Theatre in Colonial and Federal America

Historic Marker for the 1st Play performed in America


Last month we looked at the history and development of English theatre, beginning in the Middle Ages, and carrying up through the Regency Era.  In today’s post, we are going to look at theatre in England’s American territories during the Colonial period as well as in the early years of the American Republic.


Exactly when the first dramatic performance in America took place is impossible to say.  There are records in of a play being acted on the Eastern Shore of Virginia as early as 1665.  A play, known as “Ye Bare and ye Cubb,” was acted by three citizens of Accomac, Cornelius Watkinson, Philip Howard, and William Darby.  As soon as the report of this performance reached the King’s attorney, John Fawsett, he summoned them to court, where he subjected each of them to a rigid cross-examination.  At this session, the justices contented themselves with ordering the culprits to appear at the next meeting of the court in the costumes, which they had worn in acting the alleged play.  They were also required to bring with them for inspection a copy of the “verses, speeches, and passages” which they had performed on that occasion.  The justices must have found the performance to be very innocent, for they directed the three men exonerated, and the person who had informed on them to pay all the expenses of the presentment. (Wise, 1911) Additionally, 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.  These productions, however, were only amateur efforts.

18th Century Theatre

The opening of the 18th Century brought dramatic performances by professional actors beginning in New York.  Anthony Aston, a well-known English actor-adventurer, says he acted in New York about 1702, and there is no reason to doubt his word.  What he acted or where we do not know.  Nevertheless, that he was able to follow his profession at all would seem to show that theatrical performances at the time of his visit were not taboo, and possibly even popular in New York.

Painting of Anthony Aston from the Frontispiece of "A Fools Opera"

Anthony Aston from the Frontispiece of “A Fools Opera”

In the preface to his 1731 play, The Fools Opera, 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. (Aston, 1731)

After leaving Charleston, Aston proceeded North by ship.  When nearly at the mouth of New York harbor the ship was blown to the Virginia Capes and, 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. (Aston, 1731)

The real value in Aston’s comments is the statement that there was acting in New York at the time of his visit.  With this being the very earliest information we have about theatricals in New York, the account of his visit is of great historic interest and value.  After leaving New York, he eventually 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.  In 1714 however, Justice Samuel Sewall, of Massachusetts, wrote a letter where 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.”

Portrait of Judge Samuel Sewell

Judge Samuel Sewall

There is no further trace of the proposed performance and, considering the judge’s protest, it probably was not given in the Council Chamber.  It is possible that the promoters found some other quarters more suitable, since Judge Sewall merely protests and does not invoke the law to prohibit the performance altogether. (Daly, 1896)

Williamsburg, VA  probably holds the distinction of having erected the first purpose-built theatre in America where, in 1716, one was built on the Palace Green.  The theatre was erected by William Levingston, who, “for some time earlier had managed in New Kent County a roving dancing school, in which the star dancers were Charles Stagg and his wife Mary.” (Tyler, 1907)  In a contract recorded at Yorktown dated July 11, 1716, William Levingston, merchant, agrees with his indentured servant Charles Stagg—actor, violinist, and dancer, and Mary Stagg, his wife, and actor, to build a theatre in Williamsburg and to “bear equal share in all the charges of cloathes, musick, and other necessaries for acting in play . . .” including actors and scenery.  (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2006)  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.”  In all likelihood, this is the same “Playhouse” mentioned by Hugh Jones in his work The Present State of Virginia, published in London in 1724.

Historical Marker for the Site of the Playhouse Theatre in Williamsburg, VA

Historical Marker for the Site of the Playhouse Theatre in Williamsburg, VA

No records exist as to what plays William Levingston presented at this theatre.  There was no newspaper in Virginia until 1732 when the Virginia Gazette first made its appearance.  The playhouse does not seem to have prospered, for in 1723 Dr. Archibald Blair, the mortgagee, foreclosed and 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 students of William and Mary College used the theatre for performing amateur productions.  After 1736, the theatre in Williamsburg seems to have languished; there are no records of any more performances.  In 1745, after several years of  being unused, a group of prominent men of the Colony bought the playhouse and presented it to Williamsburg as a town hall.   (Hornblow, 1919)  The building was razed after construction of the Courthouse on Market Square.

