Old Theatre Royal – Management of Mr. Henry Siddons – Mr. Murray – Miss O’Neill – Production of Rob Roy – Visit of George IV. to the Theatre – Edinburgh Theatrical Fund – Scott and his Novels – Retirement of Mr. Murray – The Management of Mr. And Mrs. Wyndham – The Closing Night of the Theatre.
MR. SIDDONS’ powers as an actor were very respectable; moreover, he was a scholar, a man of considerable literary ability, and a well-bred gentleman; and though last, not least, he possessed a patrimony which he was not afraid to risk in the new speculation. He hoped that his mother and his uncle John would aid him by their powerful influence, and to have them acting together on these boards would be a great event in the history of the theatre. Mr. Siddons agreed to be content with half the profits of the house and a free benefit; Kemble asked the same terms, and added that he would be glad to come North and play for some time. “It was indeed a brilliant time for the house when it had Mr. H. Siddons for Archer, Belcour, and Charles Surface; Mr. Terry for Sir Peter Teazle, Sir Anthony Absolute, and Lord Ogleby; Mr. Mason for stern guardians and snappish old men in general; William Murray for almost anything requiring cleverness and good sense; Mr. Berry for low comedy; Mrs. Henry Siddons equally for Belvidera and Lady Teazle; Mrs. Nicol for Mrs. Malaprop, and an endless variety of inexorable old aunts and duennas; and Mrs. William Peirson for Audrey, Priscilla Tomboy, and William in Rosina; when Mrs. Joanna Baillie had a play brought out on our stage, prologued by Henry Mackenzie and epilogued by Scott, and whenever the scenery and decorations were in the hands of artists of such reputation as Mr. Nasmyth and Mr. J. F. Williams. Mrs. Siddons came in March, 1810, and performed a round of her great parts – still appearing in the eyes of our fathers the female Milton of the stage, as she had done twenty-six years before in the eyes of their fathers. Mr. John Kemble,” continues this account, written in 1859, “stalked on in July, the first time he had graced the boards for ten years. But the glories of the season were not yet exhausted. The handsome Irish Johnstone, with his inimitable Major O’Flaherty and Looney McTwolter; Emery, with his face like a great copper kettle, in such English rustic parts as Tyke and John Lump; Mrs. Jordan with her romping vivacity and good-nature in the Country Girl and other such parts, were among the rich treats presented to the Edinburgh public in 1810.”
In 1815 Mr. Henry Siddons, after conducting the theatre in the same spirited and generous manner, died prematurely of hard work and anxiety, deeply regretted by the Edinburgh people of every class, and his mother, who had been living in retirement, and was then in her sixty-second year, appeared for a few nights for the benefit of his family, whom he left somewhat impoverished.
His widow carried on the house in conjunction with her brother, the well-known William Murray, as stage-manager, and it continued still to possess an excellent company. The beautiful young Irish girl, Miss Elizabeth O’Neill, “who seemed designed by nature to catch the tragic mantle as it fell from Mrs. Siddons’ shoulders,” appeared in the theatre in August, 1815 – two months after Waterloo. The characters in which she always achieved the greatest success were Juliet, Mrs. Haller, Jane Shore, and Mrs. Beverley; and on the occasion of her first appearance, the old scene of the Siddons furore was renewed, and porters and livery servants were again seen bivouacking all night, on straw or pallets, under the portico of the house, or in the adjacent square, for the purpose of securing seats for their employers the moment the doors were open. Again it became a recognised amusement for people to proceed thither after breakfast to see, about the time of the box-office unclosing, the fights that ensued between the liverymen and the irritable Highland porters.
But in the year 1819 Miss O’Neill quitted the stage, and became eventually Lady Becher of Ballygiblin Castle, in the county of Cork.
The Appeal, a tragedy by John Galt, was played in February, 1818, and Scott wrote an epilogue thereto, expressly for Mrs. Henry Siddons.
