The Thriving Theatre of Colonial America

Theatre is one of America’s most popular and thriving art forms. It has been a part of American culture since the early part of the 18th century. The development of theatre in the earliest American colonies in New England was prohibited because of those colonists’ strong Puritan beliefs. Colonial America’s first theater was built in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1716 after a number of English actors arrived in the more-accepting South and began performing plays.  Acting ensembles and student groups performed plays, which for the most part were amateur productions, in makeshift theaters and temporary venues—anything from a barn to a large tavern room. Eventually, theaters were built in other cities like Philadelphia in 1724, New York in the mid-1730s, and Charleston in 1736.

The typical colonial theater was not like the ornate theaters of today. Shaped like a shoebox, the stage occupied one-third of the space. The seating took up the remaining space. All different walks of life and classes came together to enjoy theatre performances from the boxes, the pit, or the gallery. The box seats were reserved for the wealthy, whose objective was to be on display for everyone while watching the play. The boxes were raised on the sides of the theater and faced each other and not the stage. The “middling sort” or middle class sat on the theater’s floor in the pit on wood benches. George Washington, a devoted fan of theatre, was said to have preferred watching from the pit despite being of the higher gentry class than other patrons seated there. The gallery was for the “lesser sort”—students, sailors, and even slaves – and was located in the area we’d call the balcony. In England, the lower sort could determine a play’s success and became known as “the gallery gods.”

Royal Theatre, Drury Lane 1813

This sketch of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London in 1813 — not long after it opened — gives an idea of how one of the world’s finest theaters appeared in the early 19th century. Colonial America’s theaters would not have been this elaborate. Indeed, many of the acting companies traveling in the colonies performed wherever they could. Performances usually took place in taverns but sometimes even in barns. Credit: Public domain.

William Hallam and his brother Lewis Hallam were the first to organize a complete company of professional actors called The London Company of Comedians in Europe to bring to the American colonies. They had seen moderate success but then eventual failure in England, so they decided to try their luck in America. They had their first performance in Williamsburg in 1752, where they rented a large wooden structure which they altered to meet their needs. Their opening play was Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and music was supplied by a single player on a harpsichord. It was said that the venue was so near the forest that the players were able to shoot wild fowl from the windows of the building.

Nancy_Hallam_as_Fidele_in_Shakespeare's_Cymbeline_Charles_Willson_Peale_1771

Nancy Hallam, a niece of Lewis Hallam, as Fidele in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline by Charles Willson Peale (1771). Credit: Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Lewis Hallam died in 1754 or 1755 in Jamaica where they had gone to perform, and his widow Sarah married David Douglass, manager of another company in the West Indies. In 1758 the companies merged and returned to New York City with Douglass as manager. The Hallams’ son Lewis Hallam Jr. was an actor and star of the company.  Responding to a growing sense of national pride, they renamed themselves the American Company of Comedians in 1763. They toured and converted theatres up and down the East Coast including the Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia, the first permanent playhouse in America and built in 1766. They also built the John Street Theatre, later known as the Theatre Royal, in New York in 1767. The Prince of Parthia, a Neo-Classical tragedy by Thomas Godfrey, was the first stage play written by an American to be presented in America by professional actors on April 24, 1767.

There were frequent attempts to ban plays during the Revolutionary War including a 1774 decision by the Continental Congress. This was a result of the opposition to British imports, as most plays were from England, as well as objections to the supposed frivolous nature of drama and other entertainments during a dangerous political crisis.

Once America gained independence from Britain, theatre began to flourish again as a national cultural art form. Restrictive wartime legislation was soon repealed and theaters opened across the country, including in formerly anti-theatre New England. By the end of the 18th century, American theatre was a rapidly growing, socially acceptable art-form, and it continues to thrive today throughout the country.

Jessica Burger
Manager of Marketing, Communications, and Technology

View theatre as many did in the 18th century—outside! Shakespeare on the Lawn at Kenmore returns for its fifteenth year with performances of As You Like It—Saturdays and Sundays: June 9-10 and 16-17, 7:00 p.m. Arrive early to tour the mansion and view the refurnishing. Bring folding chairs or a blanket, and maybe bring a picnic supper to enjoy.

