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

Beginnings

In 1716, Williamsburg, Virginia, saw the construction of the first theatre building in the American colonies. However, professional theatre did not begin to take hold until the middle of the eighteenth century. In 1752, a troupe of English actors, led by Lewis Hallam, arrived on the shores of Virginia. This company, made up of Hallam, his wife, children, and ten other actors, gave their first performance on September 15 of that year, bringing The Merchant of Venice and The Anatomist to the Williamsburg stage. The troupe subsequently traversed the colonies, mainly performing in New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, until Hallam took his company to Jamaica in 1755. Following his death in the West Indies, his widow married David Douglass, the manager of another theatre group, returning to New York in 1758 with a new ensemble which became known as the American Company.

In 1767, at Philadelphia's Southwark Theatre, this group produced the first tragedy written by an American-born author, Thomas Godfrey, entitled The Prince of Parthia (1759). American playwrights were beginning to find their own voice, as evidenced by Ponteach; or, The Savages of America, another early play, written by American Robert Rogers. His blank-verse tragedy represented the first theatrical work to center on an American subject, featuring Native-American characters.


With the coming of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress suspended theatrical productions, passing a resolution which stated that colonists:


will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.


Essentially, the American stage went dark for the duration of the war.

 

Godfrey, Thomas. Juvenile Poems on Various Subjects. With, The Prince of Parthia, A Tragedy. Philadelphia: Printed by Henry Miller, 1765.
From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

 

[Rogers, Robert.] Ponteach: or, The Savages of America. A Tragedy. London: Printed for the author; and sold by J. Millan, 1766.
From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

 

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