Nancy Hallam: America’s First Celebrity Actress

Virginia celebrates a proud theatrical history. It boasts the first recorded performance of a play in all the colonies.  It also claims the first permanent playhouse and the first evening of professional theatre. That first evening was in September of 1752 and was presented by Lewis Hallam’s London Company of Comedians. What set this company above others in the colonies was that they had actual experience with professional performances in London.

At the center of this company was the Hallam family. The leader of the Company and patriarch of the family was Lewis Hallam.  Lewis’s brother sent him to Virginia to start a successful traveling company, which had never been attempted before by performers from England. With him, Lewis brought his wife Sarah, who starred as the new company’s leading lady, and three of their children. In a few short years, the company established itself as a clear success and, in spite of the loss of Lewis Hallam in 1756, the company continued to travel the colonies for almost twenty years.

In 1765, Nancy Hallam, a young niece of Sarah’s, came from London to perform with the successful troupe now rechristened as The American Company of Comedians. Actually, Nancy may have been the same ‘Miss Hallam’ who played children’s roles with the Company in 1759 but this is uncertain. In 1766, Nancy starred in the ingénue roles and quickly moved up within the Company. In 1769, she took over the role of Juliet while performing in New York, marking her beginning as the company’s leading lady during which she starred in comedies, tragedies, and even ballad operas (the musicals of the age.)

A playbill for the American Company featuring Nancy Hallam.

A playbill for the American Company featuring Nancy Hallam. She is featured as the lead in Thomas Arne’s ballad opera Love in a Village.

In 1770, the American Company returned to Williamsburg with their new ingénue and premiered with The Beggar’s Opera, the most famous ballad opera of the 18th century. This performance was undoubtedly chosen to display Nancy’s vocal talents; talents that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would have enjoyed as they were in attendance. Her talent as a singer as well as an actress was praised throughout the colonies. Her performance as Imogen in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline inspired one theatre-goer to write a glowing review in the September 6, 1770 edition of the Maryland Gazette.

“She exceeds my utmost idea. Such delicacy of manner! Such classical strictness of expression! The musick of her tongue! The Vox Liquida, how melting!… How true and thorough her knowledge of the character she personated! Her whole form and dimensions how happily convertible, and universally adapted to the variety of her part.”[1]

Nancy Hallam’s portrayal of Imogen caught the attention of another Marylander. After losing his father in 1750, when he was only 9 years old, the young Charles Willson Peale apprenticed as a saddle maker. After completing his apprenticeship and opening his own saddle shop, Peale realized his true calling was to become a painter.  He spent several years travelling the colonies as an amateur painter and met other early American artists such as James Claypoole, Jr. and John Singleton Copley (known for his portrait of Paul Revere). Eventually, Peale traveled to London to study portrait painting from 1767-1769. Upon his return to the colonies, he started taking up commissions around his home of Annapolis, a city the American Company frequented.

In 1771, Peale painted Nancy Hallam portraying the famous ingénue Imogen in Cymbeline. The painting depicts her in what is known as a ‘breeches role’ where Imogen is hiding her true identity by posing as a male servant named Fidele.  Peale’s painting is the sole image of a professional actor from America in the period. It is also unique because it depicts a woman who is not wearing 18th-century women’s clothing.  The image gives great insight to the level of costuming that went into a professional production. It also illustrates the fashion of the time to dress servants in lavish and unique garb.  In this case, she is in what was known as ‘Turkish’ attire that includes a turban, long waistcoat, and wide loose breeches.

Nancy Hallam as Fidele in Shakespeare's Cymbeline. 1771. Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Nancy Hallam as Fidele in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. 1771. Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Peale’s career may have been just beginning, but the American Company and Nancy Hallam were not long for America. The same event  — The American Revolution — pushed one artist to prominence while pushing the others away. During the war, there was no place for frivolous evenings at the playhouse. Professional companies left the warring colonies and Nancy Hallam apparently retired from the stage.

The year after he painted Nancy Hallam, Charles Willson Peale painted a Virginia Colonel and veteran of the French and Indian War at his home of Mount Vernon. This was not the last time George Washington sat for the painter. Peale is credited with painting the most images of the first President along with other early American notables. Peale also painted several portraits for the Lewis family: two of which hang in Historic Kenmore today.

John Lewis by Charles Willson Peale. Part of the George Washington Foundation Collection. Currently on display in Kenmore.

John Lewis by Charles Willson Peale. Part of the George Washington Foundation Collection.

For a limited time, those portraits are joined at Kenmore by a reproduction of Nancy Hallam’s Cymbeline costume and a print of Peale’s portrait of her.  The costume and portrait are on loan to The George Washington Foundation from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  They are on display in the Crowninshield Museum Building in the run-up to the production of Cymbeline during “Shakespeare by Candlelight” on August 14, 15, or 16.  For more details about attending a performance, which does require reservations, visit www.kenmore.org.

Joseph Ziarko, Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

[1] Johnson, Odai, The Colonial American Stage, 1665-1774: A Documentary Calendar, Cranbury: Associated University Presses., 2001, pg. 372.

‘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.

‘King Lear’ in Washington’s Day: Part 1

The audience enjoys last year’s Shakespeare on the Lawn performance of “Macbeth.”

Once again this summer, Historic Kenmore looks forward to its annual Shakespeare on the Lawn performances.  While settings and costumes may change, today’s Shakespeare audiences most usually witness performances that remain true to the artistry of an unchallenged master carefully crafting his words and stories for the Elizabethan age.  Two centuries ago, however, colonial-era theatregoers like George Washington (who loved attending the theater and did so right here in Fredericksburg) and Fielding Lewis often witnessed drastically altered versions of the Bard’s famous works.

