The Historical Journal
Additional services for The Historical Journal:
Email alerts: Click here
Subscriptions: Click here
Commercial reprints: Click here
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE: THEATRICAL
TOURING COMPANIES AND AMATEUR
DRAMATICS IN COLONIAL INDIA
The Historical Journal / Volume 57 / Issue 03 / September 2014, pp 699 - 725
DOI: 10.1017/S0018246X13000538, Published online: 14 August 2014
Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0018246X13000538
How to cite this article:
TOBIAS BECKER (2014). ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE: THEATRICAL
TOURING COMPANIES AND AMATEUR DRAMATICS IN COLONIAL INDIA. The
Historical Journal, 57, pp 699-725 doi:10.1017/S0018246X13000538
Request Permissions : Click here
Downloaded from http://journals.cambridge.org/HIS, IP address: 126.96.36.199 on 15 Aug 2014
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE:
THEATRICAL TOURING COMPANIES
AND AMATEUR DRAMATICS IN
Freie Universität Berlin
ABSTRACT.This article argues that theatre in colonial India –both in the form of touring
companies and amateur dramatics –offered much more than mere entertainment: ﬁrst, it was an
important social space where the British diaspora constituted itself as a community. Secondly,
it served as a lifeline to the home country. By watching theatrical performances either brought to them
straight from London or which they performed themselves, colonial Britons felt in touch with their
homeland. Finally, theatre not only allowed colonial audiences to participate in the metropolitan
culture; it inadvertently helped to unify the British empire. Whether living in London, the provinces,
or a colonial city, all British subjects consumed the same popular culture, forming in effect one big
taste community. Theatre, therefore, lends itself to a discussion of central issues of imperial history, as,
for example, the relationship between the metropolitan centre and the imperial periphery, the colonial
public sphere, social and racial hierarchies, the perception of the ‘Other’, and processes of cross-
cultural exchange and appropriation.
In , William Somerset Maugham arrived in the Vietnamese city of Hai Phong
on the last leg of a journey that had begun almost half a year earlier in Rangoon.
As he recorded in the short story ‘Mirage’, he was strolling round the city when
he was approached by an expatriate Englishman named Grosely, who sub-
sequently told him his life story.
Although –or precisely because –he has not
been back home for over two decades, England has become a fantasy for Grosely:
There was always before him the mirage of London, the Criterion Bar ... the
promenade at the Empire and the Pavilion, the picked-up harlot, the serio-comic
* I am grateful to Kerstin Lange, Len Platt, and Andreas Weiß, as well as to the anonymous
referees for their comments on earlier drafts
William Somerset Maugham, ‘The Mirage’(), in his Collected short stories,IV (London,
), pp. –; he also included this story in his travelogue The gentleman in the parlour
() (London, ), pp. –;itisﬁrst mentioned in On a Chinese screen (),
(London, ), pp. –.
Freie Universität Berlin, Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut, Koserstraße , Berlin, Germany tobias.
The Historical Journal,,(), pp. – ©Cambridge University Press
at the music-hall, and the musical comedy at the Gaiety. This was life and
love and adventure. This was romance. This was what he yearned for with all
What Grosely misses, then, are not family and friends but the pleasures of
London’s West End: the fashionable Criterion Bar in the basement of the
Criterion Theatre on Piccadilly Circus, the infamous Empire Theatre of
Varieties on Leicester Square, whose promenade was a well-known abode
of prostitutes, and, most importantly, the Gaiety Theatre on the Strand, the
‘birthplace and home of musical comedy’, the most popular theatrical form
from the Edwardian Age to the Second World War.
Unlike most expatriate Britons, Grosely –living with a Chinese woman
amongst Vietnamese people in a French colonial city –had severed all
connections with his home country as well as with his fellow countrymen. But
the longing for home and the amenities of the big city was something that he
shared with them. For him, as for many others, homesickness was not only about
social relations, soft beds and hot water, but also about popular culture. The
only way for Grosely to stay in touch with it was through the London illustrated
journals, which he avidly read and collected.
Most colonial Britons, however, whether soldiers, administrators, or business-
men, lived in close-knit diasporic communities –and they did not have to go
without theatrical entertainment either. In Calcutta, for example, the ﬁrst
British theatre was built in .
Like Calcutta, most larger colonial cities had
at least one, and often more than one. These were mainly played by touring
companies from Europe, who travelled round from one city to another. Visits by
professional companies were supplemented by performances by amateur
dramatic societies. In smaller towns and stations, they provided one of the
most important sources of entertainment, as is evident not least from E. M.
Forster’s novel A passage to India, which characteristically begins with an amateur
performance at the local club.
Despite frequent mentions of touring companies and amateur dramatics in
both historical sources and ﬁction, the colonial theatre has hardly been studied.
So far as theatre history has engaged with it, it has focused either on indigenous
performance as a site of resistance or –in the majority of cases –on the
Maugham, ‘The Mirage’,p..
See Walter MacQueen-Pope, Gaiety: theatre of enchantment (London, ), p. ; Alan
Hyman, The Gaiety years (London, ); Peter Bailey, ‘Musical comedy and the rhetoric of the
girl, –’, in his Popular culture and performance in the Victorian city (Cambridge, ),
pp. –; Len Platt, Musical comedy on the West End stage, – (Basingstoke, ).
See Sushil K. Mukherjee, The story of the Calcutta theatres: – (Calcutta, ),
pp. –; Jyotsna G. Singh, Colonial narratives/cultural dialogues: ‘discoveries’of India in the language
of colonialism (London, ), p. .
E. M. Forster, A passage to India (), ed. Oliver Stallybrass, with an introduction by
Pankaj Mishra (London, ), pp. –.
representation of the colonial ‘Other’on the metropolitan stage.
Harrop points out, ‘travelling theatres have never received their due share
of recognition in nineteenth-century theatre history’.
But Harrop herself
mentions only the provincial tours and ignores the many companies bound for
the colonies. The little research that exists on colonial theatre has focused
mainly on highbrow forms like Shakespeare.
Amateur theatricals, too, whether
at home or abroad, have attracted little scholarly attention.
Historians of the
British empire mention the theatre in passing at best.
As I will show in this article, this silence does not do justice to the importance
of theatre for colonial societies. Theatrical entertainment –whether by
professional companies or by local amateurs –provided much more than
mere entertainment. First, theatre was an important institution of the colonial
public sphere. Whether it took place in a makeshift arena or a built playhouse,
it provided a space where the British diaspora came together to socialize.
Secondly, like newspapers and letters it served as a lifeline to the home country.
By watching theatrical performances either brought to them straight from
London or which they staged themselves, colonial Britons felt in touch with the
homeland. Watching or performing in a play allowed them to strip away their
colonial identity and feel part of ‘civilization’–if only for the duration of a
performance. While the practice of theatregoing in and of itself was seen
as ‘civilized’and ‘cultivated’, the theatrical fare presented brought ‘civilization’
See Rakesh H. Solomon, ‘Culture, imperialism, and nationalist resistance: performance in
colonial India’,Theatre Journal, (), , pp. –; Nandi Bhatia, Acts of authority/acts of
resistance: theatre and politics in colonial and postcolonial India (Oxford, ); Sudipto Chatterjee,
The colonial staged: theatre in colonial Calcutta (London, ); Lata Singh, ed., Theatre in colonial
India: play-house of power (Oxford, ); Jacqueline S. Bratton, ed., Acts of supremacy: the British
empire and the stage, – (Manchester, ); J. Ellen Gainor, ed., Imperialism and theatre:
essays on world theatre, drama and performance (London, ); Edward Ziter, The Orient on the
Victorian stage (Cambridge, ); Platt, Musical comedy; Brian Singleton, Oscar Asche,
Orientalism, and British musical comedy (Westport, CT, ); Marty Gould, Nineteenth-century
theatre and the imperial encounter (New York, NY, ).
Josephine Harrop, ‘Travelling theatres in the s’, in Richard Foulkes, ed., British theatre
in the s: essays on drama and the stage (Cambridge, ), pp. –,atp.; see also
her essay ‘The Holloways: a hundred years of travelling theatre history’, in Richard Foulkes,
ed., Scenes from provincial stages: essays in honour of Kathleen Barker (London, ).
