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The Story of the Scots Stage
Chapter II - The Aberdeen Revels


HAVING thus cursorily dealt with many of the outstanding features incidental to the introduction of drama in Scotland, our purpose will best be served by tracing its growth through the history of some of the leading towns, such as Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, places which, by reason of their position and importance, have been identified with the drama in its progress from its nondescript beginning to the present questionable position it occupies as a hybrid product defying description, and which is neither classical enough to be literary nor important enough to be intellectual.

Two eminences on the outskirts of Aberdeen bore the name of the Windmill Hills: one still retains that title, but the other is known as the Porthill. Both provided a rising slope, which was admirably adapted for the purposes of dramatic representation. Shortly after the year 1440, plays were performed on the west side, known as the Playfield. Standing as it did, immediately to the west of Woolmanhill, and surrounded by hilly ground, it formed an excellent auditorium. In the year 1440 a leader was appointed to conduct the sports, and was named the Abbot and Prior of Bon-Accord. The fee paid to this individual was fixed by Municipal Statute ( 5th September, 1442) at £8 6s. 8d. Scots.

In this connection, it is of interest to note that Mr. G. M. Fraser, Librarian to the Aberdeen Public Library, considers that the origin of the Burgh Arms motto, "Bon-Accord" (good fellowship) will be found in the Miracle-plays which came into vogue when the motto was adopted. These Miracle-plays, which had degenerated into unseemly revels, were under the charge of the Abbot, who was appointed by the Town Council. The use of "Bon-Accord" in this sense, and the adoption of it as the Burgh Coat of Arms about 1430, were practically simultaneous.

The first drama of which we have any satisfactory evidence was, as has already been stated, the Mystery of The Haly Blude, performed circa 1440 at the Porthill. Exhibitions of the Mysteries were sometimes given at the churches also. The play usually lasted eight or nine hours, and occasionally it would take two or three days to complete a representation. The strain of dramatic suspense was relieved by the introduction of pious speeches and ribald dialogue.

Amongst the principal of those early plays may be mentioned Candemas Day, in which appear Herod, Joseph, Mary, Simeon, Anna, the angels, and soldiers. The Conversion of Saul included the Deity, Saul, Ananias, Caiaphas, Belial, Mercury, priests, poets, and knights.

But the best of these forerunners of our modern drama was Mary Magdalene, of which a synopsis may be useful as depicting the character of the Mystery-play. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary are the children of King Syrus, who, previous to his death, divided his possessions amongst them. Mary, who is endowed with such beauty and virtue as to endanger Bell, inherits a castle, which is laid siege to by the Seven Deadly Sins. She sets out for Jerusalem with a servant, who has assumed the name of Luxury but whose real name is Lechery. They arrive at a tavern, where the best of wine is set before them. To them enters a gallant named Curiosity, and, after a dance in which she joins with him, Mary falls into his power. At her fall, all the devils in hell rejoice. Then a good angel comes to her. She meets the great prophet Jesus in the house of Simon the leper, confesses her sin, and, in her depth of penitence, washes his feet with her tears, and wipes them with her hair. Jesus tells her to go in peace, upon which, according to the stage direction, the seven devils leave her, and the bad angels "enter into hell with thunder." Thereupon Satan summons his deadly council, and, questioning the evil spirit as to why he suffered Mary to break her bonds, he inflicts upon him and the seven devils a severe castigation for their carelessness. The death and raising of Lazarus, and the death and resurrection of Christ are next dramatised, after which Mary is instructed by the angel Raphael to proceed to Marseilles to convert the king of the country. "Here enters a ship with a merrie song," and, while they are striking sails and weighing anchor, an indecent conversation takes place between the shipman and his boy. Mary bargains with them to take her to Marseilles, and they proceed thither. After many signs and miracles, the king is converted, and enjoined to proceed to the Holy Land to be baptised by Peter, which is finally accomplished. Mary then retires into the wilderness, where she is guarded, by angels and fed with manna; and, after several visits from an old priest, she is received up into heaven. In conclusion, the priest appears upon the stage, and, after making a speech, calls on the clerks "with voices clear" to sing a Te Deum, and so the curtain drops.

