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  • 3/28/2005

First American Theater (2)

Exactly when the first dramatic performance was given in America it is, of course, impossible to say. There are records inVirginia of a play being acted in that colony [6] and the players summoned to court in consequence as early as 1665, but this was evidently only an amateur effort and need not detain us here. In 1690 Harvard students gave a performance at Cambridge, Mass., of Benjamin Colman"s tragedy Gustavus Vasa, the first play written by an American acted in America, of which we have any knowledge. We also know that there were dramatic performances by professional actors in New York at the opening of, if not before, the Eighteenth Century. Anthony Aston, a well-known English actor-adventurer, says he acted inNew York about 1702, and there is no reason to doubt his word. What he acted or where we do not know. But the fact that he was able to follow his profession at all would seem to indicate not only that theatrical performances at the time of his visit were not taboo, but that they were already a popular feature of New York life.

Anthony Aston, sometimes known as "Mat Medley," was born in England and educated as an attorney. He became an actor towards the end of the reign of William III, presenting a musical and dramatic entertainment written by himself entitled "The Medley." In this he toured the English provinces and in 1717 performed at the Globe andMarlborough taverns in Fleet Street, London. Chetwood in his history (1749) speaks of Aston as "travelling still and as well known as the post horse that carries the mail." He was the author of a Supplement to the "Apology" of Colley Cibber and of several plays including The Fool"s Opera. This piece, printed in London about the year 1731, is prefaced by "a sketch of the author"s life and a frontispiece giving a scene from the play." A bad wood-cut portrait of Aston himself is in the upper left-hand corner. The title page runs as follows:

The Fool"s Opera or the Taste of the Age. Written by Mat Medley and Performed by his Company at Oxford: to which is prefixed a Sketch of the Author"s Life Written by Himself. London (Circa 1731).

In the quaintly worded preface Aston speaks of his voyage to America many years earlier (1701 is believed to be the exact date) and his acting in New York. He begins thus:

My merry hearts, you are to know me as a gentleman, lawyer, poet, actor, soldier, sailer, exciseman, publican, in England, Scotland, Ireland, New York, East and West Jersey, Maryland, Virginia (on both sides Cheesapeek), North and South Carolina, South Florida, Bahamas, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and often a coaster by all the same. . . . After many vicissitudes I arrived at Charles Towne (Charleston, S.C.) full of lice, shame, poverty, nakedness and hunger--turned player and poet and wrote one play on the subject of the country.

After leavingCharleston, Aston proceeded North by ship. When nearly at the mouth ofNew York harbor the ship was blown to theVirginia Capes. After some delay he arrived in New York by way of Elizabeth. He continues:

There I lighted on my old acquaintance, Jack Charlton, Fencing Master and Counsellor Reignieur, sometimes of Lincoln"s Inn (who) supply"d me with business (work?) till I had the honour of being acquainted with that brave, honest, unfortunate gentleman, Capt. Henry Pullein, whose ship (The Fame) was burnt in the Bermudas; he (to the best of his ability) assisted me, so that after acting, writing, courting, fighting that winter (1702?) my kind Captain Davies, in his sloop built at Rhode, gave me free passage to Virginia.

There is nothing in this account to warrant Mr. Oscar Wegelin"s [7] assumption that Aston was the first professional player to act in New York. The very fact that the English adventurer makes nothing of his appearance, but announces the fact in the most commonplace way, would seem to indicate that he found other actors here when he reached New York. Otherwise, if acting had been unknown here, he would surely have had something to say of the sensation which such a novelty must have been to New Yorkers, unaccustomed to anything of the sort. The chief interest in Aston"s sketch is the positive statement that there was acting in New York at the time of his visit. This being the very earliest information we have regarding theatricals in New York, the account of his visit is of great historic interest and value.

It is to be surmised from Aston"s own statement that wherever he acted or in whatever play he acted, the occasion did not bring him much remuneration, or he would not have had to apply to his friend, the captain, to assist him with a free passage. After leavingNew York, he went to London where he married and we hear no more of him.

After Aston"s departure there was no mention of theatricals in the Colonies for many years. The first American newspaper had not yet made its appearance (the earliest public journal, the Boston News Letter, was not published until 1704) nor did any of the correspondence of the time, until 1714, make the slightest reference to plays or players. In that year, however, Justice Samuel Sewall, [8] ofMassachusetts, wrote a letter in which he protests against the acting of a play in the Council Chamber of Boston, affirming that even the Romans, fond as they were of plays, were not "so far set upon them as to turn their Senate House into a Playhouse." "Let not Christian Boston," he continues, "goe beyond Heathen Rome in the practice of Shamefull vanities."