See David Holloway, Playing the empire: the acts of the Holloway Touring Theatre Company
(London, ); Michael R. Booth, ‘Touring the empire’,Essays in Theatre,(), ,
pp. –; Christine Mangala Frost, ‘ rupees for Shakespeare: a consideration of imperial
theatre in India’,Modern Drama (), pp. –; Kaori Kobayashi, ‘Touring in Asia: the
Miln Company’s Shakespearean productions in Japan’, in Edward J. Esche, ed., Shakespeare and
his contemporaries in performance (Aldershot, ), pp. –; Richard Foulkes, Performing
Shakespeare in the age of empire (Cambridge, ); Poonam Trivedi, India’s Shakespeare:
translation, interpretation, and performance (Newark, DE, ).
John Lowerson, Amateur operatics: a social and cultural history (Manchester, ),
pp. –; see also Poonam Trivedi, ‘Imperial Simla and the contest for performative space:
the Gaiety and the Kali Bari theatres’, in Somdatta Mandal, ed., The Indian imagiNation: colonial
and postcolonial literature and culture (New Delhi, ), pp. –; Derek Forbes, ‘Simla:
amateur theatre capital of the Raj’,Theatre Notebook, (), pp. –.
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE
to them as well. This is particularly true of musical comedy, the favourite genre
of both touring companies and amateurs. As Peter Bailey and Len Platt have
shown, musical comedy embraced and celebrated the contemporary world,
especially the fast, fashionable life of London, with its department stores,
restaurants, and nightclubs –exactly what expatriates were missing out on.
Finally, by performing the hits of the West End at the imperial periphery,
touring companies not only allowed colonial audiences to participate in the
metropolitan culture, but also inadvertently helped to unify the British empire;
whether they lived in London, the provinces, or a colonial city, all British
subjects were able to consume the same popular culture, forming in effect
one big taste community. Amateur dramatics were likewise ‘just another link
of kinship’, as the Bulletin of the National Operatic and Dramatic Association
succinctly declared in the s when reviewing the ‘operatic work in the
Although this article is primarily concerned with British
colonial society in India, it also asks whether these performances reached the
indigenous population as well.
In many ways, theatre fulﬁlled similar functions to that of two better-
researched imperial institutions: the club and sports. George Orwell was one of
the ﬁrst to highlight the ambiguous position –inclusive as well as exclusive –of
the club, characterizing it as ‘the spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British
power, the Nirvana for which native ofﬁcials and millionaires pine in vain’.
Most historians have echoed this description. According to Mrinalini Sinha, the
club reproduced ‘the comforts and familiarity of “home”for Europeans living
in an alien land’and, at the same time, worked as a ‘symbol of racial
Tim Harper describes the clubs as ‘sacred ground for the
Europeans, bastions of racial prestige, and symbols of a politics of exclusion’.
Similarly, sports were not only a leisure pursuit. According to J. A. Mangan, they
embodied a ‘persistent and signiﬁcant cluster of cultural traits’and propagated
‘imperial sentiments’through bodily practices and rules.
passed the functions of both the club and sports, but it also went beyond them.
Like the club, it was a social space that deﬁned whether someone was part of
society or not. Like sports, it drew on distinctive social and bodily practices,
namely European conventions of acting and watching a play. But in addition
Bailey, ‘Musical comedy’; Platt, Musical comedy.
NODA Bulletin,(), p. .
George Orwell, Burmese days () (London, ), p. .
Mrinalini Sinha, ‘Britishness, clubbability, and the colonial public sphere: the genealogy
of an imperial institution in colonial India’,inJournal of British Studies, (), pp. –,
at pp. ,.
Tim N. Harper, ‘Globalism and the pursuit of authenticity: the making of a diasporic
public sphere in Singapore’,Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, (),
J. A. Mangan, ‘Prologue: Britain’s chief spiritual export: imperial sport as moral
metaphor, political symbol and cultural bond’, in his The cultural bond: sport, empire, society
(London, ), pp. –,atp..
to all that, theatre was also a medium. As such, it generated stereotypes,
presented narratives, and conveyed messages, and thereby expressed as well as
shaped the mindset of its audience.
Theatre therefore lends itself to a discussion of central issues of imperial
history, for example the relationship between the metropolitan centre and the
imperial periphery, the colonial public sphere, social and racial hierarchies,
the perception of the ‘Other’, and, ﬁnally, processes of cross-cultural exchange
and appropriation. If we need ‘to know more about the range of associations
that deﬁned the European diaspora and their relationship to non-European
subjects’, as Tim Harper writes, theatre is indeed an ideal object to study.
ﬁrst section of the article, then, explores the commercial touring companies
that travelled all over the British empire, while the second studies British
amateur dramatic associations. Both sections ask how performances were
organized, who acted in them, how audiences were composed, and what plays
were performed, before the last section takes a closer look at the repertoire.
While most London theatres often did not care to preserve their papers, the
question of sources becomes even more problematic in the case of travelling
theatre companies. Therefore this article largely relies on chance ﬁndings in
London archives, on newspaper articles and memoirs and on the original play
scripts in the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays Collection in the British Library. Due
to the scarcity of sources, it concentrates on India. Touring companies and
amateur dramatic societies did, however, exist in most British colonies and
dominions, so that at least some of the conclusions might apply to the empire
Theatrical touring companies have a long history in Britain. During the
nineteenth century, many cities and towns completely relied on them for their
theatrical entertainment. As Josephine Harrop has shown, they brought ‘drama
to the furthest corners of Britain’.
Almost all West End actor-managers went
on tours to the provinces, and often to the United States as well. Henry Irving,
the foremost actor of the Victorian age, was able to sustain his prestigious but
largely unproﬁtable West End theatre only thanks to the travelling circuit
(he crossed the Atlantic eight times between and , and died during
his farewell tour).
Like Irving, most actor-managers conﬁned themselves to
the provinces and America, although some also visited the continent. But hardly
any of them –once they had made it in London –ventured further aﬁeld.
For stars, a long, winding tour through the empire was simply not proﬁtable.
Harrop, ‘Travelling theatres’,p..
See Jeffrey Richards, Sir Henry Irving: a Victorian actor and his world (London, ); Tracy
C. Davis, The economics of the British stage, – (Cambridge, ), pp. –.
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE
For a less-well-paid troupe of actors, however, there was money to be made.
As one author explained, the ‘exiled European positively gasps to be
entertained’and ‘saves up his money ... with the idea of spending it the
moment the entertainment comes along’.
The ﬁrst popular musical plays to travel almost the entire globe were the comic
operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Richard D’Oyly Carte, the owner of the Savoy
Hotel and Theatre, where all their later works were ﬁrst performed, sent between
three and six touring companies to the provinces, America, South Africa, and,
occasionally, the continent.
For regions like Australia and New Zealand, he
rented out the rights to other entrepreneurs.
After , comic opera lost
out in popularity to musical comedy, a combination of Gilbert and Sullivan,
burlesque, music hall, and continental operetta. Musical comedy achieved
unprecedented long runs, surpassing even Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular
plays. The success of musical comedy in the West End prompted its inventor,
George Edwardes, to follow the example of D’Oyly Carte, organizing not
only provincial but also overseas tours. In , one of the ﬁrst musical
comedies, A gaiety girl, was sent on a long, intercontinental journey –chronicled
by composer Granville Bantock and travel writer Frederick George
Aflalo –which lasted for days and went from London to New York, Boston,
Washington, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and
In the following years, West End managers gradually ceased to organize such
ventures themselves. Instead, they concentrated on marketing the performing
rights to managers who specialized in touring companies. A unique source for
reconstructing the outreach of musical comedy is the Gaiety royalties book in the
theatre collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. It gives the royalties for all
the plays for which the Gaiety Theatre Company held the performing rights
from until well into the s. One of the hits of this era was Our Miss
Gibbs. It opened at the Gaiety Theatre in and ran for performances.
As documented in the Gaiety royalties book, it was performed in more than
British cities in and alone, from Bournemouth to Glasgow and from
Llandudno to Scarborough. Simultaneously, it was played by touring companies
in many cities of the British empire, in in Cape Town, Bloemfontein,
Kimberley, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bulawayo, Lucknow, and Allahabad, in
in Cairo, Alexandria, Calcutta, Rangoon, Bombay, Manila, Hong Kong,
Shanghai, Tientsin, and Yokohama, and in in Sydney, Melbourne,
‘Theatrical touring in the Far East: by one who tried it’,inThe Stage Year Book ,p..
