The History of Leith

February 18, 2012

The Old Playhouse Close

In the Playhouse Close, a cul-de-sac, and its neighbour the Old Playhouse Close, a narrow and gloomy alley, we find the cradle of the legitimate drama in Edinburgh. In the former, in 1747, a theatre was opened, on such a scale as was deemed fitting for the Scottish capital, where the drama had skulked in holes and corners since the viceregal court had departed from Holyrood, in the days of the Duke of Albany and York. From 1727 till after 1753 itinerant companies, despite the anathemas of the clergy, used with some success the Tailors’ Hall in the Cowgate, which held, in professional phraseology, from ^40 to ^45 nightly. In the first-named year a Mr. Tony Alston endeavoured to start a theatre, in the same house which saw the failure of poor Allan Ramsay’s attempt, but the Society of High Constables endeavoured to suppress his ” abominable stage plays;” and when the^clergy joined issue with the Court of Session against him, his performances had to cease. But, according to Wodrow, there had been some talk of building another theatre as early as 1728. In 1746 tlie foundation of the theatre, within a back area (near St. John’s Cross), now called the
Playhouse Close, was laid by Mr. John Ryan, a London actor of considerable repute in his day, who had to contend with the usual opposition of the ignorant or illiberal, and that lack of prudence and thrift incidental to his profession generally. The house was capable of holding ^70 ; the box seats were half-a-crown, the pit one-and-sixpence; and for several years it was the scene of good acting under Lee, Digges, Mrs. Bellamy, and Mrs. Ward, After the affair of 1745 the audiences were apt to display a spirit of political dissension. On the anniversary of the battle of Culloden, in 1749, some English officers who were in the theatre commanded the orchestra, in an insolent and unruly manner, to strike up an obnoxious air known as Culloden ; but in a spirit of opposition, and to please the people, the musicians played “You’re welcome, Charlie Stuart.” The military at once drew their swords and attacked the defenceless musicians and players, but were assailed by the audience with torn-up benches and every missile that could be procured. The officers now attempted to storm the galleries ; but the doors were secured. They were then vigorously attacked in the rear by the Highland chairmen with their poles, disarmed, and most ignominiously drubbed and expelled; but in consequence of this and similar disturbances, bills were put up notifying that no music would be played but such as the management selected. Another disturbance ensued soon after, occasioned by the performance of G”arrick’s farce, ” High Life below Stairs,” which the fraternity of footmen bitterly resented, and resolved to stop. On the second night of its being announced, Mr. Love, one of the management, came upon the stage and read-‘a letter containing the most bitter denunciations of vengeance upon all concerned if the piece should be performed. It was, nevertheless, proceeded with, and the gentlemen who were in the theatre having provided accommodation for their servants in the gallery, the moment the farce began ” a prodigious noise was heard from that quarter.” The liverymen were ordered to be silent, but without success. Their masters, assisted
by some others of the audience, endeavoured to quiet them by force; swords and sticks were freely resorted to, but it was not until after a tough battle that the gentlemen of the cloth were fairly expelled; “and servants from this time were deprived of the freedom of the theatre.”

source-Old and New Edinburgh

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