From the number of characters introduced, the varied scenes in which they appear, and the detailed stage directions given, one would imagine that a very extensive wardrobe and a very complete scenic apparatus would be required for the representation of such a piece. The scenes open in Bethany, in Jerusalem, and in Marseilles: a vessel is tossed upon the sea; now we are in heaven, anon in hell, and a multitude of other places beside. One direction reads: "Here shall enter the prince of devils in a stage and hell underneath," and it seems the mode of representation was by a monstrous mouth with a movable jaw, which, when opened, shewed flames within. Into this devouring maw the devils sank to "their fellows black." Another direction reads: "Here shall two angels descend into the wilderness, and other 2 shall bring an oble (a kind of wafer-cake), openly appearing aloft in the clouds: the two beneath shall bring Mary, and she shall receive the bread, then go into the wilderness." Despite those directions, there is no evidence to show that the stage appurtenances were otherwise than of a crude nature, the effects being chiefly produced by the imagination of the auditors.

I regret that it has been impossible to procure any illustration of the performance of an Aberdeen Mystery-play, but the accompanying illustration is offered as typical of the manner of their presentation. It is an ingenious restoration of the pageant of the Smiths Company of Coventry, and may be dated about 1469. The pageant in question was presented in various parts of the town by means of a travelling stage. The waggon was wheeled about from station to station. At the moment of the illustration, it has been set up near the Cross in the Crosscheaping. The armed guard in front will be noted keeping the street crowd in order. Seated in the foreground will be noted the men who drew the vehicle from each station. Three minstrels and a carpenter are sprawling in front. Actors who complain of the self-importance of the modern stage carpenter will note that his uppishness is not without some historical warrant. The play is a Passion-play, and Pilate is shown washing his hands. Annas and Caiaphas can be seen in mitres on the right hand side. This waggon had two stories, the lower serving as a dressing-room.

The municipal edict of 1442 called upon all craftsmen to appear annually "at the offerand of our Lady at Candlemas," and directed what each Guild should supply. "The littstaris (dyers) sail fynd The Emperour and twa Doctours and alsrnony honcstc squiares as thai may. The Smythis and liamermcn sail fynd The Three Kings of Culane (Cologne)," etc., etc.

A decree of 30th April, 1445, set forth that no fees be given to the Abbot of Bon-Accord, but that the Alderman and a Bailie whom he shall name will supply "That faute." During the subsequent years, a good deal of dissension seems to have existed upon the question of expenses, as may be gathered from such resolutions of the Town Council as the following:-

21st May, 1479.—The Council and brethren of the Guild being present ordain the Alderman to make the expenses and cost of the common good upon the "arrayment and uthris necessaris of the Play at Corpus Christi."

1st February, 1484.—Alderman and Council ordain that all the Craftsmen bear their "takyinis of thare craft upon thare beristis" on Candlemas Day. Whoever contravened this bye-law forfeited the freedom of the town for a year.

7th August, 1486.—The Alderman, Bailies and Council grantit to John of Culane, in lieu of fee the time he was Abbot of Bon-Accord, to be admitted a burgess of guild. (This privilege could be procured upon payment of £4 Scots.)

17th August, 1491 .—Andro Culane, younger, Abbot of Bon-Accord, applies for his fee, and Alderman and Council in reply say they have no money to pay him.

8th May, 1496.—Thos. Leslie and Robert of Culane are chosen conjointly Abbot and Prior of Bon-Accord, and the Council promise to pay them five merks upon that date twelve months hence.

An interesting item with regard to the minstrels who took part in the ceremony is found in the Council Register for 28th January, 1500.

"The said day it was statut, ordainit and grantit be the alderman, balyeis and maist part of the consal and communitie present for the tyme that Jonhe and Robert, thar comone menstralis, sal have resonabile diets sevralie throw the nichtbours of the towne: And gif ony persoun, or personis rcfuss to resave thamc to thar dietis, it sal be lesum to thame to gif to the said menstralis xij the day bat (both) for meat, drink, and wagis for simple folks."

That the Candlemas Day functions did not always pass off without some contretemps the Council Records also testify. One item, under date 2nd February, 1502, tells how " John Rob Wobstar " and eight others were convicted of having on Candlemas Day usurped the usual place of the tailors. But evidently this was not the only occasion upon which the rules of precedence had been broken. On 30th January, 1505, the Council found it necessary to make a record of the rules:

"A decree in honour of God and the Blessed Virgin Mary, the craftsmen ` kepit and decorit ' the procession on Candlemas Day yearly—And thai sail in order to the Offering in the Play, pass tha and ij togidir socialie: in the first the flesshoris, barbouris, baxturis, cordinaris, skinneris, couparis, wrichtis, hat makers and bonat maker togidir, walcaris, litstaris, wobstaris, tailyeouris, goldsmiths, blacksmith is and hamermen; and the craftsmen sale furnys the Pageants, the cordinaris the Messing; the wobstaris and walcaris, Symeon; the smyths and goldsmiths iij Kingis of Cullane; the litstaris, the Emperour; the masons, the Thrie Knichtis; the talyours, Our Lady, Sanct Brid and Sanct Elene ; the skyners, the Tua Bischopis, and tua of ilka craft to pass with the Pageant that thai furnys to kcip thair geir, and gif ony persone or persounes happinis to failyQ and brek ony poynte before writing, and beis convict thereof (he) sale pay xI sh. to Sanct Nicholas work and the balycis unlaw unforgevin."

A further decree of 16th May, 1507, was directed towards the training of the youthful citizens, and commanded that "all manner of youth burgess and burgess sons should be ready every holiday to pass with Abbot and Prior of Bon-Accord."

A highly interesting account of those ceremonies is furnished by Mr. Joseph Robertson in his Book of Bon-Accord. He is speaking of the Candlemas Day pageants.

"The Emperor who appears in the spectacle of 1442, was probably Augustus, and he differed little, perhaps, from the monarch who, in the procession which welcomed Queen Margaret in 1511, was figured ' . rydand under croun
Richt awfull, strang and large of portratour. As nobill, dreidfull michtie campioun.'

The 'Doctors,' it may be conjectured, were representatives of the Jewish sages with whom Christ disputed in the Temple. The 'Three Kings of Culane ' are the same with the personages commemorated by Dunbar in The Queen's Reception.

And syne thou gart the Orient kingis thrie Offer to Chryst with benyng reverence Gold, sence and mir with all humilitic Schawand him King with most magnificence.'

The eldest, Melchior, who appeared bowed down with years, and wearing a long beard, offered gold: frankincense was the gift of Gasper, who was represented as a beardless youth, and Balthasar, who presented myrrh, was figured as a gigantic Moor or Negro, with a large flowing beard. I cannot offer any explanation of the group of The Virgin, St. Bride or Bridget, St. Helen and Joseph; the latter personage was believed to be advanced in age and of a crabbed temper. St. Bridget, who flourished in the 14th century, was designated Sponsa Christi, and her book of revelation was held in great esteem. . . . Moses was generally depicted with horns—an irreverent absurdity, arising, from an error in the vulgate translation of the Scriptures. The Brethren of the Guild were charged with, it is likely, the most costly, part in the show, the Knights in armour; and the Bakers were burthened with the provision of the Minstrels who, as we gather from Dunbar, were dispersed through the pageants 'blowing to the sky.' "

In 1508 the Abbot and the Prior gave way to Robyne Hood and Litile Johnne. In May of that year it was ordained that " al personis that ar abill within this burghe salbe reddy with their arrayment made in grene and yallow, bowis, arrowis, and all other convenient things according thairto to pass with Robin Huyd and Litile Johnnc all times convenient thairto, quhair thai be the saidis Robync and Litile Johnne."

The due observance of this was enforced by a lawww, which ordained that all defaulters should pay 20s. to "Sanct Nicholas werk and viij sh. to the bailyesis unlaw unforgevin."

In Analecta Scotica a good many references are made to the appointment of the two town minstrels. The duty of these dignitaries was to wake up the town at 5 A.M. and send them to rest between 3 and 9 P.M., and when it is known that these officials consisted of a drummer and a piper, the manner and effect of their office may be imagined but not described.

Bon-Accord Day sometimes brought out its dissentients. On 21st May, 1538, John and Robert Arthur were sentenced to appear in the church of St. Nicholas with bare feet and wax candles in their hands, and publicly to beg pardon of the Provost and Magistrates of Aberdeen for having troubled the Lords of Bon-Accord by preventing dancing.

The year 1555 (June 20th) saw the extinction of Robin Hood and Little John plays by Act of Parliament, but not without protest. Riots in connection with their suppression became very frequent in Aberdeen, as well as in other parts of the country. Despite this, the officials were determined to carry out the law. On 4th May, 1562, the drummer and bellman were both convicted of contravening this Act, and sentenced to appear in the Parish Church on the Sunday, and, after the preaching, grant that the said offence was done through ignorance, and upon their knees ask God's and the congregation's forgiveness.

It is evident, however, that the presence of the King could provide sufficient warrant for a change in law, not to say morality, and that by one of those curious obsessions which history never explains.

