All the World's a Stage: Theatre in Colonial and Early America
Updated: Feb 26, 2021
Publisher’s Note: I originally authored this article in 2015 for another blog that I was writing for at the time. I have since rewritten the article, verifying sources, adding more information and conclusions, and removing unnecessary content.
Beginnings in 17th Century North America
Most of the acting during the 17th century in America was undertaken by amateurs and college students, even in Virginia and Maryland where there were no laws against plays. The first documented example of a theatrical performance in Colonial America occurred August 27, 1665 on the eastern shore of Virginia. A play, known as Ye Bare and ye Cubb, was acted at Fowkes Tavern by “three citizens of Accomack”: Cornelius Watkinson, Philip Howard, and William Darby. A gentleman by the name of Edward Martin was offended by the play and filed a complaint with the courts. Unfortunately, no copies of the play exist so we don’t know what about it gave offence. As soon as the report of this performance reached the King's attorney, John Fawsett, he summoned the three actors to court, where he subjected each of them to a rigid cross-examination, followed by ordering the culprits to appear at the next meeting of the court in the costumes, which they had worn in acting the alleged play. They were also ordered to bring with them for inspection a copy of the "verses, speeches, and passages" which they had performed on that occasion. The justices must have found the performance to be very innocent, for they directed the three men exonerated, and Edward Martin was ordered to pay all Court costs.
Arthur Hornblow, in his History of the Theatre in America (Vol. 1), cites a 1690 performance by Harvard students of Gustavus Vasa, the first play written by an American, Benjamin Coleman. While it is certainly the case that Benjamin Coleman was born in Boston in 1673, extensive research by Harvard Library scholars has led them to the conclusion that there is no evidence of a performance in 1690. In view of the attitude at that time of Harvard College toward plays, I tend to support this conclusion. Additionally, several scholars have questioned whether Mr. Coleman ever wrote this play. No copy or record of this manuscript can be located, and considering that he graduated from Harvard as a divinity student, and was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (which at the time was not a liberal institution) I tend to doubt that he would have written such a play. A play of the same name was, however written by Henry Brooke, an Englishman, in 1739 and banned from performance under the Licensing Act of 1737.
Early 18th Century Theatre
Beginning in the early 18th Century, North America began seeing performances in dramas and comedies by professional actors. Anthony Aston, a well-known English actor/adventurer, says he performed in New York at the time of his visit around 1702. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Judge Samuel Sewall wrote a letter protesting the performance of a play in the Boston Council Chambers. There is no other evidence of the proposed performance and, since Judge Sewall merely protests and does not invoke the law to prohibit the performance altogether, it is likely that the promoters found some other quarters more suitable for their intentions.
Williamsburg, Virginia, based on historical records, holds the distinction of having erected the first purpose-built theatre in America. In a contract recorded at Yorktown dated July 11, 1716, William Levingston, a merchant, agreed to release his indentured servant Charles Stagg—actor, violinist, and dancer, and Mary Stagg, his wife and an actor, to build a theatre in Williamsburg and to "bear equal share in all the charges of cloathes, musick, and other necessaries for acting in play . . ." including actors and scenery. This was in planning for some time since prior to July, Levingston sent to England for actors and musicians to perform in Williamsburg. On November 21, 1716, Mr. Levingston bought three, one-half acre lots and erected a dwelling house, kitchen, playhouse, bowling green and stable on them along the Palace Green.
In 1718, Governor Spotswood, in celebration of the birthday of King George I (June 4), gave a public entertainment “open to all gentlemen who would come”. On June 24 he wrote a letter complaining that certain members of the council had slighted his invitation. He remarked that there were 8 councilors who “would neither come to my House nor go to the Play which was acted on that occasion.” I assume that this play was performed by William Levingston’s company in the theater he built on the Palace Green. One way or another, based upon the required completion date terms of his land purchase, and the fact that he continued to own the lots, it is likely that everything was finished before November 5, 1718. It is likely, this is the same "Playhouse" mentioned by Hugh Jones in his work The Present State of Virginia, published in London in 1724. No records exist as to what plays William Levingston presented at this theatre since there was no newspaper in Virginia until 1732 when the Virginia Gazette first made its appearance.
