Theatres are all about people. The actors, the audience, the backstage crew, the writers and directors (and the ghosts…) Don’t forget the money – the producers and the owners who take a risk to build theatres and put on shows.
The Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh is another one of CJ Phipps creations and was built in 1883 on behalf of two theatre managers – Howard and Wyndham. The two men went on to form a partnership in 1895 and the company using their names was actually founded by another Scot, Simons. It continued in existence until sold in 1965. Howard and Wyndham were actors and the company acquired a number of ‘royal’ theatres: Theatre Royal Glasgow, Theatre Royal Edinburgh, Theatre Royal Newcastle and the Royal Court in Liverpool. The company was particularly keen on pantomines and they produced them for 90 years.
Howard died a few weeks after the company was formed, but Wyndham continued to run the company until 1928 and it went on to be one of the largest theatre companies in Britain.
Back to the Royal Lyceum. It remains relatively intact with only four minor restorations, and consequently is considered the most representative theatre of Phipps. It was the first theatre in Scotland to use an iron safety curtain, and the first to use electric lighting. The theatre is elaborately decorated with plasterwork and uses columns for supporting the upper balconies. It seats 658 people, so not a huge theatre compared to its contemporaries.
Unlike the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, the Lyceum mainly concentrates on drama and it had good start. On its opening night, it put on a performance of Much ado about Nothing with Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry; the pair were part of the London Lyceum Theatre company.
Now we come to an esoteric aspect of theatres – the ghosts.
The Lyceum has a ghost. The theatre is haunted by a woman dressed in blue wandering the light rigging above the stage, accompanied by a ringing noise. The theory is that it is Ellen Terry.
Dame Ellen Terry was English but her parents were of Irish and Scottish descent. Acting ran in her blood as many of Terry’s relatives were in the business including an ancestor of Sir John Gielgud. She first appeared in Winter’s Tale at the age of nine and went on to perform many roles in Shakespeare plays throughout her childhood. When she was thirty, she joined Henry Irving’s London Lyceum company and was Ophelia to his Hamlet. She was considered a leading Shakespearean actress and they continued to work together for twenty years until they let the Lyceum in 1902. She wasn’t just confined to Shakespeare; she also performed George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen plays among a varied repertoire. Although she made films, she remained on tour until 1920, when she retired from the stage. Nothing but accolades for Ellen Terry.
She died of a brain haemorrhage in 1928 in Kent, was cremated, and her ashes are in a church in Covent Garden. So how did she end up haunting the Lyceum in Edinburgh? Wishful thinking perhaps. There was a chalk statue of her in the foyer, which during WWII was purloined because of a shortage of chalk. It was irreverently smashed and only her head survived, which supposed then rolled around the stalls. Terry managed to also haunt other venues including two London theatres, one in Liverpool, another in Wolverhampton. Quite an active ghost!
Ghosts are a feature of theatres. I can imagine why, given the need to create atmosphere and a sense of anticipation. Only big names seem to make it into ghosts, the supporting cast never get mentioned – isn’t that always the way? Anna Pavlova supposedly haunts the Palace Theatre where two seats were often left unsold in the auditorium so she could watch from the dress circle (recently those watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child have taken up these seats, so…); Arthur Bourchier, who hated critics, taps the backs of those leaving the Garrick theatre; there are numerous sightings of the Man in Grey at Drury Lane, a limping young man in a powdered wig; Edmund Kean might be haunting the Adelphi, or it might be someone else, there’s quite a bit of competition to be a theatrical ghost.
The idea of a ghost moving about the country to haunt particular theatres does rather appeal to me. After all, theatre companies tour, don’t they? The dedication needed to keep going, performing over and over, up and down the country at different venues. It’s a royal level of commitment to your profession – dead or alive.
Today my book The Women of Heachley Hall is on special offer – 99p on Amazon and Kobo. The house is supposedly haunted, but as with Ellen Terry, the person responsible didn’t die in the house, so is it her or is something else responsible for the strange happenings at Heachley? Only women can find out…