Theater and Drama

views updated


Determining the role of the theater in the new nation from the post-Revolutionary period until the eve of Jacksonian democracy presents a challenge, since few Americans of that period could agree on the place of the playhouse in American culture, or even on whether such entertainments should exist. For this reason, any examination of theatrical and dramatic culture in the early national period must explore not only plays, performers, and audiences but also opponents of the theater and their motives.

fighting opposition to the theater

Though colonists had enjoyed professional theatrical entertainments since 1752, many remained divided in their attitude toward play going. Some groups (like the Quakers and Puritans) objected to the theater on religious grounds, while others saw it as a welcome cultural link with Great Britain. In 1774, the Continental Congress outlawed all theatrical entertainments, stigmatizing them as a luxury and a corrupting British import. The country's resident professional troupe, the Old American Company, fled to Jamaica, returning to the United States in 1784. In cities like Charleston, which had supported prewar theater, they were welcomed home with enthusiasm. But in cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, the company met with open hostility. Many cities had passed wartime and postwar bans on theatrical entertainments, and fined or arrested actors who tried to stage illegal performances. These laws were gradually repealed throughout the late 1780s and 1790s.

Religious opposition to the theater lingered in some communities; others objected to the theater because of its association with British culture. Yet none of these opponents could withstand the tides of economic and cultural reform sweeping the new nation. The exigencies of the Revolutionary War had brought new groups of men to power in every major urban center. These men saw the theater as a symbol of power in the new nation. They believed that if they built luxurious playhouses—complete with red velvet curtains and crystal chandeliers—they would show their fellow citizens and Great Britain that the fledgling nation possessed all the hallmarks of a civilized people. Indeed, theaters of the new nation offered more than venues for seeing plays. They served as social centers, where the elite could gather to play cards, gossip, and dance. They also served as political lightning rods.

patriotic theater and party politics

The owners and managers of the early national theaters had promised that their productions would serve to "polish the manners and habits of society" and establish a "democracy of glee." Yet many audience members objected that the British plays offered in the theaters did not reflect American tastes or values. Moreover, party politics sometimes disrupted the refined atmosphere that managers had struggled to establish.

Political disputes centered on the tension between Federalist and Republican factions within the audience. The most famous politically motivated riot took place on 30 March 1798 at the opening of William Dunlap's André in New York's Park Theatre. André tells the story of British spy, Major John André, executed by George Washington during the war. It features an American character named Bland, who, furious at Washington, tears the black cockade from his hat (a Federalist symbol), and throws it away. Outraged at this attack on American honor, the audience rioted, forcing Dunlap to revise the play's ending. Managers frequently altered plays to suit audience tastes, excising references to kings, aristocracy, and the like.

American playwrights were few and far between. Among the best known were Royall Tyler, Judith Sargent Murray, Mercy Otis Warren, Susanna Rowson, William Dunlap, and John Daly Burk. Moreover, despite their patriotism, audiences remained skeptical about whether American works could rival British ones. (This sense of cultural inferiority plagued the new nation well into the nineteenth century.) Even Tyler's The Contrast (1787) and Rowson's

Slaves in Algiers (1794), two of the most famous plays of the early national period, received only a handful of performances.

By the end of the eighteenth century, many of the nation's playhouses faced financial disaster as rivalry between competing theaters drove some out of business. Other entertainments crowded into relatively small urban markets, including the circus and institutions like Peale's Museum in Philadelphia—sites many Americans found more "democratic" than the class-based seating arrangements of the formal playhouse. On the eve of the nineteenth century, the theater's continued success seemed doubtful.

theater for the commoner

Jefferson's election in 1800 transformed both American culture and American drama. His presidency ushered in a new age of sentiment in the theater, coinciding with the trend toward Romanticism in literature. Managers turned to emotional melodramas that featured simple heroes and heroines. The plays that they produced between 1800 and the 1810s were largely American adaptations of European melodramas, many by German playwright Augustus von Kotzebue. Some of the American playwrights of the period include James Nelson Barker, The Indian Princess, William Dunlap, The Africans, or War, Love, and Duty, William Charles White, The Clergyman's Daughter, and John Howard Payne, Brutus, or the Fall of Tarquin. With the westward expansion of the Jeffersonian era, the theater moved into the frontier areas of Ohio, Kentucky, and the Louisiana Territory, as well as Washington, D.C., the new capital city. Under Jefferson, American artists and writers turned their attention to the development of a native drama and aesthetic. In 1802 and 1803 Washington Irving, writing under the pseudonym of Jonathan Oldstyle, wrote commentary on the theater in a series of letters for The Morning Chronicle, launching the nation's first sustained body of theatrical criticism.