We do know from court records that Levingston lost the theatre complex in 1722 or 1723 when Dr. Archibald Blair, the mortgagee, foreclosed and took possession of the property. In 1735 and 1736, the students of William and Mary College used the theatre for performing amateur productions. Following this, the building seems to have languished until 1745 when, being unused, a group of prominent men of the Colony bought the playhouse and presented it to Williamsburg as a town hall. The building was demolished after construction of the Courthouse on Market Square.
From the 1730s until the Revolution, Americans – especially those living in the urban centers of the Northeast or the market towns of the rural Southeast – witnessed a constant stream of theatrical offerings imported from the British Isles. Many thespians of this period were associated with itinerant or ‘strolling’ companies, formed by players (often family members) who performed in return for shares of the box-office take. These companies travelled from town to town and city to city on regular circuits (primarily via horse-drawn vehicles) during the mid-eighteenth century; they eventually built theatres in larger towns from which they branched out – especially during the summer – to perform in smaller towns and villages located within a reasonable distance from the hub city. In this article we are going to focus on the “playhouses” that helped to American theater as a permanent fixture of society, as well as those who performed there.
On February 12, 1736, in Charles Town, SC, the original Dock Street Theatre, built on the corner of Church Street and Dock Street (now known as Queen Street), opened with a performance of the bawdy restoration farce, The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. One side note of interest is that the song Over the Hills and Far Away was included in this play and its performances in theaters over the years, in both England and America, may have helped to ensure the popularity of the song.
The first known opera performance in America, Flora, also took place at the Dock Street Theatre. The theatre hosted plays and operas for the next two years. After that, the theater's fate is uncertain, but it may have burned in the great fire of 1740 that destroyed the city's historic French quarter.
In 1752, Williamsburg's second theater opened behind the Capitol, near Waller Street, and was soon the home of the Lewis Hallam troupe that arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia that year. The Hallams were the first to organize a complete company of actors in Europe and bring them to the colonies. They also brought with them a repertoire of plays popular in London at the time, including Hamlet, Othello, The Recruiting Officer, and Richard III. George Granville’s Jew of Venice, an 18th century adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, was their first performance, opening on September 15, 1752. From Williamsburg, the troupe traveled to Annapolis and Philadelphia. In 1754, Hallam built a theater in New York City, on Nassau Street. He and his theatre company also toured throughout the thirteen colonies.
In 1756, Hallam died in Jamaica where the company had gone to perform, and his widow married David Douglas with whom she formed the American Company in 1758. Her son, by Lewis Hallam, Lewis Hallam, Jr., acted in his mother and stepfather’s company. Prior to that, acting in his father’s company, Lewis, Jr. is credited as the first to play Hamlet in North America and, in 1752, played Arsaces, the hero of the first professionally produced American play, The Prince of Parthia. After spending the Revolutionary War years in the West Indies, he returned in 1784 to reopen the Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia and the John Street Theatre in New York. With John Henry, he revitalized the American Company, working with John Hodgkinson and William Dunlap after Henry's departure.
The Theatre, Law, Politics, and the American Revolution
Although theatre in 18th Century America was quickly spreading, it was not without its opponents. In the South, the Colonists had a taste for drama and comedy mostly because of the origin of the founders of many of the leading families as English gentlemen. In the North however, due to religious beliefs, both Quaker and Protestant, people considered the playhouse “suspect” and in many locations they fiercely condemned, if not actually forbade them under the law.
In 1750, the General Court of Massachusetts, fearing the results of large numbers of “working class people congregating at playhouses”, passed an act prohibiting stage plays and theatrical entertainments of any kind. On May 31, 1759, the House of Representatives in the Colony of Pennsylvania, probably under the influence of the Quakers, passed a law forbidding the showing and acting of plays under a penalty of £500. In 1761, Rhode Island passed "an act to Prevent Stage Plays and other Theatrical Entertainments within this Colony." The following year the New Hampshire House of Representatives refused an acting troupe admission to Portsmouth on the ground that plays had a "peculiar influence on the minds of young people and greatly endanger their morals by giving them a taste for intriguing, amusement and pleasure."
