ‘comedy’.
But, the Chowringhee Theatre had its bad days too. During its last few years, it was incurring losses and was constantly staggering due to acute financial crisis. Prince Dwarkanath Tagore took a sincere drive to rejuvenate it, when in 1835 he purchased the theatre and spent lots of money to make some drastic renovations. Unfortunately, nothing worked and the end came soon, when in 1839 it was completely consumed by a devastating fire. That ended the story of the Chowringhee Theatre, since after the disastrous fire, no action was taken to revamp it and play acting was never resumed.
At the time of the tragic end of Chowringhee Theatre, Esther Leach was in England. As she returned, she was greeted with the news that the Chowringhee theatre had been completely devoured by fire. However, she was determined not to give up her career as an actress and rebuild all that was lost. With the help of Lord Auckland and one Mr. Stocqueler, the editor of the Englishman, she raised funds for the foundation of a new theatre, which would be later established at 10 Park Street, where St. Xavier's College stands today. Meanwhile, she arranged a makeshift theatre under the name ‘Sans Souci’ at the corner of the Government Place East, Waterloo Street.