Garrison Theatre

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Garrison Theatre is a term often used by British military forces in the 19th century to refer to a theatrical venue used by members of the military, or to the military tradition of putting on theatrical entertainments for their fellow officers and men (i.e. "theatre by members of the garrison"), even for the general public at times.

The two uses are distinguished in Dutch and Afrikaans by the use of the two terms Garnisoenskouburg (the venue) and Garnisoenstoneel (the activity).

The name Barracks Theatre is also found, often with reference to the venue.

See also Military Entertainment and Marine theatre (referred to as Marinetoneel in Afrikaans, and referring to the sailors' version of "military entertainment")

"Garrison Theatre" or "Barracks Theatre" as terms

When used as general terms, refer to two things, both of which had a significant impact on the shape theatre would take in Southern Africa:

(1) A reference to theatre which is performed in the regimental barracks by the officers and soldiers of the garrison stationed in South Africa, initially in Cape Town, where for example, it referred to dramatic entertainments performed in the regimental barracks in Cape Town by the Dutch, French and English soldiers till well into the 19th century. (Hence also referred to as Barracks Theatre) The repertoire was both classical and non-classical and for many years it was only the men who performed.

(2) A reference to the physical performance space or venue in the barracks where such performances were held.

See also Garrison Players

Overview: The occurrence of Garrison Theatre or Barracks Theatre in South Africa

In the Cape, there were three phases of occupation under the Dutch, the French and the British garrisons. We look briefly at each. The Dutch occupation (1652-1781): Though the Dutch under van Riebeeck arrived in 1652, the first references to theatre (="comedy") in the Dutch garrison at the Cape of Good Hope by Mentzel (quoted in Bosman I, p18) refers to occasional "mummeries" performed as part of the entertainments in the period 1733-1741. No references to this are found before then. The French (Batavian) occupation (1781-1795): In 1781 a French fleet arrived in Simonstown, and settled a garrison of soldiers in Cape Town to protect the Dutch colony from the English. (Holland and France had become allies of the Americans). This swelled the garrison to between 2000 and 3000 men in the period 1781 to 1784. In this period Cape Town became known as "Little Paris", with everyone favouring French fashions and, according to the traveller Le Vaillant, French plays. Soldiers apparently drilled in the morning and performed comedies in the afternoon. Among the plays performed was definitely The Barber of Seville by Baumarchais, and there are reasons to believe that The Marriage of Figaro might even have been seen there before it was seen in Paris. Performances were held in the barracks, and the roles of women were played by men. Costumes, however (along with other favours perhaps) were obtained from the ladies of the town. This eventually led to trouble in the colony and a reaction against the performances from the Dutch community. This and the departure of the French in 1785 seems to have brought an end to European style theatre in the colony for a number of years. The English occupation (1795 – 1902): When the British took the Cape in 1795, they settled a large garrison of about 5000 professional soldiers there. The officers, drawn from the aristocracy, brought the culture of England to the Cape. This included club life, fox-hunting, horse-racing, concerts, balls, and theatre. However, very few records of any actual theatre presentations before 1800, though they assuredly must have taken place among the officers. Certainly, a little Barracks Theatre existed in the hospital and was used for performances. Apparently, the director of the hospital, Dr Edmund Somers promoted these and his wife wrote and delivered the prologues and epilogues on these occasions. Their first production was Taste by Samuel Foote. A "review" of this appeared in Lady Anne Barnard's journal on 1 June 1800. It was this production which led to the building of the African Theatre. (See further Barracks Theatre, French Theatre below and in Part Three, Section 1, and the entries under the various cities and towns - e.g. The Garrison Theatre, Cape Town; The Garrison Theatre, Grahamstown.) [TH] (See: Bosman 1, pp18-19, 27-32, 60-63; Fletcher, pp 16-22, Schauffer, 197*)

Barracks Theatre and/or Garrison Theatre as the name of a venue

There were a variety of spaces in the soldiers' barracks, set aside for performances for theatre by the officers and men of the various British garrisons during the 18th century.

