From April to June 1784, and then again from December to July 1785, the Southwark was home to the American Company, now called, since their return from Jamaica during the Revolutionary War, the “Old” American Company. George Washington and other leaders of society attended the shows, although theatrical performances were still illegal in the city. To evade the laws but satisfy audiences, manager Lewis Hallam, Jr. shrouded the productions as “lectures,” “monodies,” “poetical addresses,” “pantomimical fêtes,” or “concerts.” Newspaper debates on theatre continued. A columnist in the Pennsylvania Packet quipped that Hallam should present his theatre in “an air balloon … thirteen hundred miles perpendicular to the State House; for notwithstanding the Assembly have or pretend to have a right to control all terrestrial matters within their jurisdiction, we know they have not the least right by charter, the constitution, or otherways, to the celestial regions.”
In the repertory that season was The Lecture on Heads, an oft-repeated work in early American theatre. Created by English author George Alexander Stevens, it premiered in London in 1764. The “Lecture” was a flexible “medley” of historical themes (i.e., Alexander the Great, a lecture on the “Origin of Ladies Bonnets”), fairyland characters (i.e., Riding Hood), ethnic types (Cherokee, Englishman, Frenchman), commedia-style masks (Quack-Doctor, Old Bachelor), philosophical embodiments (“Genealogy of Genius,” Honesty), political parodies (Double Chin the Politician), homilies (“Oration in Praise of Law”), music, and sets. Advertisements, while missing cast lists, reveal information about other works presented. Garrick’s Ode, probably a version of David Garrick’s Shakespeare’s Jubilee (1769), included transformation scenes, requiring upgraded stage equipment at the Southwark. The “Ombres Chinoises”—versions were sometimes billed as “Ombres Italiennes”— were shadow-figures mechanically moved against highlighted backgrounds.
While Hallam’s hiring of John and Catharine Durang for the 1784-85 season was likely motivated by his need to fill out his slim company, inclusion of American performers may also have helped him win sympathy for legalizing theatre. Every OAC newspaper notice concluded with the phrase “Vivat Respublica,” Hallam offered charity benefits, and the company presented odes to liberty. Advertisements highlighted the “decent” and “educational” values of OAC productions.
Yet, when the legislature reconvened, heated debates resumed and theatre was, again, denied legalization. Hallam then moved the OAC to New York where he undertook a new partnership in November 1785 with Irish actor John Henry. The OAC, with John Durang, played the John Street Theatre from that point until August 1786. The John Street was an almost exact replica of Philadelphia’s Southwark Theatre.
New York was smaller than Philadelphia, but its population of nearly 30,000 made it a significant city. The OAC opened in August 1785 at the John Street Theatre, built by David Douglass the year after the Southwark using almost identical plans. Theatre opposition was less heated in New York so Hallam advertised his plays and casts more openly, but concerned citizens protested periodically in the newspapers throughout the season.
In response, Hallam gave charity benefits, printed “Vivat Respublica” in newspaper advertisements, included patriotic speeches in the bills, and displayed a grand transparency of American patriots on the Fourth of July.
The season included a range of works: pantomimes, comic operas, plays, and a version of Milton’s masque, Comus. Shakespearean productions included: King Lear, Hamlet, Richard III, Merchant of Venice, Catherine and Petruchio (Garrick’s adaptation of Taming of the Shrew), and “Odes” or “Monodies” to Shakespeare (probably also Garrick creations).
To accompany the actors, a small orchestra of about a dozen players, including harpsichord, clarinet, violin, and cello, was assembled. The small company of actors, in which everyone played many roles, was forced to close briefly in mid-February due to “so many Performers being indisposed,” perhaps resulting from the draughty condition of the theatres in winter. The managers promised, when the theatre reopened, that “care will be taken to prevent, if possible, a reiteration of the disappointments that, from sickness alone, have lately prevailed.”
As a stock company, Hallam and Henry’s OAC kept performers busy. In the 1785-86 New York season, the 15-member company, performing 3 nights a week, presented 70 plays, in addition to prologues, epilogues, songs, and dances, none of the full-length works repeated on two show nights consecutively. Leading performers owned shares in the company but Durang always remained on salary. Each major player filled a “line of business,” or standard role—leading male, light comedian, young lover, old woman, villain—while “utility” actors might swing among lines, and “walking” players took minor roles. A few performers were fine singers or dancers. Leading players were granted a benefit each season, an occasion when the player chose the playbill and the house “take,” beyond costs for the theatre and performers, went directly to that actor.
