Esther Leach the Queen of Calcutta theatre

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By early nineteenth century the English had transformed Calcutta so much that it quickly pleased the eyes of the newest Englishman in the city. There were these big mansions, government buildings like the ones in London, there were Landaulets, Barouches criss-crossing the wide Calcutta streets. There was every comfort that a proud Englishman could think of. As far entertainment was concerned Calcutta was not far behind, occasionally there were would be lavish parties thrown by a generous host. There were clubs associations offering the opportunity to fill in the loneliness one usually has staying long away from home. The English had almost everything they could want, but something was clearly missing, the absence of which was clearly felt by everyone, because without this the English soul would never be fulfilled, and that was the charm of a breathtaking show of a Shakespearian play in a professional theatre. Although the English had found their way into Calcutta, the bard of Avon still awaited for a home in this magnificent city.

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This lithograph is taken from plate 22 from William Wood’s ‘Views of Calcutta’.In the early 19th century, the grand houses of the lower Chowringhee area of Calcutta were a mix of private residences and government departments. This image shows the imposing theatre on the corner of Theatre Street and Lower Chowringhee Road.source bl.uk

It was not true that Calcutta was completely deprived of a classical entertainment, but it would be imprudent to believe that the sort of entertainment they provided filled the hearts and minds of the Englishmen. There were touring parties like the French Opera artists, the Chinese rope trick masters, but the real show was missing. Although Calcutta had its first English theatre a year before the battle of Plassey in 1756, it was probably located somewhere on the Eastern junction of the present Lal Bazaar Street and Mission Row; opposite to the side where the Old Court House stood. This old theatre provided some sort of recluse to a handful of Europeans, merchants, missionaries and officials. However two theatres post 1756 became very popular in Calcutta they were the, “Calcutta theatre” and the “Chowringhee Theatre”. The Calcutta theatre was built by personal donations, at an expense of one hundred thousand Rupees, through public subscriptions, Warren Hastings, Elijah Impey, General Monson were among the subscribers.[i] At this magnificent little theatre sparkling comedies like The Beaux Stratagem and The School for Scandal and Shakespearian tragedies like Richard III and Hamlet were staged by one Mr. Massinck or Massing who have been sent by David Garrick. Initially the females roles were done by men, but later following the trend set by “Chowringhee Theatre” women were introduced. Lord Cornwallis was a great patron of this theatre, though he disapproved government officials taking part in any performances. The “Chowringhee theatre” was founded by one Mrs. Bistow’s  wife of an English merchant; it was at her own residence, situated at the junction of Chowringhee and Theatre Road. There was always a nice little competition between these two theatre companies so to say. Following the successes of these two theatre houses several theatres sprang up in the city, and outside, in Kidderpore, Chandnagore and Dum Dum. The most popular theatre which gained immense audience was the “Private Subscription theatre” built on Chowringhee Road in 1813 and opened on the 25thNovember in the same year. The theatre as the name suggests built by public donations with shares of Rs. 100 each. This theatre was quite huge compared to the others, with a seating capacity of over three hundred; Governor General Lord Moyra was its great patron was present in the opening night. Some great plays were staged in this theatre, Henry V, She stoops to Conquer, the Merry Wives of Windsor, the Sleeping Draught, and West India until the theatre was destroyed by fire in 31st May 1839.

Pen and ink drawing of the interior of the Chowringhee Theatre in Calcutta, West Bengal, by William Prinsep (1794-1874), c. 1830s. (click to enlarge)

Pen and ink drawing of the interior of the Chowringhee Theatre in Calcutta, West Bengal, by William Prinsep (1794-1874), c. 1830s. (click to enlarge),source bl.uk

One would be obliged to think that the theatres somehow fulfilled the desire of the English to experience a classic stage-show but that was obviously not the case. Although the newspapers did their best to boost the plays and theatres there were frequent hints that the actors had failed to live up to the expectations. The theatre management knew perfectly about what they lacked in, the sizzling performance of a mega star. A mega star who eventually will be the darling of the English theatre, the Kohinoor of the press was all that the Englishmen were waiting for. Someone just found that star, a young woman who was playing in leading roles in the Dum Dum theatre. Esther Leach was the gem that every heart desired, she was extremely pretty, very intelligent, modest, amiable, possessing a musical voice and a good taste, she also had the quality of great actor she could well fit in any role. Esther Leach was born to Mr. Flatman in 1809 while he was posted in Meerut, her parents died early, still in her teens she found herself in the barracks of Berhampore.[ii] Her stay in Berhampore was quite eventful; she was educated by Corporal Paddy Flinn of the 17th foot who was not a regimental pedagogue who could have taken an University degree, excepting, by all accounts, for his manufacture of whisky punch, but he had well grounded Esther in the mysteries of orthography, calligraphy and the first four rules of arithmetic, as she had a natural aptitude to get pieces by heart. The soldiers at Berhampore selected her while still very young to play Tom Thumb and Little Pickle, the officers were enchanted by her power. The Adjutant presented her with a copy of Shakespeare, and that changed her life once and for all. Esther quickly devoured everything that Shakespeare had to offer and her fame travelled 186 kilometres to Calcutta! In Berhampore Esther was married to John Leach 17 years her senior, while John was away in a posting at Rangoon, Esther was making her debut in the Dum Dum theatre. The officers of Calcutta who went at frequent outings to Dum Dum was completely taken over by the charm of Mrs. Leach, they reported in every known quarters about the acting powers of Esther, and she was invited to join the Calcutta theatre.