American playwrights found the period before and during the American Revolution fertile ground, with the political debates being easy sources for material for satire. The extent to which theatre became politicized was revealed in May 1766. Upon hearing of the repeal of the Stamp Act, the New York Sons of Liberty attacked and destroyed the Chapel Street Theatre as a symbol of British oppression, severely beating a cross-dressing actor, and killing a small child. It was the desire for “proper” morality, frugality, and national pride that inspired an America-wide boycott of theatre.
In October 1774, the First Continental Congress passed the Articles of Association, which banned all trade with Britain until its grievances were addressed. While most of the articles dealt with trade and the mechanics of enforcing the Articles, Article 8 said:
“We will, in our several stations, promote economy, frugality and industry, and promote agriculture, arts and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool; and we will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shows , plays and other expensive diversions and entertainments.”
Through the Association, Congress had placed the theatre on the same low moral plane as gambling or animal fighting (such as cock fighting and bear baiting) – to be discouraged with the Association’s Committees of Inspection ensuring compliance.
By 1775, with the war underway, the British Army was occupying Boston and the Continental Army was besieging the city. British Major General John Burgoyne, a playwright himself, having written the comedy Maid of the Oaks in 1774, found Congress’ ban, as well as Boston’s hostility to the theatre, proof of the Revolutionaries’ treachery. So, as the siege began, he had Boston’s Faneuil Hall, turned into a playhouse. Run by army officers, the playhouse hosted plays including Zara by Aaron Hill, a play about religious intolerance during the crusades.
In spite of resolutions passed by Congress, in April and May 1778, George Washington approved a series of performances by officers of the Continental Army in Valley Forge outside Philadelphia, most notably Joseph Addison’s Cato, a play largely concerned with the defeat of tyranny (represented by Caesar) by the forces of liberty (Cato). The General’s enthusiasm rubbed off on his officers, who soon began performing plays of their own once they had retaken Philadelphia from the British. Amongst the plays planned by American officers were those with more salacious themes then Cato, such as George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, which satirizes the Army as a simple source of a romantic romp.
On October 12, 1778, Congress responded to the Army’s refusal to obey their ban on theatre by passing injunctions that were more direct:
“Whereas true religion and good morals are the only solid foundations of public liberty and happiness:
Resolved, That it be, and it is hereby earnestly recommended to the several states, to take the most effectual measures for the encouragement thereof, and for the suppressing of theatrical entertainments, horse racing, gaming, and such other diversions as are productive of idleness, dissipation, and a general depravity of principles and manners.
Resolved, That all officers in the army of the United States, be, and hereby are strictly enjoined to see that the good and wholesome rules provided for the discountenancing of prophaneness and vice, and the preservation of morals among the soldiers, are duly and punctually observed.”
Then, just for good measure, four days later they passed:
“Whereas frequenting play houses and theatrical entertainments has a fatal tendency to divert the minds of the people from a due attention to the means necessary for the defense of their country, and the preservation of their liberties:
Resolved, That any person holding an office under the United States, who shall act, promote, encourage or attend such plays, shall be deemed unworthy to hold such office, and shall be accordingly dismissed”.
The requirements of the war soon distracted Washington’s Army from theatre until after the Battle of Yorktown.
Theatre in the Federal Period
Negative opinions towards theatre persisted well after the peace, resulting in performances in Boston and Philadelphia not receiving official sanction until the 1790s. By that time, however, thanks in part to the American military performances, a greater appreciation of theatre had begun to develop. American plays, such as Royall Tyler’s 1787 comedy The Contrast, about New York society women, and William Dunlap’s controversial 1798 analysis of the Benedict Arnold affair, André began to be performed.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there were several theatres during the Federal era. The Chestnut-Street Theatre, sometimes called the “Old Drury” was built in 1793, rebuilt in 1805, and destroyed by fire in 1820. The Walnut Street Theatre, founded in 1809 by the equestrian company, the Circus of Pepin and Breschard, is the oldest theater in America still in use. When the theatre opened its doors on February 2, 1809, it was for equestrian shows. A few years later, the theatre added an 80-foot dome, making it the tallest structure in Philadelphia at that time. The theatre's career as an equestrian circus did not last long and by 1812, conversion of the building to a legitimate theatre, featuring a real stage where the ring had stood, was complete. The Walnut's first theatrical production, The Rivals, had President Thomas Jefferson in attendance on opening night.