For those born into performing families—the Hallams, Siddons, or Kembles in England, and later, in America, John Durang’s children—the theatre was their school.
But for John Durang himself, each skill and trick had to be studied. Many an actor, starting with bit parts and choruses, gained the training to rise in the ranks. Senior performers could mentor the novice, as when Mrs. Allen advised Durang on his costume and performance for his OAC début. Sometimes, theatre companies held classes in special techniques, such as fencing and dancing. Watching the experienced players, absorbing their technique and interpretations, was the main method of forming oneself as an actor in this period.
It is not clear that Durang was with the OAC when it moved to New York City for a season from February to June of that year, but the season was particularly significant for American theatre, since the company presented the first play written by an American and performed by a professional company: Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (18 April, 1787), called by historian and manager William Dunlap the “commencement of American drama united with the American theatre.”
Although a few other plays had been written by Americans, and even presented in some form or other prior to the premiere of The Contrast, the professional level of the OAC and the work’s success give it pride of place in American dramatic literature, as did its clear choice of themes and characters. The War of Independence had forwarded the urgency Americans felt to establish a distinct identity, one that would replace British and European models with “native” forms, exchange Old-World gentility and refinement for homespun earthiness, and present themes and characters that symbolized the “American.” Novice playwright Royall Tyler successfully integrated these nationalist and literary drives in his work, The Contrast, which – as its name promises – opposes dandified, Europeanized characters like “Dimple” and his servant Jessamy with “Colonel Manly,” an American soldier, and his “waiter” (not servant), Jonathan. It was Jonathan, a New England rustic, who became the model for the stage Yankee, with such lines as “a power of topping folks,” “a tarnal blaze,” and “a true-born Yankee American son of liberty.”
Dunlap, quoted above on The Contrast, was a playwright, historian, and manager of the Old American Company and of the Park Theatre, New York. His plays typified the conscious shaping of American identity through dramatic literature and theatrical presentation by means of their clear moral messages.
For Dunlap, “the histrionic art” under the old European regimes was “in the dark ages, … the slave of ignorance clothed with power,” even “the encourager of licentiousness.” But, shaped by the new American, “the Drama in its moral character is now purer than in any former time since the glories of Grecian republicanism and literature.”
Yet the emergence of American drama was slow due to fluid access to English culture and commerce. As American playwright James Nelson Barker commented in 1812: “It may be truly said that if we possess anything of national characteristic, it is to be found only in our contempt for ourselves.” The first American theatre historians, Dunlap (1832) and Charles Durang (1854), published catalogues of what they considered “American plays.” Charles Durang’s list included not only dramas (plays), but also pantomimes, burlettas, and interludes, allowing him to include his father, John, as an author of American works.
Who beside John Durang could claim “American” as part of his pedigree at this point? In March 1790 John Martin became what Dunlap called “the first person of the male sex born in America, who adopted the stage as a profession.” Dunlap credits Miss Tuke (later Mrs. Hallam), who played the OAC’s New York season in 1785-86, as the first lady to earn the American-born title. Durang preceded both of them on the professional boards, and outlived them.
Was American-born status a draw for audiences? Perhaps for some, but Dunlap, along with other American performers, playwrights, and artists, complained that the American public favored foreign players and works. Indeed, they argued that it was safer to pretend European roots than admit the lowly truth of American birth. But John Bill Ricketts, the English circus manager with whom Durang later worked, pointedly advertised his “famous American horse Cornplanter” when touting the animal’s tricks, and he listed one of his performers, Master Hutchins, as “the Young American.”
As European actors, such as the Placides, Jeffersons, and Warrens, stayed and made homes in the U.S., their American-born children increasingly dominated local stages. And so too did John and Mary Durang bring a second generation of American performers to the nation’s stages.
The slow pace of American theatre’s emergence was also a part of the national character—religiously principled, morally stringent, and suspicious of idle pleasures, themes familiar to European theatrical cultures, but magnified in the New World. At the same time, the eventual flowering of American theatre was equally a part of that national character—intellectually curious, tolerant, optimistic, creative, and entrepreneurial.