There is no further trace of the proposed performance. Owing to the judge"s protest, it probably was not given in the Council Chamber. Possibly the promoters found some other quarters more suitable, for it will be noted that Judge Sewall merely protests. He does not invoke the law to prohibit the performance altogether.

A couple of decades later--1750 to be exact--a performance of Thomas Otway"s tragedy The Orphan [9] was given in a coffee house in State Street, Boston, by local amateurs, assisted by two professional players recently arrived from England. The affair was such a novelty and the curiosity of the Boston public to see the play so keen, that the doors of the coffee house were besieged and an incipient riot took place. This disturbance caused such a scandal that the authorities were compelled to take notice, and the General Court at once enacted a law not only forbidding acting within the Commonwealth, but even rendering the spectators liable to a fine.

Yet Boston, early in the Eighteenth Century, was not quite such a place of gloom and solemn visages as New England tradition would lead us to think. This one can readily believe after reading a description, recorded by Spencer, of one of the principal residences of that town:

There was a great hall ornamented with pictures and a great lantern and a velvet cushion in the window-seat that looked into the garden. In the hall was placed a large bowl of punch from which visitors might help themselves as they entered. On either side was a large parlor, a little parlor or a study. These were furnished with mirrors, oriental rugs, window curtains and valance, pictures, a brass clock, red leather back chair, and a pair of huge brass andirons. The bedrooms were well supplied with feather beds, warming pans, and every other article that would now be thought necessary for comfort or display. The pantry was well filled with substantial fare and delicacies. Silver tankards, wine cups and other articles were not uncommon. Very many families employed servants, and in one we see a Scotch boy valued among the property and invoiced at £14. [10]

Even before this period in the matter of dress certain of the ladies were eager to copy the London and Paris fashions, so much so that a writer of the time complained, "Methinks it should break the heart of Englishmen to see so many goodly English women imprisoned in French cages peering out of their hood holes for some men of mercy to help them with a little wit."

The distinction of having erected what is believed to be the first theatre in America belongs to Williamsburg, Va. Research has not brought to light any playhouse in the Colonies of earlier origin than the one built in the then capital of Virginia in 1716, the year that Governor Spotswood crossed the Blue Ridge, the first white man, as far as known, to enter the Great Valley.

The theatre was erected by one William Levingston, who "for some time previous," says Dr. Tyler in his interesting book on Williamsburg, [11] "had been managing in New Kent County a peripatetic dancing school, in which the star dancers were Charles Stagg and his wife Mary. There is a contract recorded at Yorktown dated July 11, 1716, by which William Levingston, merchant, agrees with Charles and Mary Stagg, his wife, actors, to build a theatre in Williamsburg and to provide actors, scenery and music out of England for the enacting of comedies and tragedies in the said city. On November 21, 1716, Mr. Levingston purchased three and one-half acre lots and erected thereon a dwelling house, kitchen and stable. He laid out also a bowling alley and built a theatre."

That this is the same "Playhouse" mentioned by Hugh Jones in his now very scarce work The Present State of Virginia, [12] published in London in 1724, there can be little doubt. It is also probable that on the stage of this theatre was acted the play mentioned by Governor Spotswood in a letter written June 24, 1718. In this letter the governor refers to eight members of the House of Assembly who slighted an invitation to his house to witness a play. He writes:

In order to the solemnizing His Majesty"s birthday, I gave a public entertainment at my home and all gentlemen that would come were admitted. These eight gentlemen would neither come to my house nor go to the play which was acted on the occasion, but, on the contrary, these eight committeemen got together all the turbulent and disappointed burghers to an entertainment of their own in the House of Burgesses and invited the mob and plentifully supplied it with liquor to drink the same health as was drunk in the governor"s house, taking no more notice of the government than if there had been none in the place. [13]

No records exist as to what plays were presented at this theatre built by William Levingston in 1716. There was no newspaper in Virginia until 1732 when the Virginia Gazette first made its appearance. The house does not appear to have prospered, for in 1723 its mortgage was foreclosed and Dr. Archibald Blair, the mortgagee, took possession of the property. Charles Stagg died in Williamsburg in 1735, and after his death Mary Stagg earned a living holding "dancing assemblies."

