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).

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