Colonial Era. Theater in America grew out of the colonies’ cultural ties to England. Professional theater was first seen in the colonies in 1752, when Englishman Lewis Hallam’s troupe of players arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia. Although the Continental Congress urged the states to ban theatrical performances and other amusements during the Revolutionary War, the dramatic arts reappeared in the new nation as theaters were built in the rapidly expanding cities. Since theater buildings were large and expensive to maintain, needing to draw large audiences, the theater in the United States was primarily an urban art form. Playhouses in the largest cities usually had their own permanent companies of actors, which would frequently support visiting star actors. Smaller towns welcomed traveling companies of actors who would perform in whatever facilities were available. English actors such as Edmund Kean, George Fredericke Cooke, Fanny Kemble, and William Charles Macready traveled to the United States to perform for enormous crowds although not all of their audience members appreciated these British interlopers.
Characters. American dramatist Royall Tyler’s 1787 play The Contrast was the first to introduce a distinctively American character, the homespun Yankee, Brother Jonathan. A simple, independent, rustic figure, Brother Jonathan triumphed over pretentious Englishmen and big-city tricksters, illustrating the inherent morality and decency of the rural American. The Yankee was a character tailor-made for the American actors of the first half of the nineteenth century, including James H. Hackett, George Handel Hill, Danforth Marble, and Joshua Silsbee. Playwrights soon created other distinctively American characters. The backwoodsman (a relative of Natty Bumppo, James Fenimore Cooper’s popular Leather-stocking character) appeared in many American dramas, beginning with James Hackett as Nimrod Wildfire in James Kirke Paulding’s Lion of the West; or, The Kentuckian (1831). The “stage frontiersman” often interacted with Native American characters, as in Louisa Medina’s Nick of the Woods (1838), which focused on boundary disputes between Indians and white pioneers. Another American type emerged in 1848, when Frank Chanfrau, a stock actor at the Mitchell’s Olympic Theatre, first performed as Mose the Bowery B’hoy in A Glance at New York. Mose was a representation of the working-class young men who made up New York’s volunteer fire companies, and since Chanfrau himself had been a volunteer for the Old Maid fire company, his accurate and sympathetic portrayal of Mose was well received by the working-class members of his audiences. According to the New York Herald, when the Mose play New York as It Is opened in 1848, a crowd forced its way onto the stage, and police and theater employees had to clear the oversold house of excess audience members.
AMERICAN PARODISE OF SHAKESPEARE
Many of William Shakespeare’s plays were parodied on the American stage. Richard III was spoofed in a parody titled Bad Dicky. In a parody of the dagger scene in Macbeth, Macbeth put off his wife by asking, “Or is that dagger but a false Daguerreotype?” Other parodies went by take-off titles: Julius Sneezer, Hamlet and Egglet, and Much Ado about a Merchant of Venice. In one Hamlet parody, minstrel influence was particularly apparent, as in the following speech:
Oh! Tis consummation
Devoutly to be wished,
To end your heartache by a sleep;
When likely to be dished,
Shuffle off your mortal coil,
Do just so,
Wheel about and turn about
And jump Jim Crow.
These parodies built on a common knowledge of a range of Shakespeare’s plays; audiences familiar with Hamlet’s speech would recognize and appreciate lampoons of it. The overlap between Shakespeare’s plays and rising forms of popular culture, particularly minstrel acts, suggests that audiences of all kinds were familiar enough with Shakespeare to recognize and appreciate parodies of his works.
Sources: Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998);
Garff B. Wilson, Three Hundred Years of American Drama and Theatre (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973).
Social Commentary. Many plays addressed social or political issues. Some, such as The Drunkard; or, The Fallen Saved (1844), carried a strong temperance message. In others social commentary was obscured by sensationalism added to gain the widest possible audience. Anna Cora Mowatt’s well-received play Fashion (1845) addressed the moral issue of virtue swayed by influence and noted that fashion could easily become a cloak for vice, but the lightness and humor of the play undercut its moral message and subtly highlighted rather than condemned the pleasures of fashionable life. Other dramas that addressed significant social and political problems included John Augustus Stone’s Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags, the winning entry in the 1829 competition arranged by the major American actor Edwin Forrest, which focused on the exploits of a strong Indian warrior, and Pocahontas; or, The Settlers of Virginia (1830), written by the step-grandson of George Washington, George Washington Parke Custis, and staged in a revival at the National Theatre in Washington in February 1836 at the height of the nation’s Indian removal crisis. Where Metamora portrayed the archetypal Indian warrior, Pocahontas offered an image of a supportive and assimilating Indian. Another emerging form of American theater, the minstrel show, similarly offered a series of stereotypical images of African Americans, including Jim
Crow, the happy-go-lucky plantation slave, and Zip Coon, the free urban dandy, during an era when attitudes about slavery were beginning to divide Northerners and Southerners.