In the late 18th century, New York's only playhouse was the decaying and increasingly lowbrow John Street Theatre originally founded by Lewis Hallam, Jr., and John Henry. Tiring of attending such an establishment, a group of wealthy New Yorkers began planning construction of a new playhouse in 1795 called the Park Theatre. Investors bought 113 shares at $375 each to cover the estimated $42,375 cost. Part way through construction, however, the project ran out of money. The owners sold more shares for what would eventually mount to a construction cost of more than $130,000.
The part of Manhattan where this new theatre stood was not stylish. Often referred to as the New Theatre, its neighbors were Bridewell Prison, a tent city of squatters, and the local poorhouse. Despite this, and the construction delays, the theatre held its first performance on 29 January 1798, while still under construction. According to theatre historian T. Allston Brown, the gross was an impressive $1,232, with hundreds of potential patrons turned away. In its early years, the Park enjoyed little to no competition in New York City.
Nevertheless, it rarely made a profit for its owners or managers, prompting them to sell it in 1805. Under the management of Stephen Price and Edmund Simpson in the 1810s and 1820s, the Park enjoyed its most successful period. Price and Simpson started a star system by importing English talent and supplying the theatre a veneer of upper-class respectability. Rivals such as the Chatham Garden and Bowery theatres appeared in the 1820s.
In 1821, William Henry Brown set up the African Grove Theatre in New York City. It was the third attempt to have an African American theatre and was the most successful of them all. The company put on not only Shakespeare, but also staged the first play written by an African American, The Drama of King Shotaway - a play about a Black Carib revolt on the island of St Vincent written by William Brown. For some years, the African Company—the company of the African Grove—played with a black cast and crew to mostly black audiences. Eventually, city officials shut down the African Grove, because of complaints about conduct: conduct that was normal among working-class white New York theatre audiences of the time was considered unacceptably boisterous and threatening when displayed by blacks. There are no records of the African Grove Theater after 1823.
In the mid-1780s, Thomas Wade West and a partner, John Bignall, renovated the former Quesnay's Academy building in Richmond, Va., to make a theater there. This barn-like building opened its doors on October 10, 1786 for the first time with a performance of School for Scandal. The Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788 met in this building beginning on June 3 for three weeks after first convening in the temporary capitol at Cary and fourteenth streets. Among the many individuals in attendance were James Madison, John Marshall, James Monroe, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, George Nicholas, Edmund Randolph, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry. This theatre burned in January 1798.
John Marshall, then Chief Justice of the United States, led a fund-raising effort to rebuild. A new three-story brick theater, constructed on the north side of H Street (now Broad Street), included an orchestra section, a first balcony, and an upper balcony. This new theatre opened on January 25, 1806. It stood ninety feet long, fifty feet wide, and thirty feet tall, with a capacity of about 500 people. Fire destroyed it in December 1811 with a large loss of life due to inadequate exit routes from the building.
In 1819, a new theater by the same name – Richmond Theatre – was built at a cost of $40,000. Built of brick, at the corner of H (Broad) and Seventh Street with a well-equipped stage and popular motif ornamentation. Within view of the site of the fire at the original theater, the builders of the new theater made specific mention in their advertisements of the fact that the building had adequate doors for people to escape, in case of any emergency.
Long before the Revolution, theatrical performances were held at Norfolk in a wooden building, located on the south side of Main street near the shore of the Elizabeth River, that had originally been a pottery. Another theatre, referred to as the “Old Theatre” was in operation in 1793 in a large wooden warehouse on Calvert's lane and was possibly the one advertised in 1786 by Messrs. Heard and Villiers as large and elegant. A tragedy, The Fair Penitent was performed there that December.
The Old Theatre was replaced by a brick playhouse, referred to as the “New Theatre” which was built in 1795 on the east side of Fenchurch street at the intersection with Main Street. It was in this venue that Junius Brutus Booth, the father of John Wilkes Booth, performed after his arrival in Norfolk from Madeira, June 30, 1821.
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