Amateur Theatrics

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American amateur theatrics is characterized by the variety and scope of its forms and its makers. The first known theatrical entertainment in America occurred in 1567: two comedies were performed for the governor's visit to the Spanish mission at Tequesta in Florida. The conquistadors, following royal Spanish policies of 1526, used theatrical entertainment to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism as they marched through what became Mexico and the southern United States. In addition, the conquistadors re-enacted their military successes to keep morale high, as in 1598, when Captain Farfán devised a play to celebrate Don Juan de Oñate's conquest of New Mexico.

While these Spanish-speaking performances served a particular ideological function, the intent behind the first amateur performances in English was vastly different. As English-speaking settlements thrived along the Atlantic coast and colonists embraced life beyond survival mode, their desire for leisure activities grew. The first recorded amateur theater in English was in 1665, when Virginia landholder William Darby performed his play, Ye Bare and Ye Cubb, causing him to face complaints that he had broken colonial laws against theater.

Laws like these, influenced by the religions of colonial founders, kept professional theater companies from establishing until the mid-1700s, and also made amateur theatrics sporadic events. While strolling players and mountebanks found taverns and greens with sympathetic audiences, the dominant Quaker and Puritan influences challenged itinerant performers. Yet the expanding elite class wanted diversions during their newfound leisure time. Amateur theatrics sprung up in Charleston, Williamsburg, Philadelphia, and New York with varying controversy and success. These events were devised by members of the communities: students at the College of William and Mary publicly performed dialogues as early as 1702, and in 1718, a play was produced in Williamsburg by the owner of the dancing school to honor King George I's birthday. Local gentry were likely cast in The Orphan, in Charleston in 1735.

The relative success of amateur performers often hinged on geography and politics. Amateur theatrics struggled more in the North, where the Puritan and Quaker ethics still had measurable influence, but began to make inroads nonetheless. A troupe of strolling players featuring rope-dancers clashed with the Quaker mayor of Philadelphia over performances in 1723, yet was able to perform in a "booth theatre" outside the city limits because the governor of Pennsylvania refused to reinforce the entertainment ban. In anti-theatrically inclined Boston, dancing schools and assembly halls opened by the 1730s, defying Puritan beliefs to cater to the mercantile class.

The antitheatrical prejudice seemed to wane by the mid-eighteenth century, but it rekindled as the colonies moved toward independence. While some amateur theatrics were still performed in taverns, in 1774 the Continental Congress enforced an injunction on entertainments as anti-British sentiment and antitheatrical sentiment united. Yet during the Revolutionary War, both the British and the colonial military embraced theatrical entertainments to boost morale and marshal support. When the British army occupied Boston and New York in 1775 and 1776, the commanders encouraged theatrical entertainments as diversions for their troops. One such entertainment was the Meschianza, a lavish extravaganza created in honor of General William Howe's resignation as commander of the British forces in April, 1778. The Meschianza was an event that included boating parades, bands, fifty costumed young Philadelphian women escorted in procession, mock battles, dancing, and impressive fireworks displays. The colonial military also embraced morale-boosting theatrics: two weeks before the Meschianza, George Washington approved the plays as diversions for winter-weary soldiers at Valley Forge. At the end of the war, Washington attended the Dauphinade, a pageant reminiscent of the Meschianza.

As Americans gained more affluence and leisure time, and demanded more forms of entertainment, what had traditionally been the amateur theatrics of showmen—itinerant performers of medicine shows, freak shows, animal acts, acrobats, and rope-dancers—became professional touring circuses at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This, coupled with the ease of travel that arose with railroad expansion, reshaped the nature of public entertainment into "high" and "low" (or popular) art, and brought amateur theatrics into the parlor. Popular forms of parlor entertainments ranged from private musical concerts to tableaux vivants (or living pictures) and included pantomimes, charades, short plays, and adaptations of minstrel shows. These entertainments, given for family, friends and neighbors, developed the concept of the "real amateur," who excelled in skills honed expressly to amuse and entertain family and friends, leaving public entertainment to the professionals.

The foundational moral concepts of parlor entertainments were also the underpinnings of pageant dramas popular at the turn of the twentieth century. Percy Mackaye, a "dramatic engineer" with a theatrical heritage, was in large part responsible for the revival of pageant drama similar to the Meschianza. Mackaye viewed pageants and masques as expressive democratic art, and developed mass participatory spectacles celebrating the history of specific American communities on an enormous scale. His 1914 Masque of St. Louis used 7,500 citizen-players and was attended by almost 500,000 people in a five-day span.

As pageants became popular, another amateur theatrical movement came to the United States in the early twentieth century: the Little Theatre movement. Based on the European Art Movement that nurtured the drama of artists like André Antoine, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and others who pursued solely artistic rather than commercial goals, this movement also had roots in the parlors, where women's clubs met to pursue intellectual endeavors. While this movement gained momentum as an amateur venue in the 1910s, many Little Theaters did not have amateurism as their aim. These theaters slowly developed into professional regional theaters. A wealth of amateur community theaters continued to arise in more remote areas without professional theaters, serving as social centers and creative outlets for Americans who still saw amateur theatrics as a worthwhile leisure activity. By the 1960s, these theaters, often associated with social or educational groups, included collectives developed to explore issues of race, ethnicity, and gender theatrically.

In the early 2000s, as the concept of performance continued to expand, amateur theatrics embraced players as various as the costumed "playtrons" attending Renaissance festivals, participants in live-action roleplaying interacting at organized events, and "How to Host a Murder" costumed parties that echo nineteenth century parlor entertainments. These diverse performances characterize rich diversity and complex roots of amateur theatrics in the United States.

See also: Art Exhibit Audiences; Historical Reenactment Societies; Home Movies; Performing Arts Audiences; Theater, Live


Bellew, Frank. The art of amusing. Being a collection of collection of graceful arts, merry games, odd tricks, curious puzzles, and new charades; together with suggestions for private theatricals, tableaux, and all sorts of parlor and family amusements. New York: S. Low, Son and Company, 1866. (Reprint edition 1974 by Arno Press, Inc.)

Kasson, John F. Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990.

Kuftinec, Sonja. Staging America: Cornerstone and Community-Based Theater. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.

McNamara, Brooks. The New York Concert Saloon: The Devil's Own Nights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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

Perry, Clarence Arthur. The Work of the Little Theatres: The Groups They Include, the Plays They Produce, Their Tournaments, and the Handbooks They Use. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1933.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. A History of the American Drama: From the Beginning to the Civil War. 2 Vols. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1930.

Rankin, Hugh F. The Theater in Colonial America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1965.

Carrie J. Cole