A Brief History of the performing Arts in Guyana during the 19th century
By Lloyd F. Kandasammy
April 1, 2004
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The history of this symbol of our culture has it roots in the late 18th century when the European colonists established the theatre to satisfy their need for activities of social recreation as was customary in Europe. In July 1805 Mr. M. Campbell constructed the first fixed place for the production and staging of theatrical fanfare. This new building, constructed for the Union Coffee House, boasted facilities for billiards and a multi-purpose hall, which could be utilised as a venue for the staging of concerts, amateur theatricals, meetings and balls. It was here that the first subscription ball was held in the colony of Demerara.
The literature reveals that many of the productions staged were presented by groups of actors from North America who occasionally toured the West Indies. In 1810, a second theatre, The Theatre Royal, named after the famed British theatre, was opened in Demerara. This would be the venue for the staging of many performances in the colony as the Union Coffee House Theatre disappeared under the limelight of the new venue.
On February 24, 1810 the theatre staged its first production, "The Tragedy of George Barnwell", and the farce, "The Anatomist." The production was regarded as that which was "performed with exceptional manner and much to the satisfaction of the audience, particularly the afterpiece during the performance of which the house was in one continuous roar of laughter and applause.'
The 'Gentlemen Amateur,' a local club produced many of the cultural activities of the Theatre Royal. In the English theatre of the early 19th century it was a common practice to present double bills, composed of a full-length play followed by a short farce or burlesque. The staging of Burlettas and Comic Operas, also known as Comedietta and Farietta (comedies), were also a common characteristic. In addition, many of the productions staged were basically adaptations by the English of French and German plays.
During its first year of operation the Theatre Royal staged a total of 29 productions. Some of the most popular actors in Demerara during this period included Mr. Stewart, Mr. Lincoln, Mrs. Pemberton, Mr. Bryant, Miss Shaw, Mr. Pemberton and Mrs. La Prevost.
The presence of women on stage, in an era when males acted in female attire to complete the part, is also significant of the cultural and social progress that emanated from the theatre in 1810. In England and other parts of Europe men were usually required to doll themselves in attire and portray the female character required.
The Theatre Royal seems to have existed until 1827, as it was not referred to in the newspapers after that year. From 1810 until that period the productions staged changed considerably. In 1817, for example, all performances were staged with the permission of His Excellency the Governor. In addition in many cases the Military band was the orchestra for the evening's production.
The theatre had by this time become a venue of an Astronomic Exhibition. The price of admission was 11 Guilders for front boxes, 6 Guilders for back boxes, and 8 Guilders for pit with children at half price. Nevertheless the prices were restrictive. The audience was, of course, selected, as the elites of society were the main patrons of these activities, as the high cost of entry limited it to the pockets of the rich whites. In later years coloureds were admitted but only on special days.
Numerous aspects besides drama were staged. These included fencing, ballet and musical renditions. However, an analysis of the existing advertisements from the newspapers indicates that plays were staged seasonally and not as often as they were in 1810.
Related areas of the couture associated with the performing arts were soon developed. In 1817 Mrs. Pemberton, one of the most prominent stage performers, established a Dance Academy and in 1819 another performer, Mrs. Spread, commenced instructions in singing. In 1820 the first formal school for the 'promotion of christian, mercantile and other useful knowledge and polite literature', was established by Mr. Jonathan Martindale. Similarly Mad-ame Clotitilde Pampome also commenced teaching of languages (Italian and French), needlework, dancing and music.
An examination of the newspapers for 1818 reveals that no plays were staged that year. It is possible that the theatre may have dwindled as a result of financial difficulties. Perhaps this is one reason why several of the stage performers began to explore other avenues for income during this period. It appears that the Theatre Royal may have been destroyed by fire in 1828, the New Town fire, that destroyed all the buildings on America Street.
A Theatre Royal also existed in Berbice. The literature reviewed first mentions this establishment in 1813. The cultural activities staged there were different from those performed in Demerara. Advertisements indicate that they were comedic shows, with magical tricks and unusual feats.
The first record dates to 1813 with the performance of 'fabulous rope tricks to be performed by Signor Arisi, along with a proposed dance of his with two eggs under his feet without breaking them.' Though established in 1813, there are no available records to indicate the staging of productions for 1813-1814 on a regular basis.