Many American leaders recognized that the new nation’s emergence was itself a dramatic statement, and they themselves were openly fans of the theatre and employed its strategies. George Washington attended the theatre whenever he could, even when such “idle entertainments” were condemned by various decrees; his self-presentation shows that he grasped the lessons of the theatre. Benjamin Franklin too was adept at playing a part and dramatizing his image, as in his shrewd assumption of the rustic frontiersman role to lure the sophisticated French to support the American Revolution. Even the staid John Adams enjoyed theatre and landed on a theatrical metaphor when he wrote of the Stamp Act battles as “the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain.”
After the New York season in which the OAC presented The Contrast, the company returned to Philadelphia from June to August 1787.
The Federal Convention was in town, debating and writing the Constitution of the United States—the ratification of which Durang helped to celebrate in his role as Mercury. The delegates. including Washington, filled the Southwark’s seats, despite theatre’s ongoing illegal status. Still, the company obscured its performances by advertising “Spectaculum Vitae,” “Concerts, “Musical Entertainments,” “Lectures,” and “Operas” at the “Opera House in Southwark.” Durang and wife Mary are named in Philadelphia advertisements for the spring 1789 season, where he again danced his hornpipe during interludes.
John and Mary Durang played together as Harlequin Friday and Columbine in Robinson Crusoe; or, Harlequin Friday (Sheridan), marking Durang’s first appearance in that role, which was played in blackface.
The long-running battle over theatre in Philadelphia came to a head in February and March of 1789 when “The Dramatic Association,” led by prominent citizens, won repeal by the Pennsylvania Assembly of its prohibition against theatre on 2 March 1789. That spring season was the first occasion the OAC could advertise that it played “By Authority”—that is, legally, in Philadelphia. Yet, once theatre was out in the open, the players found not only supporters but also critics who aimed their darts at actor incompetence, ticket prices, and audience behavior.
The OAC played the John Street Theatre in New York from April to December of 1789. They arrived in time for Washington’s April 30th inauguration as the first President of the United States. Durang wrote: “In 1789 I beheld a grand fate [fête] in New York when Washington was elected president of the United States. He was row’d in an elegant barge by thirteen men dress’d neatly, from Elizabethtown Point. The River was crowded with pleasure boats fill’d with ladies and gentlemen. He mounted the balconey of the Fetheral hall in Wall Street, the head of Broad Street, in the mits of shouts and thousands of citizens. In the evening was display’d a splendid firework in front of the governor’s house near the Battery, and the city was illuminated.” Throughout this busy season, Durang continued his interlude dances, sometimes performing with Mary.
He probably also filled the ranks of choruses or crowds in works such as the “Grand Masque of Neptune and Amphitrite” presented in The Tempest (29 October 1789) or the “Grand Pageant” in Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee (3 December 1789). Durang was granted a shared benefit on 16 November.
From 1790 to 1800, while the new capitol on the Potomac was being built, Philadelphia was the nation’s temporary capital, drawing theatrical entertainment more regularly to the city. The OAC played there from January to May of 1790, during which Durang was exposed to much new repertory.
On 22 February, George Washington’s birthday, the OAC premiered the patriotic tragedy, Gustavus Vasa, the Deliverer of his Country (Dimond). Washington’s attendance at the theatre was always treated as a dramatic event in itself, as Charles Durang, drawing on his father’s Memoir, describes: “Mr. Wignell, in a full dress of black, hair powdered and adjusted to the formal fashion of the day, with two silver candlesticks and wax candles, would thus await the general’s arrival at the box-door entrance, and with great refinement of address and courtly manners, conduct this best of public men and suite to his box. A guard of the military attended. A soldier was generally posted at each stage-door, and four were posted in the gallery, assisted by the high constable of the city and other police officers, to preserve something like decorum among the sons of social liberty.” In addition to Durang’s interlude dancing, he may also have appeared in the “Statue Scene and Dance” in the first act of Love in a Village (Bickerstaff and Arne), a “Grotesque Allemande” in the “Grand Masquerade” from The Belle’s Stratagem (Cowley), and Harlequin Skeleton.