See Cyril Rollins, The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in Gilbert and Sullivan operas (London,
); Tony Joseph, The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, –: an unofﬁcial history (Bristol,
), pp. –; Jeffrey Richards, Imperialism and music: Britain, – (Manchester,
), p. .
See Davis, The economics of the British stage,p..
See Granville Bantock, Frederick George Af lalo, Round the world with ‘A gaiety girl’
Brisbane, and all over New Zealand.
Such extended tours spanning several
continents seem impressive even by today’s standards and mark an important
stage of cultural globalization before the age of mass cinema-going. And Our
Miss Gibbs was far from the only musical comedy to experience such a tour;
The sunshine girl, A runaway girl, A gaiety girl, The girls of Gottenberg, and many
other plays travelled the same distances.
As touring companies had ‘to
play to almost the same audience every night during their stay at a place’, their
repertoire usually consisted of several musical comedies. Consequently,
most of the actors’daytime while on tour was taken up by rehearsing, a process
that began immediately after boarding the ship on the voyage out (see
The cities where Our Miss Gibbs was performed were not chosen accidentally.
Rather, touring companies followed a route that had become well established by
The German-American actor-manager Daniel E. Bandmann, for
example, had visited almost the same towns (apart from South Africa) during
an extended Shakespeare tour he had undertaken from to .
again, the same cities are mentioned in an article on touring in the Far East.
Instead of travelling from town to town, as touring companies did in Britain,
their colonial equivalents only stopped in places where a large English-speaking
community promised takings substantial enough to make a proﬁt after all
expenses had been settled. Such places were primarily the larger colonial
cities. In an article on ‘Touring the Orient’, Campbell Henderson stated in
that ‘no good entertainment ever leaves Bombay, Calcutta, Colombo,
Rangoon, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tientsin, etc., with the manage-
ment dissatisﬁed with the ﬁnancial results of the visit’.
recommended that managers open their tours in Bombay, where a company
could succeed for three or four weeks and from where numerous smaller towns
could be reached conveniently by train. According to Henderson, Calcutta
could be played for six weeks and Rangoon, Madras, and Colombo for a
fortnight each. ‘It is after leaving India that there is a set-back to the steady
income of the players’, he noted, because voyages from one place to the next
took a long time, and travel costs ate up the proﬁts.
Touring began in London with entrepreneurs like D’Oyly Carte and
Edwardes, but as early as the s local actors came to the forefront,
Victoria & Albert Museum, Theatre Collection (hereafter V&A), Gaiety royalties book, no. ;
I am using the contemporary names as they appear in the sources.
‘Rehearsing a musical comedy on board ship’,Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News,July
,p.; for the day-to-day life of actors on a touring company, see also Gertrude De Lacy,
Some recollections of my tour with a musical comedy company in India & Java (London, ?).
See Kobayashi, ‘Touring in Asia’, pp. –.
Daniel E. Bandmann, An actor’s tour or seventy thousand miles with Shakespeare, ed. Barnard
Gisby (Boston, MA, ).
‘Theatrical touring in the Far East.’
Campbell Henderson, ‘Touring in the Orient’,inThe Stage Year Book , pp. –,
at p. .
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE
like Ben and Frank Wheeler in South Africa and W. J. Holloway in Australia.
The most important of them all, however, was Maurice E. Bandman. The son of
Daniel Bandmann (the son dropped an ‘n’so his name was more English-
sounding), he followed in his father’s footsteps and became an actor, but it was
as a manager that he made a name for himself. He had ‘the monopoly of the
show business in Calcutta’, where he had built the Empire Theatre –his
headquarters (see Figure )–and part-owned the Theatre Royal.
built and controlled theatres in other cities like the Royal Opera House and
Bandman’s Theatre in Bombay.
Perhaps even more importantly, Bandman
owned the companies that performed at these theatres and at many others
throughout India, the Mediterranean, the Middle and Far East, South America,
Fig. . Musical comedy rehearsal aboard ship. ‘The subject of this picture is a rehearsal of
a musical comedy on board a P. and O. boat bound for China. Although the passengers regard
the scene as a form of amusement for them, the artists ﬁnd it hard work, and are often glad
when the weather is too rough for rehearsals to be held.’
Source: ‘Rehearsing a musical comedy on board ship’,Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News,
July ,p. (courtesy of the National Library of Scotland).
See Maryna Fraser, ed., Johannesburg pioneer journals, – (Cape Town, ),
p. ; Jill Fletcher, The story of theatre in South Africa: a guide to its history from – (Cape
Town, ), pp. –,; Holloway, Playing the empire; Harrop, ‘The Holloways’.
M. B. Leavitt, Fifty years in theatrical management (New York, NY, ), pp. ,; see
also ‘Death of Mr. Bandman’,Times of India, Mar. ; Holloway, Playing the empire,p..
V&A, Gaiety royalties book, no. .
Fig. . Title page of a programme of the Empire Theatre Calcutta, the headquarters of
Maurice Bandman’s theatrical company and his touring circuit. It was modelled on the Gaiety
Theatre in London.
Source: Stephen Lopez Collection (courtesy of Vanessa Lopez).
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE
Japan, for example, was an annual stop for the Bandman Opera
According to one obituary, he oversaw between forty and ﬁfty
companies in his twenty-ﬁve-year career.
All of them mainly played ‘the comic
operas which contemporaneously are running in London’.
The Times of India
called Bandman the ‘pioneer of musical comedy in this part of the world’.
The letterhead of his correspondence in the Gaiety royalties book designated
him as the holder of the ‘Executive Eastern Rights of Mr. George Edwardes,
The Gaiety Theatre Company, Mr. Robert Courtneidge & Mr. Frank Curzon’s
Plays and all other Leading London Productions Including the Gilbert &
Indeed, it was Bandman who was responsible for the
organization of the touring companies that brought Our Miss Gibbs and many
other musical comedies to Asia.
The First World War seems to have had little inﬂuence on the touring business.
Bandman continued to organize tours until his death in . The interwar
period even resulted in an expansion of touring activity, as Allister Macmillan
observed in the case of Shanghai: ‘Before the war, if a couple of musical comedy
touring companies visited the port from India during the course of the year, the
community considered itself fairly fortunate. Nowadays, scarcely a month passes
but some American, Australian, or British companies arrive at Shanghai.’
Notwithstanding his success, little information about Bandman survives. Even
less is known about the actors he and other touring managers employed. While
South African theatres at least occasionally featured ‘the best English actors
and actresses’, British audiences in India seldom had the chance to see a star.
Marie Tempest, who played the title roles in many hit musical comedies,
performed in Calcutta, and the equally popular Ada Reeve toured several times
through South Africa and Australia, and once through India.
But they were
exceptions rather than the rule. As the American manager Michael Leavitt
knew, ‘it does not usually pay for any really expensive company to visit India’.
And the actors, for their part –once they had become well known –
concentrated on the West End stage, where the highest salaries were paid.
The metropolis was never far from the beginning actor’s thoughts: ‘London is
his goal, and every month spent in foreign countries is a month wasted so far
See ‘Mr Maurice Bandman. His Enterprises in the East’,Weekly Sun, Sept. ,p.;
‘The late Mr. M. E. Bandman’,Straits Times, March ,p..
Robert Percival Porter, Japan, the new world-power: being a detailed account of the progress and
rise of the Japanese empire (London, ), p. ; see also Kobayashi, ‘Touring in Asia’.
‘Death of Mr. Bandman’.
Leavitt, Fifty years,p.; see also ‘Mr Maurice Bandman’,p..
‘Death of Mr. Bandman’.
V&A, Gaiety royalties book, no. .
Allister Macmillan, Seaports of the Far East: historical and descriptive commercial and industrial
facts and ﬁgures, & resources (London, ), pp. –.
Sarah Gertrude Millin, The South Africans (London, ), p. .
A. Claude Brown, The ordinary man’s India (London, ), p. ; Hector Bolitho, Marie
Tempest (London, ), p. ; Ada Reeve, Take it for a fact (London, ), pp. –.
Leavitt, Fifty years,p.; see also Holloway, Playing the empire,p..
as the building of a London reputation is concerned.’
An engagement in
London, however, was hard to come by, and even future stars often had to
go through the gruelling experience of a prolonged spell of touring through
provinces and colonies before they were discovered by a West End manager.
In the meantime, they had to ﬁnd some form of paid work. ‘Money therefore, is
the inducement which probably inﬂuences his ﬁnal decision ... since salaries
for the most part rule high.’
