While some scholars have termed American theater a "bastard art" because of its marginalized position in American culture, others have seen in it a means of reading the ever-evolving shape of the nation's imagined community. First brought to the colonies in the years before the American Revolution as a means of sustaining a cultural link with Great Britain, then resurrected after the war as something uniquely American, the nation's theater continued to transform itself throughout the nineteenth century in response to the events sweeping the country—from the Age of Jackson to the Industrial Revolution to the Civil War. By the end of the twentieth century, the United States' theater artists could claim that their art was no longer the illegitimate offspring of imperial Britain, but something that represented the diverse racial, ethnic, and class groups that the country had fostered.
The United States' history of opposition to the theater is almost as long-standing as its history inside the playhouse. Seventeenth-century Quakers and Puritans issued edicts against the theater before any professional players had even set foot on American shores. While citizens of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts struggled to keep the theater at bay, however, colonists in New York, Virginia, and South Carolina actively cultivated their nascent theatrical entertainments. The first recorded (amateur) performance in the colonies occurred on 27 August 1665, when a group of citizens in Accomac County, Virginia, staged a production of The Bare and the Cubb at Cowle's Tavern. In 1714, the governor of New York, Robert Hunter, produced the first truly American play, a political satire called Androboros: A Biographical Farce of Three Acts, viz: The Senate, the Consistory, and the Apotheosis. Hunter's play marks the beginning of a long American tradition of using plays to comment on political trends in American society.
In 1716, William Levingston of Williamsburg, Virginia, established the first permanent theater in British North America. The rectangular theater building approximated the seating arrangements of pit, box, and gallery customary in British theaters. However, Williamsburg simply could not sustain a professional theater and Levingston's playhouse soon closed.
In 1749, the short-lived Murray-Kean Company traveled to the colonies, staging performances in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York. The British Licensing Act of 1737 had restricted the operation of professional theaters in England to those specially licensed by the Crown. As a result, many performers looked to the new world as a source of income. The most successful group of actors to leave England for the colonies was the Hallam family. Lewis Hallam, Sr., brought his wife and son, Lewis Hallam, Jr., to the colonies in 1752.
When Lewis Hallam, Sr., died in 1755, his widow married David Douglass, perhaps the most brilliant theatrical manager of the eighteenth century. Douglass had a genius for building playhouses and developing audiences. Yet one of Douglass's greatest challenges in his management of the company was to overcome the lingering anti-theatrical prejudice that still plagued the colonies. While initially grounded in religious sentiment, the colonists' disintegrating relationship with Great Britain in the 1760s prompted an upsurge of anti-British feeling that spilled over into the colonists' perception of the theater, which was still essentially a British import. In 1774, the Continental Congress passed a resolution banning theatrical entertainments as needless and wasteful diversions.
The war had barely closed before Douglass's players (now renamed the Old American Company), brought its troupe back to the United States and tried to re-establish its former touring circuit. But in the intervening years, many states had passed their own antitheater legislation, and the once popular pastime was now an unpleasant reminder of the colonies' former dependence on Great Britain. It was not until the ratification of the federal constitution and the debut of Royall Tyler's play, The Contrast, that American theater began to find a new direction. Tyler's play, written and performed at New York's John Street playhouse in 1787, is perhaps the best-known early American drama. The play focuses on the "contrast" between American manners, which prize Republican virtue and simplicity, and British manners, which are characterized by their haughtiness and hypocrisy.
Each of the major cities in the new nation, including Philadelphia, Charleston, Richmond, Baltimore, New York, and Boston, competed to build lavish playhouses that would reflect their cultural refinement. The craze for theater-building almost killed the American appetite for playgoing altogether, as multiple companies competed for audience attention; it bankrupted a series of theater managers.
There was little space for women in the early American theater. Some of the best-known female playwrights of the early national period, Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814) and Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820), wrote plays as political commentary, yet seldom received either public credit (often writing under a pseudonym), or financial or critical reward. Only Susanna Rowson (1762–1824), enjoyed professional success in the American theater, and her Slaves in Algiers (1794) provoked enormous controversy for suggesting that women were entitled to the same political freedoms as men.
Early Politics and the Theater
Theater responded to the rapid political shifts of the early national period. The election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in 1800, with his emphasis on the "yeoman farmer," the simple Republican character who valued emotion over intellect, coincided with the theatrical trend towards melodrama, a form characterized by its emphasis on sentiment rather than reason. William Dunlap (1766–1839), playwright, artist, sometime manager of New York's Park Theater, and often called the "Father of American Drama," believed that the theater could teach Americans how to be good citizens.