On February 12, 1736, in Charles Town, SC, the original Dock Street Theatre, built on the corner of Church Street and Dock Street (now known as Queen Street), opened with a performance of the bawdy restoration farce, The Recruiting Officer by George Farhquar.  Flora, the first known opera performance in America, took place at the Dock Street Theatre as well.  The theatre hosted plays and operas for the next two years.  After that, the theater’s fate is uncertain, but it was presumably burned in the great fire of 1740 that destroyed the city’s historic French quarter.

Williamsburg’s second theater was open by 1752 behind the Capitol near Waller Street and was soon the home of the Lewis Hallam troupe that arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia that year.  The Hallams were the first to organize a complete company of actors in Europe and bring them to the colonies.  They also brought with them a repertoire of plays popular in London at the time, including Hamlet, Othello, The Recruiting Officer, and Richard III.  The Merchant of Venice was their first performance, shown initially on September 15, 1752.  From Williamsburg, the troupe traveled to Annapolis and Philadelphia.  In 1754, Hallam built a theater in New York City, on Nassau Street.  He and his theatre company also toured throughout the thirteen colonies.

Portrait of Lewis Hallam, Actor

Lewis Hallam, Actor

Hallam died in Jamaica, where the company had gone to perform, and his widow married David Douglas with whom she formed the American Company in 1758.  Her son by Lewis Hallam, Lewis Hallam, Jr., became an actor in his mother and stepfather’s company.  He was the earliest known American Hamlet and (played) Arsaces, the hero of the first professionally produced American play, The Prince of Parthia in 1752.  After spending the Revolutionary War years in the West Indies, he returned in 1784 to reopen the Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia and the John Street Theatre in New York.  With John Henry, he revitalized the American Company, working with John Hodgkinson and William Dunlap after Henry’s withdrawal.  (Boardman & Hischak, 2004)

The Theatre, Law, and Politics

While theatre in 18th Century America was quickly spreading, it was not without its opponents.  In the South the Colonists had imported a taste for the drama together with their other English customs, but in the North the playhouse was still considered “suspect” and in many locations was fiercely condemned if not actually forbidden under the law.  In 1750, the General Court of Massachusetts passed an act prohibiting stage plays and theatrical entertainments of any kind.  On May 31, 1759, the House of Representatives in the Colony of Pennsylvania passed a law forbidding the showing and acting of plays under a penalty of £500.  In 1761, Rhode Island passed “an act to Prevent Stage Plays and other Theatrical Entertainments within this Colony.”  The following year the New Hampshire House of Representatives refused a troupe of actors admission to Portsmouth on the ground that plays had a “peculiar influence on the minds of young people and greatly endanger their morals by giving them a taste for intriguing, amusement and pleasure.”  (Hornblow, 1919)

The period before and during the American Revolution was a boost for dramatists, for whom the political debates were fertile ground for satire.  Unfortunately, the Congress did not see it that way.  In October 1774, the First Continental Congress passed the Articles of Association, which banned all trade with Britain until its grievances were addressed.  While most of the articles dealt with trade specifically and the mechanics of the Articles’ enforcement, Article 8 stated,

“We will, in our several stations, promote economy, frugality and industry, and promote agriculture, arts and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool; 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.”  (Continental Congress Association and Peyton Randolph, 1774)

Through the Association, Congress had placed the theatre on the same low moral plane as gambling or animal fighting – to be discouraged through the Articles’ communal enforcement scheme and the Association’s Committees of Inspection ensured compliance.  However, it was not until December 1775 that Congress’s ban on theatre would be attacked from the stage itself.