Most touring companies, therefore, were
‘composed of amateurs just entering on the profession –“dames-errant”and
second or third-rate professionals’who had never succeeded in getting roles in
In addition to British actors, Maurice Bandman also employed some
Indian or Anglo-Indian actors, like Patience Cooper, who performed as a
dancer in one of his musical comedy productions and later became one of the
ﬁrst Indian movie stars.
Little is known about the audiences for which the touring companies
performed, but the tours were obviously geared primarily at the local British
population. In larger colonial cities, this population was big enough to sustain at
least one, in Calcutta and Madras even three, European-style theatres.
Alfred Claude Brown observed, Europeans had ‘these places practically to
themselves’, a view echoed by an article in Theatre, according to which the
‘Native does not patronise the English theatre’.
Other, mainly Indian sources,
however, tell a different story. In his history of the Indian stage, published in
the s, Hemendra Nath Das Gupta emphasized that the ‘English Stage
in Calcutta used to be patronised by our countrymen’.
To prove his
point, he quoted an article from the India Gazette in which the presence of
‘a number of respectable natives among the audience every play-night’is seen
as a sign for ‘a growing taste for the English Drama’.
Thakurta went even further in stating that ‘the enthusiasm for English plays
and interest in Western methods of performance became a kind of obsession’,
but he added that this only applied to the ‘small educated Bengali community
of Calcutta’, while ‘the large section of the Bengali public ignorant of the
English language’had no interest in British plays.
As these sources suggest,
performances by touring companies in India reached not only the European
diaspora but at least the elite of the indigenous society as well. Because touring
was costly, commercial managers for their part would hardly have rejected
‘Theatrical touring in the Far East’,p..
Simpson, ‘Art in Afghanistan’,inTheatre,(), pp. –,atp..
Kathryn Hansen, Stages of life: Indian theatre autobiographies (London, ), p. .
See Leavitt, Fifty years,p.; Jan Morris, Stones of empire: the buildings of the Raj (Oxford,
), p. .
Brown, The ordinary man’s India,p.; Simpson, ‘Art in Afghanistan’,p..
Hemendra Nath Das Gupta, The Indian stage (vols., Calcutta, ), I,p..
Prabhucharan Guha-Thakurta, The Bengali drama: its origin and development (London,
), p. ; see also Mukherjee, The story, pp. –; Rustom Bharucha, Rehearsals of revolution:
the political theatre of Bengal (Honolulu, ), pp. –.
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE
native theatregoers, as long as their presence did not deter the Europeans from
attending the theatre.
Even in larger cities like Calcutta, performances by travelling companies were
supplemented with amateur theatricals organized either by specialized dramatic
societies or the local club. Though composed of amateurs, these societies took
their theatrical passions very seriously and made the job of touring companies
even more difﬁcult. As Michael Leavitt had to learn painfully, the ‘only theatrical
show in Calcutta that pays, and always draws a packed house, is the amateur
dramatic club performance of some well-known operette’.
In J. G. Farrell’s
novel The Singapore grip, a local businessman recalls with delight when ‘the
great Russian dancer, Pavlova, had come to Singapore expecting to ﬁnd herself
dancing at the Town Hall theatre, only to ﬁnd that it had already been booked
by the Amateur Dramatic Society’.
This –true –anecdote illustrates very well
the mindset of the members of these clubs. Common in larger cities like Calcutta
or Singapore, such associations were even more important in towns where the
European population was modest. Smaller towns were not connected to the
touring circuit, as ‘very few professional companies can afford the expense of
journeying through India, only to ﬁnd small stations and therefore small
audiences to play to’.
Anglo-Indian society in particular was to ‘a great extent
dependent upon its own resources for any form of popular entertainment’.
It was in the smaller towns, therefore, that amateur theatricals really thrived
and became an important feature of social life, drawing in people who never
would have dreamt of taking part in such amusements at home. Apart from
South Africa, where amateur dramatics never did take hold, such societies could
be found all over the British empire, but nowhere were they more numerous
and important than in India.
In his Indian memories, Robert Baden-Powell
relates that one of the ﬁrst questions asked of him upon joining his regiment
was ‘Can you act, or sing, or scene paint?’and he continues to narrate how he
later became an ardent amateur himself.
If India was ‘the home of the
amateur’, then Simla, the summer capital of the Raj, was ‘the Mecca of amateur
actors’, a true ‘amateur dramatic paradise’.
There is hardly any book on Simla
that does not mention the Amateur Dramatic Club (ADC) and its importance
Leavitt, Fifty years,p..
J. G. Farrell, The Singapore grip () (London, ), p. ; see also Theodore Stier,
With Pavlova round the world (London, ), pp. –.
Robert Stephens Smyth Baden-Powell, Indian memories: recollections of soldiering, sport, etc.
(London, ), p. .
Edward J. Buck, Simla, past and present (Calcutta, ), p. .
Baden-Powell, Indian memories,p..
Simpson, ‘Art in Afghanistan’,p.; Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, ‘Amateurs in foreign
parts’, in W. G. Elliot, ed., Amateur clubs and actors, with illustrations by C. M. Newton and from
photographs (London, ), pp. –, at pp. ,.
for the social life of the station.
While most amateurs performed in makeshift
venues like clubs and ballrooms, the ADC had its own purpose-built playhouse
in the basement of the neo-Gothic town hall designed by Henry Irwin and
completed in . It was certainly not by coincidence that it was called Gaiety
With a seating capacity of only , it looked like a downsized copy
of a West End theatre. Its stage was ‘about the size of one of those of the smaller
Strand theatres’, and its auditorium featured ‘a dress circle, with boxes at either
side, and a gallery stretching far back behind it’.
In contrast to most theatres
from the colonial era, the Gaiety exists to this day, and still gives a good
impression of what theatregoing must have been like in the heyday of the
empire (see Figure ).
At a time when the theatrical profession was still often treated with suspicion,
to act in an amateur production at the Gaiety Theatre was more than
respectable –it was fashionable. Not only was ‘the supply of actors and actresses
... greater than the demand’, the club’s membership was made up of ‘most of
the leading Princes and Gentlemen and ladies who form the society
of the summer capital’.
Indeed, ‘its list of members reads like a Who’s Who
of Anglo-Indian society’.
Among them were Lord Robert Bulwer-Lytton, the
viceroy of India, Robert Baden-Powell, Rudyard Kipling and his sister, and many
The socially exclusive nature of the ADC is underlined by the fact that
See G. R. Elsmie, Thirty-ﬁve years in the Punjab, – (Edinburgh, ), pp. –,
pp. –; Baden-Powell, Indian memories, pp. –; Alfred Capper, A rambler’s recollections and
reﬂections (New York, NY, ), p. ; Walter Roper Lawrence, The India we served, with an
introductory letter by Rudyard Kipling (London, ), pp. ,; H. H. Austin, Some rambles
of a sapper (London, ), pp. –; Buck, Simla, pp. –; Francis Younghusband, The
light of experience: a review of some men and events of my time (London, ), p. ; Edward Stotherd,
Sabre & saddle (London, ), p. ; Andrew Alexander Irvine, Land of no regrets
(Portsmouth, ), pp. ,; David Munro, It passed too quickly (London, ), p. ;
Frederick Sykes, From many angles: an autobiography (London, ), pp. –; Deborah Morris,
With scarlet majors (London, ), pp. –; Iris Butler, The viceroy’s wife: letters of Alice, countess
of Reading, from India, – (London, ), pp. –; Conrad Corﬁeld, The princely
India I knew: from Reading to Mountbatten, with a foreword by Lord Trevelyan (Madras, ),
p. ; Charles Allen, Plain tales from the Raj: images of British India in the twentieth century, ed. in
association with Michael Mason, introduction by Philip Mason (London, ), pp. –;
M. M. Kaye, The sun in the morning: being the ﬁrst part of Share of summer, the autobiography (London,
), pp. ,–.
Buck, Simla, pp. ,,; on Town Hall and Gaiety Theatre, see also Morris, Stones of
empire,p.; Pamela Kanwar, Imperial Simla: the political culture of the Raj (Oxford, ), p. .
Newnham-Davis, ‘Amateurs in foreign parts’,p.; for a description see also Morris,
With scarlet majors,p.; Geoffrey Kendal, The Shakespeare wallah (London, ), p. .
Today the Gaiety Theatre is part of the Gaiety Heritage Cultural Complex, see www.