In 1816 Edmund Kean appeared in Edinburgh, to startle and delight the people by his vivid action; then came the elder Matthews, with his wondrous humour and power of mimicry, and then Miss Stephens and Mr. And Mrs. Charles Kemble; yet with all this excellence the management did not prosper, and when the season of 1819 opened, matters seemed so gloomy that it was doubtful if Mrs. Henry Siddons could collect the £2,000 which she had to pay yearly as rent and purchase-money.
Thus one day she was shocked and startled by a harsh, cold letter, in the usual legal form, arresting all moneys in her hands until certain claims were settled, at a time when she had scarcely a penny wherewith to make payment.
It was at this desperate crisis that Walter Scott came to the rescue. His Rob Roy, operatically dramatised, had already proved a marked success at Covent Garden, and it was now prepared for the Edinburgh Theatre, with an excellent cast and much new and, what was then deemed, valuable scenery. On the 15th of February, 1819, the play was first presented to the Edinburgh audience, and made one of the greatest hits in the annals of the Theatre Royal; and it was announced in the following day’s advertisements that the success had been so triumphant that it would be repeated “every evening till further notice;” yet it ran only forty-one nights consecutively, which seems trifling when compared with the run of many pieces in London.
But the national element delighted the people; Mr. Homerton’s dignified Rob Roy, Mrs. Renaud’s tragic dignity as Helen Macgregor (always an unattractive part), Duff’s Dougal Cratur, Murray’s Captain Thornton, and more than all, the Bailie Jarvie of old Mackay (who now rests in the Calton burying-ground) were loudly extolled. Sir Walter Scott was in the boxes with his whole family, and his loud laugh was heard from time to time, and he ever after declared that the Bailie was a complete realisation of his own conception of the character. All the Waverley dramas, as they were named, followed in quick succession; the Scottish feeling of the plays, and the music that went with them, completed their success; the treasury was filled well-nigh to overflowing, and Mrs. Henry Siddons had no more difficulties with her patent or lease.
When George IV. Visited Edinburgh in August, 1822, he ordered Rob Roy to be played at this house on the 27th, and scenes such as it had never presented before were exhibited both within and without the edifice. At an early hour in the morning vast crowds assembled at every door, and the rain which fell in torrents till six in the evening had no effect in diminishing their numbers, and when the doors were slowly opened, the rush for a moment was so tremendous that most serious apprehensions were entertained, but no lives were lost; while the boxes had been let in such a way as to preclude all reasonable ground of complaint. In the pit and galleries the audience were so closely packed, that it would have been difficult, according to eye-witnesses, to introduce even the point of a sabre between any two. All the wealth, rank, and beauty of Scotland, filled the boxes, and the waving of tartan plaids and plumed bonnets produced hurricanes of acclamation long before the arrival of the king, who occupied a species of throne in the centre, and behind him stood the Marquis of Montrose, the Earl of Fife, and other nobles. He wore the uniform of a marshal, and at his entrance nearly the entire audience joined the orchestra in the national anthem.
On this night Mr. Calcraft (long a Dublin manager, and formerly an officer of cavalry) played Rob Roy, and Mrs. Henry Siddons was Diana Vernon; but the king was observed to applaud the faithful Dougal as much as any of the others. Up to 1851 Rob Roy had been acted about four hundred times in this house; but at Perth, in 1829, it was represented by Ryder’s company for five hundred nights! One of the original cast of the play was “Old Miss Nicol,” as she was named in latter years, who then took the part of the girl Mattie.
To attempt to enumerate all the stars who came in quick succession to the boards of the old Royal (as the facilities for travel by land and sea increased) would be a vain task, but the names of a few may suffice. Between 1820 and 1830 there were Vandenhoff, for tragedy, as Sir Giles Overreach, and Sir William Wallace in the Battle of Falkirk, &c.; Jones for Mercutio and Charles Surface; the bulky Denham with his thick voice to play James VI. to Murray’s Jingling Geordie; Mason and Stanley, both excellent in comedy, though well-nigh forgotten now; and always, of course, Mrs. Henry Siddons, “beautiful and graceful, with a voice which seemed to penetrate the audience;” and there were Mrs. Renaud for tragedy, Mrs. Nicol as a leading old lady, Miss Paton, and Miss Noel with her Scottish melodies; while the scenery amid which they moved came from the master-hand of David Roberts, “and the orchestra included hautbois of Mr. T. Fraser, which had witched the soul and flooded the eyes of Burns.” Among other favourites was Miss M. Tree (sister of Ellen the future Mrs. Charles Kean, who used to delight the playgoers with her Rosina in the Barber of Seville, or the Maid of Milan, till she retired in 1825, on her marriage with Mr. Bradshaw, some time M.P. for Canterbury.
