While theatrical entertainments were few at this point in Philadelphia’s history (see Surviving the Revolutionary War), John Durang particularly remembered one performance in these days of theatrical sterility: “a dramatic performance by Wall and Ryan and Company; they had among them a Mr. Rusell, a dancer. I saw him dance a hornpipe which charmed my mind.” Inspired by Roussell’s style and dress, Durang practiced until he could do the same steps and more. In this first mention of his own dancing, Durang’s reflection that “I thought I could dance as well as any body” reveals that he had been dancing for some time. Durang managed to arrange formal dance training with the French dancer: “I contrived to get Mr. Rusell to board at my father’s house that I might have the opportunity to dance more correct then I had been used to.” This brush with professionalism set John Durang afire.
Soon, he got his first professional break: he had been watching a lone performer, unrecorded in chronicles of the time, at the Southwark Theatre performing “a miscellaneous collection: transparencies, the magic lantern, sea fights in machinary, singing—all bad enough, but anything was thought great in those days.”
Durang had “mechanical genious, and a turn for music” and must have introduced himself to the performer, for he got his first offer from this showman: a tour to Boston, expenses paid, with a benefit and paid journey home, although his name would not be published. The boy feared that such publicity would anger his father, for this trip “was the first and the only thing I ever done without the consent and knowledge of my father, in obedience to his will while under his command.” Yet Durang could not resist, “the hope of improveing myself, and gain[ing] a better knowledge of the world,” so he agreed to run away. “I was preparing to make my first tour, to leave my father’s house and mingle with the multitude of the world. My confidence in God was the security and hope in my chance of fortune; my aversion to vice, couplet with prudence, was my guide thro’ life. My association was confined to partial select company.” His propensity for self-education and productive use of his time was already evident: “I could allways pass my time better in my chamber than in company; I was doing while some only talk of it. Idleness, resorts to taverns, low company, drinking, smokeing, gaming, &c., was always my detestation.”
The six-day journey to Boston traversed New Jersey, where Durang noted Princeton’s“stately college.” He arrived by boat at New York, then sailed by packet up the East River to New Haven, and by land stage through Hartford, Connecticut and on through the marshes to Boston.
Durang remembers that he was fifteen at the time, which would place the trip in 1783. He and his employer had a successful run of “about two months,” with a show that probably consisted of similar amusements to those Durang had seen in Philadelphia: transparencies, magic lanterns, and machine shows. Durang probably danced a bit and provided musical accompaniment for the acts, to set the mood and obscure machinery noise.
Durang gained valuable theatre experience, earned the proceeds of his benefit, and got his trip home paid. A Boston acquaintance introduced him to “Mr Turnner, dancing master.” William Turner, an established Boston musician, fencing teacher, and dancing master who stayed up-to-date through periodic trips to London, served genteel families, including that of President Edward Holyoke of Harvard University. At his academy, Durang wrote, “I learned at once his method and the dances then in vogue. I saw the master’s boast lay principally in hornpipes, for he would have his best hornpipe dancer dress’d in a neat sailor’s dress.”
The Boston performances over, Durang had to return to his father’s home, which he had left in secret and without parental permission: “I approached the house with timorous steps and fluttering heart. Like the Prodigal Son returned, I entered the house, and with submissive reverence approch’d my father, who stretch’d forth his hands and with transport embraced me in his arms with a parental affection. Our tears where our substitute for words; they express’d at once a welcome and reconciliation.”
It was probably close to the start of the Old American Company’s (OAC) Philadelphia season from December 1784 to July 1785 that Durang met manager Lewis Hallam Jr. Durang had gone to a ball: “I dress’d in costume of the times, a blue coat cut in the French stile, a white tissue vestcoat, white casemere small clothes, white silk stockings, French shoes, stitch’d heels, with small sett buckles in the knee and shoes, ruffle on the wrist and bosom; the hair full dressed with the toupee, the hair tied in a fantail club with a black rose, two curls each side well powdered; a cock’d hat, gloves, and small cane, a gold watch with gold trinkets on the chain.” There, Durang found himself “prevaild on to dance a hornpipe in a private company.” Such a success was his dance that “The report reach’d Mr. Hallam’s ear, who waited on my father to negotiate on liberal terms for me to dance on the stage, which with my father’s consent I excepted.”
Durang was still required to audition formally for Hallam and two others from the troupe, British comic actors Mr. and Mrs. Allen. These stage-seasoned professionals caused Durang the only case of stage jitters he reported in his Memoir: “A kind of fright seized me and weaken’d my better strength, which will always be the situation of a novice on his first examination, especially when before such sterling old actors.” Hallam fiddled the “College Hornpipe” for Durang’s performance, but the youngster could only dance “a few steps” before stage fright seized him. Yet Hallam encouraged the boy to perform that very night, and Mrs. Allen advised Durang on his costume and to “finish every step beating time.” Durang’s sister, called Catharine or Caroline, also joined the troupe at about this time, primarily as a singer. A contemporary called Catharine “a Vocalist of ability.” The first playbill located that lists a “Hornpipe,” usually an interlude entertainment, was in the Pennsylvania Packet on 28 February 1785, advertising the 1 March performance. It is likely that Durang made his début, in the very hornpipe he had tripped over at his audition, on or close to that date.