On 13th May, 1580, runs the decree:—

"The Inhabitants are informed that the King is soon to visit the Burgh, and that, as on such occasions it had been usual to show their joy by farseis, playeis, histories, antics and other decorations, 3000 merks be granted to make preparations of a similar character."

A company of players, recommended by His Majesty's Special Letter, visited Aberdeen in October of 1601. They performed comedies and other plays, and were presented by the Provost, Bailies, and Council with 33 merks (35s. 6d.) . On 22nd October, the freedom of the Burgh was presented to Lawrence Fletcher, comedian to His Majesty.

Reverting to the Playfield, the last account of this is given in the Council Register for May 13, 1635, where, under the title of "Licence grantit to Jamesounce," permission is granted to George Jamieson to renew and repair the 'Playfield, better known as "The Garden Neuk Well," in which comedies were "wont to be actit of auld," the annual rent to be 3s. 4d. Scots.

An Edinburgh company of actors travelled up to Aberdeen in 1745—the Canongate Theatre then being in process of re-building - but the Aberdeen clergy and magistrates forbade their playing, so we must assume they trudged away, sorely hipped.

In 1751, the Edinburgh company made another bid for Aberdeen favours, Mrs. Ward bringing a section of the company from the Canongate Theatre, but again the magistrates and clergy refused permission to act within the city. Still undaunted in their determination to let Aberdeen see what players could do, they erected a wooden booth outside the city a boundary and somewhere in the Spittal, but the Aberdonians refused to come in numbers sufficient to make it pay.

William Fisher, a daring actor-manager, evidently made another trial in 1768, fitting up a hall as a theatre at the New Inn, corner of Castle and King's Streets. But he had soon to put up the shutters. Young Woodfall, then a stage-struck youth, who was to found the Morning Advertiser in the following year, travelled with Fisher, and later managed to astonish the English public by publishing the Letters of Junius.

The would-be great John Jackson, in 1779, erected a theatre in Shoe Lane, where Fisher and his company acted. West Digges, the well-known player and brief lessee of the Edinburgh Theatre, was practically the first player of any distinction to appear at the Shoe Lane house. Digges, the dandy, was said to be a natural son of the second Earl Delawarr. He had begun life as an army officer in the North, but fell so badly into debt that he was never able to liquidate. Sheridan had given him a chance to prove his mettle as an actor in 1749, so that, as the profession would phrase it, after thirty years' experience, he might be said to be fairly on the way to becoming a good actor.

It was he who originally played Young Norval at the first performance of Douglas, when an attempt was made to imprison him for debt, though he managed to escape. He became the husband of the notorious George Anne Bellamy. Digges died seven years later at Cork, where his remains lie in the Cathedral there. His Wolsey and Macbeth were his most celebrated parts.

The first real Aberdeen playhouse was a small one, built in 1780, at the back of an inn in Queen Street. It had no boxes, prices of admission being half-a-crown to the pit and 1s. 6d. to the gallery—the earning capacity with a full house being £40, and it is rather creditable to the fare supplied to know that receipts never went below £20.

Aberdeen had its gallery boys in these early days, thus forestalling London. In the centre of the second row of benches in the gallery a chair was placed for a daft dominie who was known as "Mad Sinclair." Sinclair led the "gods" at will in applause, or, in vaudeville parlance, "giving the bird."

Latterly the Queen Street Theatre was converted into a chapel by the Rev. Charles Chandler, D.D., who taught "ladies and gentlemen the English language, both at home, and abroad."

Coachy's Playhouse, situate in Chronicle Lane, sprang up about this time. The proprietor introduced boxes, and started the "starring" system in Aberdeen, but he was too previous, and his speculation only led to his ruin.

The story of the playhouse in Aberdeen does not commence consecutively till 1795. A house in Marischal Street was turned into a theatre, its first manager being Stephen Kemble, brother to Mrs. Siddons and to four actress sisters and three actor brothers, of whom the most distinguished was the famous John Philip Kemble. Stephen Kemble started his career in Edinburgh in what proved financially stoney times, although Sir Walter Scott, that good patron of drama, did his best for him. At length he threw. up his venture three years later, and took the road North. That ambitious man, John Jackson, surely the originator of all theatre syndicates, wanted to operate a circuit that would include Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, and Aberdeen, and so he began to build a theatre in Marischal Street—the West-end of that day—but his plans came to an end with his money, and for six years the place stood unfinished. Those who are curious about John Jackson, actor-manager and dramatist, can read the self-justification of his egotism and stuffy pride in that sadly misnamed book, The History of the Scottish Stage.

