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Edinburgh's Theatre Royal – a history

Theatre Royal before 1830

The Theatre Royal was launched with a performance on 9 December 1769. The foundation stone of its new building was laid on 16 March 1768. Built in Shakespere Square, an area at the east end of Princes Street, the building was to be in use as a theatre for 90 years. During that time, the theatre was at the centre of some of the most important developments in Scottish cultural life.

For the first 40 years of its life, the theatre made little impact. Two centuries of Kirk opposition to the theatre, in various degrees of severity, coupled with an intrusive government censor, imposed major limitations on what could be staged in Edinburgh.

Theatre Royal, 1830-1859

The arrival of Sir Walter Scott transformed the situation. Scott was a patron and outspoken friend of the drama (as a young advocate, in 1794, he fought in a riot at the Theatre Royal sparked off when some members of the audience refused to stand for the National Anthem). More importantly, Scott's historical novels offered new possibilities for adaptation to the theatre. A play that was unambiguously about the modern political situation in Scotland would have been heavily censored, but a play based on a novel about the Jacobite risings could escape censorship on the grounds that it was just based on fiction. This allowed for the possibility of a national drama that could reflect on Scotland through the medium of literature.

Charles Mackay in 'Rob Roy'

The Theatre Royal benefited in this period from having good managers. The actors Henry and Sarah Siddons led the theatre from 1809 until Henry's death in 1815, and thereafter it was run by his wife and her brother William Murray, Murray remaining in charge until 1851.

It was under Murray, in 1819, that the astonishing success of the stage adaptation of Scott's 'Rob Roy' made the theatre relatively rich. With Charles ('the real') Mackay playing Bailie Nicol Jarvie, this good-humoured adaptation saw Scotland starting to come to terms with its history of civil war and social division.

When George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, he ordered a performance of 'Rob Roy' at the Theatre Royal, which took place on August 27, 1822. It was a triumphant success and placed the Theatre Royal at the centre of the Scottish cultural revival.

Pantomime programme

After Murray's retirement in 1851, the theatre fell on harder times, and the railway network encouraged a drain of talent to London. Scott was not followed by a host of keen new Scottish writers, and the theatre had to rely on endless revivals of the Waverley novels. In 1859, the government purchased the old Theatre Royal building to make way for the Post Office. Although several new Theatre Royals were to be built in Edinburgh, its golden age ended with the closure of the old premises on May 25, 1859.

The National Library of Scotland is fortunate to have a very good collection of playbills advertising performances and events at the Theatre Royal, from 1807 to 1851, bound in chronological order. The collector – currently not identified – frequently writes on the playbills which shows he/she saw, who else was there and how much he/she paid for entry.

Playbills were printed on one side of a sheet of paper so they could easily be stuck up on a wall. Normally, they carried details of the main performance, the names of the star actors, and the title of any sub-performances or songs to follow the main show. Modern ideas of a night out at the theatre do not correspond to the events on offer at the Theatre Royal, which ranged from performances of Macbeth to lectures on astronomy, and from musical comedies to military bands.

Playbill for 'Clandestine Marriage'

We have digitised a selection of our early playbills, starting from 1807, omitting only damaged and near-duplicate copies, to give a picture of the activities of Scotland's leading theatre in the early 19th century. To find other playbills in the National Library's collections, there is a paper sheaf catalogue available in the National Library's building on the George IV Bridge, Edinburgh.

For further reading, see particularly Findlay, Bill (ed.), 'A History of Scottish Theatre', Edinburgh, 1998, and Dibdin, James C. 'Annals of the Edinburgh Stage', Edinburgh, 1888.