By Thomas Pymer
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is one of the largest drama festivals in the world. In one month, it is estimated that over 50,000 performances take place. Roads close, the population triples and the entire city turns into a massive multi-staged theatre. With the Fringe in its 71st year, I’ll be taking a look back at what happened between 1947 and 2018 to transform the Fringe into the cultural hub it is today.
In 1945, Sir Rudolf Bing (an Austrian refugee), decided to host a festival in his adopted country of Britain, hoping to “establish… a centre of world resort for lovers of music, drama, opera, ballet and the graphic arts”.
Sir Rudolf and his friends (notably Harry Wood, Chair of the Scottish Council, Edinburgh’s Lord Provost Sir John Falconer, Lady Eva Roseberry and Professor Sidney Newman of Edinburgh University) selected Edinburgh, which had largely escaped the damage inflicted by the Blitz, as the host city (although Edinburgh was the second choice after Oxford). Several select companies (including the Glyndebourne Opera Company, the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra, Sadler’s Wells Dance Company and the Old Vic Company) were invited to perform at the first festival in 1947. This became the Edinburgh International Festival.
However, eight amateur companies (Glasgow Unity Theatre, the Christine Orr Players, the Edinburgh College of Art Group, Edinburgh People’s Theatre, Edinburgh District Community Drama Association, the Scottish Community Drama Association, London’s Pilgrim Players and Manchester Marionette Theatre) decided to take advantage of the heightened artistic excitement to perform in smaller venues alongside the Festival. Mixed among their opportunism was a desire to promote working-class art in contrast to the aristocratic tastes of the professionals, and outrage that no Scottish drama was included in the Festival. Before long, word began to spread (beginning a long tradition of oral advertising) that these amateurs were putting on amazing shows.
Still, there the story might have finished were it not for journalist Robert Kemp. Kemp noticed the hype about the smaller companies and wrote about it. It is Kemp we have to thank for the phrase “fringe”, which he used to describe how the companies were performing at the edges of the Festival. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe was born.
The next major development in the Fringe’s history arrived in 1950, when the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (a music and military festival) was scheduled to happen alongside the Festival. The Fringe became a space for the musicians and dancers who followed the Tattoo to showcase their talents.
The first big hit to come out of the Fringe was the Glasgow Unity Theatre’s performance of The Gorbals Story. Within a year of its Fringe debut in 1947, it had 600 appearances across the country, performed at the Garrick and became a film in 1950.
In 1951, the Edinburgh People’s Festivals began. Although they were only held until 1954, the legacy to the Fringe was enormous; poorer companies and performers who came for the People’s Festivals discovered the Fringe and kept coming.
A joint box office at the Edinburgh YMCA was established by Edinburgh students in 1955. At this time, students began to arrive to perform. 1955 is also notable as the first year a one-person show was performed at the Fringe (Elspeth Douglas Reid in One Woman Theatre), a style which has thrived since.
In 1958, the companies united into the Festival Fringe Society, codifying the regulations for the Fringe. Significantly, they agreed performances would be unjuried, with no selection process: any company could turn up and perform.
In 1960, the Festival, irritated at the growth of its rival, hired the Cambridge Footlights and the Oxford Theatre Group to create Beyond The Fringe. This backfired when the Fringe erupted in satire, earning satire a home at the Fringe and inspiring the anti-authority “satire boom” of the 60s.
In 1966, the Fringe hosted its most famous play to date: Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The success the play achieved cemented the Fringe’s reputation as a name-maker for aspiring celebrities. The Fringe has given the national stage to Cleese, Atkinson, Fry, Laurie, Thompson, Izzard, Mitchell and Webb, Burton, Gielgud, Dench and Jacobi. What future big names performed at this year’s festival? (In my opinion, Elina Alminas, Toby Marlow and Zach Ghazi-Torbati are names to remember.)
In 1974, the Fringe overtook the Festival in ticket sales, which it has done almost every year since.
The Alternative Comedy boom in the 1980s brought stand-up comedians to the Fringe. In 1982, the Fringe began to move to bigger venues, such as the Pleasance Dome and the Assembly Rooms.
In 2016, over 2000 companies performed at the Fringe, setting a record for dramatic festivals anywhere.
And that, in brief, is the history of the Fringe in the last seventy-one years. Thanks, Sir Rudolf, it may not be quite what you had in mind, but I think you’d love it.