Smock Alley Theatre by Pat Liddy
Apart from a couple of medieval cathedrals, parts of Dublin Castle, surviving sections of the city walls and the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin is essentially a city of the 18th century onwards. But some buildings, which look like they might belong to a later century, hide an earlier foundation. One such wonderful example is the Smock Alley Theatre in Temple Bar.
Dublin’s first theatre opened in 1637 in Werburgh Street when Thomas Wentworth, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, appointed John Ogilby as Master of the Revels and instructed him to bring performers over from London. Rebellion in 1641 saw the demise of this theatre and it was turned into a cow parlour! It would be 25 years, under the restored monarch, Charles ll, before another theatre opened in 1662, also manged by Ogilby. Only two or three theatres had previously been launched in London so Smock Alley, as the Dublin’s new playhouse was called on account of its location, is one of the oldest theatrical sites in these islands and certainly the oldest in Ireland. It was the first theatre outside London to receive the royal patented title of The Theatre Royal.
Smock Alley, an innovative theatre for its time (it was one of the first in the world to incorporate the invention of “footlights” on the stage) attracted some of the most talented and famous directors, actors and playwrights that worked in Great Britain or Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries and they helped to put the institution onto the European map. Renowned managers (who were often themselves experienced actors or set designers) included John Ogilby himself, Spranger Barry and Thomas Sheridan among others. Celebrated players included Peg Woffington, David Garrick, Colley Cibber (England’s poet-laureate) and his daughter-in-law, Susannah Cibber, who was sister of Thomas Arne, the composer who also performed in Smock Alley in the 1740s. Arne is best known for his composition, Rule Britannia. Playwrights of the calibre of George Farquhar, Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, son of Thomas Sheridan, were employed. Richard went on to own the famous Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London. His father, godson of Jonathan Swift, became manager of Smock Alley from the mid-1740s and made many important improvements to the theatre and even to the neighbourhood when he succeeded in having un-seemly taverns and brothels closed to the better enhancement of his own domain. Every evening over 300 people were entertained in opulent surroundings under vast candle-lit brass chandeliers, not just by the main programme but by supplementary spectacles of juggling, acrobatics, dancing and musical interludes.
Rowdy behaviour, often erupting from the pit where the single men sat, was commonplace and sometimes these unwelcome scenes burst into full-scale riots. Players and audience would be injured and then some of these young bucks would fight their way onto the backstage to meet the actresses, many of whom also practiced as prostitutes! More seriously, due to the theatre being built on reclaimed land from the river, structural defects emerged, and the gallery collapsed on two occasions resulting in several deaths. Rebuilding in 1735 cured this problem but the end was not far off. Competition from other theatres emerged and Smock Alley, having become a little derelict and losing the title The Theatre Royal to a competitor on Crow Street, closed in 1787. It then became a whiskey store before being remodeled by 1815 into the Roman Catholic church of Saints Michael and John.
In refashioning the former theatre minimal changes were made. The old walls were kept, the pits and lower areas turned into crypts. Old openings were closed and new ones made and the facades on both sides re-fronted. The entrance to the church was changed from Smock Alley (today’s Essex Street West) to Blind Quay (now Exchange Street Lower). A bell was added which was enthusiastically rung by the new parish priest, Father Michael Blake. This ended up in a prosecution as it was then strictly forbidden for a Catholic church to ring a bell to announce Mass (the repressive 200-year old Penal Laws against Roman Catholics were largely still in force). The case, defended by the famous lawyer Daniel O’Connell who achieved eventual emancipation for Catholics, was thrown out of court. O’Connell came back to the church and joyfully rang the bell so much that he cracked it! That crack is still there. Due to a falling population the church closed in 1989 to become a Viking museum until 2002.
Then the modern-day miracle happened. Under the inspired leadership of Patrick Sutton (the director of the Gaiety School of Acting) the former church was purchased and several million euro, very painfully fundraised, were spent on the magnificent refurbishment and conversion back into a theatre. Archaeologists found a treasure throve of everyday items from the past but, most wonderfully of all, most of the internal and supporting walls were found to date from the original 1662 building. There was now a true and meaningful historical and built link between the old and the new Smock Alley Theatres.
Smock Alley Theatre today, in its various performance spaces and Banquet Hall, presents a busy schedule of varied theatrical shows, dances, music, launch events, conferences and festivals, many presented by outside companies. In November the Book Festival has a programme from the 2nd to the 5th and this is followed for a few days each by Pulled, The Great Hunger, The Grand Inquisitor and The Murders at Wildgoose Lodge. For their December programme the theatre will present its very own Christmas family fare with Grimm Tale of Cinderella from 4th to 23rd December. For all information call 00 353 1 677 0014 or email [email protected]. The Theatre is situated at 6-7 Exchange Street Lower, Temple Bar