As You Like It image

Sources:

Peter Holland and Michael Patterson, “Eighteenth-century Theatre,” The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre, John Russell Brown, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2001: 255-298 http://thowe.pbworks.com/f/eighteenth.century.theatre.pdf [accessed May 25, 2018]

“Theatre in Colonial Virginia,” Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Gazette, April 2006, http://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume4/april06/theatre.cfm [accessed May 25, 2018].

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Photos: “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” 2018

Each January, Historic Kenmore presents Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation that imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis spent in their newly built home. The play is set in January 1776 and that year is not a time for the usual celebration. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.

The 2018 edition of Twelfth Night at Kenmore took place January 5, 6, and 7. Here are a few photos from the performances.

Dressing the Past: Costuming Challenges at Ferry Farm & Kenmore

Twelfth Night 2016 19

The cast of Twelfth Night at Kenmore in their period clothing. In our educational programming, we must dress staff and actors of different body types who portray a variety of social classes and time periods.

We have been working tirelessly to improve the accuracy of the costumes that actors and staff wear when performing for or interacting with the public at Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm. This is no easy task, but it improves the visitor experience and helps them better understand the Washington and the Lewis families in the context of the 18th century.

This blog post addresses some of the challenges and successes we’ll continue to experience as we expand our costuming after the reconstructed Washington house and the new historic landscape at Ferry Farm opens to the public.

Some of the challenges we face are no different than what other sites face. The modern expense of this specialized clothing, the difficulty of fitting multiple wearers, questions of time period to portray and achieving the small true-to-life details of historic clothing are all important to the success of dressing the interpretive staff. But we’ve come a long way and are on the path to sustained success.  We’ve been working on all of the pitfalls mentioned above and have made great headway. Below is an examination of some of the difficulties we’ve faced and the ways we have met them straight on.

Expense of this Historic Clothing

Cloak

Cloaks are necessary to keep actors and staff warm but they are among the more expensive pieces of clothing needed to properly dress as someone from the 18th century.

The cost of well-made, accurate period clothing is one of the greatest hurdles we’ve or, for that matter, any historic site or museum experiences. Eighteenth century clothing is a highly specialized type of clothing that is often imitated with mixed success. For example, a good quality off-the-rack great coat costs about $325, while a custom-made high-end 18th century men’s great coat costs about $1,000. There were pieces in our costume stock that did not fit our criteria and had to be removed – meaning they had to be replaced with new (and more expensive) articles of clothing. Correcting past clothing choices is its own challenge, but it is far from insurmountable. We make very careful decisions about what was a priority and where we should spend resources first and we have begun acquiring garments that we deem priorities.

One-Size-Fits-No One

Because of the number of people we costume, we sometimes have to use the same costumes on different people (not at the same time, of course!). This is a challenge because both men’s and women’s 18th century clothing was fitted to the individual. A tailor would custom-make waistcoats, coats, and breeches to fit the wearer; even when the ensemble was fashioned out of a hand-me-down suit.  Mantua makers (dress makers) would custom-make women’s gowns and petticoats to fit snugly. We must make our clothing fit a variety of wearers.  We are now quite proficient in the art of pinning and mysteries of knot tying. It’s not perfect, but it goes a long way toward creating a more accurate fit.

Another important part of fit for women is the undergarments. Stays, bum rolls, and hoops create the ideal 18th century shape. Stays were 18th century support garments, much the way corsets were in the 19th century. We recently made acquiring stays a priority and purchased some in a variety of sizes.  This has improved the actor’s appearance in addition to helping her achieve the proper 18th century posture.  Bum rolls accentuate the behind (no, really!) and hoops accentuate the hips.  These help create a period appropriate look that we are now pleased to share with visitors.

The True-to-Life Details

Costume details

Small details like the fan, necklace, brooch, and hair style create a fully realized character with a stronger connection to the past.