Terry, Sinclair, and Russell, were among the stars in those days. The last took such characters as Sir Giles Overreach. On his re-appearance in 1823, after several years’ absence, “to our surprise,” says the Edinburgh Advertiser, “the audience was thin, but among them we noticed Sir Walter Scott.” Thither came also Maria Foote (afterwards Countess of Harrington), who took with success such parts as Rosalind, Imogen, and Beatrice.
The Edinburgh Theatrical Fund, for the relief of decayed actors, was instituted at this prosperous time, and at its first dinner in February, 1827, under the presidency of Lord Meadowbank, Sir Walter Scott, ever the player’s friend, avowed himself, as most readers know, the author of the “Waverley Novels.” Though it had been shrewdly suspected by many before, “the rapturous feeling of the company, on hearing the momentous secret let forth from his own lips,” says a writer, “no one who was present can ever forget. Scott, it may be remarked, was sensible to various impulses which are utterly blank to other men. There were associations about Mr. Murray and his sister as ‘come of Scotland’s gentle bluid’ and the grandchildren of a man prominent in the Forty-five which helped not a little to give him that strong and peculiar interest in the Theatre Royal, which he constantly displayed from 1809 downwards.”
The association here referred to was the circumstance that Mrs. Henry Siddons and her brother were the grandchildren of John Murray of Broughton, who was secretary to Prince Charles Edward, and gained a somewhat unenviable notoriety by turning king’s evidence against Lord Lovat and others, when he was taken prisoner subsequent to the battle of Culloden.
Mrs. Henry Siddons’ twenty-one years of the patent ended in 1830; but her completion of twenty-one annual payments of £2,000 to the representatives of Mr. John Jackson made her sole proprietor of the house; and on the 29th of March she took farewell of the Edinburgh stage, in the character of Lady Townley in the Provoked Husband, and retired into private life, carrying with her, as we are told, “the good wishes of all in Edinburgh, for they had recognised in her not merely the accomplished actress, but the good mother, the refined lady, and the irreproachable member of society.”
Her brother, Mr. Murray, obtaining a renewal of the patent, leased the house from her for twenty-one years; but, save Rob Roy and Guy Mannering, the day of the Waverley dramas were past, yet to him the speculation did not prove an unsuccessful one; and the supernumerary house, the Adelphi in Leith Walk, was alike a rival, and a dead weight on his hands, till, on the expiring of his lease, he retired, in the zenith of his favour with the Edinburgh public, in 1851, and with a moderate competency, withdrew to St. Andrews, where he died not long after.
After being let for a brief period to Mr. Lloyd the comedian, Mr. Rollinson, and Mr. Leslie, all of whom failed to make the speculation a paying one, it passed into the management of its last lessees, Mr. And Mrs. R. H. Wyndham, the greatest favourites, as managers, and in public and private life, that the Royal had ever possessed, not even excepting Mrs. Henry Siddons.
Mr. Wyndham, a gentleman by education and position, who adopted the stage by taste as a profession, came to Edinburgh, about 1845, as a member of Mr. Murray’s company, to support Miss Helen Faucit, and after being in management at the Adelphi, he obtained that of the Royal in succession to Messrs. Rollinson and Leslie, and, as managed by him and Mrs. Wyndham, it speedily attained the rank and character of one of the best-conducted theatres in the three kingdoms. The former, always brilliant in light or genteel comedy, was equally pleasing and powerful in his favourite delineations of Irish character, while Mrs. Wyndham was ever most touching and pathetic in all tender, wifely, and motherly parts, and could take with equal ease and excellence Peg Woffington or Mrs. Haller, Widow Smilie or Lady Macbeth.
