Port Elizabeth Dramatic Society

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Author's Comment:

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: [[1]].

Port Elizabeth Dramatic Society

The Port Elizabeth Dramatic Society is the first documented amateur dramatic society in Port Elizabeth and was founded on April 10, 1840.

They apparently then fitted up a rudimentary theatre in an old warehouse in Staines Street, a wood and iron store, and called it The Lyceum. This opened on 10 September 1853 with amateur productions 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 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.

Their performances

Scenes from Shakespeare and popular classics, including a few locally written works were staged.

On August 26, 1853, the society presented She Stoops to Conquer (Goldsmith) and Did you ever send your wife to Camberwell? (Coyne), playing two nights.

On October 22, 1853, they did selections of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, followed by The Spare Bed (Fox Cooper), and An Unwarrantable Intrusion ( Morton).

On July 7, 1854, they performed the The Road to Ruin (Holcroft), and The Thumping Legacy (Morton).

In 1855 they performed The Rivals (Sheridan) in the new Port Elizabeth Theatre in August, with The Fast Train (Anon.), assisted by the Port Elizabeth Amateur Musical Society.


The Commercial Hall

After the construction of the Commercial Hall in 1843, the Port Elizabeth Dramatic Society staged some performances there.

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

The Port Elizabeth Amateur Theatrical Society was not simply a name change but another organisation which existed at the same time as the Port Elizabeth Dramatic Society.


The Port Elizabeth Dramatic Club; Sefton Parry and Company; and the Port Elizabeth Boating Company theatre.


Port Elizabeth, A social chronicle to the end of 1945. by Margaret Harradine.

F.C.L. Bosman. 1928. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel I: 1652-1855. Pretoria: J.H. de Bussy. [2]: pp. 421, 508

"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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