Today, William Shakespeare’s King Lear is celebrated as his greatest tragedy; some may even argue one of the greatest theatrical tragedies ever.   This June, Kenmore’s audiences will see Shakespeare’s tragic version, which is far different from the version Washington or Lewis may have witnessed.  Indeed, in times past, Shakespeare’s Lear was not always a tragedy.  In this two-part post, we’ll review the history of the Lear story and discuss how that story changed to please audiences of different eras.

King Lear was not a random literary invention of William Shakespeare. In fact, his Lear was not even the first character of that name to tread the board of an English stage. The name and story of King Lear (or Leir in the earlier iterations) come to us originally from Geoffrey Monmouth’s Latin manuscript Historia Regum Britanniae [“History of the Kings of Britain”] written c. 1136.  Monmouth actually introduces two kings that Shakespeare would dramatize in his writings: Cymbeline and Leir.

Monmouth’s Leir is a king of 8th Century BCE Brittany and is assumed to be more myth than man. Still, the story is a familiar one.  It tells of a king who divides his land between his three daughters.  To decide who gets the largest portion, Leir asks who loves him the most. The two elder daughters, Gonorilla and Ragau, lie and flatter their father but the youngest and only true daughter, Cordeilla, answers humbly. Leir banishes his youngest child.  He is then betrayed, usurped, and banished by Gonorilla and Ragau.  Now united, Cordeilla and Leir rally an army, restore him to the throne, and survive the ordeal.  This is the story known to English history and folklore long before Shakespeare’s time.

But is this the account that inspires Shakespeare?  Honestly, it is difficult to say. In the Elizabethan age, Historia Regum Britanniae had not yet been translated from Latin.  Shakespeare undoubtedly took Latin lessons in his youth and perhaps he was exposed to Monmouth’s stories in these lessons.

There are, however, two other works from Shakespeare’s own time that are more likely to have inspired his classic tragedy: Holinshed’s history book The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland and a play called The Chronicle History of King Leir.

Holinshed’s Chronicles is a collection of stories from British history originally published in 1577 and then again in 1587.  It included two stories that Shakespeare dramatized. One was the story of a somewhat forgotten Scottish king named Macbeth while the other was the story of King Leir.

The play The Chronicle History of King Leir about a father and his three daughters clearly took its story of Leir from Holinshed’s Chronicles.  It was performed at the Rose Theatre in 1594.  Shakespeare clearly knew this play since it features similar passages to some of his own scenes. Yet, this earlier play is still missing some of the key elements for which Shakespeare’s is known.  There is no fool, the subplot between Gloucester and his sons is absent, and, most notably, Leir and Cordelia survive. These elements are the inventions of the Bard.  What inspired him to change this tragicomedy into his greatest tragedy?

Title page for M. William Shake-speare, his true chronicle historie of the life and death of King Lear, and his three daughters, 1608, by William Shakespeare

Title page for M. William Shake-speare, his true chronicle historie of the life and death of King Lear, and his three daughters, 1608, by William Shakespeare

The state of English society and its monarchy when Shakespeare wrote King Lear is key to understanding this shift.  The only known performance of Shakespeare’s version in the Bard’s lifetime was for King James I on St. Stephen’s Day in 1606.  Only three years earlier, James’ accession united England and Scotland into one kingdom. Such a shift in power, even a peaceful one, caused a rise in tension among Britons. These tensions were especially high following the Gunpowder Plot, when Catholics attempted to assassinate the Protestant James by blowing up Parliament the previous year.

Like art from any era, Shakespeare took his cues from the fears of the populous. His play came out in an England nervous about its future. The last monarch died without a direct heir.  Some questioned the current monarch’s claim. Fears of faction and civil war were in abundance.

Shakespeare’s tale about a king who divides his kingdom reflected the fears of the people of England and had a very tangible correlation to their own lives. Shakespeare’s King Lear is a cautionary tale about a divided kingdom; it is an example of everything terrible that can come from a nation dividing itself. This is why Shakespeare allows a fool to cast doubt on the king’s decisions, allows a monarch to go mad, and allows an ending that is full of tragedy without hope.

This Elizabethan version is the King Lear known to most modern theatregoers and it comes right out of Shakespeare’s world. Just as Elizabethan audiences expected the play to reflect their times, however, later 18th century audiences also wanted a King Lear unique to their time and tastes. In part two, we’ll see how the English Civil War and the Restoration changed this story once again as King Lear comes to the America of George Washington and Fielding Lewis.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

See Shakespeare’s King Lear during Historic Kenmore’s Shakespeare on the Lawn. For details, check below or visit http://kenmore.org/events.html.

King Lear

Coming Soon! William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”

King Lear

Shakespeare on the Lawn at Kenmore returns this June with four performances of the popular drama, King Lear, performed by The Fredericksburg Players and directed by Fred Franklin.

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most heart-breaking tragedies—the story of a father who puts his faith in his two treacherous, elder daughters while casting out his youngest daughter, the only one that he truly loves. The play features conniving relatives and secret plots. It concludes with the deaths of the King’s advisor, all three of his daughters, and of course, Lear himself.

As Kenmore prepares for another summer of the Bard, Lives & Legacies shares a few posters from past theatrical performances at Kenmore.

Be sure to watch for forthcoming details about more summertime Shakespeare coming in August to Kenmore!