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The Barracks of Berhampore

Strings were pulled in military quarter and Sergeant Leach was brought back to Fort William. Sergeant Leach though remained a shadowy figure in contrast to his hugely popular wife. Chowringhee Theatre launched Esther in 27th July 1827 at a gala production of School for Scandal which was attended by the Governor General, and “the fashionable everybody of Calcutta” all of whom were deeply impressed by her performance of Lady Teazle.[iii] One John Bull commented, “we cannot speak in terms sufficiently her due…..suffice to say, we do think her one of the best female performers we have ever seen on the boards.” Esther had a remarkable stage presence, when she played Juliet even Romeo (usually a handsome young Magistrate would play the role) became an extra! The English at Calcutta had finally the taste of the real thing, to miss Esther’s performance was to, “be sentenced to a week’s silence over morning coffee, at dinner, and over wine” for she was the talk of the town. Newspapers showered praises upon her and she became quite rightly, “the Mrs. Siddon of Bengal” and the Chowringhee Theatre was as good as anything in London.

Esther was not a comet in the English theatre in Calcutta she proved to be the star for eleven long years, she had played in modern comedy, farce, melodrama, and “classical comedy”. When she played Katherine the critics exclaimed, “this is the shrew that Shakespeare drew” in imitation of Pope’s epigram on Macklin regardless of the fact that the play was actually Garrick’s Katherine and Petruchio. Sergeant Leach had died leaving her in immense popularity with three children. He is buried in the Bhowanipore Military Cemetery. By the end of 1837 Esther announced about her travel to England due to ill health. The news was a severe shock to the theatre lovers of Calcutta, in her farewell on January 12th 1838, there was huge gathering which demonstrated the influence and respect she had earned through years. The Oriental Observer described her farewell scene, as, “Mrs. Leach took her farewell benefits to the fullest house ever seen at Chowringhee theatre. Quite apart from the attraction of the Play, the simple and much lamented circumstance of her last appearance was ample incentive for such an assemblage. The house was literally crammed there was as the poet says- no room for standing miscalled standing room. And more than once were apprehensions entertained of the unceremonious descent per smash of the gods above. Those however few that were present on this interesting occasion have to regret the richest treat ever afforded to our histrionic world of India. In spite of the intense crowd the strictest silence was observed (even by those Boeotian blockheads who at other times have delighted in disturbing others and making themselves asininely conspicuous by their rude untimely laughter and imaginary wit) when Mrs. Leach came forward to falter her valedictory address which couched in the most apposite and affecting terms was delivered with the intense pathos. There was no acting there but the purest ebullition of the tenderest emotions of the heart kindled by the relentless corroding and alas inevitable word FAREWELL!

Esther finished the farewell speech in tears, and the audience did not stop cheering for a quarter of an hour, she was mind-blowing in both phases while acting and not acting! With this sort of farewell one would scarcely believe that she would return to her favourite Bengal but she did. Sad news greeted her on return- the Chowringhee theatre had been destroyed by fire. It would be have been a stain on her acting career if she had not tried again to rebuild all that was lost, and she would expect nothing less than a full fledged theatre again. With her name in the proposal to build a theatre grants and donations poured in. While the construction was underway Mrs. Leach had arranged a makeshift theatre under the title Sans Souci at the corner of the Government Place East, Waterloo Street where Sir John Clavering lived before. The site is now Ezra Mansions at that time the first floor was the St. Andrew’s library and the ground floor a go-down, Mrs Leach converted this go-down into her makeshift theatre.[iv] On the opening night 21st August 1839 Sheridan Knowless’s “Hunch Back” was staged with Mrs. Leach as Julia. All the sale proceeds of the night were devoted to meet the loss of her old stage associates Mrs. Francis and Mrs. Black who had lost everything in the fire.