Barracks Theatre and/or Garrison Theatre in Cape Town

This was successively in use by the Dutch, German, French and English soldiers till well into the 19th century and were alternatively referred to as the Barracks Theatre or the Garrison Theatre, even the Amateur Theatre (see F.C.L. Bosman, 1928[1]: pp. 395, 397, 399) or in the late 1850s simply "The Garrison" in popular parlance.

It is evident from descriptions and such programmes as are available that performances by the garrison in its barracks were frequent and popular from the first Dutch occupation till well after the building of the African Theatre. The first proper acting company was established by French officers in 1781 in the barracks, utilized various spaces over the years.

The German Amateurs theatrical group apparently performed plays in German or Dutch in the Cape between about 1788 and 1799, also in the Barracks. Continued by British regiments from 1795 to 1800, though precisely what rooms were used and how is uncertain. Eventually, however, at the behest of Dr Somers, the Garrison Amateur Company obtained a specifically allotted and furnished hospital wing in the barracks to convert into a small theatre. Clearly, it was a makeshift affair, uncomfortable and badly ventilated, but popular. (See the letters of Lady Anne Barnard in this regard for example.)

Apparently, for a while, it was referred to as the Sealines Theatre (or simply The Sealine) by Mrs Somers. This particular theatre was formally closed on 12 August 1801 when the players moved to the newly opened The African Theatre. Nevertheless, they continued using what was generally referred to as the Barracks Theatre for some of their productions, even while also using the African Theatre till its closure in 1839.

After this, the Barracks Theatre was again used on and off for military and public entertainments till late in the 19th century.

The Garrison Amateur Company and its successors thus continued to play in the Barracks from 1825 to 1828, 1834 to 1838, and from 1840 to at least 1855. Because the public was not allowed, few programmes of productions there are extant. By 1857 they apparently used " an immense room on the second floor of the barracks, with boxes, gallery and pit and held a very large audience ... it was being used by non-commissioned officers and men of the 73rd regiment." (W. Groom, Cape Illustrated Magazine, November 1899).

According to an article in the Cape Argus of 2 August, 1860 (cited in Bosman, 1980:p. 166), this Garrison Theatre was also used by visiting professional companies and other groups for a while after the closing down of The African Theatre in Cape Town, right up till the arrival of Sefton Parry and the erection of his Theatre Royal in Harrington Street in 1860. It was in this period that the Garrison Theatre became fondly known as The Garrison among the general public. However, this venue was badly damaged by the military in about 1856 or 1857. This was during the period the Cape served as a halfway stop for soldiers travelling to or from the military conflict Crimea and India, and in order to provide "eating and drinking rooms for soldiers' families", the stage, scenery, boxes and galleries were torn down, partitions put up and the materials sold on auction on the Parade.

As a result the only theatrical activities by the military reported was one evening's entertainment that took place in the Theatre Royal in 1861, but by June or July 1862, it appears the old Garrison Theatre had been restored and was once more being used by the non-commissioned officers and men of the 11th Regiment.

In the 1870s the Garrison Theatre (also referred to as the Theatre Royal, Main Barracks in some cases), became the hub of a very active time for the various regimental companies, as well as being used by professional companies on occasion, e.g. the D'Arcy Read Company (sporadically between 7 to 27 November, 1871 and again in February 1872.)

[JF, JH, TH].

The Barracks, Fort Napier

See Garrison Theatre, Pietermaritzburg.

Garrison Theatre, Durban

The Garrison Theatre in Durban was a theatre built into the side of Fort Hill by the military authorities and which seated 500 persons in its gallery, dress boxes and pit. The officers of whichever regiment was stationed in town performed a variety of theatrical pieces, both for their own amusement and for that of the local citizens.

Garrison Theatre, Grahamstown

A venue by this name is mentioned by both F.C.L. Bosman (1928) and P.W. Laidler, (1926) as one of the venues utilized by the officers of the Grahamstown garrison circa 1853. Their last performances put on are given as Love à la Mode (Macklin) and The Three Clerks.