Newnham-Davis, ‘Amateurs in foreign parts’,p.; Amateur Dramatic Club Simla,
Minutes cited in Kanwar, Imperial Simla,p..
Raja Bhasin, Simla, the summer capital of British India, foreword by M. M. K. Hamilton
(New Delhi, ), p. .
See Newnham-Davis, ‘Amateurs in foreign parts’,p.; Buck, Simla, pp. –;
Kanwar, Imperial Simla,p..
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE
it initially had only members, a number that rose to at the turn of the
twentieth century and probably beyond that in the following decades.
elitist and socially exclusive at the beginning, by its members ‘ranged
democratically throughout the social scale from band masters to ﬁeld marshals,
from assistant secretaries to viceroys, clerks, authors, lawyers and governesses’.
Because of the city’s nature as a summer residence, Simla’s British population
ﬂuctuated even more than that of other Indian cities. Though many came here
every summer, its population differed markedly from year to year. The ADC
therefore fulﬁlled an important social function, bringing large sections of the
Anglo-Indian population together –whether as actors or as spectators –and
turning them into a community. Lieutenant-General Gerald De Courcy Morton
summed up his experiences thus:
I can conﬁdently say that my best friends have been made on the cricket ﬁeld and on
the stage. There is in both, but especially in the latter, a spirit of true and a strong
feeling of mutual sympathy which bind more closely than is usual in the ordinary
avocations of life, and I know of no better place or condition for enabling
a judgement to be formed of the character and qualities of an individual than
associations with him or her during rehearsals or performances.
Fig. . The auditorium of the Gaiety Theatre in Simla as it is today after two decades of
See Buck, Simla,p..
P. H. Denyer, The centenarian: being a summary of the history of Simla amateur theatricals during
the past years (Simla, ), p. .
Cited in Buck, Simla,p..
As this quote illustrates, acting was a profoundly social occupation that brought
people together and made friends of strangers. In contrast to sports –especially
polo and hunting –acting was less competitive and much less concerned
with masculinity, since women were also included as active participators. This
being Anglo-India, however, socializing in itself had political overtones: gossip
was exchanged, marriages made, promotions secured, social hierarchies
Absent from the stage, as well as from the audience, was the Indian
population. In the case of the Gaiety Theatre there was no need to bar the
windows ‘lest the servants should see their mem-sahibs acting’, as the theatre
‘was taboo to Indians’anyway.
Only high dignitaries were excepted from this
rule, as, for example, the Maharajah of Cooch Behar, who –in an example of
class over-riding race –was even allowed to rent a box in the theatre.
they were not accepted as members of the ADC, Indians started to form their
own amateur dramatic clubs. One of the ﬁrst was the ‘Babus of Government
House’, founded in , followed by a Bengali and a Hindustani society in
. In the beginning, these associations were permitted to rent the Gaiety
Theatre once a year, but this practice was abolished with the transparent excuse
that they used too many stage props.
In reality, this decision must be understood in the context of the growing
movement for independence in India and the deterioration of the Anglo-
Indian relationship. The earliest Western theatres established in India
performed exclusively for British audiences to such an extent that even the
ushers and doorkeepers were British, but they opened their doors to aristocratic
Indians in the ﬁrst half of the nineteenth century.
While commercial theatres
in big cities catered to a heterogeneous audience, the Simla ADC continued
such practices of exclusion well into the twentieth century. Being forbidden to
rent the theatre predictably enraged the Indian population of Simla. Indeed,
‘the denial of use of the Gaiety Theatre was often discussed as an example of
That the theatre represented imperial rule and racial
segregation can also be discerned from the fact that it was high up on the anti-
imperial agenda –at least in Simla. The journalist Durga Das, for example,
who was elected to Simla’s Municipal Committee in , prided himself
on ‘getting the municipal-owned Gaiety Theatre on the Mall thrown open
Forster, A passage to India,p.; G. D. Koshla, Memory’s gay chariot: an autobiographical
narrative (New Dehli, ), p. ; see also Lowerson, Amateur operatics,p..
See Forbes, ‘Simla’,p.; the argument of class over-riding race was, of course, made in
David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: how the British saw their empire (London, ).
See Kanwar, Imperial Simla,p.; Trivedi, ‘Imperial Simla’; Forbes, ‘Simla’,p.; on the
craze for amateur theatricals in the Indian population see also Nirad C. Chaudhuri, The
autobiography of an unknown Indian (London, ), p. .
Sudipto Chatterjee, ‘Mise-en-(colonial-)sce`ne: the theatre of the Bengal renaissance’,in
Gainor (ed.), Imperialism and theatre, pp. –,; Singh, Colonial narratives, pp. –.
Kanwar, Imperial Simla,p..
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE
to Indian amateur dramatic clubs’.
From the late s onwards, Indians
were ﬁnally allowed to become members of the ADC, which in saw its ﬁrst
all-Indian production. Soon after independence, it passed from British to
In the context of the larger history of decolonization, such
quarrels might seem trivial, but they testify to the highly symbolic quality of the
theatre; equal use of the playhouse was seen as an important step towards
social equality and the end of racial discrimination. As this telling example
shows, theatre, and especially amateur dramatic clubs, fulﬁlled a central social
function. By including as well as excluding parts of the population, they
constructed a society according to the hierarchical and racialized ideas of those
ruling it. The theatre served as an arena in which these hierarchies and ideas
were not only enforced, but contested as well.
Although touring companies and amateur dramatic societies differed in many
respects, they shared one important feature: they both performed by and large
the same repertoire, with comic opera and musical comedies at the top of the
list. This choice might seem surprising, as these genres were not only ‘the most
expensive’, but were also more difﬁcult to stage, requiring, to begin with,
performers able to sing, as well as an orchestra.
This raises the question why
these genres and plays were selected for performance, and what they meant for
colonial audiences. This question is especially hard to answer, as the sources,
apart from simple generalizations, are almost completely silent on how the
performances were received by the audience. Without the play scripts used
in touring and amateur productions, it is also impossible to say how faithful
these productions were to the originals, or if plots, characters, or songs were
It is, however, unlikely that a play that had been approved by
the lord chamberlain (responsible for censorship of stage plays) and had
been successful in London would be altered fundamentally for the touring
production. In any case, the selection of plays and their content alone reveal
a lot about the tastes and the mindset of colonial audiences.
Since many recent studies have focused on imperialism, colonialism, and
racism on the metropolitan stage, the obvious question is whether the
Durga Das, India from Curzon to Nehru & after, with a foreword by the president of India,
Zakir Husain (London, ), p. .
See H. B. Dunnicliff, ‘The Simla Amateur Dramatic Club’,Asiatic Review, (),
pp. –, at pp. ,.
Denyer, The centenarian,p..
According to two newspaper articles, the Gaiety Dramatic Society, which currently
runs the Gaiety Theatre, has acquired an archive of about play scripts, some of them dating
to colonial times. Unfortunately, this archive could not be accessed for this article. See
Vishal Gulati, ‘With scripts, Shimla’s Gaiety Theatre recreates the past’,Thaindian News,
creates-the-past-with-image_.html; Dipanita Nath, ‘Plays of Gaiety’,Indian Express,
Aug. ,www.indianexpress.com/news/plays-of-gaiety/ >.
repertoire displayed a predilection for imperial themes, which might have
resonated particularly with colonial audiences.
Unsurprisingly, a number of
plays featured such themes. One well-known example is Gilbert and Sullivan’s
The Mikado, whose imperial undertones and general condescension towards
Asia have been noted so often that there is no need to repeat the argument
A favourite with amateur dramatic societies at home, it was also very
popular with the Simla ADC, which staged The Mikado in and ,
one of the few plays to be performed twice.
The Japanese theme established by The Mikado was taken up a decade later
by The Geisha, with music by Sidney Jones and a libretto by Owen Hall. After a
hugely successful run of performances in London in , it soon became
equally popular with American and continental audiences.
While The Mikado
had used only Japanese characters, The Geisha featured both Asians and
Europeans, thereby dramatizing the encounter between East and West. The
Geisha tells the story of Lieutenant Reggie Fairfax of the Royal Navy, who amuses
himself with O Mimosa San, the geisha of the title, whom he teaches the art of
kissing. When his ﬁancée Molly learns about this, she decides to follow him to
Japan. Disguised as a geisha, she attracts the love of a Japanese marquis and
thereby Reggie’s jealousy.
