Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
actors graphicCreating America's Theatre
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Introduction to the Exhibit
Early American Theatre
A Novel Idea
Musicals
Setting the Modern Stage
A Voice of Their Own
Picks and Pans
Playbills and Programs
Regional Theatre in Virginia

Early American Theatre

British Influence

Though the earliest known performances of European plays in America were by the Spanish and the French towards the end of the sixteenth century, English theatre exercised the most prominent influence on the American stage for more than two hundred years. By the early eighteenth century, professional performers had begun to migrate from England to the American colonies in search of new audiences. Although unwelcome in Puritan-dominated New England, these British performers found receptive audiences in the South, gracing the stages in towns such as Williamsburg, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina.

English actors brought with them English plays, and so the classics of the English theatre provided the initial foundation for the fledgling American theatre. The works of William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Oliver Goldsmith, and other greats had found their way to the New World.

 

William Shakespeare

The plays by William Shakespeare have far transcended all cultural and linguistic boundaries, speaking to audiences around the globe for the four hundred years following their first performance in front of the Elizabethan theatre-going public. Shakespeare's development of character and use of language have become benchmarks for succeeding generations of English and American dramatists.

 

Shakespeare, William. Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. London: Printed by Thomas Cotes, for Robert Allot, 1632.
From the Library of Tracy W. McGregor.

 

Engraving of William Shakespeare by Leopold Flameng, signed. New York, Paris: Frederick Keppel; San Francisco: W. K. Vickery, [1890].
 

 

Note the portrait sketches of David Garrick in the lower left corner and Edwin Booth in the lower right. British actor Garrick and American actor Booth both became known through their portrayals of Shakespearean characters.

 

Shakespeare, William. Mr. William Shakespeare, His Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. Vol. 1. London: Printed by Dryden Leach, for J. and R. Tonson, [1767-68]. 10 vols.
From the Library of Thomas Jefferson. Courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

 

Thomas Jefferson included many dramatic pieces in his personal library, acquiring works ranging from Sophocles and Aristophanes to Moliere and Shakespeare. Despite this enthusiasm, Jefferson only included a few references to Shakespeare in his massive correspondence. In one November 9, 1825 example, Jefferson wrote to John Evelyn Denison, Speaker of the House of Commons, addressing a publication on English county dialects:

When these local vocabularies are published and digested together into a single one it is probable that there is not a word in Shakespear which is not now in use in some of the counties of England, from whence we may obtain it's true sense. and what an exchange will their recovery be for the volumes of idle commentaries and conjectures with which that divine poet has been masked and metamorphose. we shall find in him new sublimities which we had never tasted before.

The volume shown here came from Jefferson’s personal library. Note the ownership mark at the bottom of the page. His handwritten “T” next to the signature “I” represented his initials (the letter “I” being used for “J” in Latin). Signatures are the alphabetic succession of letters that indicated the order in which printed sections of a book were to be gathered up and bound.

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson made his mark as a playwright of comedies. His first, Every Man in His Humour (1598), included his theatrical contemporary and friend William Shakespeare in its cast. After Shakespeare's death, Jonson was instrumental in the publication of the first Shakespeare folio. His own most successful comedies included Volpone (1605), Epiocene; or, The Silent Woman (1608), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614).

 

Jonson, Ben. The Workes of Beniamin Jonson. Vol. 1. London: Printed by William Stansby, 1616. 2 vols.
From the Tracy W. McGregor Library.

 

David Garrick

One of the greatest English actors, David Garrick was described by his contemporary Edmund Burke as one who "raised the character of his profession to the rank of a liberal art." Garrick made his London theatrical debut in 1741 as Richard III, becoming an overnight success. His natural acting style radically transformed the English theatre of his day.

As the manager of London's Drury Lane Theatre, Garrick led the way for many innovations in theatre operations, introducing concealed stage lighting and removing the audience from the stage. True to his immersion in all aspects of the theatre, Garrick authored several plays, adapted existing plays, and wrote numerous epilogues and prologues for other playwrights' work.

 

Garrick, David. The Lying Valet. Dublin: Printed for Peter Wilson, 1767.
Gift of David W. Dumas.

 

Engraving of David Garrick by Robert Cooper from a picture by Robert Edge Pine. [London]: E. Evans, no date.
Gift of William D. Eppes in memory of his cousin and Shakespearian scholar, Eva Turner Clark.

 

Oliver Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith's two comedic plays The Good-Natured Man (1768) and She Stoops to Conquer (1773) mark his major contributions to English theatre. The latter crossed the Atlantic, opening in Philadelphia within six months of its London debut.

 

Goldsmith, Oliver. Poems and Plays. London: Printed for B. Newbery and T. Johnson, 1780.
Purchased with the Library Associates Endowment for Rare Books and Manuscripts.

 

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