The Southwark Theatre was a recent arrival in Philadelphia when Jacob and Catherine Durang landed in the city in 1767. It had been preceded by a rather make-shift theatre created in Plumsted’s warehouse, near the Philadelphia docks, in 1749, which was probably used when the small, and possibly semi-professional, Murray and Kean Company performed in the city.
While people of all classes and backgrounds attended theatre, Quakers and other religious leaders in Philadelphia battled the plays and players, using sermons, newpaper columns, and legislative measures as their weapons. Plays and players became one subject of contest between colonial Americans — whose moral expressions tended toward austerity — and the English government — which often tabled or overturned American objections to theatre.
It was for these reasons that, in 1766, the Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia was built just outside official city limits — and, thus, just beyond the reach of city regulation — at South and Fourth Streets.
Philadelphia’s Southwark was the first “permanent” building in America erected as a theatre. Historian and theatre manager William Dunlap found the building “of sufficient size for the population at that time and long afterwards, and well adapted for theatrical representations,” although its undecorated red exterior was “no ornament to the city.” Nor were audiences particularly decorous: they commented aloud during performances, threw nuts and fruit at the stage and orchestra, demanded encores or favorite songs, cheered favorites and booed others, chatted, flirted, drank, smoked, and sometimes brawled. Thus, the appropriate motto over the Southwark’s stage: “Totus mundus agit histrionem— The whole world acts the player.” Audience behavior was targeted for criticism by opponents to theatre, even after such entertainments became legal.
A theatre evening started as early as 6:00 or 6:30 to accommodate the four or five hours of performance. In addition to a serious mainpiece, drawn from the standard repertory of classical, tragic, and heroic plays, a theatre evening included a light, cheerful afterpiece. Prologues, epilogues, inserted songs and dances, and entr’actes extended the fare.
The Southwark’s stage, fronted by iron spikes to keep off eager audience members, was lit by oil foot lamps that barely reached beyond the apron, and by candle-laden hoops that descended or rose to light the rest of the stage. The apron was, thus, the best playing area. The house remained lit, by candles, throughout the evening. At the start of each work the green curtain parted to reveal the generic painted scenes used for each show, supplemented by necessary furniture. Flats moved on and off stage in grooves, exposing greater stage depths as the front scenes opened to reveal those behind. Sound effects were achieved through thunder and rain machines, the former involving rolling cannon balls, the latter gunshot passed through a tube. Players donned costumes from the company’s stock, supplemented by whatever each actor could afford. Most performed in contemporary dress adorned with standard indicators of status, place, or period: a crown for a king, draperies and breastplates for Romans.
The recent building of the Southwark Theatre, improvements in the American Company’s personnel, and enthusiastic audiences foreshadowed the later full-blown emergence of a truly American theatre, which John Durang and family would help to shape. Indeed, in the course of his life, John Durang would attend, perform in, and even manage the Southwark, and he would establish America’s first homegrown theatrical family.