Amusements - Theatres
( Originally Published 1902 )
IN New York in the time of the Georges, many inhabitants were strongly opposed to theatrical entertainments. The earliest newspaper notice of a theatre occurs in 1733, when George Talbot sold furniture " next door to the Playhouse." The first company of which we have any knowledge arrived at the beginning of 1750. On Feb. 26th we read :
"Last week arrived here a company of comedians from Philadelphia, who we hear have taken a convenient room for their purpose in one of the buildings lately belonging to the Hon. Rip Van Dam, Esq., deceased, in Nassau Street, where they intend to perform as long as the season lasts, provided that they meet with suitable encouragement."
These comedians gave entertainments till the end of July and began again on Sept. 13. The first play presented was Colley Cibber's version of Shakespeare's Richard III. The managers thought it necessary to inform the public what the play was about. " In this play," they said, " is contained the death of King Henry VI. ; the artful acquisition of the Crown by Richard III., the landing at Milford Haven of Henry VII. and the Battle at Bosworth Field."
At that date, no distinction was made between the lyric and dramatic stage. Members of a stock company were necessarily versatile. This company performed tragedies, comedies, farces and ballad-operas. Between the acts of the various plays, songs and dances were introduced, with costume in character.
Then people read plays as literature. The libretto of the last stage success was as eagerly bought as the latest novel. We shall see on page 387 how the fashionable young lady was well acquainted with the contemporary stage. If the company wanted to produce a play of which they had no libretto, they could be reasonably sure that they could borrow it from somebody here. They advertised in May 1751 : " If any Gentleman or Lady has the Farce call'd The Intriguing- Chambermaid, and will lend it awhile to the Players, it will be thankfully acknowledged."
Some of these plays were of a nature to scandalize minds not necessarily puritanical. Today, some of them would be quite unplayable. Even persons who were not at all squeamish generally preferred the purer atmosphere of tragedies. The following paragraph was printed in September, 1750 :
"Thursday evening last, the tragedy of Cato was played at the theatre in this city, before a very numerous audience, the greater part of whom were of opinion that it was pretty well performed. As it was the fullest assembly that has appeared in that house, it may serve to prove that the taste of this place is not so much vitiated, or lost to a sense of liberty, but that they can prefer a representation of virtue to those of a loose character."
In England at this date, players were generally regarded as vagabonds. This company now visiting New York had practically been treated as such in Philadelphia. Two actors who were also the managers were Messrs. Murray and Kean. The names of the other members were : Tremain, Woodham, Jago, Scott, Leigh, Smith, Moore, Marks, Master Murray, Miss Osborn, Miss Nancy George, Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Osborn, Mrs. Davis and Mrs. Leigh. The following notes show that the social standing of these players was not very high :
[April 22nd, 1751], "Mr. Kean, by the advice of several gentlemen in town who are his friends, having resolved to quit the stage and follow his employment of writing (wherein he hopes for encouragement) will take a benefit, playing Richard III."
[June loth], Mr. Jago "humbly hopes that all ladies and gentlemen will be so kind as to favour him with their company as he never had a benefit before, and is just out of prison."
[June 13], " Mrs. Davis hopes as the play is granted her to enable her to buy off her time, that the ladies and gentlemen who are charitably inclined will favour her benefit, and their humble petitioner as in duty bound shall ever pray."
[June 17th], "'Tis the first time this poor widow (Osborn) has had a benefit."
[Aug. 26th], " John Tremain having declined the stage, proposes to follow his business of cabinet-maker." (He returned to the boards a few months later.)
The venture of these players was not a success pecuniarily. The players had to resort to benefits in consequence. Poor Mr. Jago's offence was probably nothing more serious than debt. It was perhaps a similar danger of jail that drove Mr. Kean and Mr. Tremain back to their ordinary vocations. Mrs. Davis evidently belonged to that class of Redemptionists who were practically slaves for a certain number of years. Perhaps her master had hired out her talents to the company, just as it was customary to do with servants and craftsmen. Mr. Kean's benefit was given on Jan. 14, 1731. The play was
The Beggars' Opera, " with entertainments between the acts, viz., a Harlequin dance, a Pierot dance and the Drunken Peasant, all by a gentleman lately from London. Miss in her Teens and an Oratorio to be sung by Mr. Kean."
