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A History of the American Theatre from Its Origins to 1832

A History of the American Theatre from Its Origins to 1832

Introduction by Tice L. Miller
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 472
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  • Book Info
    A History of the American Theatre from Its Origins to 1832
    Book Description:

    As America passed from a mere venue for English plays into a country with its own nationally regarded playwrights, William Dunlap lived the life of a pioneer on the frontier of the fledgling American theatre, full of adventures, mishaps, and close calls. He adapted and translated plays for the American audience and wrote plays of his own as well, learning how theatres and theatre companies operated from the inside out. _x000B_Dunlap's masterpiece, A History of American Theatre was the first of its kind, drawing on the author's own experiences. In it, he describes the development of theatre in New York, Philadelphia, and South Carolina as well as Congress's first attempts at theatrical censorship. Never before previously indexed, this edition also includes a new introduction by Tice L. Miller. _x000B__x000B__x000B_ _x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09103-2
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xxvi)
    Tice L. Miller

    In his diary entry for October 26, 1832, William Dunlap wrote: “The Harpers advertise to publish my book this day.”¹ This was a little more than four months after he had left his manuscript forA History of the American Theatrewith publishers J. & J. Harper at 82 Cliff Street in lower Manhattan, and two weeks after he had deposited the title page in the District Clerk’s Office to copyright the work. Although no extant contract exists, diary entries indicate that J. & J. Harper had planned an edition of 1,500 copies. Eugene Exman inThe Brothers Harpersuggests that the...

    (pp. 1-4)
  5. CHAPTER 1
    (pp. 5-14)

    If the fine arts, as we believe, are effective instruments for promoting the best interests of man—if the pleasure of the virtuous, as Plato tells us, is their aim and the test of their success—if their great sphere and scope is thatbeau idealwhich lifts us above the groveling, the vile, and the sensual—it is the duty of every good citizen to encourage their cultivation in the country of his birth or residence, and to cherish the memories of those, whatever their motives, who introduced them.

    The histrionic art is so inseparably connected with the drama...

  6. CHAPTER 2
    (pp. 14-31)

    The precise date at which the comedians left Williamsburg is not mentioned in the memoranda taken from the dictation of Lewis Hallam the second. At their departure Governor Dinwiddie gave the manager a certificate signed in council, recommending the company as comedians, and testifying to the propriety of their behaviour as men.

    There would be no useful end obtained by following the Thespians in their manifold wanderings, but a notice of the time and manner of introducing the theatre into our principal cities, and some of the changes which occurred in the company shall be recorded as far as information...

  7. CHAPTER 3
    (pp. 32-45)

    In the summer of 1767, the theatre in John-street, New-York, was built very much upon the plan of that in the Southern Liberties at Philadelphia, already mentioned. It was principally of wood; an unsightly object, painted red. The situation of this house was on the north side of the street, nearly opposite the present Arcade (1832). It was about 60 feet back from the street, having a covered way of rough wooden material from the pavement to the doors. There is reason to believe that at this time the dressing-rooms and green-room were under the stage, for after the revolution,...

  8. CHAPTER 4
    (pp. 46-59)

    New-York, during the revolutionary war, is fully within the recollection of the writer. It will be remembered that when Washington withdrew his undisciplined army from the city after their defeat at Brooklyn, having with consummate skill crossed the sound called the East river, he led the yet unmanageable mass of citizen-soldiers beyond the reach of the enemy, and they saw the city they had left enveloped in flames, as they turned their eyes to the homes many looked back upon for the final adieu.

    The conflagration which raged unchecked on the night the English troops first took their quarters in...

  9. CHAPTER 5
    (pp. 59-69)

    The players by profession returned with peace, but not the whole company. Hallam arrived first, with a weak detachment, as if to gain a footing in the New Republic. Philadelphia was the place chosen at which to effect a landing, but the people received the runaways with frowns.

    When our enlightened and beneficent ancestors, Hampden, Pym, Vane, Milton, and their glorious companions, raised the standard of humanity against that of ignorance and oppression, and put to flight the dramatic muse by the clang of the trumpet and thunder of the war-horse, her retainers being the king’s servants, exchanged the mock...

  10. CHAPTER 6
    (pp. 69-80)

    We have now arrived at an era from which we may date our literature as more distinct, more national, more diverging in character from that of our ancestors or brethren of England, and it may be chosen as a point in our theatrical history, convenient and proper for some reflections on the past and present character of the drama; its influence on society, and its capabilities of improvement.

    There are no people on earth who have advanced the least step towards civilization, who have not had their public amusements. These may be purely for relaxation from weightier employment, or for...

