This past weekend at Historic Kenmore, the Fredericksburg Theatrical Society presented three performances of the 18th century play The Lying Valet at Historic Kenmore. Here are some photos of the play.
This weekend at Historic Kenmore, The George Washington Foundation will present three performances of The Lying Valet performed by the Fredericksburg Theatrical Society.
First performed in London in 1741, The Lying Valet was written by David Garrick. “If there was one name to know on the London stage in the 18th century,” as we’ve noted in a previous blog, “it was David Garrick. As a writer and actor, he was synonymous with celebrity” and was one of the leading thespians of the time.
The Lying Valet was performed many times in the British Colonies and perhaps could have even been the very first play that life-long theatre fan George Washington ever saw! As noted in an account ledger he kept, twenty-year-old George saw a play for the first time ever on June 2, 1752 during June Fair in Fredericksburg. June Fair was a annual community gathering where Fredericksburgers and other Virginians sold farm goods and land, settled debts and tried court cases, gambled on horse races, and enjoyed a play. Whatever the play was that Washington saw on that day in 1752, it was performed by the Murray-Kean Company of actors. Intriguingly, The Lying Valet was indeed one of the plays in their repertoire but there is no way to know if the play was performed on that day at June Fair.
The Lying Valet tells the story of William Gayless, who lost all of his money after a series of bad choices. Left only with one chair, Gayless attempts to rectify his situation by marrying the rich young lady Melissa, whom he has come to care for, despite the advice of his servant. Timothy Sharp, Gayless’ lying valet, finds himself weaving a few lies to save face for his master, all the while Kitty Pry, a servant to Melissa, attempts to uncover the truth. One thing leads to another as Sharp finds himself caught on the brink of disaster, and it looks as though Gayless will never have a wedding. Will everything end happily, or will lies, consumption, Frenchmen, drunk cooks, half truths, and a significant lack of funds ruin the whole plot?
This weekend’s performances of They Lying Valet take place at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, October 19 and Saturday, October 20 with a 2:00 p.m. matinee on Sunday, October 21. Admission is $10 for adults and $5.00 for students. Pre-purchase of tickets is not necessary as payment will be taken at the door. The performances take place in the Crowninshield Museum of Historic Kenmore at 1201 Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg.
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.”
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.
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.
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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.
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].
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.
A preview of “Twelfth Night at Kenmore,” a dramatic theater presentation at Historic Kenmore on January 5, 6, 7. Visit kenmore.org for event details.
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
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.
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
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
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!