Shakespeare’s Comedies in Colonial America

Washington Allston, American - Scene from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (Katharina_and_Petruchio)

Scene from Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” or “Katharina and Petruchio” (1809) by Washington Allston. Public domain. Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art/Wikipedia.

When we look at the history of Shakespeare in America the preference for his classic tragedies is obvious. Romeo and Juliet and Richard III are two of the three most-performed plays of the 18th century (George Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem rounded out this top three). While this ranking is based on surviving records of theatrical productions and therefore incomplete, it is still quite apparent that the Bard was unmistakably popular.

Of those oft performed favorites, tragedy wins out. Of the 13 different Shakespeare plays performed in Colonial America, the only comedy was The Merry Wives of Windsor. Why? Was it the general sentiments of an American audience? Was it a larger issue of theatrical expectations? Why didn’t American audiences watch Shakespeare’s comedies?

It is not because the people didn’t want comedies. Just like today, people liked to be entertained and for everyone who loves a heart breaking tragedy, there is someone who would prefer a light-hearted comedy. Comedies were actually wildly popular in colonial America, even beating out many tragedies in popularity! The aforementioned The Beaux Stratagem was one such comedy, as was John Vanbrugh and Colley Cibber’s The Provoked Husband and David Garrick’s The Lying Valet, which were also reportedly performed with regularity.

In colonies opposed to theatre based on moral grounds (think New England), a belief in the inherent sinfulness of plays and entertainment meant that, if theatre was to make its way into these colonies, it should certainly avoid comedies as they were usually rife with scheming rakes (The Beaux Stratagem), irascible wives (The Provoked Husband), and lying servants (The Lying Valet).

Tragedies, however, could be held up as moral lessons. One such play that was extremely popular in the colonies (even though it had fallen out of favor in London) was The London Merchant or The History of George Barnwell. It was a contemporary tragedy that told of a young man whose life had promise and success until he met a conniving woman who tempted him to steal, lie, and cheat for her love. He succumbed to those sins and they ultimately led to his untimely death.

The American Company of Comedians tried to break into the New England market with Othello, but instead of advertising it as a play they described it as  “Moral Dialogues… in Five parts, Depicting the Evil Effects of Jealousy and other Bad Passions, and Proving that Happiness can only Spring from the Pursuit of Virtue.”

Such moral apprehension about theatre was nearly non-existent in Virginia.  Why do we not see more of Shakespeare’s comedies in Virginia? The lack of comedy performances was also due to the theatrical expectations of the time. Theatre-goers knew that their evening at the playhouse would consist of two plays: a mainpiece and an afterpiece.

The mainpiece was the first play of the evening. It was longer and typically a tragedy or ballad opera (the musicals of the day). While it wasn’t impossible to see a comedy first, mainpiece was traditionally the more serious portion of the evening.

The afterpiece was always much shorter and typically a light-hearted comedy, farce, or romance. This division of the evening into mainpiece and afterpiece meant that there just wasn’t any real place for Shakespeare’s comedies. They were either too light-hearted to be a mainpiece or too long to be an afterpiece.

Shakespeare’s plays, however, did what they always do: they got with the times. Eventually, the Bard’s comedies transformed into shorter afterpieces and one of the most popular comedic afterpieces performed in the colonies was Catherine and Petruchio, essentially a shortened version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. It maintains most of the confrontations between the titular characters and their epic battle of the sexes, a theme popular in many contemporary farces.

First Quarto title page of The Taming of the Shrew

The title page from the first quarto, printed in 1631 Quarto of A wittie and pleasant comedie called The Taming of the Shrew. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library/Wikipedia.

Despite American audiences’ preference for the tragic tales of William Shakespeare, his comedies were not lost, only transformed. Indeed, the Bard flourished on early American soil.

Joe Ziarko
Guest Contributor

Enjoy an evening of history and entertainment under the stars on the Lawn at Kenmore with a performance by candlelight of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, staged in an eighteenth-century style om August 12, 13, & 14 starting at 8:00 p.m.

Taming of the Shrew was presented in colonial Virginia, and the prologue of the play includes an introduction to theatre in the American colonies, before the Revolutionary War.