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The Sans Souci theatre was an enormous building resembling the Greek Parthenon with six Doric columns established in the spot where St. Xavier’s College stands today. The subscriptions for erecting the theatre came liberally, with Lord Auckland and the business tycoon Prince Dwarkanath Tagore contributing Rs. 1000 each. There is an anecdote about the later, like all the private stories of Dwarkanath Tagore this was is also very interesting since it is somehow related to Mrs. Leach. Rajaram Roy the foster-son of Rammohun Roy related this scandal in a letter to Janet the daughter of David Hare. Dwarkanath’s money and influence he said secures any lady he likes. Rajaram narrated that a young ship captain had married the beautiful daughter of Mrs. Leach and sought the owner’s permission to take her aboard. Dwarkanath volunteered as a mediator and acting as a counsel to the captain asked the owners to make her stay ashore. In the words of Rajaram, “Dwarkanath Tagore is taking care of the late Mrs. Leach and the Captains wife with vengeance; he has the lady brought to his house every night. This is not the first instance.”[v] Forgive for leaking the open secret, coming back to serious discussion the total subscription for building the theatre amounted Rs. 16000, to this Mrs. Leach and Mr. Stocqueler had also contributed. The whole fitting and construction including scenery and wardrobe cost Rs. 80000 the rest being raised by the mortgage of the property and all it was to contain. The building was completed in May 1840 but the formal opening took place on March 1841 withSheridan Knowless’s “The Wife” under the patronage and immediate presence of Governor General Lord Auckland and suite when Mrs. Leach who took part of Marians recited a metrical prologue written for the occasion by Mr. J W Kaye the historian of Sepoy War. Mrs. Leach had arranged for some professional actresses from England, Mrs. Cowley who was useful in roles which required dancing and Mrs. Deacle specialised in heavy tragedy, but as always the Sans Souci seats remained full hose when Mrs. Leach played the leading role.

Sans Souci is memorable for two plays one was of course Othello and Desdemona, where Othello was played by a young Bengali youth named Baishnav Chandra Adhya and Desdemona none other than Mrs. Anderson, Mrs. Leach’s daughter. An account reported, “a Bengali youth in an English play in an English theatre catering to a large English audience in….the nineteenth century is certainly a memorable event in the history of Calcutta’s theatres”. The August 1848 James Barry production of Othello had set fire in Calcutta. There was a crowd in Park Street people were going hysterical commenting, “By Jove, Barry and the Nigger will make a fortune”![vi] In fact the Bard of Avon had united the Bengalis and the Englishmen, and this interracial play quickly became the talk of the town. Before the play The Calcutta Star published a notice on August 4 with the following information-

On Thursday Evening, August 10th, 1848, will be acted Shakespeare’s Tragedy of ‘Othello’. Othello…the Moor of Venice…By a Native Gentleman (Mitra 1967:197)[vii]

Perhaps you can understand from these lines the level of excitement that brought to all theatre lovers in Calcutta. This was not a painted Othello; this was about right exhibition of character in all terms. The “real show” became an enormous hit and the new Othello although slender and little novice in accent the Bengal Harakurudescribed the newest Moor as-

“Othello’s entry was greeted with a hearty welcome and the first speech, “Let him do his spite”, evidenced considerable study and the absence of that timidity so constantly the concomitant of a first appearance. Slim, but symmetrical in person, his delivery was somewhat cramped, but, under all circumstances his pronunciation of English was for a native remarkably good.” (Mitra 206-207)

There were some harsh comments about his mannerism and appeal; perhaps this was from those Englishmen who were waiting to see Sir Lawrence Olivier play Othello. But the native Othello was not about racial authenticity and diction it was about the material that Othello was really made of, the ordinary Othello whom the Englishmen often meet at the street and routinely ignored. For a direct entertainment medium like theatre the most important factor is the response of the audience and the curtain drew, “amidst tremendous applause”.

Film representation of a white Desdemona and black native Othello, from the blockbuster movie- Saptapadi.

