The Colonial American Stage, 1665-1774: A Documentary Calendar
Odai Johnson and William J. Burling

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Gone are the days when “early American drama” meant the works of Eugene O’Neill. Fresh explorations of the history of the theater in pre-twentieth-century America have been appearing at a surprising rate in recent years, reviving a scholarly tradition that began with playwright and theater manager William Dunlap’s History of the American Theatre (1832). These studies, including the work of Gary A. Richardson and Jeffrey H. Richards, as well as the first volume of Don Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby’s Cambridge History of American Theatre, have also begun to address some of the major challenges still facing American theater historians.1 Documentary evidence pertaining to the colonial American theater is scattered and often difficult to obtain and many early historians treated primary source documentation cavalierly. Furthermore, many important sources for pre-twentieth-century stage history are local histories that by definition cannot capture the full American scope of the theater. Lastly, scholarly knowledge of the relationship between the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American theater and society at large still pales next to the academic understanding of the social roles of con temporaneous theaters in London, Paris, or even Dublin.

Odai Johnson and William J. Burling, in The Colonial American Stage, 1665-1774, supply for the first time a thoroughly documented and complete record of known theatrical activity throughout the British Americas. Heather S. Nathans, in Early American Theatre from the Revolution to Thomas Jefferson, treats the early republican stage not only as an artistic institution but also as part of a group of interconnected social institutions crucial to the development of an American national identity. In each case the authors have made a valuable contribution to the field. Johnson and Burling’s volume, along with Barry Witham’s Theatre in the United States, will facilitate the sort of carefully documented research in early American theater that historians now commonly perform on the theaters of eighteenth-century Europe.2 Nathans demonstrates that, even amid the flux of the Republic’s first decades, the American theater was as closely intertwined with other elements of society as were its European counterparts.

Johnson and Burling’s work catalogs the records of performances spanning from the 1665 performance of the lost play The Bear and the Cub in Pungoteague, Virginia, to the congressional ban on theatrical performance and subsequent departure of David Douglass’s American Company front North America in 1774. This book is a highly valuable resource because it consolidates many sources and because Johnson and Burling purge a number of errors from the records and supply primary source documentation for performances (usually from newspaper advertisements or playbills) whenever possible. Moreover, the authors document not only well-known troupes such as the Murray-Kean Company, the London (and later American) company of the Hallam family, and William Verling’s New American Company but also lesser known troupes playing throughout the Carolinas, New England, the Caribbean, and Canada. The book’s extensive introduction contains information that will be useful to novice and expert alike on topics such as stage design, the pay structure of eighteenth-century acting companies, and the relationship between ticket prices and colonial currency valuation. The Colonial American Stage, 1665-1774 is unquestionably the single most valuable volume on colonial theater to date.

At the conclusion of the Revolution, professional theater had to struggle against enemies old and new to gain legitimacy in the new United States. Theater’s champions won out partly by arguing for the potential benefit of a public theater to a republican political culture, though many Americans practicing the ostentatious austerity of republican simplicity disdained the theater as dangerously luxurious. Nathans joins S. E. Wilmer, Lucy Rinehart, and Ginger Strand in explorations of this relationship between stage and nation in the early national period. Nathans begins with William Dunlap’s description of drama as “a powerful engine” that should be given “into the hands of the people” (I) for the purposes of recreation and of bettering civil society. She then situates the early national theater within a culture that thrived on political and economic controversy, depicting it as an institution that gained legitimacy largely through its utility to partisans in the postrevolutionary competition among the new country’s metropolitan areas, old- and new-money elites, economic classes, and nascent political parties in the struggle over which groups would define an American identity.

Nathans focuses on Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, “a powerful—if competitive—triumvirate” (2) jostling for cultural preeminence. Each city witnessed spirited public debates over the legitimacy of theater before, during, and immediately after the Revolution, yet the war changed the tenor of these debates by radically altering the social landscape and by generating new political conflicts over issues such as the Bank of the United States. She deftly ties these seemingly unrelated issues to battles over legalizing theater. State constitutionalists in Philadelphia, who came to power during the Revolution, failed to maintain Pennsylvanians wartime ban on theatrical entertainments; in 1789 they lost the state legislature over their combined opposition to the Constitution, the Bank of the United States, and theater. In Boston advocates of a new polite society organized the Boston Tontine, incorporated their association as the Union Bank in 1792, and displaced the republican old guard as the elite of Boston society. The tontiners expressed their newly acquired cultural power by opening theaters. In 1794 they built the Federal Street Theatre, the proscenium of which featured the state and federal coats of arms intertwined with a pair of theater masks—a legitimization of the stage unthinkable in prerevolutionary Massachusetts. New York experienced the least upheaval of the three cities due to its wartime occupation, but Nathans shows that its first new postrevolutionary theater, the Park, was strongly tied to shareholders in the Bank of New York and wealthy members of the Federalist Party.

These first postrevolutionary theaters, however, would be challenged by houses playing to increasingly alienated lower-class, and often Democratic-Republican, audiences during the 1790. Whereas partisan tensions generally emptied seats, Nathans argues that George Washington’s death in 1799, which was widely commemorated in theaters at heavily attended events, produced a fleeting show of patriotic unity onstage. This spectacle was what theater’s advocates had promised their opponents in the 1780s, though the stage soon lapsed into renewed partisan conflict after the election of Thomas Jefferson. Early American Theatre from the Revolution to Thomas Jefferson thus shows not only how the American theater reflected contemporary conflicts between parties and classes but also how theater’s very existence was enmeshed with such social conflicts.

Each of these volumes contains minor lapses. For instance a 1749 production of Joseph Addison’s Cato that puzzles Johnson and Burling took place at Leicester House and starred the young Prince George and his siblings. Nathans’s discussion of colonial theatrical controversies omits the Reverend William Smith of the College of Philadelphia, a forceful advocate for the theater and later a target of state constitutionalists. Nonetheless, these authors have produced important works of scholarship in a field of inquiry where much remains to be uncovered.

--Jason Shaffer, United States Naval Academy

William and Mary Quarterly (October 2005)

1. Don Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby, Cambridge of American Theatre, vol. I, Beginnings to 1870 (Cambridge, 1998). 2. Barry Witham, The Theatre in the United States: A Documentary History (Cambridge, 1996). 3. S. E. Wilmer, Theatre, Society and the Nation: Staging American Identities (Cambridge, 2002); Lucy Rinehatt, “A Nation’s ‘Noble Spectacle’: Royall Tyler’s The Contrast as Metatheatrical Commentary,” American Drama 3, no. 2 (Spring 1994): 29-52; Ginger Strand, “The Many Deaths of Montgomery: Audiences and Pamphlet Plays of the Revolution,” American Literary History 9, no. I (Spring 1997): 1-20.

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Photograph courtesy of Louise Dell-Bene Stahl © 2001

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