December 1767 the New Theatre Royal was opened:
“It may, with justice, be said to be one the neatest and most elegant theatres in Europe.”
‘Playbills’ as the theatre became known cost £7,000, and the cornerstone inscription read:
‘May this theatre tend to promote every moral and every virtuous principle, and may the representations be ever such as
to make mankind in conscious virtue bold,
live o’er each scene, and be what they behold.’
A statue of Shakespeare graced the pediment of the theatre. It was removed when the Theatre was remodelled in 1830. It was then acquired by the advocate and writer Henry Cockburn for the garden of Bonaly Tower, his house at the edge of Edinburgh. It has remained there ever since.
The theatre building in Shakespeare Square represented a serious at-tempt to compete with Drury Lane as well as with the theatre in Dublin. Continually looking to the south for genius, the Edinburgh Theatre was often simply a satellite of the London theatres.
A London visitor to Edinburgh described the building as “rather trumpery in its decoration and a most miserable audience” however this modest building had some Palladian style.
Like Irish theatre, Scottish theatre only began to thrive when it embraced its own literary heritage: Walter Scott was closely linked to the theatre.
It has been said that the ‘Scott dramas’ “brought about a sea-change in the fortunes of the Scottish theatre and altered its relationship to the Scottish people, leading to the formation of a nineteenth-century dramatic genre that was Scotland’s own.”
But even with these efforts, the Edinburgh Theatre struggled financially.
By the 1850s Shakespeare Square had become a place of squalor and destitution and was described as ‘mean in architecture and disreputable in character’.
The theatre’s best days were behind it and it finally closed on Wednesday, May 25th, 1859 after a chequered course of ninety years.
Mr. Wyndham, the Theatre manager, delivered a farewell address, followed by the Laughable Farce of HIS LAST LEGS:
“This House, which has been a scene of amusement to the citizens of Edinburgh for as long as most of them have lived, has at length come to the termination of its own existence”.
In 1860 the theatre was demolished to make way for the grand Victorian Post Office building, which still stands there today.