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: “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: “Hamlet” at Kenmore’s Shakespeare on the Lawn

Hamlet (1)

Shakespeare on the Lawn at Historic Kenmore returns this weekend with two more performances of Hamlet.  Catch the one of the final shows at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 18 or Sunday, June  19.  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! Learn more at http://www.kenmore.org/events.html.  In the meantime, enjoy these scenes from last weekend’s performances!

 

To See or Not to See? Portraying Hamlet in the 18th Century

Editor’s Note: At the annual Shakespeare on the Lawn performances this June, Historic Kenmore will present Hamlet. The following blog post looks at the actors who played the most famous of Shakespeare’s roles during the 18th century. Details about attending the performances at Kenmore can be found at the end of this entry.

Since the time when Richard Burbage of The Chamberlain’s Men first performed the role originally written for him by William Shakespeare, actors have long desired to play Hamlet.  As a character, Hamlet must convey both a flamboyant madness and a subtle deception, deliver long speeches of blank verse, and ultimately end the play with exhausting fight scene and tragic death. These highs and lows have made actors covet the complex role for centuries.

In the 1700s, Hamlet was wildly popular in London in part due to famous portrayals by different actors. At the beginning of that century, Thomas Betterton was still portraying the young Prince of Denmark as he had first done on London stages back in 1661. Although his portrayal of the young Dane spanned 50 years, theatre-going Londoners still praised Betterton’s Hamlet into the eighteenth century.

If there was one name to know on the London stage in the 18th century, it was David Garrick. As a writer and actor, he was synonymous with celebrity. Garrick’s portrayal of Hamlet in the 1740s was one of the performances that made him into that celebrity. He would go on to perform his own adaptation of Hamlet, which omitted Ophelia’s and Gertrude’s deaths, readjusted act breaks, and reintroduced much of Shakespeare’s original text. The original text had slowly been stripped away throughout the 1700s due to the play’s length. It was Garrick’s unique theatricality that inspired him to employ a striking feature.  During the scene when Hamlet first meets the Ghost he wore a special wig with hair that could stand on cue to signifying his terror.

Garrick as Hamlet

Etching of David Garrick in Hamlet from Dramatic Characters, or Different Portraits of the English Stage, 1773. Public Domain. Credit: Wikipedia

Not to be out done by men, actresses of the 18th century were also known to perform Hamlet on English stages. In what were known as ‘breeches roles’ at the time, it was common to see actresses step into men’s roles. However, this was far more common in comedies than in tragedies. Both Fanny Furnival (the first recorded female Hamlet) and Charlotte Charke (daughter of playwright and poet laureate Colley Cibber) played the role of Hamlet, albeit never on a London stage. The most famous eighteenth century female Hamlet to tread the boards was Sarah Siddons, who brought a respectability and gravitas to the role that raised the public esteem of actresses across England.

Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Siddons (1755-1831)

Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Siddons (1785) by Sir Thomas Gainsborough . Public domain. Credit: National Gallery, London

While these different depictions of Hamlet are fascinating, they never crossed the Atlantic. In fact, the first group of professional actors would not perform in the colonies until 1752. At the center of this London Company of Comedians was the Hallam family. They came to the American Colonies in search of audiences seeking quality professional theatre. On September 15, 1752, their first performance was The Merchant of Venice in Williamsburg, Virginia. That evening would also be the debut performance of the young Lewis Hallam Jr., son of the company’s manger and leading lady. Lewis would go on to become the leading man of the company.  In the first recorded performance of Hamlet in the colonies in Philadelphia on July 27, 1759, the playbill lists 17-year-old Lewis in the title role.  He and his company would tour the colonies for the next 15 years until the American Revolution forced theatre from our shores.

Company of Comedians - Va Gazette

Hallam’s Company of Comedians announcing their intention to perform in Fredericksburg in The Virginia Gazette on April 30, 1752.

Not all colonial Americans had the opportunity to see Hamlet upon the stage. Theatre was banned in Massachusetts throughout the colonial time period. Thus, Williamsburg was a frequent stop of Hallam’s company, which came to be called the American Company of Comedians. Of all the recorded performances in Virginia’s capital city, Hamlet is not listed, however. This does not mean that the likes of George Washington and Fielding Lewis could not have seen it.

