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).

Fredericksburg’s June Fair

Ask someone to list traditional summertime activities and they will probably mention picnics, family reunions, beach vacations, mountain getaways, and baseball games. Their list is likely to include going to the fair as well.  The fair as a summer pastime is a long tradition and like many American traditions can be traced back to the age of Washington.

In 1738, Augustine Washington moved his wife Mary and their five children, including six-year-old George, to Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Coincidentally, in the same year, the colony’s General Assembly authorized two fairs to be held each year in Fredericksburg (pg. 35). This act built on an earlier ordinance passed in 1705 allowing for ‘markets and fairs’ as a necessary and civilizing element of early Virginian society.

Although other cities held fairs, Fredericksburg was one of the few that held a fair in June.  Sometimes called June Fair, it was one of the oldest and largest in the colony.  June Fair and other fairs were “first and foremost a market ‘for the sale and vending of all manner of cattle, victuals, provisions, goods, wares, and merchandizes.’ Prizes, ‘or bounties,’ were sometimes offered for the best stock and poultry” (pg. 18).

Pieter Angillis, 1685–1734, Flemish, active in Britain (from ca. 1715), Covent Garden, ca. 1726, Oil on copper. Pubic domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Although this painting depicts a busy London agricultural market in the early 1700s, a similar hustle and bustle likely filled Fredericksburg during June Fair.  Covent Garden (1726) by Pieter Angillis, 1685–1734, Flemish, active in Britain (from ca. 1715), Oil on copper. Pubic domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Fairs were about more than agriculture, however. The importance of a summer fair was its ability to gather people from all over the surrounding counties to a single central location to conduct business and government and to offer social interactions and entertainments.  In an agricultural colony such as Virginia, homes and plantations were very distant from one another and, for much of the year, people hardly saw anyone besides their immediate neighbors and family members.  Most colonial Virginians traveled no more than fifty miles from home in their lifetimes. This made for an isolated existence focused on the constant attendance of crops. During natural seasonal breaks, however, farmers traveled to a town to sell those crops at the fair.

Fairs were not just for farmers to sell. Court sessions, also known as ‘Public Times’, often coincided with fairs. Soon merchants and entertainers saw opportunity in the large numbers of people gathered together at the fair. Many people got paid or, more likely, an increase in credit and ready money made the fair a natural time to celebrate, entertain, gamble, and socialize.

Among the amusements common to colonial-era fairs,

“contests for prizes . . . in cudgeling, wrestling, manual-exercises, foot-racing, dancing, singing, violin-playing, greased-pig-chasing, etc. Prizes were offered to the most beautiful maid.  In towns large enough to warrant their attention, companies of actors sometimes arranged to give plays during fairs. Such plays, however, were held at the local play-house or theatre, and not on the market-square, where the fair usually took place” (pg. 19).

For example, in 1752, an acting troupe known as “THE Company of COMEDIANS, from the new Theatre at Williamsburg, propose[d] … to proceed to Fredericksburg, to play during the Continuance of June Fair.” The troupe hoped “That all Gentlemen and Ladies, who are Lovers of Theatrical Entertainments, will favour us with their Company.”

Company of Comedians - Va Gazette

Advertisement in The Virginia Gazette announcing the appearance of the Company of Comedians at June Fair in 1752.

The fair brought people together to conduct more than agricultural business.  Indeed, “the fair was also a place where men met to make and pay debts. Land, houses, storehouses, and personal property were offered for sale at fairs — privately and by public auction” (pg. 18).

During June Fair in 1751, 19-year-old George Washington auctioned off two of his lots in Fredericksburg.  His announcement of the sale in The Virginia Gazette offered the lots, “where Mr. Doncastle and Mr. Black lately kept Tavern, next June Fair, to the highest Bidder, for Cash or Bills. Eight Months Credit will be allow’d on giving Security, as usual” and was signed “George Washington.”

Washington Virginia Gazette Ad

Announcement placed in The Virginia Gazette by George Washington announcing his intention to auction off two lots of his land in Fredericksburg at June Fair in 1751.

A decade later at June Fair in 1760, George’s account ledger shows him paying Fielding Lewis £40.  Furthermore, just few days before paying his debt to brother-in-law Fielding, George also bought tickets to a ball and lost money on a horse race, both popular fair activities.

Indeed, “the most popular attractions of the fairs in Virginia and Maryland were the horse-races . . . held at race-tracks near the town. Purses were subscribed, and many gentlemen, who had no interest in the other activities, would attend the races” (pg. 19).

Gambling at the fair, mainly in the form of lotteries, even supported more noble pursuits.  At June Fair in 1769, a lottery was undertaken to raise £450 for building a new church and for purchasing an organ for that church.  The drawing was to take place on “the 7th day of JUNE next (being the first day of the Fredericksburg fair) at the town-house” and was supervised and supported by a host of the town’s luminaries including Charles Dick, Hugh Mercer, Charles Washington (George’s brother), George Weedon, and Fielding Lewis.

June Fair was a community event attended by Virginians from across the colony and brought George Washington back to his boyhood home on more than one occasion.  At the fair, Virginians sold farm goods and land, settled debts and tried court cases, enjoyed a play and gambled on the horses.  June Fair, much like today’s summer pastimes, was a moment in the year to enjoy the summer weather and the company of neighbors, friends, and family before returning to isolated plantations and farms and the unending work of plowing, planting, and harvest.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

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

Photos: Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” by Candlelight

The Rude Mechanicals presented candlelight performances of William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline this past weekend at Historic Kenmore.

‘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.