Under their régime, the scenery and properties attained a pitch of artistic excellence of which their predecessors could have had not the slightest conception; and some of the Waverley dramas were set upon the stage with a magnificence and correctness never before attempted. While pleasing the public with a constant variety, these, the last lessees of this famous old theatre, did much for the intellectual enlightenment of Edinburgh by producing upon their boards all the leading members of the profession from London, and also giving the citizens the full benefit of Italian opera almost yearly.
Kean and Robson, Helen Faucit, old Paul Bedford in conjunction with Wright, and latterly J. L. Toole, the unfortunate Gustavus V. Brooke, Madame Celeste, Alfred Wigan, Mrs. Stirling, Sothern, Mesdames Ristori and Titiens, Mario and Giuglini, and all the most famous artistes in every branch of the modern drama, actors and singers, were introduced to the Edinburgh public again and again; and, though last, not least in stature, Sir William Don, of Newton-Don, “the eccentric Baronet.”
In recognition of these services, and their own worth, a magnificent service of plate was presented to them in 1869. It was unquestionably under Mr. Wyndham’s management that the Edinburgh stage was first raised to a perfect level with the stages of London and Dublin, and it was under his auspices that both Toole the comedian and Irving the tragedian first made a name on the boards.
The acquisition of the site occupied by the old theatre by the Government for the sum of £5,000 for the erection of a new General Post Office thereon, though the latter had long been most necessary, and the former was far from being an ornament to the city, was a source of some excitement, and of much regret to all old playgoers; and when the night came that the curtain of fate was to close upon it, after a chequered course of ninety years, and a farewell address from the pen of Lord Neaves was to be delivered, the house was filled in every quarter; and to those who remember it the bill of the last performance may not be without interest.
THEATRE ROYAL EDINBURGH.
Sole Lessee, R. H. Wyndham, 95, Princes Street.
Final Closing of this Theatre
On Wednesday, May 25th, 1859.
The Performance will commence with the celebrated
Comedy written by Tom Taylor and Charles Reade, Esqs.,
MASKS AND FACES.
Sir Charles Pomander, by Mr. Wyndham.
Triplet, by Mr. Edmund Glover, Theatre Royal, Glasgow –
Ernest Vane, by Mr. E.D. Lyons – Colley Cibber by
Mr. Foote – Quin, by Mr. Errser Jones – Snarl, by Mr.
Fisher – Call Boy, Mr. R. Saker – Soaper, by Mr. Irving
– Hunsdon, by Mr. Vandenhoff – Colander, by Mr.
James – Burdoch, by Mr. Carroll.
Peg Woffington, by Mrs. Wyndham.
Kitty Clive, by Miss M. Davis – Mrs. Triplet, by Mrs.
E. Jones – Roxalana, by Miss M. Foote – Maid, by
Miss Thompson – Mabel Vane, by Miss Sophia
After which Mr. Wyndham will Deliver
A FAREWELL ADDRESS.
To be followed by the Laughable Farce of
HIS LAST LEGS.
Felix O’Callaghan, a man of genius, by Mr. Wyndham –
Charles, by Mr. Irving – Mr. Rivers, by Mr. Errser
Jones – Dr. Banks, by Mr. Foote – John, by Mr. R.
Saker – Thomas, by Mr. Davis – Mrs. Montague, by
Miss Nicol – Julia, by Miss Jones – Mrs. Bank, by Mrs.
E. Jones – Betty, by Miss S. Davis.
After which the National Drama of
James V., King of Scotland by Mr. G. Melville.
Jock Howieson, by Mr. Fisher – Birkie of that Ilk, by Mr.
Rogerson – Murdoch, by Mr. Wallace – Officer, by Mr.
Banks – Grime, by Mr. Douglas – Tam Maxwell, by Mr.
Davis – Tibbie Howieson, by Miss Nicol – Marion, by
Miss M. Davis, in which character she will sing the
“A Kiss ahint the Door.“
To Conclude with a Moving and Removing Valedictory
Mr. Wyndham, by himself – Mrs. Wyndham, by herself.
Spirit of the Past, Miss Nicol – Spirit of the Future, Miss
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