EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
On 8 November 1736, Scotland's first theatre formally opened, on Carrubber's Close in Edinburgh's Old Town. It had been established by the poet and librarian Allan Ramsay, at what he described as "great expense", for the purpose of staging entertainments and performances for a local audience.
The life of the theatre was shortlived, as by the following year the venue on Carrubber's Close had closed, forced out of business as a result of campaigning and opposition from religious leaders in the city.
For a long time, the performing arts were closely linked with issues of vice and depravity, had sinful associations with excess and debauchery, and attracted a dubious clientele. Many influential figures decried the harmful, degenerate influence that theatres had on their communities, and it's no surprise that Ramsay's venture was forced out of business so speedily.
Of course, the closure of the theatre on Carrubber's Close wasn't the end of the performing arts in Edinburgh, and today the city boasts the world's largest arts festival every summer - and at a time when many arts venues and artists are experiencing the devastating effects of the pandemic lockdown, here's my celebration of some of Edinburgh other important theatres, past and present.
OLD PLAYHOUSE CLOSE
A decade after Allan Ramsay's theatre closed, another playhouse was established in Edinburgh's Old Town, just a short way further down the Royal Mile.
Crucially, this venue was outside of Edinburgh at the time, in a town called Canongate which lay just beyond the original city walls.
In the 1750s, this was the venue for a famous production by John Home called Douglas, a romantic tragedy set in the Scottish Highlands. At its first performance it was received with such enthusiasm and positivity, a cry of "Whaur's yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?" was heard in the crowd at the curtain call.
Home was a church minister at the time, and the outcry at his association with the dreaded performing arts forced his resignation from the church.
Douglas was restaged in London in 1757, where it was well received by a non-domestic audience, and was followed with several other classical-themed plays. Home later became an MP for Edinburgh, and died in 1808.
The theatre on Playhouse Close closed in 1769.
Another long-gone theatre in Edinburgh was the Theatre Royal, which stood on a square named Shakespeare Square, between 1769 and 1859. Shakespeare Square was at the east end of Princes Street in the New Town, near the junction with North Bridge, where the former General Post Office building stands today.
The foundation stone for the theatre was laid by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's prince consort in 1863, on the same day he laid the foundation stone for what is today the National Museum of Scotland, on Chambers Street.
When the venue closed after 90 years, the title of Theatre Royal was then passed to a second building, previously known as the Queen's Theatre and Operetta House, on nearby Broughton Street.
This theatre was immediately adjacent to St Mary's Cathedral, where the John Lewis department store stands today, and seemed curiously vulnerable to fire - it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt no fewer than three times, before being demolished after catching fire for the last time in 1946.
ROYAL LYCEUM THEATRE
One of the most popular local theatres in the city is the Royal Lyceum, which opened in 1883.
A classic proscenium arch theatre, the auditorium here is one of the most beautiful of all the theatres across Scotland.
The theatre has a permanent creative company dedicated to producing live theatre created in Edinburgh, attracting actors, designers and directors from all around the world.
Casts here have included performers like Sam Heughan (Outlander), David Tennant (Doctor Who) and Brian Cox (the original Hannibal Lektor in Manhunter), and designers including Olivier and Tony-award winning Bunny Christie.
The Lyceum is especially renowned for its work attracting younger audiences, including an annual Christmas show and its year-round Youth Theatre program.
Another classic proscenium arch theatre, the foundation of the red sandstone building of the King's Theatre was laid in 1906 by Andrew Carnegie, at one time the richest man in America.
The King's was part of the traditional music hall circuit of the early- to mid-twentieth century. This was a key part of the theatre tradition in the UK, where comedians, singers, dancers and novelty acts would travel the country performing at venues. Scottish comedians like Rikki Fulton, Stanley Baxter, and Jimmy Logan all starred at the King's theatre in their careers.
More recently, the King's has become one of the city's receiving houses, hosting touring productions for a week at a time throughout the year. A major renovation in 2013 saw improved access to what had become a challenging building for audiences to get into, and further development is planned for the near future.
A beautiful mural on the decorative ceiling rose was painted by the artist and playwright John Byrne.
EDINBURGH FESTIVAL THEATRE
The Festival Theatre is the second largest auditorium in the city, and the longest established theatre site, having had a venue on it since 1830.
The former Empire Theatre was later turned into a cinema and bingo hall, before returning to use as a theatre in 1994.
In 1911 the Empire Theatre was the site of a devastating stage fire which broke out during a performance by a magician named the Great Lafayette, during which 11 people were killed - including the magician himself, his illusion body double, and a lion featured in his act.
In the aftermath of this fire, a new UK law was introduced which required a fire curtain to be installed in all theatres, and which was required to be proven to be functional at every performance. This resulted in the practice of raising and lowering a fire curtain or safety curtain during every live theatre performance to this day.
Today the Festival Theatre is a venue for large scale touring productions, including international ballet and opera companies, and West End musicals during their UK tours.
The Traverse is one of the city's most important creative spaces, being dedicated to new writing. Originally established in 1963 by a group of people including John Calder - who was Samuel Beckett's publisher in the UK - and Richard Demarco, who remains an important and active artist and writer in Edinburgh.
The original theatre space was located on a lane off the Lawnmarket before moving to a more formal location in the Grassmarket, until it moved to the modern development from which it still operates today in 1992.
The Traverse become a major hub during the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and is well regarded as a venue that nurtures and develops the work of new Scottish writers.
The Edinburgh Playhouse is the largest theatre venue in the UK by number of seats, with room for just over 3,000 audience members at every performance.
The building opened in 1929 as a cinema, and today operates as a receiving house for large scale touring productions of West End musicals, international opera and ballet companies, and stand-up comedy.
Explore more of Edinburgh's theatres and arts venues with my private city walking tours!
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