At first, it was customary not to sell tickets at the door. Actors went round to houses and solicited attendance. Some disagreeable criticisms were made at the time of the above benefit. The manager and Mr. Kean both offered explanations as follows
[Jan. 21St, 1751.] "Whereas several reports have been unkindly spread that Mr. Kean, for his benefit night on Monday last, had caused a greater number of tickets to be printed than the house would hold, this is to certify that (according to the best of my knowledge) there were but 161 pit tickets,10 boxes, and 121 gallery tickets printed in all; and it is well known that as large a number have been in the house at one time. JAMES PARKER.
"N. B. Tho' it was then determined not to receive any money at the door, it was afterwards found to be a measure impracticable to be followed without great offence; and such whose business could not afford to come in time have since had their money return'd.
" Whereas it has been reported that Mrs. Taylor, in playing her part in my benefit, endeavoured to perform it in a worse manner than she was capable, and that it was done on account of a falling out between us: This is therefore to certify that there was no such difference between her and me; and that I believe her being out so much in the part was owing to her not getting the part in time." THOMAS KEAN.
We thus see that the large room in Mr. Van Dam's house could accommodate about two hundred people. In November, 1751, it was announced " The house being new floored is made warm and comfortable, besides which gentlemen and ladies may cause their stoves to be brought."
These stoves were foot-warmers,—small square boxes with perforated lids and metal receptacles inside for hot embers. They were commonly in use in the pews of churches. The hour for beginning the performance was 6.3o P.M. and the prices of the seats were : a box, five shillings, the pit, four shillings, and gallery seats two shillings. The original prices were for the pit five shillings, the gallery three shillings, the boxes being simply portions of the pit partitioned off. The performances were held twice a week, but were frequently postponed on account of hot or inclement weather. In January, 1752, we read :
" Mr. Upton (to his great Disappointment) not meeting with encouragement enough to support the Company for the Season intends to shorten it by performing 5' or 6 plays only for Benefits & begins with his own on Monday the 20th Inst. His play is a celebrated comedy called Tunbridge Walks, or the Yeoman of Kent; his Entertainment, the Lying Valet. And as hitherto, encouragement has been little, hopes the Gentlemen and Ladies will favour him that Night."
Mr. Upton then sailed for Europe. Before he went away, he played The Fair Penitent (March 4,) and the Honest Yorkshireman, the part of Lavinia being attempted by Mrs. Tremain, and a farewell epilogue by Mr. Upton. Experiences with this company of players had evidently not prepossessed the City Fathers in favour of the profession, for when a Lon-don company arrived fifteen months later, it experienced great opposition and the Assembly refused to licence it. The tribulations which the company suffered are fully set forth in a newspaper article
On July 2nd, 1753, "the London company of comedians, lately arrived from Virginia, humbly submit their case to the consideration of the public, whose servants they are." They sadly anticipate failure for their enterprise and censure for the undertaking. They had expected a different reception, "little imagining, that in a city to all appearance so polite as this, the Muses would be banished, . . . and the elegant entertainment of the Stage utterly protested against." The statement goes on to inform the public that it was originally proposed to Mr. William Hallam, now of London, to collect a company of comedians and send them to New York and other American colonies. He consented and collected people, scenes and costumes' at great expense,—and in Oct., 1750, sent Mr. Robert Upton to New York to obtain the necessary permission to perform, to build a theatre, and to make all preparations. For this, Mr. Hallam advanced a good sum.