Portrait of Major General John Burgoyne - Playwright

Major General John Burgoyne – Playwright

By that time, the war had begun, with Boston under British military control but under siege by the Continental Army.  One of the British Major Generals, John Burgoyne, was a playwright himself, having written the comedy Maid of the Oaks in London in 1774.  An outspoken opponent of Congress and American demands before the war, he found Congress’s ban, as well as Boston’s particular hostility to the theatre, proof of the Revolutionaries’ treachery.  So as the siege began, he had town center, Faneuil Hall, turned into a playhouse operated by army officers.  One of the known productions was Zara by Aaron Hill, a play about religious intolerance during the crusades.  (Malinsky, 2013)

Why did Congress pass this ban?  To date, there is no documentary evidence as to the reasons for it, or the position taken by members of Congress to Article 8.  One can, however, deduce some possible explanations based upon the situation.  With the economic distress caused by the French and Indian War, and the ensuing taxation attempts by Britain, Congress saw spending money at the playhouse as completely wasteful: after all, the money would go to itinerant and possibly immoral actors and not to local business like inns or taverns, thereby continuing the economic slump.  Additionally, the association of theatre with the élite did not help its popularity.

These rising forces of religious and economic opposition took on a nationalist air as relations between the colonies and Britain deteriorated throughout the 1760s.  Was it not shameful that the elites of the colonies, spurred on by the poor who did not know better, spent their money on British actors performing British plays, which would promote British values?  The extent to which theatre became politicized was seen in May 1766 when the New York Sons of Liberty, upon hearing of the repeal of the hated Stamp Act, attacked and destroyed the Chapel Street Theatre as a symbol of British oppression, severely beating a cross-dressing actor, and killing a small child.  It was the desire for proper morality, frugality, and national pride that inspired an America-wide boycott of theatre.

A Performance of "Cato"

A Performance of “Cato”

In spite of such laws, in April and May 1778, George Washington approved a series of performances by officers of the Continental Army in Valley Forge outside Philadelphia, most notably Joseph Addison’s Cato, a play largely concerned with the defeat of tyranny (here represented by Caesar) by the forces of liberty (Cato).  The General’s enthusiasm rubbed off on his officers, who began performing plays of their own once they had retaken Philadelphia from the British.  Amongst the plays planned by American officers were those with more salacious themes then Cato, such as George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, which satirizes the Army as a simple source of a romantic romp.  On October 12, 1778, Congress responded to the Army’s refusal to obey by passing injunctions that were more direct:

Whereas true religion and good morals are the only solid foundations of public liberty and happiness:

Resolved, That it be, and it is hereby earnestly recommended to the several states, to take the most effectual measures for the encouragement thereof, and for the suppressing of theatrical entertainments, horse racing, gaming, and such other diversions as are productive of idleness, dissipation, and a general depravity of principles and manners.

Resolved, That all officers in the army of the United States, be, and hereby are strictly enjoined to see that the good and wholesome rules provided for the discountenancing of prophaneness and vice, and the preservation of morals among the soldiers, are duly and punctually observed.  (Continental Congress, 1778)

Then, just for good measure, four days later they passed:

Whereas frequenting play houses and theatrical entertainments has a fatal tendency to divert the minds of the people from a due attention to the means necessary for the defence of their country, and the preservation of their liberties:

Resolved, That any person holding an office under the United States, who shall act, promote, encourage or attend such plays, shall be deemed unworthy to hold such office, and shall be accordingly dismissed.  (Congress, 1778)

The requirements of the war soon distracted Washington’s Army from theatre until after the Battle of Yorktown.

Theatre in the New Republic

Negative opinions towards theatre persisted well after the peace and, as a result, performances in Boston and Philadelphia did not receive official sanction until the 1790s.  By that time, however, thanks in part to the American military performances, a greater appreciation of theatre had begun to develop.  American plays, such as Royall Tyler’s 1787 comedy The Contrast about New York society women and William Dunlap’s controversial 1798 analysis of the Benedict Arnold affair, André began to be widely performed.  (Richards, 1997)

At 825 Walnut Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is the Walnut Street Theatre, or, “The Walnut.”  Founded in 1809 by the Circus of Pepin and Breschard, “The Walnut” is the oldest theater in America still in use.  When the theatre opened its doors on February 2, 1809, the pounding of hooves mingled with the cries of wonder from the crowd as teams of horses circled a dirt riding ring.  A few years later, the theatre added an 80-foot dome, making it the tallest structure in Philadelphia at that time.  The theatre’s career as an equestrian circus did not last long however, and by 1812, conversion of the building to a legitimate theatre, featuring a real stage where the ring had stood, was complete.  The Walnut’s first theatrical production, The Rivals, had President Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in attendance on opening night.  (Walnut Street Theatre, 2015)

