Nancy Hallam: America’s First Celebrity Actress

Virginia celebrates a proud theatrical history. It boasts the first recorded performance of a play in all the colonies.  It also claims the first permanent playhouse and the first evening of professional theatre. That first evening was in September of 1752 and was presented by Lewis Hallam’s London Company of Comedians. What set this company above others in the colonies was that they had actual experience with professional performances in London.

At the center of this company was the Hallam family. The leader of the Company and patriarch of the family was Lewis Hallam.  Lewis’s brother sent him to Virginia to start a successful traveling company, which had never been attempted before by performers from England. With him, Lewis brought his wife Sarah, who starred as the new company’s leading lady, and three of their children. In a few short years, the company established itself as a clear success and, in spite of the loss of Lewis Hallam in 1756, the company continued to travel the colonies for almost twenty years.

In 1765, Nancy Hallam, a young niece of Sarah’s, came from London to perform with the successful troupe now rechristened as The American Company of Comedians. Actually, Nancy may have been the same ‘Miss Hallam’ who played children’s roles with the Company in 1759 but this is uncertain. In 1766, Nancy starred in the ingénue roles and quickly moved up within the Company. In 1769, she took over the role of Juliet while performing in New York, marking her beginning as the company’s leading lady during which she starred in comedies, tragedies, and even ballad operas (the musicals of the age.)

A playbill for the American Company featuring Nancy Hallam.

A playbill for the American Company featuring Nancy Hallam. She is featured as the lead in Thomas Arne’s ballad opera Love in a Village.

In 1770, the American Company returned to Williamsburg with their new ingénue and premiered with The Beggar’s Opera, the most famous ballad opera of the 18th century. This performance was undoubtedly chosen to display Nancy’s vocal talents; talents that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would have enjoyed as they were in attendance. Her talent as a singer as well as an actress was praised throughout the colonies. Her performance as Imogen in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline inspired one theatre-goer to write a glowing review in the September 6, 1770 edition of the Maryland Gazette.

“She exceeds my utmost idea. Such delicacy of manner! Such classical strictness of expression! The musick of her tongue! The Vox Liquida, how melting!… How true and thorough her knowledge of the character she personated! Her whole form and dimensions how happily convertible, and universally adapted to the variety of her part.”[1]

Nancy Hallam’s portrayal of Imogen caught the attention of another Marylander. After losing his father in 1750, when he was only 9 years old, the young Charles Willson Peale apprenticed as a saddle maker. After completing his apprenticeship and opening his own saddle shop, Peale realized his true calling was to become a painter.  He spent several years travelling the colonies as an amateur painter and met other early American artists such as James Claypoole, Jr. and John Singleton Copley (known for his portrait of Paul Revere). Eventually, Peale traveled to London to study portrait painting from 1767-1769. Upon his return to the colonies, he started taking up commissions around his home of Annapolis, a city the American Company frequented.

In 1771, Peale painted Nancy Hallam portraying the famous ingénue Imogen in Cymbeline. The painting depicts her in what is known as a ‘breeches role’ where Imogen is hiding her true identity by posing as a male servant named Fidele.  Peale’s painting is the sole image of a professional actor from America in the period. It is also unique because it depicts a woman who is not wearing 18th-century women’s clothing.  The image gives great insight to the level of costuming that went into a professional production. It also illustrates the fashion of the time to dress servants in lavish and unique garb.  In this case, she is in what was known as ‘Turkish’ attire that includes a turban, long waistcoat, and wide loose breeches.

Nancy Hallam as Fidele in Shakespeare's Cymbeline. 1771. Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Nancy Hallam as Fidele in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. 1771. Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Peale’s career may have been just beginning, but the American Company and Nancy Hallam were not long for America. The same event  — The American Revolution — pushed one artist to prominence while pushing the others away. During the war, there was no place for frivolous evenings at the playhouse. Professional companies left the warring colonies and Nancy Hallam apparently retired from the stage.

The year after he painted Nancy Hallam, Charles Willson Peale painted a Virginia Colonel and veteran of the French and Indian War at his home of Mount Vernon. This was not the last time George Washington sat for the painter. Peale is credited with painting the most images of the first President along with other early American notables. Peale also painted several portraits for the Lewis family: two of which hang in Historic Kenmore today.

John Lewis by Charles Willson Peale. Part of the George Washington Foundation Collection. Currently on display in Kenmore.

John Lewis by Charles Willson Peale. Part of the George Washington Foundation Collection.

For a limited time, those portraits are joined at Kenmore by a reproduction of Nancy Hallam’s Cymbeline costume and a print of Peale’s portrait of her.  The costume and portrait are on loan to The George Washington Foundation from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  They are on display in the Crowninshield Museum Building in the run-up to the production of Cymbeline during “Shakespeare by Candlelight” on August 14, 15, or 16.  For more details about attending a performance, which does require reservations, visit www.kenmore.org.

Joseph Ziarko, Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

[1] Johnson, Odai, The Colonial American Stage, 1665-1774: A Documentary Calendar, Cranbury: Associated University Presses., 2001, pg. 372.

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