Mr. Upton, however, on his arrival probably squandered the money with the town blades, "for we never heard from him after. Being thus deceived by him, the Company was at a stand till April, 1752, when by the persuasion of several gentlemen in London, and Virginia captains, we set sail on board of Mr. William Lee and arrived after a very expensive and tiresome voyage at York River on the 28th of June following." There they obtained the Governor's permission, and performed with the greatest applause, staying eleven months. Then they were again persuaded to come here by several gentlemen whose names they will refrain from mentioning. These gentlemen gave a very rosy account of the prospects here. " They told us that we should not fail of a genteel and favourable reception ; that the inhabitants were generous and polite, naturally fond of diversions rational, especially those of the theatre; nay, they even told us that there was a very fine play-house building, and that we were really expected.
So they came, and now are grieved that they are not wanted. Being people of no estates, they have no fund to bear such repulses; a journey by sea and land of 500 miles costs money! " Therefore if the worthy magistrates would consider this in our favour that it must rather turn out a public ad-vantage and pleasure than a private injury, they would, we make no doubt, grant permission and give us an opportunity to convince them that we are not cast in the same mould with our theatrical predecessors, or that in private life or public occupation, we have the least affinity to them."
There was evidently a sufficient number of friends of the drama to overcome the opposition, for eleven weeks later it was announced :
" The company of comedians who arrived here the past summer, having obtained permission from the proper authority to act, have built a very fine, large and commodious new theatre in the place where the old one stood; and having got it into good order, design to begin this evening. As they propose to tarry here but a short time, we hear they design to perform three times a week."
The house occupied the old site, and the company began with the comedy, The Conscious Lovers on Sept. 17. The play began at 6 P.. and the prices were Box 8/-, Pit 6/-, Gallery 3/. We soon find evidence of the fashionable habit of arriving late :
"Ladies and gentlemen who intend to favour with their company are desired to come by six o'clock, being determined to keep to our hour as it would be a great inconvenience for them to be kept out late, and a means to prevent disappointment."
Some of the advertisements requested ladies and gentlemen to send their servants early to keep their places for them, which shows that numbered seats were not sold. The members of this company, the Douglasses, Hallams, etc. were prominent in the theatrical life in the city for many years. There were twelve adults and three children, Lewis Hallam, a low comedian, his daughter aged fifteen and two sons aged twelve and ten ; Messrs. Rigby, Malone, Clarkson, Adcock, Bell, Miller, Hulett, Singleton, Mrs. Becceley, Mrs. Love, Mrs. Adcock, Mrs. Clarkson, and Mrs. Lewis Hallam, who was a relative of Rich of Covent Garden. Upon the death of her husband, she married David Douglass, who then managed this company.
Hostility to the stage among a certain class showed itself on several occasions, but it was not until the troublous days of the Stamp Act that the mob resorted to violence. An incident that doubt-less hugely delighted the gallery was reported on May 3, 1762, as follows :
"A Pistole reward will be given to whoever can discover the person who was so very rude to throw eggs from the gallery upon the stage last Monday by which the clothes of some ladies and gentlemen in the boxes were spoiled and the performance in some measure interrupted.
The performance was interrupted in a far more serious manner early in May, 1766. The theatre that suffered stood in Chapel Street, and on the night of the riot the plays were The Twin Rivals and The King and the Miller of Mansfield. The manager had advertised : "As the packet is arrived and has been the messenger of good news relative to the Repeal, it is hoped the public has no objection to the above performance." On May 8th, 1766, the paper gave the following account of the affair
" The play advertised to be acted on last Monday evening having given offence to many of the inhabitants of this city who thought it highly improper that such entertainments should be exhibited at this time of public distress, when great numbers of poor people can scarce find means of subsistance, whereby many persons might be tempted to neglect their business and squander that money which is necessary to the payment of this debt and support of their families, a rumor was spread about town on Monday that if the play went on, the audience would meet with some disturbance from the multitude. This pre-vented the greatest part of those who intended to have been there from going: however many people came, and the play was begun, but soon interrupted by the multitude who burst open the doors and entered with noise and tumult. The audience escaped in the best manner they could : many lost their hats and other parts of dress. A boy had his skull fractured —several others were dangerously hurt. The multitude immediately demolished the house, and carried away the pieces to the Common, where they consumed them in a bonfire."