The colonial, long ignored “Othello” had been given the license to feel the, “balmy breath” of his “alabaster” (read white) Imperial Master as the romance of the “unpainted nigger” and the gorgeous Desdemona had set the stage on fire. Talking about fire, a different sort of fire untimely destroyed the “jewel in the crown” of Calcutta. In October 1843 James Vining a member of a well known theatrical family arrived in Calcutta to take over as the new stage manager and the “Handsome Husband” was selected to be performed with Mrs. Leach playing the role of Mrs. Wyndham. The newspaper Bengal Hurkaru described the unfortunate incident next day, “the farce was unfortunately interrupted by an accident which caused great excitement in the theatre. The little comedy was proceeding amidst roars of laughter when a bright light was perceived behind the side scenes, and presently Mrs. Leach ran across the back of the stage with all garments in blaze. Many we believe thought that the theatre was on fire and there was a general rush towards the door but the exhortations of Mr. Vinings caused them to resume their seats whereupon one of the amateurs gave an account of the mischief and announced that Mrs. Leach was in no great danger.” [viii]

The mischief was that Mrs. Leach’s clothing had caught fire by an oil lamp which had been kept to light the back of the stage. After the explanation when the audience went home, Mrs. Leach was attended by three doctors one of whom was Sir W O Shaughnessy who is remembered for his work in establishing the telegraph in India. The newspapers later informed that Mrs. Leach injuries was not life threatening and soon she would appear on the stage. Everyone believed the story except Esther herself, she was quite confident that she would die and begged her friends to take care for her children. Situation worsened and on 11 am on 18th November she passed away, “being perfectly sensible to the last and having settled such worldly matters as were on her mind, and received the visit of two ministers of the Church,” she died at the age of 34 years, 4 weeks, and 4 days.

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Esther Leach was often compared to Mrs. Sarah Siddons, the later was a legendary actress, and “wonderful stories are told of her powers over the spectators. Macready relates that when she played Aphasia in Tamburlaine, after seeing her lover strangled before her eyes, so terrible was her agony as she fell lifeless upon the stage, that the audience believed she was really dead, and only the assurance of the manager could pacify them.”

So that was the end of the little orphan girl who had started her journey entertaining soldiers in Berhampore, subsequently invited to the bigger stage, “The Chowringhee theatre” where she was the Queen of stage. Nothing is left as a memory of this amazing lady whose talents and personal attractions without a rival, even in England, she was buried rather unceremoniously beside Sergeant Leach there is nothing to mark the grave of the first mega star of Calcutta in the Military Cemetery in Bhowanipore.[ix]

The post Leach era of Sans Souci theatre was nothing outstanding, James Vining sailed back to England after three shows, a new leading lady Mrs. Ormonde arrived from Cambridge to replace Mrs. Leach but she died of cholera in few weeks. People were waiting to see what would be the future of this magnificent theatre, in 1844 the fine building was purchased by the Right Rev. Dr. Carew for the sum of Rs. 40000 it was to be christened as St. Xavier’s College.[x] Later on the arrival of Belgian Jesuits in 1859 it was placed under their efficient management. In little less than 100 years after the first English theatre had opened up the last one in Calcutta died out, not after sowing the seeds of professional theatre in Bengal, one day this little seed, “yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” [xi]

The English theatres in Calcutta had obviously inspired the Bengalis, the learned, educated Bengalis so to say. In 1826 an editorial appeared in Samachar Chandrika pointing the need of a theatre after English model. It urged the formation of professional theatres by the appointment of shareholders, managers and actors. The members of the committee were Prassana Kumar Tagore, Sri Krishna Sinha, Krishna Chandra Dutt, Ganganarayn Sen, Madhab Chandra Mullick, Tarakchand Charkaborty, and Hara Chandra Ghosh. Of these Prasanna Kumar Tagore came up making a theatre at his own residence called the Hindu theatre, the theatre opened on 28th December 1831, and the first theatre by a Bengali, in the Bengali neighbourhood, for the Bengali audience. The Bengali theatre like all other theatres in the World went through various challenges and phases, it had its own crests and troughs but most importantly the show went on, as the show must always go on!

References

[i] The Bengali Drama: Its Origin and Development,  By P. Guha-Thakurta

[ii] The Indian Stage Volume I, Dr. Hemandra Nath Das Gupta

[iii] Shaw, Dennis. “Esther Leach, The Mrs. Siddons of Bengal”‘, Educational Theatre Journal, X, 304-310

[iv] The English Theatre,

[v] Partner in Empire: Dwarkanath Tagore and the Age of Enterprise in Eastern India , By Blair B. Kling

[vi] The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power,  By Partha Chatterjee

[vii] Shakespeare and Appropriation , edited by Christy Desmet, Robert Sawyer

[viii] Shaw, Dennis. “Esther Leach, The Mrs. Siddons of Bengal”‘, Educational Theatre Journal, X, 304-310

[ix] Ibid

[x] W. Newman & Co.’s Hand-book to Calcutta: Historical and Descriptive,  By James Blackburn Knight

[xi] Bible Mathew 13:32.

Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.

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