Indeed it was not until 1817 that this Theatre appeared to have produced plays on a weekly schedule. Some of the actors mentioned included Mr. Franklin, Mr. Abraham, Mr. Stewart, Mrs. Smith and Mr. Smith who were most likely affiliated to the Theatre Royal in Georgetown. The popular farce and staged comedies and tragedies of the Shake-spearian and Elizabethan era were also performed. Fancy dress and masquerade dress and masquerade dress balls were common in Berbice.
The exact date of the construction of this theatre is not known, but prior to its existence concerts and other cultural activities were staged at private residences. This establishment appears to have been closed in 1817, as an advertisement for the sale of theatrical equipment suggests that the theatre was possibly at a point of decline, if not closure.
The theatre was not the only venue for performers to stage their acts in British Guiana. Indeed, private residences such as that of one Doctor Smith in Waterloo Street was the venue for many concerts and other cultural activities.
The vacuum left by the destruction of the Theatre Royal was temporarily filled with the establishment of two theatres. The first was the Minor Theatre, which was opened on 1 January 1828. It was located at the Royal Hotel, which was located at the site of the present High Court and operated by Mr. Belshaw, who may have been one of the performers attached to the Theatre Royal.
The second theatre was built in Demerara in 1828 by Dutchmen who were fond of the stage. This group was known as Hollandsch Liefneberry Tooneelgezelschap. Located at the corner of Charles and Broad streets in Charlestown, (the site of the Dolphin High School), this Theatre may have been established to cater for the Dutch colonists in the colony.
However, neither of these establishments survived as it appears as though financial problems resulted in the closure and, in the case of the latter the sale, of the building. One plausible explanation is that the stoppage in the trade of enslaved Africans and the inevitable emancipation of the free source of labour which the planters were accustomed to had resulted in economic difficulties. In the circumstances the custom of attending the theatre may have ultimately proven too costly.
An illustration of the Assembly Rooms in British Guiana in the late 19th century.
With the emancipation of enslaved Africans every stratum of Guiana's society was affected as the economy, based primarily on the production of sugar, was rooted from its basis of free labour. During these difficult times a few small concerts and dramatic performances were staged at the residences of the colonists. However, it was left to the privates of the British armed forces to fill the void of theatricals.
Musical concerts were very popular throughout this period. Open-air performances were part of the militia's band activities in the afternoon on the Georgetown seawall and towards the end of the century moonlight concerts, held in the Promenade Gardens, were well attended.
The first fifty years after the end of slavery in 1838 resulted in a wave of labourers coming to Guyana. With this influx of people came their culture. The impact of immigration was phenomenal in the development of cultural activities in Guyana.
After 1850 a number of clubs and societies dominated the cultural scene. These were created in a direct response to the absence of venues for social activities and catered for certain members of society. One such example was the Athenaeum Society, which was established in 1851 by a group of liberal elites namely George Quale, J. T. Gilbert and the coloured politician and merchant, Richard Haynes. This was a cultural institution, which catered for young men who could not secure membership in other leisure clubs. They constructed an Athenaeum Club (on the site where the Bank of Guyana is located), which was a venue for a number of plays, which were occasionally staged by the society.
In 1857, this structure was removed to facilitate the erection of the Assembly Rooms, which would serve as one of the main locations for cultural activities until its destruction, by fire in 1945.
Designed by Joshuah Bryant, this edifice which was owned by the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society also housed 'the Georgetown Club (whose membership included the leading planters, merchants and government officials) on the ground floor and an excellent, commodious and convertible theatre and ballroom on the upper floor. The auditorium could seat 700 comfortably and there were occasions when more than 1,000 were accommodated by using the spacious verandas at the back of the hall. There was also a small gallery, which could accommodate 100 persons. The building was declared open on 12 February 1858 with a public subscription ball.
During the 1860s the Adelphie Theatre was formed. However, the records available do not indicate what types of activities this establishment produced. Other examples of clubs formed during this period included the Philharmonic Club, which later constructed the philharmonic hall, and the Berbice Amateur and Musical Society.
Originally known as a 'Bijou Theatre', the Philhar-monic Hall was constructed by Charles Cahuac around 1860. The acoustics of this plain rectangular wooden structure were described as the best in the West Indies. Though it was the operational point of the Philharmonic Club, numerous plays, musicals and operas were staged both by other local clubs and foreign theatrical companies.
However, the Philharmonic hall appears to have been unsuccessful in generating substantial revenue, as Cahuac was left in a state of financial ruin as a consequence of the debt he incurred in its construction and maintenance. In 1889 it was sold to Park and Cunningham and was converted into a commercial edifice.