Walnut Street Theatre ca. 1809

Walnut Street Theatre ca. 1809

New York, as might be imagined, was home to several theatres.  In the late 18th century, New York’s only playhouse was the decaying and increasingly lowbrow John Street Theatre.  Tired of attending such an establishment, a group of wealthy New Yorkers began planning construction of a new playhouse in 1795 to be called the Park Theatre.  Investors bought 113 shares at $375 each to cover the estimated $42,375 cost.  (Banham, 2000)  Part way through construction, however, the project ran out of money.  The owners sold more shares for what would eventually mount to a construction cost of more than $130,000.  (Nagler, 1952)

The part of Manhattan where the theatre stood was not stylish: the New Theatre, as it was called, was neighbor to Bridewell Prison, a tent city’s worth of squatters, and the local poorhouse.  Despite this, and construction delays, the theatre held its first performance on 29 January 1798, despite still being under construction.  The gross was an impressive $1,232, and, according to theatre historian T. Allston Brown, hundreds of potential patrons had to be turned away.  (Brown, 1903)  In its early years, the Park enjoyed little to no competition in New York City.  Nevertheless, it rarely made a profit for its owners or managers, prompting them to sell it in 1805.  Under Stephen Price’s and Edmund Simpson’s management in the 1810s and 1820s, the Park enjoyed its most successful period.  Price and Simpson initiated a star system by importing English talent and providing the theatre a veneer of upper-class respectability.  Rivals such as the Chatham Garden and Bowery theatres appeared in the 1820s

Black Actor James Hewlett as Richard the Third at the African Grove Theatre ca. 1821

Black Actor James Hewlett as Richard the Third at the African Grove Theatre ca. 1821

In 1821, William Henry Brown established the African Grove Theatre in New York City.  It was the third attempt to have an African-American theatre, but this was the most successful of them all.  The company put on not only Shakespeare, but also staged the first play written by an African-American, The Drama of King Shotaway – a play about a Black Carib revolt on the island of St Vincent written by William Brown.  No extant copy of this script remains.  For some years, the African Company—the company of the African Grove—played with a black cast and crew to mostly black audiences.  After a few years, city officials shut down the African Grove, because of complaints about conduct: conduct that was normal among working-class white New York theatre audiences of the time was considered unacceptably boisterous when displayed by blacks. (Lott, 1993)  “There are no records of the African Grove Theater after 1823.”

© 2015
Chuck Hudson

Works Cited

Aston, T. (1731). The Fool’s Opera. London: The Crown in Paternoster-Row.

Banham, M. e. (2000). The Cambridge Guide to Theatre (Revised ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boardman, G. M., & Hischak, T. S. (2004). The Oxford Companion to American Theatre. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brown, T. A. (1903). A History of the New York Stage from the First Performance in 1732 to 1901, Volume 1 . New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company.

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. (2006, April). Theatre in Colonial Virginia. Retrieved from The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site:

Congress, C. (1778, October 16). A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875. Retrieved from Journals of the Continental Congress, Volume 12, Page 1018 of 1038:

Continental Congress Association and Peyton Randolph, e. a. (1774). 14 Agreements by Colonies. Philadelphia.

Continental Congress. (1778, October 12). Journals of the Continental Congress, Volume 12, pages 1001 of 1038. Retrieved from A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875:

Daly, C. P. (1896). First Theatre in America. New York: The Dunlap Society.

Hornblow, A. (1919). The First American Theatre. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Jones, H. (1724). The Present State of Virginia. London.

Lott, E. (1993). Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press.

Malinsky, D. (2013, December 12). Congress Bans Theatre! Retrieved from Journal of the American Revolution:

Nagler, A. M. (1952). A Source Book in Theatrical History. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc.

Richards, J. H. (1997). Early American Drama. New York: Penguin.

Tyler, L. G. (1907). Williamsburg, the old colonial capital. Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson.

Walnut Street Theatre. (2015). History. Retrieved from Walnut Street Theatre:

Wise, J. C. (1911). Ye kingdome of Accawmacke, or, The Eastern Shore of Virginia in the seventeenth century. Richmond: The Bell Book and Stationary Co.




One comment on “Theatre in Colonial and Federal America

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