In fact, a playbill from May of 1771 reveals the American Company of Comedians performed in Fredericksburg, Virginia. This surviving playbill includes a handwritten addition of two performances, All in the Wrong and Hamlet. While the playbill does not include that evening’s cast, we can safely assume Lewis Hallam Jr. played the title role opposite Nancy Hallam as Ophelia.  We wrote about Nancy here last summer.

If people are familiar with any words of Shakespeare, those words are most likely the beginning of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy: “to be or not to be?” But the real question for Shakespeare’s theatre going audiences has always been “to see or not to see?”  Ultimately, the decision was made based on the actor (or actress) playing the famous Dane named Hamlet.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Hamlet Poster

Shakespeare Day in Virginia!

Title page of the First Folio, by William Shakespeare, with copper engraving of the author by Martin Droeshout. Image courtesy of the Elizabethan Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

Title page of the First Folio, by William Shakespeare, with copper engraving of the author by Martin Droeshout. Credit: the Elizabethan Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

Governor Terry McAuliffe has proclaimed today – Saturday, April 23, 2016 – as Shakespeare Day in Virginia!

While we’re planning and preparing Shakespeare on the Lawn in June, our first-ever Shakespeare Camp in July, and Shakespeare by Candlelight in August as Historic Kenmore’s contributions to this year’s many commemorations across the Commonwealth, we want to take a moment on this auspicious day to celebrate Shakespeare’s countless literary achievements!

Both the theater and Shakespeare were beloved by George Washington and that love began when he was young man living here in Fredericksburg.  For this reason, The George Washington Foundation has presented regular performances of Shakespeare’s plays for many years now.

To mark Shakespeare Day, we’ve decided to share some photos from last year’s Shakespeare on the Lawn performance of King Lear.

You can see an additional photo album of last year’s Shakespeare by Candlelight presentation of Cymbeline here as well as a collection of posters from a variety of other past performances here. Furthermore, read up on Shakespeare and theater history here, here, and here.

Finally, here is the text of the Governor’s proclamation:

WHEREAS, William Shakespeare, an English poet, playwright, and actor is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language and one of the world’s pre-eminent dramatists; and 

WHEREAS, 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and is an opportunity to celebrate his work and influence in English literature, film, poetry, and classics studies; and

WHEREAS, the Virginia Shakespeare Initiative (VSI) is a statewide celebration of William Shakespeare’s work, and will host more than a dozen events across the Commonwealth on April 23, 2016; and

WHEREAS, on this day, tourism councils, schools, college systems, libraries, and museums will open their doors to exhibits, activities, and celebrations focusing on the works of Shakespeare; and

WHEREAS, Virginians are encouraged to participate in Shakespeare Day;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Terence R. McAuliffe, do hereby recognize April 23, 2016, as SHAKESPEARE DAY in our COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

‘King Lear’ in Washington’s Day – Part 2

King Lear is known far and wide as William Shakespeare’s finest tragedy but it has not always been the preferred version of the story. In part one, we saw how Shakespeare popularized the old story of King Lear by crafting a story aimed directly at Elizabethan audiences experiencing great political upheaval. In part two, we see how Shakespeare’s Lear changed to reflect the life and times of Restoration England and, ultimately, George Washington’s America.

Not long after the first printing of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the English Civil War brought a temporary end to the monarchy and closed theatres, in part, to prevent civil disorder at public gatherings. Soon, however, laws specifically targeting theatres followed as an outgrowth of Puritanical notions that saw playhouse as dens of vice, sin, and extravagance.

Playhouses’ disfavor ended in 1660 when the Restoration returned King Charles II from his exile in France and placed him on the throne as his father’s successor.  Charles’s return sparked new style of theatre that boasted elegant costumes, fanciful farces, happy endings, and, for the first time in England, women on the stage! It should be no surprise that with a new king and new type of theatre, a new Lear was sure to follow.

Nahum Tate, 1652-1715. Public domain.

Enter Nahum Tate, the son of a Puritan Irish clergyman and a playwright, whose adaptation of King Lear reflected his loyalty to the crown and the Restoration’s jubilance over the monarchy’s return. The History of King Lear debuted in 1682 and brought a new take to the age-old tale. Tate felt Shakespeare’s original was “a Heap of Jewels, unstrung and unpolisht” and needed modernizing. He gave King Lear his own restoration back, removed the questioning and criticizing fool, and added a romance between Cordelia, Lear’s daughter and true heir, and Edgar, Gloucester’s son and true heir.  Tate even gave Gloucester a line clearly referring to Charles’s Restoration: “Conduct me to his Knees to hail; His second Birth of Empire; my dear Edgar; Has, with himself, reveal’d the King’s blest Restauration [sic.]”

