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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Theatre Royal, Dumfries

The Theatre Royal, Shakespeare Street, Dumfries, was opened on the evening of Saturday 29th September 1792, during the reign of George III, having been built under the licensing Act of 1788. Until 1790 there had been no proper theatre in Dumfries, itinerant players using the Old Assembly Rooms in the George Hotel.

In 1790 Mr George Stephen Sutherland, an actor manager who had been played with a company at the Old Assembly Room, approached various people in Dumfries and its neighbourhood to raise a loan for the purpose of building a theatre in Dumfries.

Robert Burns, writing from Ellisland to his friend William Nicol, on 2nd February 1790, said: 'Our theatrical company, of which you must have heard, leave us this week. Their merit and character are indeed very great, both on stage and in private life, not a worthless creature among them; and their encouragement has been accordingly. Their usual run is from eighteen to twenty pounds a night; seldom less than the one, and the house will hold no more than the other. There have been instances of sending away six and eight and ten pounds a night for want of room. A new theatre is to be built by subscription; the first stone is to be laid on Friday first to come. Three hundred guineas have been raised by thirty subscribers, and thirty more might have been got if wanted. The manager, Mr Sutherland, was introduced to me by a friend from Ayr; and a worthier or cleverer fellow I have rarely met with.'

A meeting of the subscribers was held on 18th February 1790, at which Mr Sutherland announced that he had feued a part of the gardens at East Barnraws, later Queen Street, as a site, and submitted plans by Thomas Boyd, architect and James Hutchison, joiner, that were based on the design of the Theatre Royal, Bristol. The plans were approved, and the foundations laid the same year.

The Founding Deed of 1792 for the Theatre is drawn up in favour of Robert Riddell of Glenriddell. By this Deed, Thomas and William Bushby granted to Riddell the ground situated in the Burgh of Dumfries on the South East side of the street called the Barnraws, or Shakespeare Street; as the Deed puts it, 'ground on which he (Robert Riddell) had at Candlemass, Moyl and Ninety (February 1790) built a house intended for a Theatre or Playhouse.'

Robert Riddell bound himself to pay Thomas Bushby £5 a year, one half at Candlemas, the other at Lammas. Further to that Bushby received two 'Brass Tickets', which entitled him 'to have right to call upon the Manager of the Theatre or other person who issues tickets and receive and use two gratis admission ticekts every night to any place in the boxes or pit that he or they shall incline, agreeable to the practice of other theatres in such cases, excepting the Benefit Nights of the performers; the tickets to be called for each day about the usual time, unless a particular box be pitched upon for the season.' In the event of any refusal, Riddell or his representatives were to pay to Bushby or his representatives double the highest price for each refusal.

Each original subscriber of ten guineas or over was given the right of free admission to the theatre, receiving a silver medallion, on one side of which was an engraving of the theatre, and on the other his name.

The building of the theatre had scarcely begun when the capital raised was up, and the subscribers had to build at a much grater cost than had been originally been intended. An extra five hundred pounds had to be raised to finish the building.

The theatre opened under the management of Mr Williamson, from the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, assisted by Mr Sutherland. The event was reported in the Dumfries Weekly Journal, which stated: 'The united elegance and accommodation of the house reflected equal honour on the liberality and taste of the proprietors, and design and execution of the artists, and conspired with the abilities of the performers in giving universal satisfaction to a crowded and polite audience.'

The front of the theatre was in classical style with a pillared portico, as engraved on the medallions presented to the subscribers.

The interior consisted of the pit; above that in the form of a horsehose, were the boxes forming the dress circle, and above that again the gallery or uppers. Admission prices were: Pit, 2/-, in which the seating was provided by wooden benches, without backs; the Dress Circle, or Boxes 3/-; and the Gallery, 1/-

In order to reach the pit it was necessary to enter by the front of the theatre, descend a flight of stone steps, walk through a long passage, and then ascend another flight of steps that came out into the theatre at the orchestra box. From this point, the whole house came into view.

Behind the boxes of the dress circle ran a semi-circular passage, off which opened the doors into the boxes. Each box was divided into compartments containing a number of seats, and was entered by a baize covered door with an oval glass panel in it, festooned with crimson curtains.

From all accounts the theatre, which seated between five and six hundred people, gave an impression of great brightness and comfort. The Dumfries Weekly Journal's report of the opening night continued: 'It is allowed by persons of first taste and opportunities that this is the handsomest provincial theatre in Scotland.'

In spite of the financial difficulties at the outset no expense had been spared in finishing the theatre, and Alexander Nasmyth, who had painted the famous portrait of Robert Burns five years previously, was commissioned to paint some scenery, for which he received a hundred guineas.

Nasmyth was at the time an established portrait painter, but he was an open supporter of reform, and on this account had lost many commissions from wealthy patrons. He turned to painting theatrical scenery, and one such commission was for scenery for Dumfries. Only two records of his scenery are known to have survived, one of which is a sketch in the National Gallery of Scotland, described as a 'Design for a scene for the Dumfries Theatre, done at the desire of Robert Burns, by Alexander Nasmyth'. The sketch is of the interior of a partial building. The finished scene was probably highly detailed, Nasmyth's style of painting for the theatre was described by Leitch, the artist and engraver, 'as if you could pull aside the branch of a tree and find another beneath it'.

Not long after the opening of the theatre, there occurred the incident of the near riot in which Robert Burns, who had a free admission token, was involved. Political tension at this time was high. The French Revolution had broken out in 1789, and by 1792 the Government was afraid that the revolutionary ideas were gaining ground in Britain. People who had at first welcomed the revolution as the beginning of a new liberal age, were bitterly divided in their opinions as the Reign of Terror proceeded. Dumfries was then a gay and fashionable place, the winter retreat of well-to-do families from all over the South of Scotland. The theatre was well patronised by these families. On the evening of the 30th October 1792, there was a gala performance of As You Like It, put on for the pleasure of the gentlemen of the Caledonian and the Dumfries and Galloway hunt. There was a socially distinguished audience that included the Marquis of Queensberry and his party. When "God Save the King" was called for at the successful conclusion of the performance, there were counter calls from the pit for "Ca Ira", the song of the French Revolutionaries. Scuffling and shouting broke out, this was suppressed and drowned by the singing of the National Anthem, but it was reported that Mr Robert Burns remained seated throughout the singing, a scandalous, if courageous, act of defiance at a time when public feeling was running high against the French.

Many famous actors and managers appeared on the boards of the Theatre Royal. Burns wrote the 'Scots Prologue' for Mrs Sutherland's Benefit Night in 1791. In 1792, he produced the prologue 'The Rights of Woman' for Miss Louise Fontenelle's Benefit Night, the title echoing Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, published in 1791.

In 1794 Mrs Kemble played the part of Yarico in the opera Inkle and Yarico. On that occasion she was hailed by Burns with the lines:

"Kemble thou cur'st my unbelief
Of Moses and his rod;
At Yarico's sweet notes of grief
The rock with tears had flow'd"
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