Durang’s first Baltimore season began in August 1790, when his dancing is publicized in OAC advertisements for the Baltimore Theatre, which historians have placed around Pratt and Albemarle Streets, near Fell’s Point. Durang vividly remembered his first Baltimore season, although the managers found audiences sparse until they pushed back the starting time of their shows to dusk, perhaps allowing the theatre to cool somewhat. A surprise for Durang was an encounter with his former master, Mr. Roussell, now running a local dancing school and a tavern, The United States’ Arms. Durang continued dancing interludes and taking small roles, such as Trap in The Prisoner at Large (O’Keeffe), and Lord Burleigh in The Critic (Sheridan.
From December of 1790 to July of 1791, the OAC was back at the Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia.
On 5 January, President Washington attended the theatre, where he saw Durang dance an interlude between The School for Scandal and The Poor Soldier. John and Mary Durang shared a benefit with three other actors on 7 July; Durang danced a hornpipe and an “Al Fresco Dance,” the latter with his American colleague John Martin in the Birth of Harlequin; or, the Witches Frolic. In his Memoir, he writes that he “cleared about a hundred dollars” at the benefit.
The company left for New York, “a better theatrical town,” according to Durang, than Philadelphia proved. Yet the season, from October 1791 to May 1792, saw poor business, perhaps because actor Thomas Wignell seceded to form his own company, taking other players with him, while another fine performer, Mrs. Harper, died.
From February to May 1792, the Placide troupe of dancers and acrobats joined the OAC, inaugurating what dance historian Lillian Moore has called “New York’s First Ballet Season.” Of Placide, Durang wrote, he “was the best tight rope dancer that ever was in America. I did the clown to the rope which got me a good benefit; at least I cleared three hundred dollars, which was a great sum at that time.” Alexander Placide, the troupe’s leader, had been a dancer and acrobat in Paris, and had toured England and Europe. Placide was not only a fine performer, but he also choreographed, including ballets presented in the NY season: The Bird Catcher (Durang played a Hunter), The Two Philosophers; or, The Merry Girl, The Return of the Labourers (with a wooden-shoe “Sabottiere Dance”), La Belle Dorothée, and The Old Schoolmaster Grown Young.
Placide and company also contributed such pantomimes as The Old Soldier (Durang played “Clown”), The Indian Heroine; or, Inkle and Yarico, and The Birth of Harlequin; or, the Witches Frolic, in which Placide’s common-law wife, the excellent dancer Mme. Placide (Miss Douvillier), played Columbine. No doubt, Durang grew enormously working with artists of this stature. They also helped draw good houses. Durang wrote that, from New York, “I arrived at day break at Philad’a. I walked home with a bag of silver dollars under my arms containing three hundred and fifty dollars. I thought myself an independent rich man… I had the happiness to join my family in health. Next day I deposited three hundred dollars in the North American Bank, my first capital stock, and the corner stone to my fortune—faithfully earned.”
Philadelphia again saw the OAC, this time with the addition of the Placide troupe, from May to July 1792, playing similar repertory to that featured in New York. A fall season, from September to January 1793, followed.
The next New York season lasted into July. Durang’s interlude dancing was less advertised than in previous years; this comment in the New York Journal might explain why: “We cannot conclude without … expressing our doubts, whether the managers suppose we can be amused by the agility of Mr. Durang, or whether we should be diverted with him as the character of a clumsy stage dancer.” Perhaps, after the Placide company’s refinement, Durang looked raw. He was given a shared benefit, for which Durang produced the recently-premiered London pantomime, The Grateful Lion; or, the Lillipution’s Power.
A brief Philadelphia season in summer 1793 was cut short by a devastating yellow fever epidemic. Some newspapers ceased publication during this disaster, and available listings provide little information on roles or casting for the theatre.
The suffocating heat and raging epidemic may have moved managers Hallam and Henry to advertise the construction of “Ventilators” to “render the Theatre more Cool and Pleasant than it has been heretofore in the Summer Months.”
The OAC’s New York season of November 1793 to late June 1794 would be the last to see the joint management of Hallam and Henry. English actor John Hodgkinson, whom Henry had hired to strengthen the company, edged Henry out of the partnership and created turmoil in the company. Durang reveals Hodgkinson’s tactics: he “raised my salary without my applying for it; it was an act of considaration and generosity and secured my esteem.” Durang summed up Hallam as “a sterling actor, but an inactive manager. His stile of acting was of the old school,” while Henry “was allso a sterling actor, the American Sir Peter Teezle, … good in operas, the best gentleman Irishman I ever saw on any stage,” but the “very low salaries” he paid performers “keep the most of them very poor.”