For the next 150 years, actors performed and audiences lauded Tate’s version. Not only was the happier ending preferred but Shakespeare’s work was considered like any other Elizabethan playwrights’ work, free to be changed and augmented.

Cover of Tate’s “The History of King Lear,” first performed 1862. Public domain.

Tate’s Lear was not without criticism, of course. In 1711, Joseph Addison, author of Cato (George Washington’s favorite play) lauded Shakespeare’s ability to enact poetical justice and felt that Tate’s version “had lost half its beauty,” by allowing the good to triumph. To a certain extent, Samuel Johnson agreed writing in 1765 that “The Tragedy of King Lear is deservedly celebrated among the dramas of Shakespeare” even though he found Cordelia’s death so sad and tragic that “I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play.” While Johnson appreciated the Bard’s tragedy, he still preferred a lighter Lear.

David Garrick, a star of the 18th century stage, led a movement to immortalize Shakespeare as England’s national poet. He wrote a poetic eulogy about the Bard’s work at the first-ever Shakespeare festival.  Surely he would prefer Shakespeare’s original text? Not quite. When Garrick staged the play and starred as a King Lear in 1756, he restored a good portion of Shakespeare’s original text but also kept Tate’s happy ending and the Cordelia/Edgar romance.

George Washington, Fielding Lewis, and other 18th century colonial Americans would have known Tate’s happier version of King Lear.  American audiences would have to wait to see Tate’s version until after 1752 when the first professional actors arrived in the colonies from London. The first instance of King Lear being performed in any of the colonies comes in 1754 with a performance by Lewis Hallam’s London Company of Comedians in New York. Because so few playbills from the era have survived, this instance might not be the first time the company performed it in the colonies, but it was most certainly not the last.

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 traveling acting companies like those that occasionally performed in Fredericksburg performed wherever they could.  Performances usually took place in taverns but sometimes even in barns. Public domain.

Washington loved theatre and attended the playhouse frequently throughout his life. While Cato was his favorite play, he attended the theater whenever he could. One of the first plays he ever sees is right here in Fredericksburg. Indeed, on June 2, 1752, nineteen-year-old Washington wrote in his diary that he and his brother paid for admission to an evening of theatre. The amateur company that probably performed that evening would have most likely not have attempted a performance of Lear. Later in his life, Washington saw the London Company of Comedians by then renamed the American Company of Comedians many times including during a season in Williamsburg where Nahum Tate’s King Lear was part of their repertoire.  In fact, this company of actors performed in Williamsburg during the fall of 1771. Washington and Thomas Jefferson both attended several nights in a row and the company presented Lear on November 12, 1771. We don’t know if Washington and Jefferson attended on that particular evening or if one of the other evenings also featured a performance of Lear.

Shakespeare’s Lear would have to wait until the next century to be fully restored. In 1838, William Charles Macready finally would restore Shakespeare’s text entirely, nixing the love story, bringing back the fool, and allowing Cordelia and Lear’s deaths to conclude the play.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

See Shakespeare’s King Lear during Historic Kenmore’s Shakespeare on the Lawn. This weekend’s performances at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday or again at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday are the last chance to see the Bard’s popular, yet heartbreaking tragedy, at Kenmore this summer.  Event details can be found at http://kenmore.org/events.html.  See more photos from last weekend’s performances here.

King Lear (Marcus Salley - center) decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters but demands they declare how much they love him first. Goneril (Corinn Keene - far left) makes her disingenuous declaration.

King Lear (Marcus Salley – center) decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters but demands they declare how much they love him first. Goneril (Corinn Keene – far left) makes her disingenuous declaration.

Photos: “King Lear” at Kenmore’s Shakespeare on the Lawn

Shakespeare on the Lawn returned to Historic Kenmore this past weekend with the first two performances of King Lear.  Below are photos from the shows.  Don’t worry if you missed this past weekend’s performances because there are two more shows this coming Saturday, June 20 and Sunday, June 21.  For event details, visit http://kenmore.org/events.html.