First American Theater Opens in Philadelphia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Southwark Theatre opened in Philadelphia in November of 1766. For the next eight years, it was home to operas, plays, pantomimes, and other performances, including the 1767 debut of the first play by an American author. Works by Americans increased at the Southwark Theatre and at other early theaters after the Revolutionary War, and elegantly designed and better-equipped theaters appeared in greater numbers during the 1790’s.

Summary of Event

Except in French New Orleans, colonial American theater was dominated by British plays and actors. Williamsburg, Virginia, had the first colonial playhouse from 1716 to 1736. After Virginian interest in theater declined, probably as a result of the First Great Awakening, the building was converted into a courthouse; it was later demolished. A second structure behind the capitol was the site of a 1752 production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597) by Lewis Hallam, Sr.’s London Company, an itinerant troop of twelve adults and three children. Like most of the earliest “theaters,” this structure was an ordinary building converted temporarily for use as a playhouse, rather than a building conceived and constructed solely as a performance space. [kw]First American Theater Opens in Philadelphia (Nov. 12, 1766) [kw]Philadelphia, First American Theater Opens in (Nov. 12, 1766) [kw]Opens in Philadelphia, First American Theater (Nov. 12, 1766) [kw]Theater Opens in Philadelphia, First American (Nov. 12, 1766) [kw]American Theater Opens in Philadelphia, First (Nov. 12, 1766) Southwark Theatre, Pennsylvania [g]United States;Nov. 12, 1766: First American Theater Opens in Philadelphia[1800] [c]Theater;Nov. 12, 1766: First American Theater Opens in Philadelphia[1800] [c]Music;Nov. 12, 1766: First American Theater Opens in Philadelphia[1800] Hallam, Lewis, Sr. Douglass, David Reinagle, Alexander Wignell, Thomas

Charleston, South Carolina, was also an early performance site. The first American production of a ballad opera, Flora: Or, Hob in the Wall (pr. 1735) by English poet Colley Cibber, was given in the Dock Street (later Queen Street) Theater. Queen Street Theater, Charleston, South Carolina A 1752 hurricane that destroyed more than five hundred buildings probably leveled this structure. Fire, a constant danger to all eighteenth century buildings, would claim Charleston’s Church Street Theater (built 1773) in 1782. A better-equipped theater, built in 1793, operated until 1832, when it became part of the Medical College of South Carolina.

While drama Theater;and religious conservatives[religious conservatives] was more readily accepted in the non-Puritan South, religious conservatives everywhere considered theater sinful. The Society of Friends (Quakers) Christianity;and American theater[American theater] joined Presbyterians and Baptists in denouncing drama, cockfighting, gambling, and dancing. Actors were occasionally blamed for the presence of infectious diseases, such as an epidemic of yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793. Virginia and Maryland were the only colonies that did not legislate against drama.

Despite Quaker opposition to music and plays, Philadelphia became one of the colonies’ most active performance sites. In 1724, a group of players briefly set up a “booth” on Society Hill, which was outside the city’s boundaries and jurisdiction. After a hiatus of more than two decades, drama reappeared in the summer of 1749, when Walter Murray and Thomas Kean rented a warehouse from Thomas Plumsted, the lapsed Quaker mayor of Philadelphia, and presented several plays, most notably Cato (pr., pb. 1713), a popular tragedy by British essayist Joseph Addison.

In 1754, Hallam’s London Company, London Company (theater group) which had been touring New York and Virginia, came to Philadelphia. The company renovated Plumsted’s warehouse and staged plays from April 15 to June 27, despite protests by the godly. The troupe moved to Charleston and then to Jamaica, where Hallam died of yellow fever. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Hallam, the company’s leading lady, married one of the actors, David Douglass. The renamed American Company American Company (theater group) returned to the mainland in 1758 and resumed its circuit of New York, Philadelphia, Annapolis (which had a theater by 1760), Charleston, and Williamsburg. Douglass constructed a second theater on Philadelphia’s Society Hill, and the company performed there from June to December, 1759, the longest American season up to that time.

Growing acceptance of drama by the more affluent citizens of Philadelphia led to increasing demand for a permanent theater, rather than the temporary and impromptu buildings that had been used thus far. This demand was first met in 1766 with the construction of the Southwark Theatre in a suburb that was technically still outside Philadelphia’s boundaries. Considered the first permanent playhouse in the English colonies, the Southwark Theatre opened on November 12. It was built of brick and wood and painted red. Ninety-five by fifty feet, it was cold in winter and lit by smelly oil lamps. Pillars that held up the balcony and the roof obscured some views of the stage. The first play by an American author, the tragedy The Prince of Parthia (wr. 1759, pr. 1767) by Thomas Godfrey, premiered at the Southwark on April 24, 1767. Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601), King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606), and Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596) were popular at the time and often adapted in productions with new songs, dialogue, and dancing—a common practice in both the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries.

The growth of theater in New York City was similar to that in Philadelphia. In 1732, actors rented a warehouse from Governor Rip Van Dam and gave several plays, including the ever-popular Cato. In February, 1750, the Murray-Kean Company came from Philadelphia and acquired another of Van Dam’s buildings in Nassau Street. Attendance was such that three years later Hallam’s troupe replaced this structure with a larger one. Popular fare included Restoration dramas like John Dryden’s All for Love: Or, The World Well Lost (pr. 1677, pb. 1678), ballad operas, and farces like David Garrick’s Miss in Her Teens: Or, The Medley of Lovers (pr. 1747). In December, 1767, the American Company moved into a new theater on John Street; like the Southwark, it was partly wooden and painted red, but it had a larger stage than previous playhouses.