Stephen Kemble got into touch with several supporters of the drama in Aberdeen, who formed a syndicate. The details of the financial scheme may be gathered from this extract, derived from the management archives:—

"Mr. Kemble, intending to purchase the property in Marischal Street belonging to Messrs. Brebner Gibb & Co., in order to finish and fit it up as a theatre, We, the subscribers, in so far as to enable him to accomplish this scheme, oblige ourselves each to advance the sum of £20 sterling, to be applied in the first place towards defraying the expense of roofing in the theatre, and the surplus to be paid over to Mr. Kemble how soon the inside work of the theatre is half finished. It being understood that Mr. Kemble shall give each subscriber a gratis ticket for admission to the theatre during each season of performance, transferable at pleasure."

Kemble, who owned a circus in Edinburgh, followed Burbage's plan at the Curtain Theatre, by transferring the woodwork of that building to Aberdeen, charging the Trust £300; so they chartered a freighting vessel from an Edinburgh agent, and had the wood sent on to Leith by sea.

The building cost £3,000 to construct, and seated boo persons, the price for boxes being 3s., pit 2s., and gallery 1s., the full house realising £65.

Kemble is recorded as having paid his rent for seven weeks' occupation, at the rate of ten guineas per week, after which we hear no more of Kemble, who, we suspect, was sadly disillusioned about the possibilities of Aberdeen theatrical business.

During the next few years there is little to record about the performances in this building the subsequent managers evidently had failed to pay their rents--and the syndicate, becoming tired of their theatre, gave instructions for its sale by auction in 1811.

John Fraser came to the rescue next year, and succeeded in securing Corbett Ryder as a tenant. Ryder held the lease from i 8 i7 till his death in 1842. His wife, Jessie Fraser, remarried, one, John Pollock, who continued the management until 1854, when it came into the hands of his two sons-in-law, M'Neill and Price.

"Aberdeen awa" has always had its enthusiastic set of playgoers, and from time to time during the periods mentioned, they made it financially possible for such stars as Kean, Helen Faucit, Macready, Vandenhoff, T. P. Cooke, G. V. Brooke, Calvert, and Barry Sullivan to visit the Marischal Street house.

Having served its purpose by keeping the Thespian light burning in the chilly North, the building, sanctified by the memories of so many stars, was sold in 1875 to the Church of Scotland, at less than half its original cost.

Aberdeen harboured one London dramatist at least, for it had the honour of a visit from George Colman (the younger), who spent some time at King's College, attending some of the lectures there, about the year 1780. In his Random Records, he makes the town the subject of some very caustic remarks.

If there is one thing more than another that stands out prominently in the history of Aberdeen, it is the love of its citizens for all forms of pageantry. Any suspicion that may exist as to the prosaic character of the people is quite dispelled by an examination of The Book of Bon-Accord, and we could hardly bring this chapter to a fitter conclusion than by quoting the following extract: ---

"At the New Year's day procession the servants and apprentices of the artificers bore the banners and symbols of their trade. Every craft had its chaplain with Bible, flowing peruke, Geneva cloak and bands, and its champion, armed to the teeth: sometimes in ancient mail, but more frequently in tinplate or leather. The Hammermen were preceded by a grim visaged Vulcan, grasping a thunderbolt and drawn in a chariot. The shoemakers were headed by their patron, St. Crispin (whom they advanced to the dignity of a crown), attended by a number of pages becoming his high rank. Many of the young men wore fantastic dresses, amongst which the most favoured was that of a malignant Turk. An attempt to abolish this custom in the year t 78 5 occasioned much rioting, and several persons were incarcerated, but, wisely, admitted to bail, the mob having broken the windows of the Town Hall. On the 8th August, 1832, they were revived to celebrate the passing of the Reform Act. The omnipotent Vulcan brandished his tin thunderbolts, as if his office was not to forge but to wield them. The sainted Crispin, in a chariot drawn by six horses, sat in royal state with Earl Grey on one hand, and Lord Brougham and Vaux on the other.

"St. Catherine strutted in all the glory of a starched ruff, six maids of honour, and a guard of archers. The Viscount Althorp and my Lord John Russell rode sublime on an ancient hackney coach, behind which, mitre on head and in full pontificial robes, walked His Grace the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, surrounded by the implements and emblems of the art of cobbling shoes."


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