Perhaps nowhere was the theater's power more evident than in the career of Edwin Forrest (1806–1872), star of the Jacksonian stage. Forrest came to the American theater at a time of tremendous transformation in American culture and politics. The election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828 had ushered in an era of aggressive masculinity that vaunted the triumph of the "common man" over the elite. For the working man in the theater's pit, Forrest's commanding style and daunting physical presence embodied the very essence of Jacksonian manhood. The plays that emerged from this tradition include The Gladiator, Jack Cade, and Metamora.
Forrest's "Americanness" was both a selling point and a challenge for American audiences, who were still uneasy about their own ability to discern worthy native products. American playwrights in particular, often felt slighted by their native audiences, who still seemed to prefer British fare. This schism between British and American taste in the theater also reflected increasing class tensions both within and outside of the playhouse
The Astor Place Riot Those tensions erupted one fateful night in May 1849, at the most infamous uprising in American theater history: the Astor Place Riot. The "Bowery B'hoys," working class toughs of New York's Bowery district, flocked to the Bowery Theater to see their hero Edwin Forrest play the common man, oppressed by his upper-class rivals. Further uptown, millionaire John Jacob Astor and his wealthy cohorts crowded into the newly built Astor Place Opera House to watch one of Britain's most refined stars, William Charles Macready. For Forrest's supporters, Macready symbolized everything foreign, negative, and elitist that plagued American culture. For Macready's adherents, Forrest's Bowery B'hoys were the reason that their theaters and streets were no longer safe and untroubled. On 10 May 1849, Forrest's supporters rallied outside the Opera House. The city militia, called in to keep the peace, fired into the crowd. Thirty-four people were killed and more than two hundred were wounded. In the wake of the riots, few could imagine what form of entertainment might bring American audiences together again.
The answer came in the person of Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810–1891), perhaps the most famous showman—and some would argue con man—in the history of American popular entertainment. In 1841, P. T. Barnum opened the American Museum on Broadway in New York City. Half lecture hall, half freak show, the museum housed such oddities as the Feejee Mermaid and Joyce Heth (a black woman he claimed had been George Washington's childhood nurse), as well as more serious and educational "moral reform" dramas. The best known of these was William Henry Smith's temperance play The Drunkard (1844). Barnum used the play to persuade middle class spectators of the moral efficacy of theater. While Barnum successfully combined highbrow and lowbrow culture in his museum entertainments, other forms of American popular entertainment brought these two elements together, but with widely different results.
Blackface minstrelsy is one of the few uniquely American entertainments that the United States can claim, and also one of the few that combines almost every element of class, racial, ethnic, gender, and political tension that challenged the young country during the nineteenth century. Though scholars differ on the exact point of origin for blackface minstrelsy, many attribute its genesis to Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice (1806–1860), the American actor who created the character of "Jim Crow" sometime between 1828 and 1831. Rice's success helped to spawn the genre of the minstrel show, a form that combined blackface performance with singing, dancing, and short skits. Among the most famous minstrel troupes were Dan Emmett's Virginia Minstrels (Emmett [1815–1904] was the author of the tune "Dixie") and E. P. Christy's Minstrels. The minstrel show combined both highbrow and lowbrow culture, but in parody (not earnestness, as Barnum had done).
The Debut of Uncle Tom's Cabin
Minstrelsy and melodrama remained two of the most popular forms of American entertainment through the Civil War, reaching their apex together in the play destined to become the most widely performed show in American theater history, Uncle Tom's Cabin. The stunning success of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel prompted theater managers to stage their own versions of the story (most famously George Aiken's 1852 version). Uncle Tom's Cabin also gave rise to a genre of stage stories dealing with the character of the "tragic mulatto," most notably in Dion Boucicault's melodrama The Octoroon (1859).
By the end of the Civil War, American drama had become even more diversified and, perhaps more importantly, even more divided. The rugged, working class manliness of Edwin Forrest no longer dominated the stage. Instead, Edwin Booth (whose brother, John Wilkes Booth had assassinated President Abraham Lincoln), had become the premiere American actor. Known for his intellectual air and reserved demeanor, Booth (1833–1893) represented the quintessential Hamlet—his most famous role—and the ultimate "thinking man's" hero. While Booth catered to middle-class and elite audiences in New York's lavish uptown theaters, working-class audiences and frontier audiences were seeking new diversions elsewhere.
