During the early decades of 1800s, the English people residing in Calcutta had almost everything they could ask for, but something was clearly missing. They badly missed the acting of dramas or plays, especially the Shakespearean plays, performed by professional actors in a professional theatre stage.
After the destruction of the Chowringhee Theatre, it was one Mrs. Esther Leach, who was instrumental in opening a temporary theater called the Sans Souci Theatre at Waterloo Street. It was a two-storey building and the upper floor was occupied by St. Andrew’s Library. The lower floor, looked more like a Godown, was spacious. Mrs. Esther Leach converted the lower floor into a fine theatre hall, sufficient for the accommodation of about four hundred persons at a time. It was good enough for conducting plays for the time being and performances were continued in the same place for about a year. After that, a more ambitious and more spacious structure was built at No.10 Park Street to house the Sans Souci Theatre permanently.
The newly built Sans Souci theatre at Park Street was a huge majestic building which resembled the Greek Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis, complete with six Doric columns. The structure of the theatre, which measured 200 feet long and 50 feet broad, was built with an ample portico in the front. The stage was as big as 28 feet in breadth and 50 feet in depth. Arrangements for green rooms and other necessities were also appropriated properly. This magnificent theatre building was elegantly designed by the architect, Mr. J. W. Collins and the construction was completed in May 1840.
Fund required for the construction and the interior fittings of the hall were collected through public donations and subscriptions. Lord Auckland and Prince Dwarkanath Tagore contributed substantially. Some money was also contributed by Mrs. Leach herself. But even that was not enough, so the rest was raised by the mortgage on the property.
Finally, under the patronage and presence of the Governor General Lord Auckland, the inaugural opening of Sheridan Knowless’s “The Wife” was taken place at Sans Souci on 8th March, 1841. That was the first time an English play was staged in Calcutta by the English actors.
Mrs. Leach, popularly known as the “Queen of the Indian Stage” played the role of Mrs. Wyindham in the farce, ‘The Handsome Husband,” an after-piece of Merchant of Venice, while Mr. James Vining, a famous actor in London, and stage manager appeared as Shylock. The theater was full to the brim and the audience was cheering and spell-bound. Everything was going well at the new theater until Mrs. Leach, while waiting for her cue by the stage, accidentally caught fire from an oil-lamp and within a few seconds, she was totally engulfed by flames. The burns were so severe that she could not survive and on Nov. 22, 1843 at 34, she died. After Church Services she was solemnly buried in the Military Cemetery at Bhowanipore. Unfortunately, the fire mishap that killed one of the finest theater persons brought the curtain down on the English theater in Calcutta. However, despite the untimely and sad demise of Mrs. Leach, English companies used to stage plays irregularly, once in a while. But the native population, for some unknown reasons, lost interest after the tragedy.
It is said that, The Sans Souci Theater and Chowringhee Theater, were significantly instrumental in the development of Bengali theater.