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An old theatre tradition

THE MADRAS Players ten days ago inaugurated its Golden Jubilee year and announced a packed programme for the year ahead, including re-staging of several plays in English translation that it had been the first to stage 20 or so years ago. The group's beginnings were in play-reading sessions at the British Council in the early 1950s followed by its first play, "Othello," in 1995.

Till then, the all-British Madras Dramatic Society — its founding a mystery — was the leading English language theatre group in the city. Unable to carry on, as much for many of its members leaving the country as for its unwillingness to give Indian actors anything more that bit parts, the Society decided to close shop in the 1950s. But Rosemary Bourcier, its last president, did gift the Indian actors who had been associated with the Society in its last years, its props as well as a large box of make-up — which, recall Gayathri (Grace) Krishnaswamy and N.S. Yamuna — lasted the successors to the Society many years. Those successors were the Madras Players.

They succeeded to a tradition which, as far as I can trace, dates back to the middle of the 18th Century. Of course, the Tamil theatre traditions of koothu, declamatory dialogue and kalabhishekam are over a 1,000 years older. But with the Madras Players' roots in English theatre — till the late Ammu Matthews inspired a transition to the staging Indian plays translated into English — I am looking at the earliest references to English theatre in Madras.

The earliest reference I've been able to find of English theatre in Madras is a decision in 1778 to demolish the Playhouse on The Island in order to provide the defenders a clear field of fire in the event the French mounted an attack on Fort St. George. The Playhouse was a temporary structure built by the masula boatmen under the supervision of Master Attendant Taswell on what was at the time the main recreation space for the residents of the Fort. It appears, however, before the mid-1780s before the Playhouse was pulled down, the delay possibly because the French, after the late 1770s, were no longer the power they had been. Or was it because acting Governor John Whitehill had in 1780 built himself a private theatre in the Company's Gardens where Customs House is now?

It was at the Playhouse that two theatrical performances were staged "for the relief of the poor native inhabitants of Fort St. George" in January 1783. A press review of the time states: "The Comedy of the Provok'd Wife and the Comic Opera of the Padlock are now in rehearsal... Tickets (for the performance) will be delivered as usual at the Theatre." Three years later, it is reported that the Madras Theatrical Society, as a consequence of "the old Playhouse on The Island having been dismantled for military reasons," had applied for a parcel of land to raise a permanent theatre. But, no doubt, as now in theatre circles, finance was a constraint and no use was made of the land granted near the North Wall in `Black Town.' Consequently, when there was felt a need for a church in the locality, the Rev. Richard Kerr was granted the land earmarked for the theatre and a church was built here to the design of John Goldingham. The church is, I believe, now called St. Mark's Church and is on Popham's Broadway (Prakasam Road) just south of the Bharathi Women's College.

It is also possible that the Madras Theatrical Society lost interest in the North Madras site because it found land for a theatre in the fast developing and fashionable Choultry Plain, which spread on either side of Mount Road. In 1791, the Madras Courier speaks of a little `Theatre on the Plain' which, it informs `the subscribers of the Madras theatre', had been very fertile. Within a few days of each other it produced, on one day, "The Farce of The Minor" and "The Virgin Unmasked", and, on the other, "The Tragedy of the Revenge" and the "Minor". Announcing "the performance to begin precisely at half past six," it added a note that caused me to think that nothing ever changes. The N.B. read: "The Subscribers are requested to observe that altho', owing to a little inexperience in theatrical affairs, the Performers have hitherto been rather dilatory in observing punctuality, yet such have been the measures lately adopted that they will enable the Performers to be ready at the time appointed without the smallest interruption being occasioned on their Parts, or inconvenience to the Subscribers."

The little Theatre on the Plain, which may or may not have been built by the Madras Theatrical Society, was also referred to as the Playhouse at the time. It was very likely surrounded by considerable garden space, for it was one of three adjoining areas that Dr. James Anderson eyed for the planting of mulberry tress to further his experiments with sericulture. The other two gardens belonged to another old entertainment facility, the Public or Assembly Rooms (The Pantheon) and old Mackay's Gardens. Reading between the lines, it is quite possible that Theatre on the Plain was somewhere close to the Graeme's Road-Anderson Road junction. If that was indeed the case, it was not far from it that there came up the theatre space that still survives and with which the Madras Players have long been familiar. I refer to the Museum Theatre, built in the second half of the 19th Century.

The Madras Dramatic Society, presumably successors to the Madras Theatrical Society, had first claim to the theatre during all the years the Society existed. Now with air-conditioning instead of 25 fans "appropriate to the architectural ambience of turn-of-the-century Raj when the London West End was brought to humid Madras with not one collar unstarched," it is local theatre groups that are wilting, having to pay a price for the facilities.


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