Durang’s Memoir describes his debut costume, “in character of a sailor, a dark blue round about full of plated buttons, paticoat trousers made with 6 yeards of fine linen, black satin small clothes underneath, white silk stockings, a light shoe with a handsome set buckle, a red westcoat, a blue silk handkerchief; my hair curled and black, a small round hat gold laced with a blue ribband, a small rattan.” The young man must have spent much of his Boston earnings on clothes. They served his theatrical confidence and ingenuity: “With anxiety I waited the result of the night. The theatre on this occasion was crowded to see a fellow townsman make his first appearance on any stage. I had contrived a trample [springboard] behind the wing to enable me to gain the center of the stage in one spring. When the curtain rose, the cry was, ‘Sit down, hats off!’ With the swiftness of Mercury I stood before them, with a general huzza, and dancet in busts of applause. When I went off the stage, I was encored. They made such a noise, throwing a bottle in orchestre, apple, &c. on the stage, at last the curtain was raised again and I dancet a second time to the general satisfaction of the audience and managers, and gained my point.” The cries to “sit down” were likely meant for audience members blocking the stage view, not for Durang. He was a success! Years later, John Durang’s son Charles remarked that John was “always received with applause,” in part, because of John’s “being a native citizen.” Nearly every playbill for this Philadelphia season specifies an entr’acte hornpipe, a likely sign that Durang had secured a spot for himself on Hallam’s stage. John Durang was surely involved in the dance and pantomime portions of the season. He states that he appeared in his first harlequinade this season, playing Scaramouche to Hallam’s Harlequin in Charles Dibdin’s Harlequin Touchstone.
After describing his début night, Durang recollected the “fancy dance” he performed with the OAC “in the costume of the celebrated dancer Vestry, in England.” Dressed in colored silk with trims, lace, and ribbons, Durang performed in imitation of the young Auguste Vestris (1760-1842)—then a huge ballet sensation in Paris, London, and elsewhere.
In Durang’s sparse exposures to theatrical dancing, he would have seen little ballet, although surely whatever he did manage to observe he absorbed quickly. News and prints of Vestris’s dancing circulated throughout Europe and British North America; Durang’s self-portrait in the Vestris “pas seul” shows sufficient similarity to a well-known Vestris portrait to suggest that Durang knew that image.
A year performing with the OAC in New York, from August 1785 through July 1786, gave Durang the opportunity to learn new repertory. A “hornpipe,” probably by John Durang, was performed as interlude entertainment through much of the season, along with an “alamande,” “a comic dance, called La Fricasee,” and “a Grotesque Necromantic Dance,” in which Durang probably participated. He played in a number of harlequinades and pantomimes, and had bit roles in plays. Catharine, called “Miss Durang,” played roles such as Columbine in harlequinades and Bianca in Catherine and Petruchio.
In New York, Durang lodged with Mrs. Fortune, a widow whose boarding house across from the theatre was popular with performers. In his off-time from the theatre, Durang studied dancing, although he does not name his master, and painting with the theatre’s scenic artist, Mr. Snyder.
Durang spent much time improving his musical skills, studying “German flute,” octave flute (piccolo), flageolet, and French horn. He made a Pan’s pipe, which he played while dancing in Shakespeare’s Jubilee, where “the novelty had a pleasing effect.”
Violin lessons also occupied Durang in New York, where he studied with “Mr. Hoffmaster, a dwarf, a man about 3 foot, large head, hands and feet; his wife of the same statue.” Hoffmaster composed “expressly for me,” John writes, “Durang’s Hornpipe.”
Listen to John Durang’s Hornpipe played by violinist Christopher Brooks! Just click “play” below:
Durang was able to present his own choreography in OAC bills, to music written just for him.
Mr. Hoffmaster may also have inspired Durang’s “Dwarf Dance,” first advertised on 13 July 1786, apparently somehow inserted into the last act of As You Like It.
This transformation dance, in which Durang went “from a man of 3 foot to a woman of 6 foot,” initially caused Durang to fall against the stage-front spikes; the “turban” he wore as the dwarf obscured his vision, and he lost his bearings and fell. His father’s medical skills probably helped him recover while he was “laid up two months” from his leg wound. He then reworked the choreography to eliminate further danger.
Durang’s industry and studies while in New York, he wrote, “confined me most constant to my room; it keep me a stranger to company, and saved me a sum of money, and enabled me to send eighty French crown on to my father in Philadelphia, and enough left in my trunk to supply my wants.” Still, the seventeen-year-old spent his fair share on “foppish” dress, and found time for fishing, hunting, and ice skating in the city’s rural surroundings. Durang returned to his father’s home after his New York season “full of health and spirits, and very much improved.”