Just as it is today, the small details make the 18th century outfit. Attention to men’s and women’s shoe buckles and hats, men’s knee buckles, and women’s jewelry and stays polishes the look that makes history come alive. Our men’s and women’s hats are correct to the period and we have a nice but limited collection of accouterments.  Because 18th-century-style shoes are expensive and we can’t exactly buy a pair of shoes in every size, we have been using buckles on plain black shoes to disguise their modernity. As we move forward, we are working on better solutions to best achieve the small details needed to make a costume fully 18th century.

1750s vs. 1770s

Another challenge we face as the Washington house and Ferry Farm’s new historic landscape gradually come on-line is that we’ll have to costume staff for both the 1750s – the period we interpret at Ferry Farm – and the 1770s – the period we interpret at Kenmore.  This is important for a number of reasons. First, we want to demonstrate clearly that the events that took place at the two sites took place in two different time periods. This sounds obvious, but visitors will better internalize the time difference between the sites with the aid of clothing. Secondly, it would be flat-out wrong to dress the staff portraying our historic figures at both places in clothing from the same period. As a museum, we have a responsibility to make the visitor experience as accurate as possible.

Despite the challenges, our devotion to accuracy in the period clothing worn by our staff will improve the visitors’ experience and help them better understand the Washington and Lewis Families.

Kelly Brennan Arehart
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Photos: “Much Ado About Nothing” at Kenmore’s Shakespeare on the Lawn

Shakespeare on the Lawn at Historic Kenmore returns this coming weekend with two more performances of Much Ado About Nothing.  Catch one of the final shows at 7:00 p.m. either on Saturday, June 17 or on Sunday, June 18.  Arrive early to tour the mansion and view the refurnishing. Bring folding chairs or a blanket and a picnic. Thank you to sponsor Lewis Insurance Associates. More event details are here. In the meantime, enjoy these scenes from last weekend’s performances!

Photos: “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” 2017

Each January, Historic Kenmore presents Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation that imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis spent in their newly built home. The play is set in January 1776 and that year is not a time for the usual celebration. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.

The 2017 edition of Twelfth Night at Kenmore took place this past weekend. Here are a few photos from that performance.

Henry Mitchell, A Loyalist’s Sacrifice

Editor’s Note: This Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Historic Kenmore presents its annual production of Twelfth Night at Kenmore (click for event details). This dramatic theatre presentation imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Lewis celebrate in their newly built home. It is not the usual joyous atmosphere, however. The Revolutionary War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends. Among these friends is Henry Mitchell, whose support for the American cause is being questioned by his neighbors and by Henry himself. Mitchell is a new character for this year’s Twelfth Night but was also a real merchant living in Fredericksburg in the 1700s. To create this character, we researched the real Henry Mitchell. This blog post shares the fascinating story we discovered. 

When we look back over two centuries, victory in the American War of Independence seems inevitable.  Similarly, we often think that all of our ancestors chose the ‘right’ side and supported independence during the Revolution.  Things were far more complex, of course.  A sizable portion of the population — two historians say about 20% — living in British North America opposed revolution and fought against independence.

benjamin-franklins-join-or-die

This political cartoon from the a 1754 edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette and believed to have been created by Benjamin Franklin originally appeared during the French and Indian War but was used again during the American Revolution to encourage the colonies to unite against British rule. Credit: Library of Congress

One such individual in Fredericksburg, Virginia was Henry Mitchell, a merchant born in Scotland who came to America, lived in Fredericksburg for nearly two decades, and worked as the Virginia-based factor (representative) for a trading house in Glasgow.[1]

Henry Mitchell participated in the community and, in the early days of tensions between the colonies and the mother country, took part in the anti-British non-importation movement known as the Virginia Association.  Indeed, Mitchell was named an Associator on October 23, 1770, the same day Fielding Lewis was placed on the committee as noted in the Virginia Gazette.  The Associators made sure the local populace did not purchase boycotted goods. The Association lasted a short-while before collapsing in 1771.[2]

Along with this political activity, Mitchell frequented George Weedon’s tavern and, on December 27, 1773, attended “dinner and club” with Fielding Lewis and several other Fredericksburg luminaries before Masonic services.[3]