At the opening of this theatre in January, 1759, David Douglass, the manager, had written :
" Be pleased to give the inclosed occasional Prologue and Epilogue spoken at the opening of the new theatre in this city, a place in your paper. As we cannot imagine the difficulty we met with in obtaining liberty to act here proceeded from any ill opinion those in authority had of a well-regulated stage, but rather from a tender regard to the mistaken notions of others, we humbly beg leave to embrace this opportunity of recommending this performance to the candid perusal of such prejudiced, though we doubt not, well meaning minds."
The Prologue and Epilogue were apologies and defences of theatrical performances. The riot of 1766 had no permanent effect in hindering theatrical performances, for in the following year a playhouse was opened in John Street. The company that opened it included among its members several persons who, being very good singers as well as actors and actresses, could sustain their parts in the light operas and musical farces of the day as well as in the plays. Often during the performance of a tragedy or comedy, they were called upon to sing some popular song between the acts ; this, indeed, was so important a feature of the evening's entertainment, that their names and the titles of the songs were specially advertised. For example, Miss Maria Storer delighted the audience on May 2, 1768, with the celebrated song " Sweet Echo," when Richard III was played for the benefit of the three Misses Storer. She sang it between the third and fourth acts. Miss Hallam sang "'Twas when the Seas were Roaring" on May 23, at Mrs. Douglass's benefit, when Jane Shore was played ; and on May 25, when Richard III. was performed again, Miss Wainwright sang, " Thro' the Wood, Laddie," and Miss Hallam, " Vain is Beauty's gaudy Flower."
The members of this company who thus acquired a double reputation as singers and actors were : Mr. Stephen Woolls, Miss Wainwright, Mrs. Harman (a granddaughter of Colley Cibber), Miss Hallam, Mr. Wall and the Storer sisters. Mr. Woolls was the principal singer in the company. He was born in Bath in 1729, and made his first appearance in New York at the opening of the John Street Theatre in 1767, playing Gibbet in The Beaux Stratagem and Mercury in Lethe. He became a great favourite, and sang nearly till the time of his death, which occurred in New York in 1799. Miss Wainwright appeared in New York with Mr. Woolls as Cherry in The Beaux Stratagem and as Mrs. Riot in Lethe She was also a native of England and was much admired for her sprightly performance of chambermaids and rustic characters. Gay comedy was her specialty. She was the principal female vocalist in the Douglass Company. Her name disappears in 1769.
It is very interesting to note that to the public some of the plays had special attractions that would not be considered so important today. For example, in a performance of Romeo and Juliet, the funeral was specially mentioned in the advertisement. Very often the music and dancing between the acts was a greater attraction than the play itself.
There was considerable histrionic ability among the gentlemen of the city, who on occasion were willing to help the actors out of difficulties. In April, 1770, Othello was acted by an amateur, assisted by other gentlemen as the Doge and Senate. Box prices were charged for the pit on this occasion.
The theatre had the influential support of the Freemasons. There was a special performance in 1769, when the Tender Husband was first given here. The brethren met at Mr. Burns's and walked to the theatre in procession.
On another occasion, all the beauty and fashion crowded to the theatre to see Indian chiefs give a war-dance.
Before the Revolution, several plays were mounted with a good deal of splendour and magnificence. Two instances occur in May, 1773, which are described by the critic as follows :
" Last Wednesday the play of The Tempest or the Inchanted Island, written by Shakespeare and altered by Dryden, was performed at the theatre in this city to a numerous and brilliant audience with universal applause; the machinery is elegant and the whole is allowed to be one of the most pleasing pieces that has made its appearance on the American stage."
" The scenery, decorations, dresses and machinery of the opera of Cymon to be performed this evening are allowed by the most critical judges of theatrical splendour to be more magnificent than could be expected at so early a period on the American stage. During its run at Philadelphia, several gentlemen from London attended the representation and made comparisons much to the honour of our infant western theatre. We are informed that as it is so very late in the season it can only be performed one night."