In the two pairings, The Geisha played with the possibility of inter-racial sexual
relations. This topic could easily have offended audiences in the colonies, where
such relations –though never openly acknowledged –were not uncommon.
On the stage, however, they were innocuous, as all characters were played by
Europeans and the existing order was afﬁrmed in the end. In The Geisha, Reggie
and Molly are, of course, reunited in the ﬁnal act. By teasing Reggie ‘You
thought I’d marry a Japanese Marquis, when I can get an English sailor?’, Molly
not only dismissed the idea of inter-racial sexual relations as preposterous,
but acknowledged the superiority of the British male and, thus, British culture
See Penny Summerﬁeld, ‘Patriotism and empire: music hall entertainment, –’,
in John M. MacKenzie, ed., Imperialism and popular culture (Manchester, ); Bratton, ed., Acts
of supremacy; Gainor, ed., Imperialism and theatre; Richards, Imperialism and music, pp. –;
Ziter, The Orient on the Victorian stage ; Platt, Musical comedy; Singleton, Oscar Asche ; Gould,
See David Cannadine, ‘Tradition: Gilbert and Sullivan as a “national institution”’, in his In
Churchill’s shadow: confronting the past in modern Britain (London, ), pp. –; Josephine
D. Lee, The Japan of pure invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’sThe Mikado (Minneapolis, MN, );
Carolyn Williams, Gilbert and Sullivan: gender, genre, parody (New York, ), pp. –.
See Denyer, The centenarian, pp. –; see also Newnham-Davis, ‘Amateurs in foreign
parts’,p.; Buck, Simla, pp. –.
See Kurt Gänzl, The encyclopedia of the musical theatre (vols., Oxford, ), I, pp. –;
Richards, Imperialism and music, pp. –: Platt, Musical comedy, pp. –,–; Yorimitsu
Hashimoto, ‘Japanese tea party: representations of Victorian paradise and playground in The
Geisha ()’, in John K. Walton, ed., Histories of tourism: representation, identity and conﬂict
(Clevedon, ), pp. –.
See Ronald Hyam, Empire and sexuality: the British experience (Manchester, ).
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE
As Len Platt has pointed out, musical comedy narratives often
utilized ‘romantic love and sexual attraction between races as metaphors
for representing the winning position of white authority in the modern
In these narratives, the man was usually of European, the woman of
Asian, background. When this model was reversed –as in the case of Molly and
the marquis –the woman was cast as the strong character, thereby exposing the
Oriental man as effeminate, lethargic, and harmless. Regardless of the speciﬁc
gender constellation, in the end these shows always underscored the weakness
and dependency of the East and thereby the cultural superiority of the West.
If these attitudes resonated with audiences in London, they did even more so
with Britons in the colonies, where the failure to maintain control and authority
presented not only a much more real threat to social order, but possibly to life
and limb as well. The plays selected for performance addressed these fears
indirectly and soothed them with their harmonizing happy endings. They also
expressed exactly those notions of cultural superiority that Europeans in the
colonies so carefully maintained towards non-Europeans. This attitude was also
apparent in the comic character of the pig-tailed, pidgin-English-speaking
Chinaman Wun-Hi, a classic racist stereotype. In a production of The
Geisha by the Simla ADC, this character was played by Robert Baden-
Powell –not yet of Mafeking and boy scouting fame –to the tune of ‘Chin,
Chin, Chinaman,/Muchee, muchee sad,/Me aﬂaid, alle tlade/Welle, welle bad’
(see Figure ).
Similar characters featured in many musical comedies with
an exotic setting, like the ‘Baboo lawyer’Chambhuddy Ram in The Cingalee by
James T. Tanner with music by Lionel Monckton.
Although The Cingalee was
heavily based on a play set in Kashmir written by Frederick Fraser, a captain in
the Indian army and a visitor to Simla, it was never performed by the ADC.
obvious reasons, the Indian character Chambhuddy Ram, who is ridiculed for
his attempts to adopt English dress and mannerisms –as were many Indians in
real life –could not feature on the Simla stage.
In Wun Hi, however, Britons
could express their ‘contempt for all things Indian’and mock Indians who tried
to speak English and live as Englishmen without openly provoking them.
British Library, London (BL), MSS ,The Geisha, Act .
Platt, Musical comedy,p..
See Lee, The Japan of pure invention, p. xv, ; Platt, Musical comedy,p.; on gender in the
colonial context see also Anne McClintock, Imperial leather: race, gender and sexuality in the colonial
contest (New York, NY, ); Mrinalini Sinha, Colonial masculinity: the ‘manly Englishman’and the
‘effeminate Bengali’in the late nineteenth century (Manchester, ).
BL, MSS A Pr. Br. Rep. –– Nr. ,The Geisha, Act . See also Buck, Simla,p.;
Denyer, The centenarian,p.; Irvine, Land of no regrets,p.; Tim Jeal, Baden-Powell: founder of
the Boy Scouts (New Haven, CT, ), pp. –; Hashimoto, ‘Japanese tea party’,p..
BL, MSS LCP /,The Cingalee; see also Platt, Musical comedy, pp. ,.
See Irvine, Land of no regrets,p..
See, for example, Shompa Lahiri, Indians in Britain: Anglo-Indian encounters, race and
identity, – (Milton Park, ), p. .
Barbara Wingﬁeld-Stratford, India and the English (London, ), p. .
Most of the plays performed by touring companies and amateur dramatic
societies did not, however, deal overtly with imperialist themes, but were instead
set in England, like A gaiety girl or Our Miss Gibbs. A gaiety girl ran for
performances in London in before going on the world tour chronicled
by Bantock and Aflalo and becoming a stock play for Bandman’s companies,
as well as the Simla amateurs. With its mixture of catchy songs and a plot
Fig. . Robert Baden-Powell as Wun Hi in an performance of the musical comedy
The Geisha by the Amateur Dramatic Club of Simla.
Source: Edward J. Buck, Simla, past and present (Calcutta, ), pp. –(courtesy of the
Staatsbibliothek Berlin, Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz).
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE
combining romantic entanglements with topical humour, A gaiety girl –written
by Owen Hall, with music by Sidney Jones –served as the model for many later
musical comedies. Partly set at a garden party in Windsor and partly at a seaside
resort in the French Riviera, the story provided ample opportunity to show the
pleasures of metropolitan life (and its chorus girls in bathing costumes).
Though it premiered sixteen years later at the Gaiety Theatre, Our Miss
Gibbs –written by James T. Tanner, with music by Ivan Caryll and Lionel
Monckton –was constructed along the same lines. Like its predecessor, it
consisted of two acts set in two distinctive settings: a department store named
‘Garrods’–replicating the splendours of Harrods Knightsbridge –and the
Franco-British Exhibition of .
Despite their metropolitan settings, however, these plays also celebrated
Britain’s imperial splendour and military prowess. Not only is the garden party
in A gaiety girl organized by the Royal Life Guards, the scene also included the
song Private Tommy Atkins written by Henry Hamilton. In it, a collective ‘we’(the
nation) gloriﬁes the British soldier, who through his heroic death secures for
himself the eternal gratitude and love of his compatriots. Its last stanza explicitly
referred to the British empire:
In war time when it’s Tommy to the front
And we ship him off in Troopers to the scene
We sit at home while Tommy bears the brunt
A-ﬁghting for his country and his Queen.
And whether he’s in India’s coral strand
Or pouring out his blood in the Soudan
To keep our ﬂag a-ﬂying
He’s a doing and a dying
Every inch of him a soldier and a man!
India and the Sudan were not simply two theatres of operation among many for
British troops; they stood for two of the most humiliating defeats of the British
army. The Indian Rebellion of and the Mahdi Revolt of the s had
threatened imperialist authority and inscribed themselves as haunting moments
into the collective memory of the nation –but especially into that of the Anglo-
The song, however, recast defeat as triumph by stressing soldierly
courage and selﬂessness. Private Tommy Atkins became an immediate success.
BL, MSS LCP ,A gaiety girl ; see also Gänzl, The encyclopedia,I, pp. –; Bailey,
‘Musical comedy’, pp. ,,; Platt, Musical comedy.
See Gänzl, The encyclopedia,II, pp. –; Bailey, ‘Musical comedy’, pp. –; Erika D.
Rappaport, Shopping for pleasure: women in the making of London’s West End (Princeton, NJ, ),
pp. –,–; Platt, Musical comedy.