Between 1860 and 1862, shortly after the Xhosa cattle-killing movement and famine of 1857-1858, the North Lincolnshire Regiment of Foot was sent to the Eastern Frontier of the Cape Colony (now the Eastern Province, South Africa) to be based in the frontier towns of Grahamstown and later also Keiskama Hoek. In that year they too performed in the Barracks of the two frontier towns.

See below: Garrison Theatre, Keiskamma Hoek.

(TH, IM)

Garrison Theatre, Keiskama Hoek

This particular venue has been rather well documented in the regimental newsletter of the North Lincolnshire Regiment of Foot, a publication known as the North Lincoln Sphinx and reproduced in Grahamstown and Keiskamma Hoek. The following account, written for ESAT by Ivor Markman, is largely based on that publication. (See also the entry on the North Lincoln Sphinx )

Keiskama Hoek was a small military post measuring 300 yards by 200 yards and was started in 1853 by detachments of the 6th Royals and Rifle Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Mackinnon. It was completed by the reserve battalion of the 12th and 73rd Regiments. It was subsequently garrisoned by various detachments serving on the Cape Colony's eastern frontier. (North Lincoln Sphinx, Vol. 1. No. 13. July 23, 1862).

The North Lincoln Sphinx described the despair felt by the men upon their arrival in Keiskama Hoek on April 29, 1862: "Somewhat less than three weeks ago, the Second-Tenth were startled out of the monotony of their every-day life, by an order, which threatened, in no small degree, to realize the old adage of "out of the frying-pan into the the fire," for, although the edict to which I allude, did offer some prospect of variety to those who were weary of the dusty streets of Grahamstown and its vicinity, yet the ruthless rending from the last relic of civilized life, which it entailed, was something quite unprepared for, by even the most volatile of the lovers of change, while the others - especially those afflicted with melancholy temperaments, and susceptible hearts - were hurled to the very lowest depths of despair, where they will doubtless continue to linger, until "a change comes o'er the spirit of their dream," or Fate shall transport them once again to the seaward side of the Great Fish River." (North Lincoln Sphinx, Vol. 1. No. 13. July 23, 1862).

When the members of the North Lincolnshire Regiment of Foot arrived in Keiskama Hoek in April 1862 they found: "The village of Keiskama Hoek is a small place, consisting of some three or four dozen sun-dried-brick cottages with thatched roofs and mud floors, amongst which there are two or three shops, where the requirements of existence can generally be obtained at large prices – natural and unavoidable consequences of the expense attended upon land-transport from the sea coast." (North Lincoln Sphinx, Vol. 1. August 12, 1862).

"The Post itself has little to recommend it; the Barracks are in a tottering state, and many of them are propped up to prevent their falling, - even the officer's quarters have nothing (but mud?) floors. High and disagreeable winds prevail, and (whose?) dense clouds of sand about us so pertinaciously, that we seem to live, for the time, in an atmosphere of dust, which is, moreover, so insidious, that even the most habitable house we possess cannot keep it out." - North Lincoln Sphinx Vol 1, Supplementary Number, Keiskama Hoek, August 12, 1862.

The newsletter also states: “The little Garrison Theatre was crowded to excess by people from the village, and the officers and men of the Regiment, all of whom appeared much pleased with the efforts made for their amusement”. (North Lincoln Sphinx Supplementary Number, Keiskama Hoek, August 12, 1862.)

In the final edition of the North Lincoln Sphinx, Vol 1, No 14, dated December 10, 1862, the following letter to the Editor by 'Nemo' gives a pretty good idea about the condition of the building: "When one takes into consideration the dilapidated state of the buildings, the deficiency of space, and the many other disadvantages, which the Corps Dramatique had to contend against, the results were really surprising. The dresses were magnificent, though perhaps not quite historically or nationally correct, and the scenery was remarkably good. On the first evening there was a deficiency of light, and neither the scenery nor dresses appeared to fullest advantage: this, however, was quite remedied at the last performance."