Women and the Theater
The second half of the nineteenth century found theater managers in search of a new audience—women. Prior to the middle of the century, attending the theater, especially alone, was a hazardous pastime for women. It exposed them to lewd behavior from male audience members and possible sexual propositions if they were mistaken for the prostitutes who regularly haunted the theater's upper galleries. Thus Tony Pastor's vaudeville house, New York's 14th Street Theater, which advertised performances "clean enough for women," came as a blessing. Vaudeville acts consisted largely of comic skits, songs, and specialty numbers, and Pastor offered matinees so that women could attend on their own. He awarded door prizes such as hams or sewing machines to further tempt female and family audiences. Vaudeville also offered a showcase for new forms of immigrant entertainment and fostered the comedy duos Weber and Fields, a German or "Dutch" act; and Harrigan and Hart, an Irish act.
On the flip side of vaudeville lived burlesque—a seamier style of performance that flourished in working-class theaters and on the frontiers. Partly launched by the success of the Black Crook (1866)—a five-hour extravaganza that featured a chorus of scantily-clad French ballerinas, and partly fostered by the nationwide tour of performer Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes—burlesque tantalized male audiences with unprecedented glimpses of the female form. The genre became so popular that one outraged American actress, Olive Logan (1839–1909) started an active campaign against what she saw as the degradation of professional women.
Burlesque and vaudeville both appealed to new American audiences—particularly those who spoke little English—as floods of immigrants continued to pour into the country and theaters grew increasingly adept at integrating these new influences onto the stage. The influx of immigrants also supported two other phenomena that contributed to the development of the American theater: the railroad and the factory. The spread of railroads enabled theater productions to travel rapidly across the country; it also meant that any town with a railroad stop could host a touring show.
Railroads also contributed to the development of the Theatrical Syndicate, a management group that controlled bookings for playhouses across the United States and established a virtual monopoly on American entertainments by the end of the century. The Syndicate produced only commercially appealing shows and excluded actors and playwrights who refused to cooperate.
By the end of the nineteenth century, American theater artists had begun to struggle against the power of the Syndicate, just as American businessmen had begun to struggle against the system of trusts. This trend was inspired partly by the Realist movement in Europe, which touted "ordinary" characters and action over melodramatic heroes and spectacle, and by the works of English playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) and Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906). Some American actresses such as Mary Shaw (1854–1929), a noted suffragette, and playwright James A. Herne (1839–1901), often known as the "American Ibsen," introduced American audiences to these new forms. In particular, Herne's 1890 Margaret Fleming marked a turning point in American theater, as it jolted American audiences out of their melodrama-induced complacency. Herne believed that drama should "instruct" its audiences, and Margaret Fleming challenged viewers to rethink their notions of morality and marriage
Into the Twentieth Century
By the turn of the twentieth century, American theater had reached a turning point with the advent of realism and the beginning of the "Little Theater" movement, a reaction against the commercially driven spectacles of mainstream American theater. The movement produced Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953), one of the nation's first authentic dramatic geniuses, whose works, including The Hairy Ape, The Iceman Cometh, and Long Day's Journey Into Night, remain in the American theater canon.
The frivolity of the Jazz Age ushered in a similarly lighthearted era in American popular entertainment. While some performers and playwrights (most notably those affiliated with the newly created Theater Guild), labored to introduce more serious drama and formal training techniques into the American theater, many producers on Broadway, conscious of the need to compete with the fledgling film industry, focused on creating entertainment for the "tired businessman." These shows, of which the Ziegfeld Follies were a prime example, featured elegantly (if scantily) clad showgirls, and music, songs, and skits by artists such as Fanny Brice and W. C. Fields, Fred Astaire, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Will Rogers. Ziegfeld also helped to produce Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Showboat (1928), one of the most important musicals in American stage history.
The devastating impact of the Great Depression brought a sudden end to the gaiety of the 1920s. Lavish musical shows became too expensive to produce or to attend, and movies and radio became the most popular forms of entertainment. They had been growing in popularity throughout the 1920s with the rise of stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, and Rudolph Valentino. The advent of sound in the 1927 film "The Jazz Singer" had begun a craze for the "talkies," and by 1930, the nation's 1,500 operational playhouses had dropped to 500. Radio, like film, offered cheap and widely accessible enjoyment—whether it was Roosevelt's heartening "fireside chats" during the darkest days of the Depression, or Orson Welles' electrifying 1938 performance of The War of the Worlds, which convinced many listeners that an actual Martian invasion was in progress.