Records indicate that two dramatic societies, the Amateur Dramatic Club and the Histrionic Club, staged productions on a regular basis at the Assembly Rooms during the 1870s. The first was restricted to whites and the latter to coloureds. An analysis of the advertisements for 1870 indicates that both societies staged quarterly productions. The style of the theatre remained the same as that in the pre-Emancipation era, consisting of one full-length play and a farce.
Many of the societies or clubs staged productions for specific needs. In 1875, for example, a concert was staged by an amateur group to raise funds in aid of the construction of a Chinese church in Charlestown. The cultural ties strengthened through immigration were also reflected in the performances by the visiting Chinese Theatrical Company in 1877. Dramatic performances by the Portuguese amateurs, comprising popular music selections and one-act comedies, were staged to raise funds for the construction of the Meadow Bank Church in 1875 and again in the 1880s to purchase a new organ for the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church. Similar efforts were also undertaken in 1883 at the Philharmonic Hall to raise funds for the erection of St. Barnabas Church.
Other noteworthy establishments included the British Guiana Club, which was established in 1871 to cater for the lesser elite, that is those who could not gain entry into the Georgetown Club. There was also the Demerara Club, formed in 1880 at Caledonia Hotel, to cater for the Portuguese.
In 1883 the Demerara Musical Society was founded with its headquarters at the St Andrews Hall. Unlike other societies of the early period of the nineteenth century, ladies were more than welcome as members. In most cases they were admitted free of any charge, while their male counterparts were required to pay an annual subscription fee.
Cultural activities in British Guiana received considerable impetus with the formation of the Demerara Dramatic Club and the Georgetown Dramatic Club in 1891. The first was established for Portuguese only and the latter catered mainly for coloureds. Mr. J. Veecock, a Master at Queen's College who was described as 'an ardent Shakespearian', organised it. The original entrance fee was $1.50 per annum and a monthly subscription of 60 cents. Female members who performed were not required to pay a monthly fee. This group staged monthly shows consisting of one-act dramatic performances and musical renditions.
Though many of the plays staged were adaptations of foreign ones, there were occasionally local adaptations and musicals. One of the most distinctive was the local version of De Freischutz, Webber's romantic opera. It was completely re-arranged with new additions to render it more believable for the local audience.
All theatrical performances did not require the grandeur that a formal theatre offered. Many were held at private residences, as 'they had such things as dances, dinner parties and private theatricals to amuse themselves.' During the late 19th century the halls of schools and hired halls were frequently used for the staging of amateur dramatic performances as well as for a Creole theatre, which patterned itself after those staged by the Europeans.
An even more informal setting was the stage for the development of drama amongst the immigrants. Indian immigrants staged on a regular basis, usually in the evenings after work, theatrical activities that depicted the deeds of their gods for fellow labourers after hours of work, 'affected with grief or joy according to the drama performed.' Similarly, the Chinese were reported to have staged very elaborate theatricals, upon their safe arrival in the colony of British Guiana under the portico of the immigration depot. In fact, on Saturdays when they were not working at Plantation Blankenburg, it was common for theatricals to be staged. 'On one occasion, they represented upon a very cleverly ornamented stage, the life and works of a Chinese hero, with good action and at the end they held a grand feast.'
During the 1890s variety shows at the Promenade Gardens were regular occurrences. Activities included acts by different artists representing different cultures. Among them were Surinamese dancers and Syrian musicians.
Despite the presence of such organisations, the main outlets for the coloured population to participate in cultural activities were Church groups. These included the Church Liners Union and Three Bands of Hope formed by St. Andrews Church, Trinity Church and Smith Memorial. However, though these groups staged occasional productions, they were involved primarily in literary works.
Around 1893 the Young Men's Institute was founded. It was one of the earliest efforts to form a club independent of church guidance and influence. The founders included C.B. Carto (Head teacher, St George's High School), Charles Spooner (Chief Dispenser, Public Hospital Georgetown), Thomas Williams (Master Carpenter) T.N. Durant (Head Teacher, St Saviour's School) and E.N. Mc David (Chief Clerk to S.H.H. Culpepper). On 5 March 1896 this establishment was renamed the Young Men's Guild. Its objectives were to promote the 'intellectual and social improvement of its members.'
From music to drama, the formation of the clubs and societies in the latter period of the nineteenth century marked the beginning of the secular development of the performing arts in Guyana, as each society targeted a particular group. This pattern continued well into the twentieth century, characterising the nature of theatrical activities in the colony.