Words: Cecilia Xuereb
In 1731 Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena decided to build a Theatre “for the honest entertainment of the people” on a site specifically bought for this purpose in Strada del Carmine (today Triq it-Teatru l-Antik). The Theatre was completed in less than a year and was inaugurated on January 19 1732. Ownership of the Theatre belonged to the Order but from its very first days the Theatre used to be rented to impresarios. This system of renting out the Theatre by the Government of the day continued after the Order left Malta, through the French period, which lasted two years, and adopted by the British when they took over the Island.
In 1861 the British Government built a bigger opera house in Valletta and decided to dispose of the old theatre. The Theatre was transferred on an emphyteutic grant to two private individuals. In 1882 the Theatre was purchased by Carmelo Arpa, and his sister. Not having the necessary capital, Arpa borrowed the money from Gustaf Gollcher. Eighteen years later the loan had still not been fully repaid and Gustaf Gollcher & Sons took legal steps to recover their money. The court ordered the judicial auction of the Manoel which was purcahsed by the Gollchers, the price being set off against their credit.
When a number of attempts to rent out the Theatre failed the Gollchers decided to manage the theatre themselves. In 1908, they inaugurated their period of management by varying the familiar fare of English plays and musical comedies and Indipendenza farces and operettas with a season of Italian opera and in the process made a considerable financial outlay to provide productions of a high standard. Around 1920 the Italian musician C. de Lancellotti, long established in Malta, was given the lease of the Manoel by the Gollchers while in 1927 they rented the theatre for use mainly as a cinema. Co-ownership remained in the family who retained the right to use one of the boxes but the lessees allowed the Theatre to fall into disrepair,
In 1955 the Government felt the need for a national theatre and decided to acquire the Manoel Theatre, by now justly regarded as one of Europe’s oldest theatres still in regular use, from the Gollcher family. Expropriation proceedings were opened in 1955 and in February 1957 the Land Arbitration Board ordered the sale to the government of the theatre premises.
Twenty days later the Maltese government bought back the theatre, the parties to the contract being the director of contracts representing the government, members of the Gollcher family or their attorneys, and the attorney of Goffredo Bonanno who owned a share of the theatre’s direct ownership. The Gollcher family was allowed to keep the houses in Triq iz-Zekka attached to the theatre. Eventually the Government bought some of this property in order to make improvements to the Theatre. The entire ground rent was redeemed in 1976 ending once and for all the connection of the Theatre with the Gollcher family.
In 1961 Michael Kissaun, newly appointed manager of the Manoel Theatre asked Olly to write a pamphlet or brochure suitably illustrated giving the history and vicissitudes of the theatre. Olly made some notes on the subject and he sent Kissaun the draft of a brochure and a number of photographs. He also suggested that the brochure should include illustrations of paintings on the boxes – two photos of the auditorium – one from the stage and one from the Royal box. It does not appear that anything ever came out of this project as neither a booklet nor Olly’s draft from the time could be traced.
Article taken from the July 2021 edition of Il-Bizzilla. Read more here.