Then, a strange incident took place in early 1775.  In nearby Orange County, as reported in the Virginia Gazette, Rev. John Wingate was brought before the local patriot committee to answer for allegedly possessing “pamphlets containing very obnoxious reflections on the Continental Congress and their proceedings.”  He was ordered to produce the pamphlets. Wingate refused, saying “that they belonged to Mr. Henry Mitchell of Fredericksburg” and that he could not show them to the committee without Mitchell’s “express permission.”  The committee tried to persuade Wingate that since Mitchell “was well known to be an associator, and acknowledged by himself to be a hearty friend to the cause” that he would not mind if they looked at the pamphlets.  Then, they noted ominously that “if Mr. Mitchell was not this hearty friend we hoped him to be,” then the committee would demand Mitchell himself come before them and show them the pamphlets.  Wingate finally relented and no further discussion of Mitchell was recorded.

This incident raises all sorts of questions.  Did the pamphlets really belong to Henry Mitchell? Was Wingate telling the truth or attempting to smear Mitchell for some reason? Was Mitchell undergoing some kind of change that had caused or was causing him to shift from supporting the anti-British Virginia Association to embracing loyalism?  Were his earlier patriot leanings an act? If so, to what purpose?  If you’re not careful, you can succumb to all sorts of wild speculation!

Mitchell continued his trade in Fredericksburg throughout 1775. Then, at the end of the year, he placed an ad in the December 8 edition of the Virginia Gazette announcing he would be leaving the colony in the spring and that he wished to settle his accounts before departing. Although loyalists often made their intentions to leave known in this way, Mitchell specifically noted his plans to return.

In July 1776, merchants in Fredericksburg suspected of loyalism were brought before the local committee and direct to either take a loyalty oath as required by the most recent Virginia Convention or, if they would not do so, to give up their arms. Henry Mitchell was among this group of, as the Virginia Gazette put it, “Sundry persons, supposed to be inimical to America” and refused to take the oath.  Having refused to swear allegiance to the American cause, he and other loyalists they were ordered to be sent the governor so they could be expelled from Virginia.[4]

king-george-iii-of-england-by-johann-zoffany-1771

Portrait of George III of the United Kingdom (1771) by Johann Zoffany. Credit: Wikipedia/The Royal Collection.

This expulsion did not happen immediately, however. Mitchell finally placed an ad in the Virginia Gazette on February 21, 1777 announcing his intention “to leave this Country” permanently and notifying those to whom he owed debts and vice versa to settle them up.  He also advertised his houses in Fredericksburg as available for sale or rent.

mobbing-the-tories-from-charles-and-mary-beards-history-of-the-united-states

“Mobbing the Tories” illustration in History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, New York: McMillan, 1921

Why did Henry Mitchell and vast numbers of colonists choose to remain loyal to the crown instead of supporting independence?  The answer to that question really comes down to each individual loyalist whose motivations were often very personal and unique.  Unfortunately, we do not know Mitchell’s particular reasons.  People who found themselves held under suspicion by their patriot neighbors were often pushed to loyalism by the fear of mob rule or anarchy.  The patriots’ use of loyalty oaths may have actually created many loyalists.  People resented being forced to choose sides.  Meanwhile, merchants and others whose livelihood depended on trade with Britain and the rest of the empire sometimes choose empire over independence for simple but powerful economic motivations.[5]

In 1777, Mitchell finally left Fredericksburg for H.M.S. Phoenix and went to New York, where he lived until 1781 and continued his trading activities.  He then sailed to Scotland in 1781 and found his “partners had misapplied remittances” sent from Virginia.  He was left bankrupt and dependent on relatives.[6]

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] “Mitchell, Henry,” American Loyalist Claims, Washington, DC: National Genealogical Society, 1980, 351; Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, The American History Company, 1998, 238n.

[2] Felder, 193.

[3] Felder, 180.

[4] Felder, 231, 238.

[5] Shannon Duffy, Ph.D., “Loyalists,” The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/loyalists/ [accessed December 14, 2016].

[6] American Loyalist Claims, 351; Felder, 240n.