Early Spanish and French Plays. According to Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá’s Historia de la Nuevo-México (1610), the first European play produced within the modern boundaries of the United States was a comedia by Capt. Marcos Farfán de los Godos, staged on the banks of the Rio Grande in New Mexico on 30 April 1598. Villagrá described this lost play as a drama about the willing conversion to Christianity of huge numbers of Native Americans. He also mentioned a production of the medieval Spanish drama Moros y Cristianos (The Moors and the Christians) and a comedia, perhaps by Farfán, at San Juan de los Caballeros, near present-day El Paso, in September 1598. Throughout the Southwest Spanish priests made extensive use of ecclesiastical plays in their attempts to convert Native Americans to Christianity, and drama became part of the oral literary tradition of the region. The French also brought their theater traditions to the New World. Marc Lescarbot’s Le Théâtre de Neptune en Nouvelle-France, performed in Port Royal, Acadia (later Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia), on 14 November 1606, was the first play written and staged in French Canada, and from 1640 until 1699 plays were frequently performed in Quebec. Louisiana theater lagged behind that of northern French settlements. The first theatrical performance in New Orleans may be an amateur production staged in a private home during the 1760s.
British Models. American theater as it exists today evolved from English models, and until well into the nineteenth century Americans preferred British plays. (Scholars speculate that there may have been some amateur theatricals in New Netherland, but there are no records to support that theory.) A distinctly American drama was the last of all literary forms to develop in the United States. Hardworking colonists in the New World had little time for entertainments, and the Puritans of New England, as well as the Quakers of Pennsylvania,
objected to theatrical performances on religious grounds. Even in the southern colonies, plays were suspected of provoking undesirable behavior in the lower classes.
Amateur Theatricals. The first known performance of a play in one of the thirteen original colonies was an amateur production in Accomac County, Virginia, of Ye Bare and Ye Cubb, by William Darby. There are no surviving copies of this play, which is known only through court records. After Darby and some friends performed the play on 27 August 1665, they were arrested for playacting but were eventually judged not guilty. There were other amateur play productions as well. In 1690 Harvard students earned the disapproval of local authorities by staging a play called Gustavus Vasa. Another recorded instance was the recitation of a “pastoral colloquy” by students at William and Mary College in 1702.
Roots of Professional Theater. Around 1699–1702 Richard Hunter petitioned the governor of New York for permission to stage plays in New York City. His request was granted, but there are no records of any performances. In 1703 British actor-playwright Anthony Aston arrived in Charleston, where by his account he made a living writing and performing in a play. He next went to New York City and spent a season “acting, writing, courting, and fighting” before returning in spring 1704 to Virginia and embarking for England later that year. By 1709 the province of New York had passed a ban on public playacting, along with cockfighting and other forms of entertainment considered immoral.
The First Published American Play. The following year, however, Robert Hunter, the new provincial governor of New York and New Jersey, wrote a play of his own, a satirical farce he titled Androboros, which translates as “man eater.” Not intended for performance, the play appeared in print in 1714, becoming the first published American play. Hunter’s play is an attempt to sway public opinion in his favor during a political dispute with the provincial assembly, the Anglican Church, and the ill-tempered royal commissioner of accounts, Gen. Francis Nicholson. Set in a lunatic asylum, the play features several thinly disguised characters, including the Keeper (Hunter) and Androboros (Nicholson). Although Hunter’s play has been judged to have some literary merit, it is the work of an amateur.
The Rise of Public Theatricals. During the first half of the eighteenth century professional theater began to take hold in the southern and mid-Atlantic colonies. In 1716 or 1717 authorities in Williamsburg allowed a theater to be built, and amateur actors staged plays there for the next several years. In 1723, despite the antitheater sentiment of Philadelphia Quakers, strolling players performed outside the city limits. In Charleston and New York amateur acting groups built theaters during the 1730s.
Murray and Kean. Although battles between forces supporting and opposing theatrical productions continued throughout the century, by August 1749 Quaker opposition had eased sufficiently to allow a company headed by Walter Murray and Thomas Kean to stage Joseph Addison’s tragedy Cato and other plays in a Philadelphia warehouse. From 5 March through 23 July 1750 Murray and Kean’s company performed regularly in the large room of a New York building, meeting with such success that they presented fifteen more plays in a second season, which lasted from 13 September 1750 until 8 July 1751. The company then moved on to Williamsburg, where they opened in October in a recently constructed theater building.
The Company of Comedians. Usually considered the first fully professional theater company to perform in English-speaking North America, the Company of Comedians arrived in Williamsburg in September 1752, hoping to repair the financial woes that had beset it in London. With brothers William and Lewis Hallam as proprietor and actor-manager and Lewis’s wife as one of the actors, the company remained in Williamsburg for eleven months, performing about twice a week. They then proceeded to New York, where they spent several months working to obtain permission to perform, finally opening with Sir Richard Steele’s moral comedy The Conscious Lovers in September 1753. Meeting with great success, the company performed two or three times a week until 25 March 1754. The final stop of their North American tour was Philadelphia, where despite strenuous opposition from local Quakers they played for two months before sailing to Jamaica. Though the Hallams’ tour was successful, it did not spur an upsurge of theatrical activity. Its plans interrupted by the death of Lewis Hallam, the newly organized Company of Comedians did not return to the colonies until 1758. Taking a new name, the American Company, after the passage of the Stamp Act (1765) spurred anti-British sentiments, this company had the distinction of staging the first professional production of a play by an American: Thomas Godfrey’s The Prince of Parthia, which opened in Philadelphia on 24 April 1767.
William Dunlap, A History of the American Theatre (New York: Printed and published by J. & J. Harper, 1832);
Bernard Hewitt, Theatre U.S.A., 1668 to 1957 (New York, Toronto & London: McGraw-Hill, 1959);
Walter J. Meserve, An Emerging Entertainment: The Drama of the American People to 1828 (Bloomington & London: Indiana University Press, 1977).