  11. CHAPTER 7
    (pp. 80-91)

    When Kemble, or his sister Siddons, or his rival Cooke, went the round of the provincial theatres, were they not strollers? But they played in the theatres royal of Bath, or Liverpool, or Manchester. And the Douglasses and Hallams played in his majesty’s theatres of the colonies by royal authority, delegated to the royal governors. If to be his majesty’s servants gave dignity to the first, the same equivocal dignity belongs to the second. In the time of feudal barbarism, the musician, the poet, and the player could only be protected from the violence of the robber-baron by becoming the...

  12. CHAPTER 8
    (pp. 91-106)

    The company, with the addition to the stock pieces mentioned in the last chapter, and of a female performer, Mrs. Hamilton, who afterwards played the old women of comedy, proceeded to Philadelphia, opened their theatre in January, 1790, and continued playing until spring, when they went to Baltimore, and again returned to Philadelphia, reopening the theatre in Southwark on the 27th of Nov., 1790.

    During their second visit, the managers brought out a tragedy translated from the French by Col. David Humphreys, called The Widow of Malabar; it was ushered in by a prologue from an abler hand than that...

  13. CHAPTER 9
    (pp. 106-118)

    On the 27th of March, 1793, The Fashionable Lover and No Song No Supper were performed in the New-York theatre for the benefit of the widows and orphans of a number of persons who were lost in a violent storm.

    During the benefits, and in the hottest weather, though early in June, a comedy called “The Miser’s Wedding,” written by the author of The Father of an Only Child, was played without study or rehearsal, and in opposition to Henry, by the influence of Hodgkinson, who brought it out for the benefit of his wife’s sister, Miss Brett. The character...

  14. CHAPTER 10
    (pp. 118-127)

    After the long delay occasioned by the yellow fever, Wignell opened the splendid theatre which had been prepared for him in 1792, on the 17th of February, 1794. He had brought from England Mr. Milbourne, an excellent scene painter, who decorated the house and furnished the necessary scenery, as far surpassing any stage decorations heretofore seen in the country, as the building surpassed former American theatres.

    The plan of this building was furnished by Mr. Richards, who was Wignell’s brother-in-law, and secretary to the Royal Academy. The model was burnt when the house was consumed. Mr. Richards likewise presented to...

  15. CHAPTER 11
    (pp. 128-139)

    Massachusetts, both as a colony of Great Britain and as an independent state, had been forbidden ground to all Thespians. As early as the year 1750, before any of that dangerous class of people had ventured over the Atlantic, the General Court of Massachusetts, that is, in the language of other parts of our country, the House of Assembly or Representatives, passed an act to prevent stage-plays and other theatrical entertainments. The historian of Massachusetts says, that the cause of “this moral regulation” was, that two young Englishmen, assisted by some townsmen, tried to represent Otway’s tragedy of “The Orphan,”...

  16. CHAPTER 12
    (pp. 139-148)

    The old American Company, under Hallam and Hodgkinson, visited Philadelphia in the summer of 1794, and opened the old theatre in Southwark, but with little success, as might have been anticipated. The citizens had been satiated with dramatic novelties and excellences. Such as were friends of the drama gave their countenance to the splendid establishment of Wignell and Reinagle, and frowned on those who took advantage of the closing of the new house for the summer, to intrude upon the territory now devoted to the men who had so eminently gratified taste by the introduction of a company that might...

  17. CHAPTER 13
    (pp. 148-163)

    February 10th, 1796, was a remarkable era in the history of the theatre of New-York. We have seen that Hallam and Hodgkinson had successfully quartered their troop upon the good people of Boston, to the mutual satisfaction of the strangers and citizens. They now opened the house in John-street, New-York, with the good old comedy of the Provoked Husband, and by a very judicious cast of the play showed an accession of strength, as well as numbers, which warranted the success they met with this season. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, Mr. and Mrs. Tyler, Mr. Jefferson, and Mrs. Brett, all...

  18. CHAPTER 14
    (pp. 163-176)

    The writer having sent some manuscripts to Mr. Holcroft, with whom he had exchanged letters before, received the following from him; which, as it gives the opinions of a veteran dramatist on the play of The Archers, or William Tell, recently acted, and on other subjects connected with this work, we will insert.

    “Dear sir,

    “I received your last letters dated May and October; as I had done others some months ago, in which you wished me to read your manuscripts. Your friend, Mr. Brewer, offered to put these manuscripts into my hands; this I declined, and I will state...