BL, MSS LCP ,A gaiety girl, Act .
See Christopher Herbert, War of no pity: the Indian mutiny and Victorian trauma (Princeton,
NJ, ); Gautam Chakravarty, The Indian mutiny and the British imagination (Cambridge,
); Partha Chatterjee, The nation and its fragments: colonial and postcolonial histories
(Princeton, NJ, ), pp. –; Dominic Green, Three empires on the Nile: the Victorian jihad,
– (New York, NY, ). More speciﬁcally, the phrase ‘India’s coral strand’harks
As the actor singing the song himself noted in his memoirs, theatre audiences
received it ‘with great enthusiasm’.
It went on to become ‘one of the most
popular songs of the decade’, sung all over Britain and the empire, and became
a music hall favourite.
Although ‘Tommy Atkins’had been in use as a generic
name for the British common soldier for a while, A gaiety girl contributed much
to its popularization.
The imperialist message was comparatively subdued in Our Miss Gibbs. But
by setting the second act at the Franco-British exhibition, this play too embraced
imperialism. For one thing, the Franco-British exhibition commemorated the
Entente cordiale of , the treaty that had ended over a hundred years of
colonial rivalry between Britain and France, consequently allowing both nations
to consolidate their power in Africa. What is more, the bi-nationally organized
Franco-British exhibition was one of a series of imperial exhibitions showcasing
Western superiority and imperial expansion. More than eight million visitors
passed through an area displaying Western arts, crafts, and industry before
coming to a section devoted to the British and French colonies. In Ceylonese,
Algerian, and Senegalese villages, people from the colonies were put on display
in a pseudo-ethnographic way to provide entertainment for Western spectators.
The underlying idea was to show the primitive state of cultures colonized by
European powers, thereby emphasizing European superiority.
the Franco-British exhibition as a setting, Our Miss Gibbs not only demonstrated
its topicality, but also embraced and promoted this speciﬁc ideology. While
colonial settings and imperial propaganda unquestionably resonated with
metropolitan audiences, they, again, had an even more acute meaning for
colonial Britons, who carefully maintained an air of superiority towards the non-
European cultures amongst which they were living. The cultural snobbery and
patriotic fervour of musical comedy was close to their hearts, while Reggie and
Molly Fairfax were characters they could playfully identify with.
Most of all, however, A gaiety girl and Our Miss Gibbs –as well as a host of other
shows like Three little maids, The Arcadians, The belle of New York or The Dollar
princess –were about life in the modern metropolis. Set at garden parties, breezy
beach resorts, modern department stores, or the theatre, they featured exactly
those things and places that many colonial Britons –whether in mountain
resorts like Simla or in colonial cities like Calcutta or Bombay –were pining for.
back to Reginald Herber’s hymn ‘From Greenland’s icy mountain’, written in . See
Richards, Imperialism and music,p..
Hayden Cofﬁn, Hayden Cofﬁn’s book: packed with acts and facts (London, ), pp. –,
Granville Hicks, Figures of transition: a study of British literature at the end of the nineteenth
century (New York, NY, ), p. .
See Summerﬁeld, ‘Patriotism and empire’, pp. –; Richards, Imperialism and music,
See Alexander C. T. Geppert, Fleeting cities: imperial expositions in ﬁn-de-sie
(Basingstoke, ), pp. –.
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE
With their urban settings and their topical political, social, and cultural
allusions, their promotion of modern fashions and fads, they vividly and
tangibly recreated the urban experience on the stage.
They were a potent
reminder of the home country, its manners, its fashion, its language, and the
most material dimensions of its modernizing, progressivist, metropolitan
culture. While London audiences enjoyed seeing their own environment and
pastimes reproduced on the stage, they took on a slightly different and even
more powerful meaning for colonial audiences. Attending a performance of A
gaiety girl or Our Miss Gibbs, theatregoers could imagine themselves transported
back to England for the duration of a play. This was even more true for amateur
theatricals, which allowed colonial Britons to assert their Englishness and
their class afﬁliation by acting them out onstage. No one knew this better then
E. M. Forster, who wrote about amateur actors in A passage to India:‘They had
tried to reproduce their own attitudes to life upon the stage, and to dress up
as the middle-class English people they actually were.’
In the novel, the
amateur performance becomes a potent symbol for the unwillingness of
expatriates ‘to see the real India’.
The memoirs of the ADC members testify
to this mentality, when they recall how its performances ‘took us for a time out
Even more important than the content of a play was the level of its success
back home. A play that ﬂopped in the West End seldom got a second chance
outside London. If it did become a success, however, managers everywhere were
eager to produce it. In the provinces, ‘the attribute “London”, and a “London
success”was always especially announced’.
The same is true for the colonial
scene. All the plays in the repertoire of Bandman’s companies and the amateur
dramatic clubs had previously been received favourably in the metropolis. While
the amateurs sometimes also performed evergreens like The Mikado or HMS
Pinafore, the professional companies relied mainly on current shows, some of
which were still running in the West End when they arrived in India. They thus
allowed colonial Britons to keep up to date with developments back home.
Commentators sometimes suggested that the tastes of colonial audiences
were inferior, as they preferred ‘a musical comedy to a melodrama to a farce’,
often citing the climate as responsible (‘We don’t want the legitimate drama out
here, with a thermometer at a century.’).
In truth, however, the tastes of
See Bailey, ‘Musical comedy’; Platt, Musical comedy.
Forster, A passage to India,p.; the play in question is Cousin Kate, a romantic comedy by
Hubert Henry Davies which was performed by the Simla ADC in . See Denyer, The
centenarian, pp. –.
Forster, A passage to India,p..
Lawrence, The India we served,p.; interestingly, Denyer uses the exact same phrase,
Denyer, The centenarian,p..
Anselm Heinrich, Entertainment, propaganda, education: regional theatre in Germany and
Britain between and (Hatﬁeld, ), p. .
‘Theatrical touring in the Far East’,p.; Simpson, ‘Art in Afghanistan’,p..
colonial Britons closely resembled those of metropolitan audiences. This is
hardly surprising given that the ofﬁcers, civil servants, administrators, and
businessmen in India were mostly members of the middle classes, that is, the
same social milieu as most West End playgoers.
Theatre performances by touring companies and amateur dramatic societies
fulﬁlled –separately and jointly –important social, cultural, and political
functions in the British empire. They provided, ﬁrst and foremost, a meeting
place where the British (and sometimes European) diaspora came together to
constitute itself as a community. As with all communities, the composition of
audiences was based on strategies of inclusion and exclusion, and therefore
reveals larger social processes and hierarchies. The composition of audiences
differed markedly according to the context of a performance, and also changed
over time. The ﬁrst British theatres in India catered to an exclusively European
audience, ‘determined to insulate themselves from the natives’.
however, this policy changed during the nineteenth century, when theatres
opened their doors to aristocratic Indians, and English literature –particularly
Shakespeare –was actively promoted, until by the mid-Victorian period the
Indian middle class was regularly frequenting British playhouses.
managers of commercial theatres and touring companies catered to a
heterogeneous audience, since their livelihood depended on the box ofﬁce.
Maurice Bandman even employed Indian actors. The Simla amateurs, on the
other hand, played to a much more homogeneous audience that consisted
almost exclusively of the local British diaspora. But even their policy changed
after the First World War, when they had to give in to demands to let Indian
amateur dramatic societies use the Gaiety Theatre, before ﬁnally allowing
Indians to join the ADC. Thus, while both commercial theatres and amateur
dramatic societies started out by enforcing British enclaves and deliberately
isolating Britons from Indians, in the end they had to accommodate them.
Consequently, theatre history paralleled imperial history and the changing
Theatre, however, did not only foster connections within colonial society,
but also between the colonial periphery and the metropolitan centre. The
dominance of the West End over all things theatrical extended far beyond
Britain. As early as John Morley foresaw the increasing centralization of
the British theatre: ‘In our provinces and colonies the form of entertainment
will be, as it now is, mainly determined by the example of the eight or nine
See, for instance, Anthony Kirk-Greene, Briton’s colonial administrators, –
(Basingstoke and London, ).
Singh, Colonial narratives,p..
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE
theatres in or near the West-end of London.’
This prophecy had become
a reality by the end of the nineteenth century. The names of the theatres
already displayed the pre-eminence of the West End. John Hollingshead, the
founder of the Gaiety Theatre, prided himself that its name ‘soon became
popular ... in England, Ireland and Scotland, and even in India and China’.
