The Early Years of American Theatre
written by Director of Dramaturgy Kate Farrington
So, I’ve been on am American Revolution kick for the last few months. No, it’s not a Hamilton thing.
Ok, maybe it’s a little a Hamilton thing, insofar as I spend every presidential election cycle doing what I can to offset the stress of 21st century politics with the removed stress of fictional or historical politics. This time around was a mix of Hamilton, the John Adams miniseries, and a Joseph Ellis medley. Oh, and West Wing—lots of West Wing.
I also dipped into the early American theatrical world, which is a strange, slightly messy place. Did you know that professional theatre was essentially banned during the Revolution? The Continental Congress put out the following statement in 1774:
“We will, in our several stations, promote economy, frugality and industry, and promote agriculture, arts and the manufactures of this country . . . and we will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shows, plays and other expensive diversions and entertainments.”
(I love that theatre is lumped in with cock-fighting as activities to avoid.)
Though I will never approve of theatrical closures, I do get where they were coming from. The colonies were about to enter a war without much financial security. Considering the Continental Army seems to have spent half the war running around half naked because Congress couldn’t reliably provide them with basic clothing, it’s an understandable stance to say “don’t spend money on anything remotely unnecessary.”
Then there’s that sneaky puritanical streak running through early (or, you know, all) American history that disliked theatre on a good, non-revolutionary day. This was particularly true in New England. Touring acting companies more often than not avoided Boston altogether in their circuits of larger cities—it was an unfriendly crowd.
But perhaps most interestingly, this edict was an overtly anti-British move. In 1774 there was no “American” theatre. No colonial city had a permanent company of their own—most professional actors were part of English troupes that came over on tour. And there were no colonial playwrights to speak of—practically every play performed before the revolution was British in origin.
In other words, there was no other popular entertainment so closely associated with British culture than going to the theatre, where English actors would perform English plays about English society. One does see how it could be a bit awkward in the middle of a revolution against England.
The British, by the way, thought the ban was ridiculous. General John Burgoyne, a playwright himself, was particularly vicious in his mockery of this ban, calling Congress a bunch of prudes and tyrants and reminding them that only killjoys like Oliver Cromwell closed theatres and killed art (good for him). He then went on to write a very mean farce about Washington’s embarrassing defeat at the Battle of Brooklyn (not so good).
But Congressional disapproval or not, the show still went on—sometimes. In fact, perhaps the most famous 18th century American performance of a play came in the darkest days of the war. After the infamous winter at Valley Forge, Washington obviously felt that his troops could use a bit of a pick-me-up. So that spring (1778) he allowed a group of junior officers to put on a series of entertainments. One of these was a performance of Cato, Joseph Addison’s 1712 play about a Roman general so committed to the cause of republicanism that he gives his entire life to public service. Sound familiar, General Washington?
After the war, American artists finally got down to the business of making some home grown art. My personal favorite play of the time period is André, William Dunlap’s highly fictionalized 1798 play about the aftermath of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal. Major John Andre, the British officer who colluded with Arnold, had the misfortune to get caught, and was sentenced to death. The only request André made was that he be shot as a soldier rather than hanged as a spy. Washington denied this request, but André still went to his death with calm dignity. The circumstances of his execution became infamous. Had Washington done what he must in a time or war, or had it been an act of cruelty? What did these events reveal about the emerging American character?
I had the pleasure of working on a reading of André at The Pearl ages ago, and then of seeing it done by the Metropolitan Playhouse. It’s an over the top play, but I think it’s fascinating that from the beginning we see an American theatrical literature that wants to explore what it means to be American. There’s a lot of soul searching that goes into our theatre.