Moreover, native subjects and themes gained in popularity. By the early nineteenth century, the "Stage Yankee" had become a fixture of the American theater, as had other "native" characters. At the end of James Nelson Barker's Indian Princess (an 1808 play about the life of Pocahontas), one of the characters predicts an age "when arts and industry, and elegance shall reign," an age of "a great, yet virtuous empire in the west!" Yet American writers still felt inferior to British playwrights, who remained the mainstay of the theatrical repertoire.

The craze for British theater was fueled by English stars who roamed the American circuit throughout the early nineteenth century, including George Frederick Cooke, Edmund Kean, Fanny Kemble, and Junius Brutus Booth (father to Edwin Booth, one of America's greatest stars, and John Wilkes Booth, one of its most infamous assassins). While these performers revolutionized American acting, they also revealed a need for a native talent.

the rise of native talent and native theater

Two stars rose to the challenge, and met with varying degrees of success in America. Ira Aldridge, a black tragedian, got his start in New York's African Theatre (1821–1823), where he performed serious dramatic roles traditionally reserved for white performers, including Hamlet and Richard III. Persecution by white audiences closed the theater in 1823, and Aldridge moved to Europe, where he enjoyed a successful career. Edwin Forrest, a working-class hero, began in smaller roles on the western touring circuit before returning to the East to establish himself as a star.

For both American politics and theater, 1828 marked a pivotal year. As Andrew Jackson moved into power, the mood of the theater shifted from Romanticism to rugged individualism and homespun humor, reflecting "Old Hickory's" rough masculinity. In 1828 Forrest announced a series of competitions for original plays written about American characters, and his contests launched a new age of American playwriting and a new style of American drama—plays with a heroic central character fighting oppression and injustice. These plays included John Augustus Stone's Metamora, Robert T. Conrad's Jack Cade, and Robert Montgomery Bird's The Gladiator.

The year 1828 also witnessed the debut of Thomas "Daddy" Rice's immensely popular "Jump Jim Crow" song and dance, a performance that inspired hundreds of imitators and started a nationwide craze for minstrel performance (ironically, one of the few theatrical genres American artists can claim to have originated).


William Dunlap (1766–1839) has been dubbed the "Father of American Drama" for the prolific number of plays he produced during his lifetime (some fifty original scripts, translations, and adaptations), his stewardship of New York's Park Theatre (1798–1805), and his History of the American Theatre (1832), the first chronicle of the nation's fledgling dramatic efforts. Devoted to the development of an American cultural aesthetic, Dunlap served as a director of the American Academy of Fine Arts (1817) and helped found the National Academy of Design (1826). In addition, he wrote the History of the Arts and Design (1834), in which he encouraged the new nation to shun the old European system of patronage and to allow artists freedom of thought and expression.

Dunlap united art and conscience, arguing that the arts could transform the new nation, and teach lessons of "patriotism, virtue, morality, and religion." A passionate abolitionist, he served as secretary for the New York Abolition Society for a number of years and adapted the popular German play, The Africans, or War, Love, and Duty (1810), a story about the evils of slavery and the humanity of those trapped in the system. His many original plays—including The Father, or American Shandyism (1789), Darby's Return (1789), André (1798), and The Glory of Columbia (1803)—exalt what he viewed as the American qualities of loyalty, courage, and selflessness. Dunlap was the first in the history of early American theater to see the theater as a "powerful engine" of moral enlightenment, and he beseeched the government to ensure that it would flourish in freedom by calling for a national theatre that would be under the auspices of the federal government, rather than at the mercy of particular groups with specific political agendas.

Heather S. Nathans

By Jackson's inauguration in 1829, American theater had firmly established itself in the new nation. Though its artists would continue to struggle against the stigma of home-grown drama, they had also created a theater that showcased what they defined as the uniquely "American" virtues of humor, simplicity, independence, and courage.

See alsoArt and American Nationhood; Folk Arts; Music: Classical; Recreation, Sports, and Games .


Bank, Rosemarie K. Theatre Culture in America, 1825–1860. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Dudden, Faye. Women in the American Theatre: Actresses and Audiences, 1790–1870. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.

Dunlap, William. History of the American Theatre and Anecdotes of the Principal Actors. 2nd ed. New York: Burt Franklin, 1963.

Engle, Ron, and Tice L. Miller, eds. The American Stage: Social and Economic Issues from the Colonial Period to the Present. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Grimsted, David. Melodrama Unveiled: American Theater and Culture, 1800–1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Mason, Jeffrey D. Melodrama and the Myth of America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

McConachie, Bruce. Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre and Society, 1820–1870. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

Moody, Richard. America Takes the Stage: Romanticism in American Drama and Theatre, 1750–1900. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955.

Nathans, Heather S. Early American Theatre from the Revolution to Thomas Jefferson: Into the Hands of the People. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Richards, Jeffrey, ed. Early American Drama. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Smith, Susan Harris. American Drama: The Bastard Art. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Christopher Bigsby, eds. The Cambridge History of American Theatre. Vol. 1: Beginnings to 1870. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Heather S. Nathans