In 1735 and 1736 the theatre was utilized for amateur productions, the students of William andMaryCollege giving performances. It is also believed that a company of professional players acted regularly there. The Virginia Gazette for September 10, 1736, contained this advertisement:

This evening will be performed at the Theatre by the young gentlemen of the College the Tragedy of Cato, and on Monday, Wednesday and Friday will be acted the following comedies by the young Gentlemen and Ladies of the country--The Busybody, [14] and The Recruiting Officer and The Beaux Stratagem. [15]

There is some doubt as to the exact meaning of this announcement. Some writers believe that it refers only to amateur performances. It is quite plain that it was the students who were to present Cato, but it is not equally certain that amateurs were to appear in the comedies mentioned. The expression "young Gentlemen and Ladies of the country" might well mean persons of both sexes belonging to the Colony who had organized themselves into a company of professional players. Some authorities give it this interpretation. The students were to perform Cato on that particular night, and on other nights the comedies would be presented by the organized theatrical company then performing regularly in the theatre.

A contemporary letter written September 17, 1736, only a week after the above advertisement appeared in the Virginia Gazette seems to point conclusively to this being the case. One Colonel Thomas Jones [16] writes to his wife in the country:

You may tell Betty Pratt there has been but two plays acted since she went, which is Cato, by the Young Gentlemen of the College, as they call themselves and The Busybody by the Company on Wednesday night last, and I believe there will be another to Night...

Additional color to the belief that competent players were acting in Williamsburg at that time, is given by a letter written by Colonol William Byrd of "Westover" to his good friend Sir John Randolph ofWilliamsburg. The colonel, evidently familiar with The Busybody (presented for the first time in London in 1709 with Ann Oldfield as Isabinda), is interested to learn how the play was received in Williamsburg. He writes:

Which of your actors shone most in the play, next to Isabinda who, I take it for granted, is the Oldfield of the theatre? How came Squire Marplot off? With many a clap, I suppose, though I fancy he would have acted more to the life in the comedy called The Sham Doctor. But not a word of this for fear in case of sickness he might poison you. [17]

This last bit of facetiousness evidently points to the rôle of Marplot being played by the Colonel"s physician, which again would give support to the amateur theory.

That the drama should have taken root in Virginia earlier than anywhere else in America is not surprising. The Virginians, a gay, pleasure-loving people, had nothing in common with the more sober Puritans of New England. "They were," says Bancroft, "a continuation of English society, who were attached to the monarchy, with a deep reverence for the English church, and a love for England and English institutions." Descendants of the old cavaliers, their philosophy was to enjoy life while they could, rather than spend their days making gloomy preparations for death. Far from having prejudices against play-acting, they welcomed the thespian with open arms.Virginia and Maryland are, in fact, the only American colonies which never had laws prohibiting play-acting.

Williamsburg about that period was the most aristocratic and prosperous town on the continent. It was the seat of the Upper House and the House of Burgesses and the governor"s official residence. The Law Courts were there; and the public buildings, chief of which was the College, were as fine as any in England. The women dressed fashionably and most of the leading families kept their coach. The shops were stocked with rich merchandise and it was the custom of the wealthy plantation owners and country gentry to run into the town for their shopping and amusements. Cooke, in his History of the People of Virginia, gives an interesting description of Williamsburg in those early days:

It was the habit of the planters to go there with their families at this season to enjoy the pleasures of the capital and one of the highways, Gloucester, was an animated spectacle of coaches and four containing the nabobs and their dames, Maidens in silk and lace, with high-heeled shoes and clocked stockings. All these people were engaged in attending the assemblies at the Palace, in dancing at the Apollo, in snatching the pleasures of the moment and enjoying life under a regime that seemed mad for enjoyment. The violins seemed to be ever playing for the diversion of the youths and maidens; cocks were fighting, horsemen riding, students mingled in the throng in their academic dress, and his Serene Excellency went to open the House of Burgesses in his coach drawn by six milk-white horses. It was a scene full of gaiety and abandon.

Just the place, it might seem, to support a theatre, yet in Williamsburg, as elsewhere, it was not the wealthy who were the best patrons of the drama. "The Virginia planter," Seilhamer reminds us, "was a fox hunting squire with the airs of an English duke. In the cities the first families were scarcely less haughty than the royalty itself. The rich were too mighty to patronize the theatre at home." Support of the playhouse came not from the class which could best afford the luxury, but from that large and ever-growing intelligent middle class which was quick to demand all the intellectual pleasures the Old World was enjoying--the same citizens to whose devotion and patriotism was due a little later the establishment of the Republic and who still to-day remain the principal factors in the development of our national drama.

After 1736 the theatre in Williamsburg seems to have languished, for we do not hear of any more performances. In 1745 the playhouse, which had not been put to any use for several years, was bought by a number of prominent men of the Colony and presented to Williamsburg as a town hall.

This ended the career, and is all we know, of the first theatre in America.

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