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A Bengali played ‘Othello’ in the last play that took place in Sans Souci Theatre, Kolkata in 1848!

14 June, 2023 16:15:24
A Bengali played ‘Othello’ in the last play that took place in Sans Souci Theatre, Kolkata in 1848!

The famous Sans Souci Theatre decided to enact one final play before it came to a crashing close. The production of Shakespeare’s Othello in 1848, at Sans Souci marked an important event in the history of Bengali plays. It was for the first time, that a Bengali played the lead role in a British play!

Theatre in Kolkata started with the establishment of “The Playhouse” at the Lal Bazar, the first theatre of Calcutta Hall, which was founded in 1753 and came into action in 1756. It held its ground for almost 20 years, after which it was eventually replaced by “The New Playhouse” or Calcutta Theatre, founded by the auctioneer George Williamson in 1775. The theatre staged tragedies, comedies, and farces in the English language and played by English actors. Plays like Hamlet, the Merchant of Venice, and Romeo and Juliet were enacted here. The theatre was destroyed during Siraj Ud-Daulah’s Calcutta attack.

The first theatre to be successful was the Chowringhee Theatre situated at the crossing of Chowringhee road and Theatre Road. This theatre hall was built on funds from private donations on subscriptions by shares of 100 Rs each. It was able to accommodate 300 people and was thereby the most spacious hall in Calcutta at the time. Most of the prominent actors or actresses had joined this theatre. Among them, the foremost was Esther Leach, “queen of the Indian stage” as she was called, who became one of the star attractions of the theatre, while D. L. Richardson became renowned as a director.

Founded in 1813, this log-made building was gutted in 1839 causing much dismay to Calcutta’s theatre-going crowd. The land was soon purchased by Prince Dwarakanath Tagore for Rs 30,100. Ms. Esther Leach was popular among theatre-loving people due to her realistic acting. She wanted to build a theatre in Calcutta and she also convinced some influential people. One of them was Lord Auckland and the other two were Prince Dwarakanath Tagore and Mr. Stocqueler, the then editor of The Englishman, the most popular newspaper among the Anglo-American population of Calcutta. Lord Auckland donated Rs. 1000 and Dwarakanath Tagore also made a considerable amount of donations.

After the destruction of the Chowringhee Theatre, it was Mrs. Esther Leach, who was instrumental in opening a temporary theatre called the Sans Souci Theatre at Waterloo Street. It was a two-storey building and the upper floor was occupied by St. Andrew’s Library. Mrs. Esther Leach converted the lower floor into a fine theatre hall, sufficient for the accommodation of about four hundred persons at a time. It was good enough for conducting plays for the time being and performances were continued in the same place for about a year. After that, a more ambitious and spacious structure was built at No.10 Park Street to house the Sans Souci Theatre permanently.

The newly built Sans Souci theatre at Park Street was a huge majestic building that resembled the Greek Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis, complete with six Doric columns. The structure of the hall which measured 200 feet long and 50 feet broad, was built with an ample portico in the front. The stage was as big as 28 feet in breadth and 50 feet in depth. Arrangements for green rooms and other necessities were also appropriated properly. This magnificent theatre building was elegantly designed by architect, Mr. J. W. Collins, and the construction was completed in May 1840. The hall was airy and had proper ventilation. It was made with the best material and was the biggest venue of entertainment for the city’s European community. With Bengal Club nearby, the presence of this theatre ensured that Park Street became the social hub of the street, the legacy of which still remains as vibrant as ever.

San Souci was at its best from 1841 to the end of 1843 but it all came crashing down due to Ms Leach’s untimely demise as her dress caught fire on stage. The accident put a mark on the reputation of the theatre as a whole and the theatre was closed down. The property was leased to a French company who were not serious about running it on a regular basis. The authority thus planned to stage Othello one last time before Sans Souci was permanently put to close. 

Quite startling to be true, but Babu Baishnab Charan Adhya, or ‘Bustomchurn Addy’ as the British called him, nailed the role of the protagonist of the play. While the role of ‘Desdemona’ was taken over by Mrs. Anderson, Esther Leach’s daughter and the wife of a British Army officer. The situation evoked enough criticism as this was something surprisingly off-the-track to take place on the date. 

Nothing of San Souci theatre is left today other than just one or two pictures. Instead, the site houses one of the prime educational institutions of the city, St Xavier’s College. In September 1849, Father Carew purchased the theatre at a price of Rs 27,500 and moved his St John’s College there. The college was closed in 1855 and on 16 January 1860 a group of Belgian Jesuits took over both 11 and 10 Park Street to establish St Xavier’s College. Later these two plots got a new number, 30 Park Street, as their address. 

It is said by many that The Sans Souci Theatre and Chowringhee Theatre, were significantly instrumental in the development of Bengali theatre.

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