Despite the higher wages, or perhaps due to the increasing company discord, Durang was tempted elsewhere: in 1793 “the renowned equestrian, Mr. Ricketts, arrived in Philad’a from Scotland.” Ricketts was an excellent circus artist and experienced manager. Durang writes that, after Ricketts saw him in a Southwark production, perhaps during the short summer season in 1793, he “sent me a polite note to wait on him.” Ricketts praised Durang’s rope dancing, hornpipe, and pantomime, and offered to hire him“to do the clown to the horsmanship. I told him I was doubtful of my abilities—in horsemanship—and there beg to decline his kind offer, which I was sorry for some time after.” Instead, Durang played in the OAC’s New York season of 1793-94 where advertisements list him a few times: a “Fancy Dance,” “French Alamande” for interludes; “La Fricassée” in the pantomime Harlequin’s Vagaries; or, the Generous Tars; and an Indian Dance in Tammany; or, the Indian Chief (Hatton)—the first opera on an American Indian theme. This season, Durang held two shared benefit nights.
The last season that the Old American Company would play Philadelphia was from September to December 1794, after which former OAC actor Thomas Wignell and composer Alexander Reinagle claimed that territory by building the best theatre to date in the United States, the Chestnut Street (or New) Theatre at Sixth and Chestnut Streets. Wignell recruited a top-flight company from England, appropriate to the theatre’s excellence. Its opening was postponed due to a yellow fever epidemic, but the new company finally debuted in February 1794. The OAC was forced to play its last Southwark run in the gaps left by the New Theatre’s seasons. Neither the OAC’s personnel nor building could compete with Wignell’s, and after this season, it made New York its home. At the same time, Ricketts’ Circus was also playing Philadelphia, featuring equestrian acts, pantomimes, comedy, and clowning.
President Washington attended the Southwark this season and probably saw Durang dance. Two fine French dancers, Anna Gardie and Alexandre Quesnet, strengthened the OAC so that it could present such ballets as The Two Philosophers, The Bird Catcher, and Sophia of Brabant, as well as a “Minuet de la Cour,” which Charles Durang wrote was “a treat” for “admirers of the best style of dancing.” Theatre historian George Seilhamer noted that Sophia of Brabant “differed from anything that had ever before been seen on our stage. It was one of the earliest attempts at serious pantomime in this country, and Madame Gardie as Sophia gave theatre-goers a delight altogether new. Her figure, face and action were enchanting.” She also impressed John Durang: “The fascination of Madam Gardie acting was universally admired, connected with her private qualifications of an amiable lady.” Quesnet, he wrote, was “a professional neat dancer from the French theatres and accumulated a fortune by teaching a dancing school in Philad’a.” The ballets were the best part of the season, in which few new dramatic works were given, and the acting was considered poor. The General Advertiser noted that gallery spectators hurled “apples and pears, sticks and stones” into the pit and orchestra, shouting “scurrility and abuse,” spitting, and pouring out beer bottles. After that, the OAC exited Philadelphia forever.
For their New York season, Hallam and Hodgkinson, now running the company entirely on salary, rather than sharing, brought in some new recruits. Durang wrote that “the strength of this troupe gave great satisfaction.” Playing from December 1794 through June 1795, Durang did a typical range of dances and minor roles in plays.
The French dancers in the troupe performed the lovely work La Foret Noire, and Durang danced with Miss Gardie in “a French Alamande … in the characters of Shepherd and Shepherdess.” Also played were Tyranny Suppressed; or, Freedom Triumphant, Harlequin’s Animation; or, Triumph of Mirth, and Poor Jack, in which Durang danced the lead.
When the New York season closed, Durang gave a few independent performances at a theatre located at 239 Broadway, presenting rope dancing, hornpipes, ballets, pantomimes, and shades.