  19. CHAPTER 15
    (pp. 177-196)

    The performers announced in the last chapter as of the Boston and Charleston theatres, played in the John-street theatre, the New-York company being elsewhere. Mr. Solee, a French gentleman, was the manager. He was imperfectly acquainted with the English language, and utterly unacquainted with English literature, especially dramatic. The performers directed the business, which was very bad in every sense, though some excellent actors were employed in it. Mrs. Whitlock appeared in Isabella, and was thus announced. “Mrs. Whitlock, the sister of Mrs. Siddons, and the Siddons of America, is arrived, and will perform at the theatre in John-street the...

  20. CHAPTER 16
    (pp. 197-201)

    In the year 1796, that memorable year in the theatrical history of the New World which gave to New-York a band of distinguished actors, at the head of whom stood Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and Mr. Jefferson; and to Philadelphia, Mrs. Merry, and Messrs. Cooper and Warren; a company of critics was organized, who may not unaptly be characterized as sharp-shooters.

    These gentlemen were regular frequenters of the New-York theatre, enjoyed its productions as men of education and lovers of literature, and wished to correct the abuses existing in the costume, demeanour, and general conduct of the actorson the...

  21. CHAPTER 17
    (pp. 202-205)

    We will continue the history of the old American or New-York Company, to the conclusion of the season of 1796–7, and of the formation of a new company for the Park theatre.

    On the 25th of May, 1797, after various tedious preliminary negotiations, which had ended in an expressed wish that William Dunlap and John Hodgkinson should become joint lessees of the new or Park theatre, and make such arrangement with Lewis Hallam as should be satisfactory, a meeting took place between William Henderson, the acting agent or the committee of proprietors, and Messrs. Dunlap and Hodgkinson, and the...

  22. CHAPTER 18
    (pp. 206-213)

    We have noticed the improvements made by Mr. Hodgkinson in the orchestra at New-York, improvements rendered necessary by the excellence of this branch of theatrical arrangement in the rival company of Philadelphia. Instead of the “one Mr. Pelham,” and his harpsichord, or the single fiddle of Mr. Hewlett, performers of great skill filled the bands of the two rival cities. In New-York the musicians were principally French. Most of them gentlemen who had seen better days, some driven from Paris by the revolution, some of them nobles, some officers in the army of the king, others who had sought refuge...

  23. CHAPTER 19
    (pp. 214-216)

    In a former chapter we have recommended the interference of the state in the regulation of the theatre. The more we reflect upon the subject the more we are convinced of the propriety, utility, and necessity of the measure. It is a great and powerful engine for good or ill; and though its general tendency may have been favourable to civilization and morals, evils have attended, and do attend it. In Germany, where it is altogether under the direction and control of the government, one of these evils is unknown; and where it is under the supervision and partial direction...

  24. CHAPTER 20
    (pp. 217-235)

    The yellow fever having taken possession of Philadelphia, in August, 1797, Solee’s intended opening in the old theatre in Southwark was prevented, and, as before noticed, he (or rather the company directed by their own whims) was playing at John-street, and Wignell’s company, well directed and organized, in Greenwich-street. An extract from a letter will give a notion of the relative success. “Solee opened here last Friday, the 18th of August, to $374, and played again on Monday to $315. I hear much praise of Mrs. Williamson’s Little Pickle. Last Wednesday, the 23d of August, Wignell opened with Venice Preserved,...

  25. CHAPTER 21
    (pp. 236-251)

    That the reader may decide how far the person who in 1798 assumed the direction of that powerful and complicated engine, the theatre of a great metropolis, was fitted for the delicate task and great responsibility, it is necessary that a brief retrospect of his past life should be taken. The opinion of the writer is (an opinion perhaps founded upon the result of the experiment) that he was not fitted for the arduous task. Had it been his lot to direct a theatre patronized by an enlightened government, having no care but that of selecting such dramas and such...

  26. CHAPTER 22
    (pp. 251-262)

    The theatre of New-York had now but one director or manager,—a circumstance which had not occurred in the United States before. An estimate of the expenses of the theatre at this time, 1798–9, will perhaps be acceptable to the general reader, and useful to those concerned in similar establishments. The salaries to actors and actresses, as follows, amount to 480 dollars weekly, viz: Mr. and Mrs. Hallam, 50; Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, 45—the first 20, the second 25; Mrs. Oldmixon, 37; Mr. Cooper, 25; Mrs. Melmoth, 20; Mr. Tyler, 20; Mr. Jefferson, 23; Mr. Martin, 18 (and...

  27. CHAPTER 23
    (pp. 262-268)

    In the meantime, Boston being free from pestilence, Mr. Hodgkinson had the good fortune to find profitable employment for himself, his family, and the company he had engaged. It appears that he gave dissatisfaction as a manager by raising the price of admission to the pit, from 50 to 75 cents. As an apology, he stated that in 1797,he had lost5000 dollars by his theatrical business in Boston. On the 13th of November, he advertises the pit admission by 50 cents again.