The government did try to revive the country's flagging theatrical system with the 1935 creation of the Federal Theater Project, which sponsored nationwide tours of theatrical productions and gave employment to thousands of out-of-work actors, designers, writers, and technicians. The project was terminated in 1939 because of suspected ties to socialist and communist movements.
The coming of World War II did much to reinvigorate the American theater. As movies became more patriotic (featuring stars such as Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, and Clark Gable marching off to war), many American plays tried to recapture a vanished sense of the American frontier and American greatness, as in the 1943 production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's Oklahoma!.
The postwar period, while it brought an upsurge in the productivity of American playwrights, also brought a distinct change in tone to the nation's theater. The Depression and World War II had effectively shrunk the country's theatrical center to New York City. Within the span of less than a decade, New York witnessed the debut of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and Arthur Miller's All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), and The Crucible (1953). These plays, recognized as some of the greatest of the twentieth century, reflected a growing frustration with the seeming failure of the "American Dream," and with the increasingly rigid politics of the McCarthy era.
Miller's and Williams's work flourished in part because of a new generation of actors, trained in a style that has become known as "The Method." Popularized at the Actors' Studio by stage director Lee Strasberg "The Method's" most noted disciples included Marlon Brando, Eve Marie Saint, and James Dean.
By the 1950s, producing shows on Broadway had become prohibitively expensive. Thus a new phenomenon, known as "Off-Broadway" evolved. Many of Williams's works were produced in these smaller theaters removed from the heart of New York City's Times Square, as were those of later writers such as Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ), Sam Shepard (Curse of the Starving Class) and David Mamet (American Buffalo ).
The age of experimentation accelerated rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s, with an ever-increasing number of groups vying to make their voices heard on the American stage. Broadway became the site of the safe and staid, while regional troupes, including El Teatro Campesino, At the Foot of the Mountain, the Living Theater, the Wooster Group, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Bread and Puppet Theater, the Negro Ensemble Company, and the East-West Players, sprang up to express the needs of the Latino, women's, gay and lesbian, African-American, and Asian-American communities. In recognition of this upsurge in regional theater activity, the government founded the National Endowment for the Arts (1965).
Modern-Day Broadway: Musical Theater Dominates
By the 1980s–1990s, Broadway fare consisted largely of musical theater—primarily British imports, including the enormously successful Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables (maverick Stephen Sondheim's musicals tended to be produced off Broadway). Much of the innovative work of the American theater had moved to regional playhouses, including the American Repertory Theater, the Mark Taper Forum, the Steppenwolf Theater Company, and the Actor's Theater of Louisville. New authors, including Wendy Wasserstein, Terrence McNally, Paula Vogel, Craig Lucas, and Tony Kusher began developing their plays at these regional spaces before a possible transfer to Broadway (if the plays proved commercially viable).
Two of the most successful transfers of the 1990s include Tony Kushner's Pulizter Prize-winning Angels in America, which began at the Taper before moving to New York, and Jonathan Larson's musical Rent, which began as a staged reading at the Off-Broadway New York Theater Workshop. Such successes were rare, however, and the trend on Broadway in the early 2000s was towards revivals of big-name musicals (including Damn Yankees, Oklahoma!, Showboat, Music Man, and Annie Get Your Gun ), or revivals of plays from the American canon with well-known movie stars in the leading roles. Producers have also recognized the lucrative possibilities of transforming successful films or cartoons into Broadway musicals. This began largely with the "Disneyfication" of Times Square: during the 1990s, much of the property was purchased by the Walt Disney Company, which cleaned up the derelict downtown theaters. The Disney-Broadway collaborations include Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.
Though many Americans still identify Broadway as the theatrical capitol of the nation, since the 1950s its authority and force have shifted to both regional theater centers, and, increasingly since the mid-1980s, to performing arts centers at universities across the nation, including the University of Illinois, Dartmouth College, and the University of Maryland, to name only a few. These institutions house multimillion dollar arts complexes that present music, theater, and dance performances, and serve as the artistic focal point for their communities. They also represent a shift in the nation's understanding of the function of a playhouse—a shift that, interestingly, carries American theater back to its earliest roots. The new performing arts centers combine not only diverse entertainment, but galleries, restaurants, and other non-theater oriented resources for their audiences. The earliest playhouses of the new nation offered a similar range of options—from saloons, to card rooms, to mini-museums. Although American theater has come a long way from its earliest, contested origins, its founders might be pleased to recognize in the performing arts centers of the early twenty-first century some of their own impulses to unite and foster the arts in one central space.
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Heather S. Nathans