According to Colin Coetzee in his book, “Forts of the Eastern Cape,” he says “Keiskamma Hoek had several permanent buildings of brick laid in clay, namely, the officers’ quarters, cookhouse, Cavalry barracks and stables. The soldier's barracks and hospital were wattle and daub buildings.”

Discussing frontier buildings, other than those "forts" built of stone, the North Lincoln Sphinx (Vol 12, February 28, 1862.) says ". . . the buildings are only composed of a wicker-work of sticks, smeared over with mud, - and called in this colony "wattle and daub," - with thatched roofs of coarse grass."

"The officers quarters are considerably better than those for the men, although made of the same materials and roofed in the same manner. They possess wooden floors, and a verandah running along the front."

Upon examining the original plans of 1855, no theatre, as such, is shown, but one could have been built later or one of the messes could have doubled as the theatre. The mess buildings are clearly marked.


Garrison Theatre, Pietermaritzburg

The Barracks: A temporary space in Fort Napier, utilized for a performance of amateur theatre in 1846. Replaced by The Garrison Theatre on 10th August 1846.

The Garrison Theatre: It opened on 10th August 1846 as the first theatre building in Pietermaritzburg. Built as a permanent theatre of corrugated iron, it seated 500 and had boxes, a gallery, pit, orchestra and a stage with box rollers, velvets, slides, drops, chandeliers and footlights. Described as comfortable, with excellent acoustics.

The Victoria Theatre: The Garrison Theatre was almost immediately renamed The Victoria Theatre on 21st August 1846. The opening production was Douglas and Annimal Magnetism (sic). Final production was The Child of Nature and Borough Politics on 1 April 1850. Twenty-four plays were presented in total. Closed in April 1850

It was followed by the St George's Theatre as a formal theatre venue in Pietermaritzburg in 1864.


The Garrison Players

A general name used to refer to Garrison theatricals, i.e. the groups of officers who performed in the garrison venues, wherever the garrison may be stationed. The names of regiments or divisions might be employed to identify the particular company of regimental actors, e.g. the 11th Regiment , the North Lincolnshire Regiment of Foot, the 73rd Regiment, and so on.

Such companies are also variously known under other (often ad hoc) names such as the English Theatricals, the Garrison Theatricals, the Garrison Players, Gentlemen of the Garrison, the Gentlemen Amateurs, the Garrison Amateur Company, the English Theatrical Amateur Company, or often simply the Amateur Company. Bosman (1928) also argues that they were at times utilized by other companies, and were then referred to as (the) Gentlemen Players. (See entry below.)

See further under Garrison Players (or related titles) for the individual cities and towns.

To find the names of the plays put on by these companies, use the "Search ESAT" facility (top right of this page), typing the company's name as key word.

Garrison Players, Cape Town

The most prominent of the theatrical companies, the Cape Town garrison company effectively existed under various names and guises for more than half a century, providing theatrical continuity in the Cape, often with help of visiting professionals or local amateur performers.

They initially played with the permission, and later under the patronage of, the Governor, in spaces set aside in the regimental barracks for this purpose (usually referred to as the Barracks Theatre or Garrison Theatre). Once constructed, they also utilized the African Theatre, though by the 1830s they favoured the Garrison Theatre again, since it was now a more permanent and well-equipped space.

Initially, only members of the regiment could perform, and certainly no women. But gradually women began to participate as well, and often guest performers from visiting ships were utilized. Over the years a number of key figures formed part of the group – Dr Edmund Somers and his wife, who possibly started the group as a coherent entity in 1799, Captain W. Frazer and his friends (1800-1802), Captain Carter and Captain Thomas Sheridan (1820-22). They were one of the few groups in Cape Town really able to survive the Puritan assault on theatre (1838) since they had their own independent theatre in the barracks. By 1828 this seems to have become the Gentlemen Amateurs (from an earlier name, the "Gentlemen of the Garrison"), and by 1829, the English Theatrical Amateur Company, although by 1830 it was already defunct. By 1834, however, the garrison once again fielded a company of players which performed regularly under the name of Garrison Amateur Company, and except for perhaps a brief period in 1839, continued into the 1850s. Prominent names in this period appear to have been Mr D. M'Donald (who seems to have been the leader, Captain Hall of the 73rd Regiment, Mr Wellesley and Mr Priestley.

