Port Elizabeth Dramatic Society
Theatre in Port Elizabeth is believed to have started with the production of Hamlet at Fort Frederick 1799. This claim is based on the statement by John Hamber that a hand-drawn and dated poster was found during the refurbishing of a Masonic Lodge. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of this poster is unknown. Owing to the absence of a local newspaper prior to 1845, information regarding any earlier productions is very scarce and hard to find. After the Eastern Province Herald was founded, adverts and articles were published which now give us a better idea of the pioneering years.
Unfortunately, there are a number of publications which do not have the correct facts either because the author did not have access to the newspapers or clippings, relied on other unverified sources or simply made unfounded assumptions.
Whatever the reason, ESAT is attempting to correct these mistakes by inputting information from original sources such as newspapers, pamphlets and programmes.
Should you have any information which will add to our collective knowledge of early theatre, please contact us at: [].
Port Elizabeth Dramatic Society
There appears to have been two amateur societies by this name in Port Elizabeth in the 19th century, as well as a company referred to as the Port Elizabeth Dramatic Company on occasion. It is highly likely that the latter is simply a reference to the second society, rather than to a genuinely professional company active in the mid-nineteenth century.
Port Elizabeth Dramatic Society: First phase
The Port Elizabeth Dramatic Society is the first documented amateur dramatic society in Port Elizabeth and was founded on April 10, 1840. According to Jill Fletcher (1994, pp.79-81) this was the Port Elizabeth Dramatic Society that most probably performing in various found venues, including The Lyceum, a wood and iron store they had fitted up as performance venue with "a primitive stage and quaint scenery". F.C.L. Bosman (1928, pp. 508-9) adds that on the 26 August 1853 a "new Theatre" that had been built by subscription opened in Port Elizabeth, opening with a production of She Stoops to Conquer (Goldsmith) and Did You Ever Send Your Wife to Camberwell? (Coyne), and would host a production of Henry IV in October of the same year, the cast including a certain Mr Pearson. In May 1856, the Lyceum building was again re-opened after being refurbished with improvements including a dress circle with velvet cushions. The Society continued productions up to 1858 when the building was sold and the Society dissolved.
Port Elizabeth Dramatic Society: Second phase
F.C.L. Bosman (1980, p. 138), supported by Fletcher (pp.93-4) and P.J. du Toit (1988: p. 30) avers that there was what he calls a "P.E. Dramatic Club" (or "Port Elizabeth Dramatic Club") existing in Port Elizabeth circa 1861-1864, a time when Port Elizabeth was considered to be the second most important centre for theatre in South Africa (In this period Sefton Parry and Clara Tellett both visited the coastal city regularly with their performers and used the facilities and performers of the local organizations.)
P.J. du Toit (1988: p. 30) suggests that the Club may have been a revival (and renaming) of the Port Elizabeth Dramatic Society and that at the height of its active life it was staging performances fortnightly. One specific example noted by Du Toit is a performance on September 23, 1867, of a locally written historical play by a Port Elizabeth Dramatic Club "at considerable expense in dresses and general mounting") called The Treasure at the Woody Cape, or The Days of Ryk van Tulbach. It had been written by the local postmaster and playwright, Alexander Wilmot, presumably a member of the club or society.
Fletcher (pp.93-4) records that the society or club had been formed when some members of what she calls the "Dramatic Club" had "re-formed" in 1862 to raise enough money to build a theatre. They had been encouraged by the success of Sefton Parry during his visit that year, and a new theatre was thus constructed in White's Road. Fletcher refers to as the White's Road Theatre, but Margaret Harradine (1995) demurs, stating that the theatre was in fact constructed by another company, the Port Elizabeth Dramatic Company and not by a "Dramatic Club" (though this is most probably a reference to the Port Elizabeth Dramatic Society, not to another, genuinely professional, company). According to Harradine, the name of the venue was simply The New Theatre, and it was situated in Whites Road. However she adds that it was at various times also known as the Theatre Royal, or The Barn, Barn Theatre or The Old Barn.
Scenes from Shakespeare and popular classics, including a few locally written works were staged.
1861-1866: Among the works listed as having been done by the club (and its collaborators) at some point in this period, a number for charity and fund-raising purposes (e.g. for a new cricket pavilion), were Still Waters Run Deep (Taylor), That Affair at Finchley (Coyne), Our Volunteers (a new local ballet by Mrs Cooper) and the The Lady of Lyons (by Bulwer-Lytton or Byron) and possibly even the opera The Rose of Castile (Balfe, Harris and Falconer).
1867: They performed a locally written historical play called The Treasure at the Woody Cape, or The Days of Ryk van Tulbach "at considerable expense in dresses and general mounting") on 23 September. It had been written by the local postmaster and playwright, Alexander Wilmot, presumably a member of the club or society.
The Commercial Hall
Charles Inman's theatre
On May 17, 1849, J Russell fitted out a building in Strand Street belonging to Charles Inman and used it as a theatre. Grace Huntley, a domestic melodrama, was the first production staged. In July 1849, Inman took over the management of the theatre.
On June 6, 1862, Monsieur H Olivier announced the first performance of the Olympic Circus De Paris in Strand Street. During the show “grand scenes in the circle” were produced including “daring and graceful acts of horsemanship” and “various other amusements”. A “monster circus” was erected specially for him and was capable of holding 2 000 patrons. A band was in attendance. (Comment: This information has been placed under Charles Inman simply because both were in Strand Street. However, it is unknown if there was any connection to his theatre.)
Port Elizabeth Amateur Theatrical Society
"Port Elizabeth Theatre", in the Cape Monitor, 10 September, 1853, 8 August, 1855 and 24 September 1856.
P.J. du Toit. 1988. Amateurtoneel in Suid-Afrika. Pretoria: Academica
Jill Fletcher. 1994. The Story of Theatre in South Africa: A Guide to its History from 1780-1930. Cape Town: Vlaeberg: pp79-80.
Margaret Harradine. 1995. Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the End of 1945. Port Elizabeth: E.H. Walton Packaging (Pty) Ltd.
P.W. Laidler. 1926. The Annals of the Cape Stage. Edinburgh: William Bryce: p.
J.J. Redgrave. 1947. Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days. Wynberg: Rustica Press. (Comment: Some of the facts in this book have been called into question.)
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