European Drama. In addition to these homegrown products, American audiences viewed European plays on American stages. William Shakespeare was the best-known and the most commonly performed playwright throughout the country. Shakespeare’s plays were often presented with significant alterations designed to spotlight a popular star actor. Other plays were based on the works of famous European authors, such as Sir Walter Scott and George Gordon, Lord Byron, and often included musical as well as dramatic scenes. An evening at the theater would usually include not only the feature play but also an afterpiece that was usually a farce, along with a variety of between-act specialties that ranged from early minstrel routines to animal acts. Actors in the main play would usually perform in the afterpiece as well.
Livelihood. If attending the theater was considered morally questionable by many in the young republic, performing in it was worse. In spite of the efforts of artist and theater manager William Dunlap to reform American theater in the 1830s, in the first half of the nineteenth century plays tended more toward the sensational than the moral, and acting was not a respectable choice of profession. Outside of the American theater’s stars, such as Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman, people connected with the theater were widely seen as charlatans, confidence men, or prostitutes. Edgar Allan Poe was the child of two actors, the shiftless David Poe and his young wife, Eliza Poe, who had made a modest name for herself as a dancer, singer, and actress. Eliza Poe died in 1811 when Edgar was only two, and he remained forever haunted by the vague memory of his theatrical mother.
Audiences. Theater audiences generally represented a broad range of a city’s population. Separate seating sections often reflected class and economic divisions. Usually a large theater’s seating sections would consist of an orchestra pit area for middle-class patrons, boxes for the wealthy, and a gallery or balcony for the poorest spectators. Rumors flew that the galleries were used for prostitution as well as for enjoying the performances until some theaters refused to allow entrance to unescorted women. African Americans could attend some theaters in the larger cities, but even those that allowed black audience members frequently had segregated seating. The African Grove Theater in New York staged Shakespeare and melodramatic productions performed by black actors, among them Ira Aldridge, who would leave the United States in 1823 and go on to fame in Europe after the African Grove was destroyed by a white mob. Heavy audience participation in performances often made the audience itself part of the show, often to the frustration of upper-class theatergoers who did not always appreciate the democratic mix of people housed by the theaters. If, during the nineteenth century, the theater had represented a common American culture, by midcentury it also revealed class and aesthetic tensions within that common culture.
THE ASTOR PLACE RIOT
Although British actors made successful tours of the United States, not all foreign performers were wholeheartedly embraced. In May 1849 crowds at the Astor Place Opera House in New York City rioted, attacking British tragedian William Charles Macready in the name of his rival, the American actor Edwin Forrest. Both men were performing Macbeth in New York that month, Forrest at the Broadway Theatre and Macready at the Astor. Forrest’s emotional, melodramatic style was cheered; Macready’s more restrained performance was booed, and the audience threw eggs, apples, potatoes, lemons, and finally chairs at the British actor. When the theater was forcibly closed, rioters paraded through the streets reciting bits of the play’s witches’ chorus. Ready to leave town, Macready was urged to stay in New York by more “respectable” citizens, including Washington Irving and Herman Melville, who convinced him not to give in to mob rule. The following evening Macready performed at the Astor, with a crowd often thousand outside stirred up by orators proclaiming, “Burn the damned den of the aristocracy!” When the play was over, those in the street threw paving stones at the theater, tried to storm the theater entrances, and were finally stopped by militia detachments who fired directly into the crowd. At least 22 people were killed, more than 150 injured, and 86 arrested. The New York Herald reported that the riot “leaves behind a feeling to which this community has hitherto been a stranger—an opposition of classes—the rich and poor … a feeling that there is now in our country, in New York City, what every good patriot hitherto has considered it his duty to deny—a high and a low class.” What had originated as a difference in taste regarding acting styles ended in a violent manifestation of class conflict.
Source: Garff B. Wilson, Three Hundred Years of American Drama and Theatre (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973).
Rosemarie K. Bank, Theatre Culture in America, 1825–1860 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997);
Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).