$15 adults; $7.50 students
For more information contact Vickie Hayes at 540-370-0732 or hayes@gwffoundation.org.
Candlelight tours of Kenmore offered from 6:45 p.m. – 7:45 p.m.
Performance on the Lawn at Kenmore—please bring a folding chair(s).

Video – Building George’s House: The Concrete Cradle

An interpretive replica of the house that young George Washington lived in with his family is being built at his boyhood home at Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia. This replica is being constructed on the exact location of the original. Through the use of a specially-designed concrete cradle, the replica will not harm any of the original architectural remains underground. In this video, we see the construction of this cradle and learn about the science and skill that makes this engineering feat possible.

To learn more, read an “Introduction to the New George Washington’s Ferry Farm.”

Our Ever Evolving Relationship with Plants

Plants have played a critical role in human survival through the ages.  Although most people in the modern world do not rely on plants they gather themselves, we are surrounded by useful flora that Native Americans and later European colonists relied upon.  Today, some are labeled as ‘weeds’ while the more attractive ones are propagated as ornamentals, but little thought is given to their potential usefulness.  Some are native while many are introductions or ‘invasives’ brought over from Europe, Asia, or Africa.  Here are just a few plants you’ve likely encountered that played active roles in the lives of our colonial and Native American ancestors:

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus):

Not to be confused with Foxglove or Lamb’s ear, this delightfully fuzzy-leafed plant was an early introduction by Europeans.  It was considered a potent medicinal herb, the leaves of which were prized for treating a number of ailments including respiratory disorders and skin conditions, it having both anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties.  To alleviate coughs, the leaves were steeped in a tea or dried and smoked.  Painful or itchy skin maladies could be relieved with a poultice of leaves applied directly to the affected area.  It was also ingested as a diuretic.  In addition to being useful as a medicine, mullein’s long woody stalk could be dried and dipped in tallow or wax to create a candle or torch that would burn slowly.  Native Americans were quick to adopt mullein as a useful plant both as a medicine and as an expedient way to catch fish.  Turns out mullein seeds contain saponins, a compound that is poisonous to fish but safe for human consumption so a liberal amount added to a body of water resulted in stunned fish that would float to the surface to be easily collected.

‘Wild’ Garlic (Allium vineale)

Most gardeners have dealt with this plant, called wild garlic or wild onion by some.  Stinky and hard to pull from the ground, wild garlic has all the makings of a grade A weed.  You can thank Europeans again for this invasive plant, however.  Colonists brought it over as a flavoring for food and used it in much the same way as we use cultivated garlic today.  In addition to being useful in cooking, wild garlic contains all the heart-healthy benefits of domesticated garlic.

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)

Staghorn Sumac

Courtesy of Katya/Wikipedia

Sumac has gotten a bad reputation due to mistaken identity.  It is often confused with poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), which is actually only a distant relative that grows exclusively in extremely wet conditions (like bogs). The staghorn sumac is an upland plant that will grow pretty much anywhere poison sumac doesn’t grow.  Essentially every part of this plant was used in some way by Native Americans in what is now the eastern United States.  The roots and the bark were used in dying cloth, the leaves could be dried and mixed with tobacco for smoking, and the berries could be eaten in a number of different ways.  Whether soaked in cold water to make a lemonade or ‘sumac tea’, dried and added to cooked dishes, or eaten directly off the plant, sumac berries imparted a pleasant citrus flavor to foods and is rich in vitamin C in addition to other nutrients.  The tender young shoots of sumac trees were also cut, peeled of their bar, and eaten in the spring – that is if the deer didn’t find them first!  Although colonists did not always readily adopt plants that had been used for thousands of years by Native Americans (I’m looking at you, tomato!), the sumac was too good to ignore and was quickly incorporated into colonial life and diet.