    The company consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Hodgkinson; Mr. and Mrs. Whitlock; Mr. and Mrs. S....

  28. CHAPTER 24
    (pp. 269-280)

    On the 15th of April, 1799, the comedy of “The Italian Father” was played at the New-York theatre, and as it was supposed to be one of Kotzebue’s, though nothing was said to mislead the public or the performers, it was received with great applause, and extolled by many as the best of the great German dramatist’s productions.

    Nothing can be more unlike the style of the German plays than the style of this play. The manager-author had adopted the German mode of concluding the last act, and this tended to confirm the pre-conceived opinion that it was a continuation...

  29. CHAPTER 25
    (pp. 281-288)

    On the 9th of July, 1800, a summer theatre was opened in New-York at a place called by the proprietor “Mount Vernon Gardens,” and which is now the north-west corner of Leonard-street and Broadway. This spot, as is mentioned in our fourth chapter, was ingood old timesfar out of town, and here stood the “White Conduit House,” which, with its gardens, were the summer resort of our citizens for many years; as Brennon’s (afterwards Tyler’s, and again Hogg’s, and now the S. W. corner of Spring and Hudson-streets) was in after-times.

    We will insert the first bill issued...

  30. CHAPTER 26
    (pp. 289-311)

    It now appearing that the profit upon the theatrical business when divided would not yield Mr. Hodgkinson as much as his salary by the agreement made at Boston, and the addition made afterward, he asked to be released from the sharing engagement, and be placed on the salary list again; but demanded for himself and wife $130 per week. The return to the salary list was finally agreed to, but the increase refused.

    Mr. White attempted Romeo, and gave hopes of improvement; but much improvement was wanted to constitute him an artist.

    The friends of Mr. Cooper, and among them...

  31. CHAPTER 27
    (pp. 312-315)

    “2d mo. 15th, 1803.

    “Impressed with sentiments of friendship, and influenced, I trust, from motives which are the offspring of a desire to promote the welfare of individuals, and the good of the community at large, I am induced to address thee on a subject in which I conceive thy happiness is not a little interested, as well as that of many others who may be more or less affected by thy conduct and example. Since I waited on thee in the case of the young man who had imprudently exposed himself, I have frequently been led to take a...

  32. CHAPTER 28
    (pp. 316-321)

    Mr. S. Powell was this winter (1802–3) the manager of the Boston theatre, and Mrs. Powell the principal ornament of it. Mr. Powell had the use of the plays written by the New-York manager at this time, always remunerating him honourably.

    When “The Voice of Nature” was brought out, Miss F. Hodgkinson was introduced to the public. She was the oldest child then living of Mr. and Mrs. Hodgkinson, and a beautiful girl. She has since proved an amiable and worthy woman.

    One of the first effects of Mr. Cooper’s departure was, that Mr. Fennell, who had been relieved...

  33. CHAPTER 29
    (pp. 322-329)

    During this summer the performers of the New-York theatre played at Mount Vernon Gardens a short time, and afterwards at Albany, with some success.

    A letter was addressed to William Henderson, Esq., wishing a weekly sum fixed for rent of the theatre, until the chancery suit in which the property was involved should be settled. It is stated that Mrs. Wignell and Mr. Reinagle pay for the Philadelphia theatre and property $2500 per year. Mr. Henderson, in answer, says, “The chancellor, as yet, has made no decree,” and advises to open the house on or before the middle of November....

  34. CHAPTER 30
    (pp. 329-342)

    The theatre of New-York was now under the direction of Messrs. Johnson and Tyler, who demanded for their services as managers 50 dollars per week, in addition to their salaries as players. The republic of actors, for such it now was, agreed to give them 10. Mr. Ciceri was in fact their principal man of business.

    Mr. Cooper went on to Boston, and was opposed by the company then about to take benefits. The citizens wished his performances, there was considerable discontent in the theatre, but he played his usual round of characters.

    At Baltimore, a tragedy was printed this...

  35. CHAPTER 31
    (pp. 343-355)

    In the year 1806, the Philadelphia company was composed of Messrs. Wood, M’Kenzie, Warren, Mills, Webster, Woodham, Cone, Cross, Cain, Francis, Robins, Sanderson, Blissett, Bailey, Jefferson, Taylor, Durang, Bray, and Seymour; Mesdames Melmoth, Woodham, Wood, Warren (late Wignell), Francis, Seymour, Morris, Jefferson, Cunningham, Mills, and Miss Hunt.