Then, Durang went on tour with the Hallam-Hodgkinson company, which split into two groups, one playing Providence, Rhode Island (September to early November 1795) and the other Hartford, Connecticut (August to mid October 1795). The two truopes joined to play Boston for a season that ran from November to mid January 1796. Durang writes in his Memoir (p. 38) that he went to Rhode Island, but the records indicate otherwise. In Hartford, Durang did his hornpipe, played minor roles, and danced the lead in The Bird Catcher, Caledonian Frolic, and The Two Philosophers. Mrs. Durang too performed. Durang also made his first foray as a dancing master for the time the company played Hartford.
Durang and family moved on to Boston, where the OAC played from November 1795 to January 1796. Records show Mrs. Durang in small roles (Susan in Spoiled Child, Mrs. Johnson in Which is the Man?). Durang wrote of his problems in finding affordable, decent lodgings in the crowded city. One suspicious landlady, inquiring of another actor about Durang’s character, was told, he wrote in his Memoir, “Madam, you have got the greatest dancer in your house in America.” The New York players joined the troupe of American manager Col. J. S. Tyler. Theatre had finally been legalized in Boston on 9 April 1793, and a new playhouse was built at Franklin and Federal Streets.
The works presented by the combined troupes were a familiar selection, including Madame Gardie’s beautiful ballets and pantomimes. On his off-nights, Durang performed with a band of Canadian musicians. He “got up, in machinery, the Storming and Destruction of the Bastile, with great praise.” For the return trip to Philadelphia in late January, Durang hired “a slay with a coach body on the runner to take my family comfortable to New York all the way on the snow… putting up every night in comfortable lodgings.” He wrote, “I never made money an object to debar myself or family from any comforts that was in my power to do or give, not with standing many have been pleas’d to say that I am close. The idea is founded falsly. It is because I am not seen like a good jovial fellow setting in company at a tavern prodigally over my bottle, and let the wife and children at home take care of themselves. If there is any pleasure over a bottle, let it be with a valueable friend at home, where the poor will always find me, and not afraid to meet my creditors at my door.”
The OAC’s New York season from February through June 1796 was a fine one. In March, a troupe of excellent French dancers, including Jean-Baptiste Franscisquy and M. and Mme. Val, enriched the company, which still included the lovely Mme. Gardie. Amid these fine dancers, Durang continued to develop his technique and repertoire.
The troupe opened the New York season with The Provoked Husband and The Spoiled Child, in which Durang and wife were cast.
Durang appeared in several plays, as well as in the best available repertory of pantomimes and ballets, including Francisqui’s stagings of the “pastoral pantomime” The Whims of Galatea, his Rural Waggish Tricks; or, the Enraged Musicians, and The Cooper; or, the Guardian in Love with his Pupil. In Auld Robin Gray (Arnold), he danced the role of Donald.
Yet Durang had grown restless and he thought of Ricketts, whose circus was also performing in New York: “He sent me an offer of an engagement inclosed in a note. The terms where liberal with a prospect to my advantage. He would give me 25 dollars each and every week the year through and a benefit in each town, charging only the expences of lights, music, and advertisements.” That salary, perhaps for rehearsal and performance weeks only, was very high. Even if exaggerated, the income Durang anticipated would go far toward supporting a family and paying his mortgage. He wrote, “I took the affair into serious considaration, reflecting on the poor situation I held in the theatre, living on a low salary with a family, no prospect of a benefit, and on the other hand fortune appeared to invite me.” He accepted Ricketts’s offer and resigned from the OAC. William Dunlap, recently appointed manager of the New York company, offered to raise Durang’s salary, but Durang “thanked him for his kind offer and the humain politeness he had always show’d me. I took my leave respectfully wishing him health and prosperity, and proud to say that it is in my power to proclaim him a compleat gentleman.” With Ricketts, Durang not only had a good income, but he would have the chance to shine. Thus, in the latter half of 1796, the formative portion of Durang’s professional career came to a close.
A summer enterprise with M. Francisqui and other OAC members occupied Durang until Ricketts’ season began. The troupe played Providence and Newport, Rhode Island.
Not surprisingly, the season featured ballets and pantomimes, and also gave the American premiere of O’Keeffe and Shield’s Harlequin’s Ramble; or, the Fortune Teller, in which Durang played Clown, He also danced interludes — a “Spanish Dance,” his hornpipe, and feats on the wire — and was featured twice as a singer.