Cedar/Juniper (Juniperus virginiana)

Eastern Red Cedar

Courtesy of Famartin/Wikipedia

The words ‘cedar’ and ‘juniper’ are often used interchangeably around here (And by around here, I mean Virginia, of course!).  But the tree most people in our area think of when they hear those words is the Eastern Red Cedar, which is actually in the Juniper family – confused yet?  Regardless of what you call it, the Eastern Red Cedar is a very handy local tree.  Colonists had equivalents in Europe and immediately recognized the utility of the tree.  Both Native Americans and colonials flavored food with the ‘berries’, which are actually cones, and the young shoots.  High in vitamin C, the berries were also used by Europeans to flavor gin and brewed into a medicinal tea by various indigenous tribes.  In addition, the bug-repellant properties of the cedar were well known and the wood itself excellent at resisting rot. It was fashioned into anything from fence posts to clothing chests.

Gradually our reliance on plants and trees immediately around us has waned and not many people nowadays realize the utility of the local flora.  Truthfully, there aren’t many plants in existence that don’t have some useful properties. Our colonial and Native American ancestors were aware of them and incorporated a multitude of ‘weeds’ into their everyday lives.

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist

Introducing the New George Washington’s Ferry Farm

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In 1996, the Trustees, Regents, and staff of The George Washington Foundation, known then as the Kenmore Association, were part of a large and vocal group of concerned citizens that banded together to save the site of George Washington’s Boyhood Home from commercial development.  While all the Washington-era structures, yards, and fences vanished almost 200 years ago, it was critical to preserve this significant place in our nation’s history—where beginning in 1738 young George and his family called home.

After years of meticulous research and planning by historians, architects, archaeologists, and curators, the Foundation is fulfilling that goal.  Up to this point Ferry Farm has been an archaeology park known for its grassy fields, beautiful views of the Rappahannock River, large-scale archaeology excavations, and an amazing and extensive collection of Washington artifacts. Today with the beginning of the construction of the interpretive replica of the Washington house and the surrounding landscape Ferry Farm is beginning its transition to an outdoor living museum.

George Washington lived at Ferry Farm from age 6 to around age 22.  The Cherry Tree and the Stone Throw legends were set here.  He learned to survey, joined the Masonic Lodge, read his first book on military adventurers, copied the Rules of Civility, and petitioned colonial Virginia’s British Governor for his first military office at Ferry Farm.  This is the landscape that was formed by the Washingtons and their enslaved workers, and George Washington’s years on this ground were essential to his development into an extraordinary man.

Wash-House-Front-Elevation-blog

An architectural rendering of front facade of the interpretive replica of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

Starting with stone masons, who are now working on the site, the construction process involves  a succession of skilled artisans, employing a mix of modern and traditional techniques, including brick masons, blacksmiths, carpenters, joiners, plasterers, and painters, who together will produce the rich detail and beauty of a colonial home.

Once the replica house is in place, the Foundation will reconstruct the support buildings, fences, and yards, informed by archaeology and historical research, that surrounded and served the house.  To date, we have unearthed remnants of a kitchen, slave quarter, trash yard, work yard, hen yard, and storehouse from the Washington period.  As archaeology continues to reveal additional structures and other elements, they will be added to the landscape until we create a place that evokes early Virginia and portrays what life was like for young George Washington.  Because the house is a reconstruction, we look forward to presenting colonial America in ways not possible for most historic house museums.  We will light fires in the fireplace, open windows, and invite visitors to sit in the chairs.  This unique environment will let guests experience eighteenth-century life with all their senses.

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Architectural floor plans of the interpretive replica of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

As Ferry Farm transitions from grassy fields to construction site, please stop in and witness the making of history up close.  George Washington’s Boyhood Home in Stafford County, Virginia, is open Monday through Sunday.  We invite you to explore Ferry Farm with the self-guided iPad tour, “Uncovering George Washington’s Youth,” or participate in a dynamic educational program relating to archaeology, history, and the natural environment.  The Foundation also offers special events and tours at its sister site, Historic Kenmore Plantation in Fredericksburg. You can follow the progress at Ferry Farm on this blog, as well as the Foundation’s Facebook page and website, where we will offer glimpses into eighteenth-century construction techniques and address historical issues.  We hope you will visit George Washington’s Ferry Farm soon.

David Muraca
Director of Archaeology

Learn more about building George Washington’s boyhood home in Clint Schemmer’s article, “George Washington Really Did Sleep Here”, on the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star’s website.