The African Theatre
NB: See African Theatre for the generic term referring to the practice and products of "theatre in and of Africa",
The first proper stone built European style theatre to be built in South Africa, it is one of the oldest existing pupose-built theatrical structures in the Southern Hemisphere. Built and opened in 1800 it was closed down as a theatre and sold in 1835/1839. However, from 1840 onwards it was home to an active Dutch Reformed Church congregation and became known as St Stephen's Church, still in use today. The building is still pretty much as it was, except for the ornamentation, and is now a listed historic building.
The many names for the theatre
The theatre was officially known as The African Theatre in English and Di Afrikaansche Schouwburg in Dutch, though it has had a variety of other names in the popular parlance over the years. Often fondly referred to simply as "The Theatre", or as "The Cape Town Theatre" by the English-speaking residents and theatre companies, while the Dutch burghers and journalists called it the "Zuid-Afrikaansche Schouwburg" ("South African theatre") - especially after 1829, the "Kaapsche Schouwburg" ("Cape theatre"), simply "Di Schouwburg" ("The theatre") or apparently often the "Komediehuis" ("comedy house"). It is occasionally also referred to as Die Afrikaanse Skouburg or the Kaapse Skouburg in Afrikaans publications, e.g. by F.C.L. Bosman (1928).
The origins of the theatre
The idea of a purpose built theatre for Cape Town became prominent toward the end of the 18th century, and was strongly supported by various prominent officers and amateur performers of the British Garrison in the colony. It became a reality when a number of officers and citizens, led by one Henry Murphy, submitted a request to found an English/Dutch Private Theatre by subscription in Cape Town to the mew Governor, Sir George Yonge. Yonge, inspired by a successful performance of Samuel Foote's Taste in a temporarily fitted up venue - referred to as the Sea-line - in the Military Hospital, Cape Town in May 1800, responded by making the building of a theatre for Cape Town his personal project. To this end Yonge appropriated a portion of the Boerenplein ("Farmer's Square", also known as Hottentot's Square or Van Riebeeck Square) in 1799 and donated a section of it to 24 shareholders, for the building of a theatre in 1800.
The intention was that it would operate on a subscription-only basis and be run as a charitable venture by a committee of 24 the shareholders, with Yonge himself being one. In line with the British policy at the time (i.e. to win the support of the Dutch), the shares in the venture were apparently equally divided between the English and Dutch, and the plan was to alternate plays in English and Dutch.
The original share-holders were Sir George Yonge, Lt. Col. James Cockburn, Major Birkenhead Glegg, Edmund Summers, Oloff Berg, Jos. Bray, Willem Stephanus van Ryneveld, Henry Erskine, John Pringle, Richard Blake, Joh. Zorn, John Grulsbone, Price Tucker, Thomas Wittenoom, Haines Wade Battersby, James Lourie, John Elmslie, Alexander Macdonald, Simon Tufts, and Alex. Tennant. The first treasurer was Joseph Bray.
The building itself was designed by the extravagant Governor Sir George Yonge himself and largely funded by him as well. At street level there was provision for a number of shops, workshops and even storerooms. Above these was the theatre itself. The walls were of Table Mountain sandstone, rough-dressed and bonded in clay, but the upper courses of the walls were of stone mixed, with half-burnt bricks and plastered over. The exterior was distinguished by a low pitched roof, buttresses surmounted by urns, a row of oval windows and a covered colonnade of four columns reached by two gracious stairways (which were demolished in 1824). It originally had no pit, only a balcony and richly ornamented boxes. However this soon changed as a pit was added in 1804. There was no foyer, and the stage was small, with two doors and dressingrooms behind.
Yonge had pushed through the project in the face of much criticism and opposition, but on the eve of its opening on 17 November 1800 (with a performance of a Shakespeare play), a Commission of Inquiry into Sir George Yonge's affairs led to his subsequent recall to England, which meant it all had to be postponed. Thus the theatre only opened its doors during early September 1801, with the first production only taking place in October 1801 with Shakespeare’s Henry IV pt. 1 - a performance which ran for a week.
According to a report by Lady Anne Barnard on 16 October, the event opened with an address to Apollo, written by Mrs Somers and spoken by Dr Somers, followed by the play - apparently a dull play, but with scenes "very well done". The theatre was run as a charitable venture and had a committee headed by the Governor, with Dr Somers, John Pringle and most probably the original petitioners (Henry Murphy and his signatories, including a large number of Dutch burghers). The treasurer was Joseph Bray. In line with the British policy at the time to win the support of the Dutch, the shares in the venture were apparently equally divided between the English and Dutch, and the plan was to alternate plays in English and Dutch. On occasion German plays were also done - a tradition of German performance still extant in Cape Town today. (See: German Theatre in South Africa)
For the next 30 years or so the venue would host most of the major productions in Cape Town, except for the Circuses and equestrian shows, and the occasional plays in the Barracks Theatre. After the opening of the Liefhebbery Tooneel (sic) - or "Amateur Theatre" - in 1825, it was used primarily by English groups and gradually it fell into the hands of a single owner (John Thos. Buck). In the face of a growing anti-theatrical feeling among the citizens in the Cape it was eventually sold in March 1839 and then converted into a church for freed slaves, to the disgust of the citizenry, who stoned the building. Hence the current name: St Stephen's Church, a name first noted from 1847 onwards.
Fortunately the church has retained the building pretty much as it was after 1824, for the stage is still there, and the dressing rooms have become the vestry. Even the shops below are still in use. Nothing of course has remained of its elegant interior.
In the late 1980s it was once more used for performances on occasion, in order to raise funds for the restoration of the church building. For example Jonathan Pienaar did a performance of Ian Fraser's Story of an African Chicken in May 1989. This initiative would become a more concerted effort, led by Die Burger, a Cape Town Afrikaans newspaper, which in 2002-2003 set about raising the funds for a full restoration of the building, with the help of the artistic community in the city. A key figure here was the journalist Martiens van Bart. By 2010 the warehouses and shops below the theatre were again being used commercially, as was the theatre itself. [TH, JH]
Performances in The African Theatre
The following two studies contain discussions of most documented productions in the theatre between 1801 and 1838:
P.J. du Toit. 1988. Amateurtoneel in Suid-Afrika. Pretoria: Academica
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