    On the 6th of October, 1806, the theatre of New-York was opened under the direction of Thomas A. Cooper, Esq. The company engaged were Messrs. Tyler, Harwood, Twaits, Hogg, Darley, Martin, Hallam, jun., Saubere, Fennell, Shapter, and Rutherford; Mesdames Villiers, Darley, Simpson, Oldmixon, and Miss Dellinger.

    Mrs. Placide, the second wife of the...

  36. CHAPTER 32
    (pp. 355-362)

    On the 6th of September, 1809, the theatre of New-York was opened for the winter campaign with Lewis’s Castle Spectre, and Bickerstaff’s Romp. Mrs. Poe was the Angela and Priscilla Tomboy. Mr. Young Osmond, and Mr. Poe Hassan. Mr. and Mrs. Poe, Mr. Anderson, Miss Delamater, Miss Martin (a daughter of John E. Martin, deceased), and Miss White, were the additions to the company—a feeble company of recruits—to replace Harwood, Mr. and Mrs. Darley, and Mr. Hogg. It appears to have been the intention to open the theatre on the 30th of August—“the favourable season, and unprecedented...

  37. CHAPTER 33
    (pp. 362-363)

    In my memoirs of George Frederick Cooke, it will be seen that I was connected with the theatre of New-York during the year 1810 and part of 1811.

    In 1812 I resumed the pencil, many years neglected; and was again, in 1813, called from the palette and easel, by an unsolicited and very unexpected appointment as assistant paymaster-general to the militia of the state of New-York, then in the service of the United States. This appointment was made by Daniel D. Tompkins, governor of the state, and commander-in-chief of the third military district; and was conferred upon me in a...

  38. CHAPTER 34
    (pp. 363-369)

    We have spoken of the state of the English drama in the year 1752, when William Hallam sent off a colony, led by his brother, to settle in the North American wilderness; when Garrick directed the stage of the metropolis, and Johnson and Goldsmith, and their associates, wrote for it; when the pit was the centre of wit and learning, and the boxes of taste and elegance.

    We have noticed slightly the London theatre of 1787,—when Sheridan was the manager of Drury Lane, Harris of Covent Garden, and Colman of the Haymarket,—when Henderson and Lewis, Mrs. Billington, Mrs....

  39. CHAPTER 35
    (pp. 369-376)

    It will be remembered that David Douglass, the second manager of the old American Company, built a theatre in Charleston, in the year 1773.

    Near the conclusion of our fifth chapter we have mentioned, as an event in chronological order, that a merchant of Charleston, and Mr. Goodwin, a comedian, erected a building called Harmony Hall, in that city, for theatrical and other amusements, in 1786. We have reason to believe that this is the same building now used as a theatre, and standing in Church-street, near Broad-street. This is the second theatre in that city; the first being that...

  40. CHAPTER 36
    (pp. 376-385)

    In answer to queries made by us we have received two letters from two distinguished dramatists, written with such frankness, and in a style so congenial to the feelings intended to be expressed in this work, that we know no mode of communicating the information they contain that will be so acceptable to the reader as by giving them in the words of the writers.

    The plays of these gentlemen are an honour to the dramatic literature of the country, and we feel that the brief and pleasant sketch given by the authors will induce those who have not before...

  41. CHAPTER 37
    (pp. 385-400)

    We have fulfilled our engagement, by bringing up the history of the American theatre to the arrival of George Frederick Cooke, the greatest Richard, Sir Giles Overreach, Falstaff, Iago, Sir Pertinax, and Sir Archy that the western world has seen. We have even gone a little beyond our limits; and as there is nothing so dear to man as liberty, we will, in this additional chapter, indulge ourselves in speaking ofanything, oranybody, inanyway connected with our subject, which, or who, may be presented to the imagination of an author delighted at seeing that he...

    (pp. 401-408)

    A continuation of American theatrical history would be rich in biographical subjects. Cooke, Kean, McCready, Forrest, Wallack, Conway, Hamblin, Barnes, Bartley, Gilfert, Rock, Kelly, Fisher, Hilson, Kemble, Mathews, Caldwell, Maywood, Barry, Placide, Hackett, Sharpe, Malibran, Austin—but why go on with the catalogue? The field is perhaps too wide; and although the writer of this volume alone possessed much of the information it contains, there are many who are more fully in possession of recent events and facts—more intimately acquainted with the characters of those who now possess or have recently passed over the American stage, than one whose...

    (pp. 409-422)
  44. INDEX
    (pp. 423-444)
  45. Back Matter
    (pp. 445-446)