Obviously, the war in India (1842) and the outbreak of the border wars between 1850 and 1853 naturally curtailed the garrison’s theatrical activities to a large degree. In 1855 they supported the performances by the famous actor G.V. Brooke, but shortly thereafter the appearance of permanent professional theatre at the Cape with the arrival of Sefton Parry would cause them to curtail these activities significantly. F.C.L. Bosman (1980) nevertheless mentions ongoing theatre activities by the Cape Town Garrison for the years 1861-1873.

In the 1861-1862 season, it appears that they initially played in the Theatre Royal, before returning to the Garrison Theatre in June or July, to continue their activities there. The ensuing period (1863-1867) became a very active time for the various regimental companies (i.e. those from the 9th Regiment, the 10th Regiment and the 11th Regiment - see the entries on these companies), as they took over from the ailing professional theatre in the city. However, a slow decline had also begun to creep in from 1868 onwards, according to Bosman (1980: p. 255) owing in part to the insidious influence of the Christy entertainments of the time. By 1873 Garrison theatricals were all but moribund, though a company referred to as the "Garrison Amateur Theatricals" is mentioned on occasion.

[TH, JH]

Garrison Players, King William’s Town

Circa 1862. Performed in the Cornish Theatre.

Garrison Players, Grahamstown

Both F.C.L. Bosman (1928) and P.W. Laidler, (1926) first mention performances by the officers of the Grahamstown Garrison circa 1853, with their last performances being Love à la Mode (Macklin) and The Three Clerks.

Far better documented (in the regimental newsletter known as the North Lincoln Sphinx ) are the performances by the theatrical company of the North Lincolnshire Regiment of Foot, stationed in the frontier towns of Grahamstown and Keiskama Hoek on the Eastern frontier of the Cape Colony in 1862-3.

Garrison Players, Keiskama Hoek

The North Lincoln Sphinx (Supplementary Number, Keiskama Hoek) of August 12, 1862 describes the conditions surrounding a typical performance of the Garrison's "Corps Dramatique" in this town:

“The little Garrison Theatre was crowded to excess by people from the village, and the officers and men of the Regiment, all of whom appeared much pleased with the efforts made for their amusement”. (North Lincoln Sphinx Supplementary Number, Keiskama Hoek, August 12, 1862) while the letter to the Editor by 'Nemo' (in the final edition of newletter, Vol 1, No 14, dated December 10, 1862), states: "When one takes into consideration the dilapidated state of the buildings, the deficiency of space, and the many other disadvantages, which the Corps Dramatique had to contend against, the results were really surprising. The dresses were magnificent, though perhaps not quite historically or nationally correct, and the scenery was remarkably good. On the first evening there was a deficiency of light, and neither the scenery nor dresses appeared to fullest advantage: this, however, was quite remedied at the last performance."

For more on the theatre, see above, and for specific information on performances by this Garrison company, se the entry on the North Lincolnshire Regiment of Foot.



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

F.C.L. Bosman, 1980. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel II, 1856-1912. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik: pp.166-7, 187, 223, 227, 251, 254-268, 278, 280, 292-297, 302.

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.

P.W. Laidler. 1926. The Annals of the Cape Stage. Edinburgh: William Bryce

Dennis Schauffer. 1978. The Establishment of a Theatrical Tradition in Pietermaritzburg, Prior to the Opening of the First Civilian Playhouse, Unpublished doctoral thesis: Pietermaritzburg University of Natal.

Malcolm L. Woolfson. 1986. The Long Road that led toward the Natal Playhouse. The Natal Performing Arts Council.

The North Lincoln Sphinx, Vol. 1. Nos. 1-14 (4th August, 1860 to 10th December, 1862).

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