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Famous Last Words

When they decided to stage a production of the historical tragedy Jane Shore in the summer of 1817, no one at the Leeds Theatre suspected that a very real tragedy was about to strike.

Tonight's performance

Tonight’s performance

Here’s a scan of the original playbill – now nearly 200 years old – advertising that dramatic night. It’s one of many bills, posters and programmes in our collection at the Local and Family History Library, dating back almost as far as the opening of the city’s first theatre in 1771. This, the Leeds Theatre as it was known, stood on Hunslet Lane at the bottom end of town, just over Leeds Bridge, near the Adelphi pub. It was a smallish, brick building, lit entirely by wax candles, with a capacity of around 600 and a roof that didn’t quite cover the entire audience (or at least not the heads of those sitting in the cheap seats at the back of the balcony).

Jane Shore was a once-popular play by Nicholas Rowe, written in the style of Shakespeare and first performed in 1713 at Drury Lane, London. Our copy of the New Theatrical Dictionary 1792 (shelf mark: SR 792.02 NEW) describes it as ‘a very excellent tragedy continually acted with great success’ and declares: ‘This play, consisting chiefly of domestic scenes and private distress, lays hold upon the heart.’

If you take another look at the playbill, you’ll notice towards the bottom of the cast list a Mr Cummins, who took the role of ‘Dumont’. This was Alexander Cummins, one of Leeds’ most famous actors of the day, noted for his ability to convincingly portray characters of a wide range of ages. In Jane Shore, he had just delivered the fateful lines:

Be witness for me, ye Celestial host!

Such mercy and such pardon as my soul

Accords to thee, and begs of Heav’n to show thee;

May such befal me at my latest hour

And make my portion blest or curs’d for ever.

…when he keeled over – quite dead. The evening’s entertainment was halted, the audience was in shock, and the city’s theatrical community went into mourning for one of its most beloved performers.

Cummins was buried in the churchyard of St. John’s on Briggate. A newspaper report from 1904 puts the location of his grave ‘in a line between the south porch of St. John’s Church and Mark Lane’ – which means it should be somewhere towards the bottom-right of this photograph from our Leodis website:

A thespian grave

A thespian grave

We went down to look for it earlier in the week and, perhaps it was the snow or – more likely – the once proud stone slab has since been moved, but Cummins’ final resting place was nowhere to be found. Had we seen it, however, we would have been able to read the epitaph:

Here lieth the body of

ALEXANDER CUMMINS

An established favourite of the Yorkshire Theatres

For upwards of 40 years,

Who departed this life on the 20th of June 1817.

 To see more historical playbills from Leeds’ rich theatrical heritage, visit: www.leodis.net/playbills

This story is taken from the upcoming talk Histories of Theatre in Leeds and West Yorkshire, on Thursday 29th January, 12.30–1.30pm, at the Brotherton Library. Reserve a free place at: http://library.leeds.ac.uk/lunchtime-talks

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One thought on “Famous Last Words

  1. Pingback: A History of Jewish Theatre in Leeds | The Secret Library

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