Indeed, a Gaiety Theatre was not only to be found in Simla but also in Bombay,
Yokohama, Johannesburg, Sydney, Brisbane, and other colonial cities.
Maurice Bandman named his headquarters in Calcutta after the Empire
Theatre of Varieties on Leicester Square, which already celebrated the
empire in its name.
It was not just the names, but the architecture as
well, that emulated metropolitan forms. The Calcutta Empire Theatre, with its
triangular ground plan and its cupola (Figure ), was almost an exact replica
of the London Gaiety Theatre, while the interior of the Simla Gaiety Theatre,
with its boxes, stalls, and gallery, resembled a miniature West End theatre
As has been shown, the repertoire performed by the professional companies
as well as by the amateurs was West End to the core. There was hardly any play
that had not originated in London. Anglo-Indian writers for their part generally
concentrated –like Kipling –on short stories, novels, and travelogues and
avoided the drama. As Tracy Davis has argued, ‘London served as the centre
where the imaginative work of theatre-making was undertaken –and proven –
while worldwide outposts of empire became partners in arbitrage ... With
headquarters in London, the Gaiety and the Savoy operated as multi-
Research into colonial theatre conﬁrms this assessment. While
the binary of metropolitan centre and colonial periphery has justiﬁably been
questioned by post-colonial studies, in the case of the theatre it still holds true.
Even after London managers had ceased to organize tours themselves and had
handed over the touring business to specialized managers based in the colonies
like Maurice Bandman, the West End still retained its position as sole producer
of plays for the British world.
Based on all that has been said so far, the political importance of theatre is
clear. Theatre was a social space, and as such it conveyed rules, norms, and
conventions. By including and excluding parts of the population it represented
the society as those ruling over it saw it. But theatre was also a medium. As has
Henry Morley, The journal of a London playgoer () (Leicester, ), p. .
John Hollingshead, ‘Good Old Gaiety’: an historiette and remembrance (London, ), p. .
See Anand Patil, Western inﬂuence on Marathi drama: a case study (Panaji, ), p. ;
Lee, The Japan of pure invention,p.; Fraser, Johannesburg pioneer journals, pp. ,–;
Kobayashi, ‘Touring in Asia’, pp. –; Ross Thorne, Theatre buildings in Australia to ,
from the time of the ﬁrst settlement to arrival of cinema (vols., Sydney, ), II, pp. ,–,
See Leavitt, Fifty years,p.; on the London Empire, see Joseph W. Donohue, Fantasies
of empire: the Empire Theatre of Varieties and the licensing controversy of (Iowa City, IA, );
Judith R. Walkowitz, Nights out: life in cosmopolitan London (New Haven, CT, ), pp. –.
Davis, The economics of the British stage,p..
been shown, many plays displayed the imperial ideas of the time. Far from
undermining or subverting imperialism, popular theatre made –as Len Platt
has argued –‘a serious contribution to its authorization’.
This judgement is
born out by all we know about the West End stage at the time. George Edwardes,
for example, ‘believed in the virtues of the Empire, and worked hard for it’.
The actor-manager Sir George Alexander delivered a rousing speech at a school
on Empire Day in , in which he instilled in the pupils that they had ‘a share
in the maintenance of this same great Empire of ours, whose name is your
heritage and possession, and belongs to you, by what I may call your birthright
As mainstream popular culture, theatre expressed the values of
Victorian and Edwardian society, especially those of the middle classes. By
constantly representing and generating imperial and colonial settings,
characters, and stereotypes on the stage, it also shaped popular sentiments
Plays, however, did not even have to feature imperial themes to fulﬁla
political function. Touring companies as well as amateur dramatic societies
provided ways to engage in metropolitan activities and to stay in touch with
metropolitan culture. By ‘taking them out of India’for the duration of a
performance, theatre reminded expatriate Britons of their metropolitan
identity and aroused as well as soothed their homesickness. Moreover, the
plays communicated to colonial audiences what was fashionable back home,
what London society wore, what it talked about, what leisure activities it engaged
in, and so on, and thereby fostered a strong cultural bond that united
metropolitan and colonial Britons and, thus, the whole British empire. Theatre
was, as the Bulletin of the National Operatic and Dramatic Association phrased
it, ‘just another link of kinship’that turned Britons living all around the world
into one imperial nation.
But there is another aspect to colonial theatre that should not be overlooked.
Although touring companies and amateur dramatic clubs catered primarily to
Europeans, they also reached at least parts of the indigenous society, thereby
starting a process which would have unplanned and often unwanted
consequences. Many Indian theatre critics, for example, observed –and
frequently condemned –the European inﬂuence on the Indian theatre.
Prabhucharan Guha-Thakurta, for instance, criticized the Bengali community
of Calcutta for a ‘tendency to blind imitation of Western models’, especially
when they ‘carried to ridiculous extremes whatever was particularly bad in
Western habits and ways of thinking’.
Ramanalala Ke Yajnika complained
that ‘elements of the musical comedy ... have taken a ﬁrm root in the soil of the
Platt, Musical comedy,p..
Ursula Bloom, Curtain call for the Guv’nor: a biography of George Edwardes (London, ),
‘Sir George Alexander on the British empire’,Era, May ,p..
John Atkinson Hobson, The psychology of jingoism (London, ), p. ; see also
Summerﬁeld, ‘Patriotism and empire’.
Guha-Thakurta, The Bengali drama, pp. ,.
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE
Rather than imitating blindly, however, Indian managers
and actors borrowed creatively from European traditions. Starting in the middle
of the nineteenth century, touring companies modelled on the European
example appeared all over India, while the Parsis in Bombay built their own
theatres, where they performed in Gujaratti.
The Indian theatre that
emerged at the end of the nineteenth century was, in effect, neither traditional
nor European but a combination of various forms and sources and therefore
something entirely new and hybrid.
Also, as Poonam Trivedi points out, imitation ‘should not be seen as a
capitulation or genuﬂection towards the imperial masters’but rather ‘a mode
As Trivedi, Rakesh H. Solomon, Nandi Bhatia, Lata Singh,
and others have shown, the theatre was a potent site of resistance and
contestation in colonial India.
Like any medium, it could convey all kinds
of messages, and even an Indian theatre modelled on European lines could
still pursue an anti-imperial agenda. One example of this was chronicled by
the civil servant Henry Craik (later governor of the Punjab), who in the early
twentieth century went to a ‘performance of a musical comedy by a native
travelling company’in Delhi where the ‘faces of every actor and of all
the chorus were painted to represent European complexions’.
actors had obviously copied European forms like musical comedy and
racialized make-up (‘whiting up’), but had turned it against their imperial
If Indian theatre critics did not like the cultural appropriation of European
theatre by Indians –especially when it came to popular genres like musical
comedies –this was even more true for the Europeans operating such theatres.
The Simla ADC enviously defended its dominance over the Gaiety Theatre
against Indian amateur dramatic societies, which for their part hastened to
take control of the playhouse during independence. Similarly, Bandman was
happy to perform before Indian audiences when it was proﬁtable, but
increasingly suffered from competition with Indian rivals. Like the Gaiety
in Simla, his theatres were taken over by Indian managers and companies
¯la Ke Ya
¯jñika, The Indian theatre: its origins and its later developments under
European inﬂuence. With special reference to Western India (London, ), p. , on Western
inﬂuence see also pp. –; on Yajnik see Rakesh H. Solomon, ‘From Orientalist to
postcolonial representations: a critique of Indian theatre historiography from to the
present’,Theatre Research International, (), , pp. –, at pp. –.
See Christoper Balme, Decolonizing the stage: theatrical syncretism and post-colonial drama
(Oxford, ), p. .
See Singh, Colonial narratives,p..
Trivedi, ‘Imperial Simla’,.
Solomon, ‘Culture, imperialism, and nationalist resistance’; Bhatia, Acts of authority;
Chatterjee, The colonial staged; Trivedi, ‘Imperial Simla’; see also Lata Singh’s introduction to
Theatre in colonial India.
Henry Craik, Impressions of India (London, ), p. .
after independence and often turned into cinemas.
Theatre, then, united
the empire, but it also triggered cultural transfers that became crucial in
its breakup. Rather than bridging the divides between cultures, it was a way
to express and to perform them.
See David Vinnels, Bollywood showplaces: cinema theatres in India (Cambridge, ).
ENTERTAINING THE EMPIRE