Viewing page 23 of 92

[[torn page, left part of left leaf of a newspaper]]
[[image: half tone illustration of a small stage and audience in a theater, two characters on stage in costumes (togas?), dramatic poses. Roman set.  Eighteenth Century audience in foreground. Graffiti on right wall of theater: "BACOT" "E BIMPY" "BROWN" "1791" "MALL" and on left wall: "BENNET" "M BENNET."]]
[[caption]] Courtesy of the city of New York.
The Origins - A Performance at America's First Permanent Theatre on John Street. [[/caption]
[[partial headline, right part torn off]]
[[two column headline above columns 4 & 5]]
During Nearly Two Centuries It Has
  Encountering New Ones, It Gives To
[[five columns beginning just below the theater image on left]]

[[column 1]]
A FAMOUS Broadway character, Stuffy Davis, once wrote an article entitled "Why the Theatre Isn't What It Used To Be, and Why It Never Was."  There has been a deal of talk this past year or two about the decline of the Stage, and about the prospects of reviving it.  We learn that the Road is dead, and then George Cohan stands 'em up in a score of one night stands, and we dream of tours once again.  A year ago Broadway showed many a shuttered theatre front, and managers were going bankrupt.  This Winter all the available theatres began to open, and we were taking heart again, when along came free radio houses and enormous cabarets, and there was gloom once more in the theatre air.  Never was there so hard a row for the poor old stage to hoe, we moaned.

But Stuffy Davis was right.  It was always thus, or nearly always.  The theatre in America has survived for almost two centuries in spite of artistic aridity, public indifference, Puritan hostility, financial poverty and incredible physical hardships for the artists.  The belief that until the talking pictures and the current depression came along our theatre was both a glorious art and a booming business has small foundation in fact.  It has always had to fight for survival; as a business it has lost more fortunes than it has made; and as an art it will survive now, as it has survived in the past, by virtue of some deep instinct in the human heart to write and act plays, an instinct far stronger than for personal security at ease.  Even many of the shopkeepers who produce plays because they hope to make money by so doing are, in reality, acting from this instinct.

Let us take a quick glance at the history of the theatre in America.

* * *

In spite of dramatic performances given in Charleston, S. C., earlier in the eighteenth century, the real beginnings of a professional theatre in this country were in 1752, when Lewis Hallam and his troope landed on these shores via the West Indies.  There were no theatres.  Wherever he played Hallam had to build his own theatre or remodel some store or warehouse.

His first house was thrown up in Williamsburg, Va.,then the capital of the Colony.  He met with no serious opposition in the South, but when he sought to play in the two principal Northern cities, Philadelphia and New York (the former then the larger), there was active and determined opposition from various sects.  In Puritan New England, of course, he made no effort
[[/column 1]]

to play at all.  It would have landed him in jail as it had landed to Englishmen who tried to give "The Orphan" in Boston in 1750.

Hallam's first theatre in New York was evidently a rough makeshift.  He opened it with "The Conscious Lovers" in September, 1753.  There were probably less than 20,000 people in the city, and a run for a play was out of the question.  Two or three consecutive performances meant a triumph.  The players, accordingly, had to know an extensive repertoire.  In one season, playing three times a week, the Hallam troop would present a dozen or more of Shakespeare's plays, as well as the stock restoration comedies and tragedies, and later farces.  No modern actor would dare attempt such a feat.  Good or bad as the actors may have been, the sheer work they did in giving the Colonies a theatre commands an infinite respect.

  Hallam died in 1756, in Jamaica.  His widow married a younger man, David Douglass, who, though born a "gentleman," continued the company.  It was he who, in 1761, started the first "Summer theatre" in America, and made the first professional attack on New England.  He chose Newport for his venture, because it was in Rhoad Island, most liberal of the Puritan commonweals.  Douglas proceeded in playing late that summer in Newport,
[[/column 2]]

[[column 3 (below center image)]]
though the rest of the State fumed.

  But he grew overbold the next year and attempted to play in Providence.  He rigged up a barn-like structure on Magazine Street, which he called a "schoolhouse," and in which he proposed to give
[/column 3]]

[[column 4, below headline]]
"moral lectures" gratis (and in five acts!) with concerts between acts——for which you paid.  A mob gathered to burn down his schoolhouse, which, according to legend, was saved only because John Brown dragged out a cannon and threatened to fire on the crowd if they advanced.  An energetic patron of the arts!  Probably six weeks of performances were given before the Legislature could past new and more drastic laws, which ended the theatre in New England until after the revolution.

* * *

Douglass built the John Street Theatre in New York in 1767-- the first permanent house of the drama in America.  It was on the north side of the street, close to "the Broadway," sixty feet back
[[column 4 interrupted by image]]

[[image: illustration of an old time music hall/saloon with a stage, woman on stage, balcony windows with spectators, small audience gathered around stage, large open area with people sitting at tables three men and a woman in left foreground]]
[[caption: From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
The Frontier Threatre——A Variety Show in the West in the Eighteen Seventies.]]

[[column 4 continues below image]]

from the curb, and reached buy a covered way like a tunnel.  It was, says Dunlap, "principally of wood, an unsightly object painted red."  It had two rows of boxes, a pit and gallery and held $800 [sic] when full.

 Like all other places of amusement, it was closed during the war,
[[/column 4]]

[[image: illustration of a moonlit night, a woman tied to a railroad track near a switchhouse and sidetrack, woman dropping an ax and racing toward a switch lever while a steam train is bearing down on the scene, and a man slips away in the background]]
[[caption: From Culver Serice
The Era of Melodrama—— Race for Life.]]

[[column 5]]
But it was reopened after peace was declared, and was the house George Washington (an eager theatregoer) attended as long as New York was the capital, and in which the first American comedy, "The Contrast," was produced in 1787.  The actors, of course, became the "American Company," though they were still English men and women.

  Other companies (also of English composition) were soon organized in other cities.  Philadelphia for two or three decades of the new century possessed probably better plays and a better theatre than New York.  Boston's first theatre, on Federal Street, was open in the final decade of the eighteenth century.  Theatres——so-called——sprang up in towns like Albany and Troy, at that time Mmre villages.

[[column 5 interrupted by lower right image, continues below the image]]

  An American, William Dunlap, became our first native manager and first professional playwright in New York——with no great financial benefit to himself.  There was a greatly increased field for English players who couldn't quite make the grade in London, and before the new century was through its first quarter the English stars, such as Cooper and Cook and even the great Keen, had discovered that it paid to come over here and tour.

  There was very soon a frontier theatre too.  America was already pushing west.  We were over the Appalachians——and down the Great River was New Orleans, most cosmopolitan and romantic of American towns.  Where men went in any numbers the theatre followed——a rough-and-ready theatre, often in those early days the training ground of young stage-struck Americans who could not yet get a foothold in the established houses of the seaboard.

  Sol Smith, first as a young actor then as a manager, spent the third and fourth decades of the Century in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys and in the South, performing in the most primitive of "theatres," and enduring all sorts of hardships (recorded with great comic gusto in his inimitable memoirs), and doubtless offering some pretty crude productions.  He recalls, for instance, how in a small stock company in Vincennes he was obliged to fall far enough off stage when he died to pick up a fiddle and play slow music to bring down the curtain!
[[/column 5]]
Please note that the language and terminology used in this collection reflects the context and culture of the time of its creation, and may include culturally sensitive information. As an historical document, its contents may be at odds with contemporary views and terminology. The information within this collection does not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution, but is available in its original form to facilitate research. For questions or comments regarding sensitive content, access, and use related to this collection, please contact