America’s growing conflict with Britain did not initially discourage playgoing; indeed, Douglass’s company toured successfully until October 20, 1774, when the Continental Congress passed a resolution condemning plays, gambling, and horseracing. The resolution effectively shut down the theaters. In the face of this official opposition, the actors of the American Company retreated to Jamaica, where Douglass died, probably in 1786. During the war, the Southwark Theatre was used briefly as a makeshift hospital after the Battle of Germantown (1777). Later, the John Street and Southwark Theatres were both used by occupying British troops to stage amateur productions in their time off-duty. Other would-be actors disguised their efforts as concerts, lectures on dramatic subjects, or “exhibitions,” since Congress prohibited none of these. Massachusetts author Mercy Otis Warren Warren, Mercy Otis wrote at least five pro-patriot plays between 1772 and 1779, but none was actually staged.

The antitheater resolutions passed by Congress in 1778 and later by various states became increasingly difficult to maintain once the war ended in 1783. Support by influential men such as Generals George Washington and Anthony Wayne, who made no secret of their enjoyment of plays, made these laws largely unenforceable. In May, 1785, Lewis Hallam, Jr., returned the American Company to Pennsylvania and opened the Southwark with an “exhibition.” Two years later, one of the company’s plays was The Contrast (pr. 1787) by Royall Tyler, Tyler, Royall the first comedy by an American author.

Significance

The opening of the Southwark Theatre represented the beginnings of a truly American theater, as well as signaling the centrality of Philadelphia to this cultural project. As the new nation’s capitol from 1781 to 1800 and a major music and publishing center, Philadelphia Theater;Philadelphia was the United States’ premier theater site until the 1820’s. For more than twenty years, America’s finest playhouse was Philadelphia’s New Theater New Theater, Philadelphia on Chesnut Street. Designed to resemble London’s famous Covent Garden Theatre, it was built in 1794 by British emigrant and composer-manager Alexander Reinagle and Thomas Wignell, an actor-manager and former member of the American Company. The New Theater had excellent acoustics, an elegant gray interior with gilded decorations, and a seating capacity of around eight hundred people. In 1816, it would be the first theater to be lit by gas. Wignell and Reinagle also built and managed the Holliday Street Theater Holliday Street Theater, Baltimore in Baltimore, which stood until 1917.

By the 1790’s, American theaters, like their British counterparts, were designed to resemble classical temples, with Ionic or Corinthian columns, pediments, and statuary in homage to the ancient Greeks who invented drama. Boston’s Federal Street Theater Federal Street Theater, Boston (1794), an example of this style, seated nearly one thousand people. Touring companies became larger, with as many as fifty actors or musicians. Performances usually included two plays; local talents often danced or sang between the acts. The cheapest seats were in the “pit,” or the upper gallery, where African Americans sat. Since audiences could be rowdy, respectable women did not attend the theater without an escort.

The eighteenth century American theater could not have existed without an influx of British plays and the determined efforts of English traveling troupes to make a living on the stage. Despite religious conservatives’ endeavors to ban plays altogether and legislation against drama during the American Revolution, the theater survived and quickly returned to major urban centers after the war. Philadelphia, New York, and Charleston led the way in building new theaters and supporting larger traveling companies. During this period, few distinctions existed between popular and cultivated entertainments; a typical performance might begin with a Shakespeare play and end with a comic afterpiece. Gradually, drama joined concerts and dancing as an acceptable pastime for the urban middle classes.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Jared. The Theater in America During the Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Describes both British military theater and American dramatic efforts, by the Continental army and civilians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunlap, William. A History of the American Theater. New York: Harper, 1832. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, 1963. Dunlap’s experiences as an actor, playwright, and manager makes his history a valuable primary source.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glazer, Irvin R. Philadelphia Theaters, A-Z: A Comprehensive Descriptive Record of 813 Theaters Constructed Since 1724. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. Extensive description of the city’s performance sites, from playhouses to movie theaters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ireland, Joseph N. Records of the New York Stage from 1750 to 1860. 2 vols. New York, 1866. Reprint. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1966. Ireland, a drama critic, used contemporary newspapers and playbills as sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rankin, Hugh F. The Theater in Colonial America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965. Describes colonial theater from around 1700 to 1774, when the Continental Congress banned drama and other questionable amusements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wemyss, Francis C. Wemyss’ Chronology of the American Stage, from 1752 to 1852. Reprint. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1968. Actor-manager Wemyss’s summary of America’s first theaters and lists of performers is a valuable primary source.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilmeth, Don B., and Christopher Bigsby, eds. Beginnings to 1870. Vol. 1 in The Cambridge History of American Theater. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Includes six detailed articles on American theater history, performance sites, and popular entertainments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, William C. Documents of American Theater History: Famous American Playhouses, 1716-1899. 2 vols. Chicago: American Library Association, 1973. Rich in detail, with excerpts from diaries, letters, and newspapers, and more than two hundred illustrations of American theaters.

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