Soon after he joined the Chestnut Street company, Durang accepted summer employment with a Mr. Broomly and an unnamed wire dancer in Lancaster (c. 1801). Durang experienced the heavy labor of touring, which he had known with Ricketts on the Canadian adventure. Again, he performed, handled scene design, staging, and other labors, and even did an entire show solo when the wire dancer “feigned” illness. Durang left that season earlier than anticipated, but he then performed on his own in Harrisburg.
It may have been this year that Durang recalled in his Memoir: “From Lancaster I took my small company on to Harrisburg. I converted the store house of Colonel Brook near the ferry into a theatre. I constructed boxes and a gallery; my stage was compleatly theatrical, 12 foot front and fifteen deep, five wings of a side, with stage doors, frontispiece, and green curtain. We had crowded houses every night at 50 cents for the box and 25 for the galary and very little expense.” It was a stylish show, to please both the manager and the audiences.
This experience, together with his earlier summer-theatre and circus work, surely informed Durang of the ingredients for a successful tour of the hinterlands. Durang had been born and raised in this territory, was now experienced in theatre management, and had a substantial repertory under his belt. He and his performer-wife Mary put their six children onto the stage: thus their troupe was born.
In summer 1802, advertisements appear for “Mr. Durang and Company.” In his Memoir, Durang writes, “I painted a set of scenery and drapery for a small stage of theatrical performance, and formed a company composed of my own family, with my brother, and we set out for Lancaster and performed at Mr. Rohrer’s ball room with great success.” Lancaster was an important inland town, having served as state capitol for some time, and the scene of an active musical life with concerts, opera, and bands. A few earlier notices of performers in Lancaster include rope-dancer Mr. Donegani (1789), the McGrath troupe from Virginia and Maryland (1791), and a contingent of the Old American Company (1792). In July 1802, Durang and ventriloquist Mr. Rannie performed a show featuring magic, tumbling, and animal imitations along with theatrical fare such as The Valiant Soldier; or, The Egyptian Robber and the farce The Ancient Maid; or, the Lovers of Old. Whether the Durang family filled out the “company” is not stated. Durang advertised his display of the latest dances from Europe and America, which he promised would “prove a lesson of amusement.”
In late August 1802, “Mr. Durang, Dancing Master, from the New Theatre, Philadelphia” advertised a one-week visit to Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Durang’s notices thank local citizens for past patronage, despite “the disadvantages” he admits to laboring under earlier for “want of assistance” but no documentation of an earlier visit by Durang to Carlisle has been found. As in Lancaster, he promised to display the proper social dances, which suggests that he also gave dancing lessons, although these are not advertised. His ambitious program featured works mostly from his OAC years, including a Shakespeare play, various dances, a ballet, a musical scene, and a harlequinade. Durang probably performed at Heigle’s tavern, Sign of the Black Bear, on Hanover and Louther Streets.
He may have performed elsewhere that summer, including Harrisburg and Lebanon, although records are not found. Durang wrote that his good reception in Harrisburg spread to Lebanon, where the missionary reverend Mr. Stover permitted the troupe to perform in his house. Durang left “the towns people well gratified with the invitation to visit them again.” His success among the “Manistes, or Dunkerds” he attributed to the fact that “I spoke the words of the characters I performed in German, and sometimes I would introduce a German song together with dancing, ballette, pantomimes, feats on the rope and wire, transparencies, shipfights, &c. I pleased them very much and paid me well for my trouble.”
Durang studied “the tastes and manners” of his audience to “gain their patronage.” Another tactic he wrote about was “to gain the attention of the leading people of the place to visit me and that secured the other classes of people to follow, and assured me success. Accordingly I selected and arranged my bill affair to suit their taste, and I never failed in my object. The whole fabric of my scheme was build on the foundation of my own private conduct, to make myself to be respected by the rich and poor.” Durang overcame the moral, social, or religious scruples among these populations by demonstrating his own high standards and consummate early American values: “I observed a reserve of industry and sobriety, a compliant address conformed with the manners and rules of the family I lived with and inhabitants, found no fault, tho’ it sometimes was not so good as I had been accustomed too. I pay’d my way, I secured the love and commerce of the people who where always glad to see me again with a cheering welcome.”
From Lebanon, Durang “hired a country wagon to take on my baggage to the town of Reading” where, as he explained, he made himself comfortable with two of the town’s leading citizens, lawyers John Spayd and Charles Evans. Durang performed at the long room of Mrs. Wood’s General Washington Inn.
From this initial summer trial of the family-tour plan, Durang developed a regular annual circuit: “At the intervals of my employment at the theatre and dancing academy, I put into operation the extension of my theatrical summer scheme, and bring it to a regular symtum [system?]. I selected and provided myself with a library of such dramatic plays which I knew would please best in the country, of tragedys, comedys, farces, and operas.” For these rustic audiences in the heat of the summer, Durang wisely “curtail’d them [the works], but still preserved as much as possible the plot and incidents compactly within the compass to be performed by two arrangements, that is by a company of one lady and three gentlemen, or two ladies and five gentlemen.” Durang, becoming arranger and director, prudently “prepared for an alternative, to make an additional arrangement in calculation of depending on myself and family alone, not to be left in the lurch” should other performers prove unreliable.
While depending on himself and family, he did hire other professionals to fill out casts, which on occasion proved a hardship, as he noted: “the caprice of some actors are such as you cannot calculate to a certainty; their affability on the commencement of their engagement has the sincere appearance of reliance, but as soon as they are in possession of money, a consequent dignity will arise and so alter their manner and conduct as to cause the business to be done in a careless lazy way, and take on themselves the assurance to dictate the manager’s business and make objections, especially some woman actresses whose ambition soars above their ability.”
One actress particularly infuriated Durang: “The most vain and mischievous artfull woman who assumed the name of actress was Mrs. Blissett!!! a name she has disgraced. An unexperienced manager who takes such actors on his first trial will not be able to take them to one or two towns before a revolt takes place…. I know it from experience and would have several times been left in great difficulties, but for my own inventions and ingenious provisional preparations against such storms.”
Mrs. Blissett was the unhappy baggage who came along with Chestnut-Street actor Francis Blissett, whom Charles Durang described as a “miniature gem of comedy.” Charles recalled: “In our professional tours through Pennsylvania, during the summer vacation of the Chesnut street company, like the Peripatetics of Athens, we often wandered out in the woody dells and fields with Blissett, whereby we gathered instruction as we walked. He was a true philosopher, or, like another Doctor Syntax, he searched for the picturesque in the romantic valleys of the Susquehanna, or on the tops of the Blue Ridge. Here we have drank in his instructive relations, laughed at his racy anecdotes, and received dramatic instruction from his well-stored mind.” During these tours, Blissett also taught the children violin and helped other actors with enunciation. The summer tours were work, leisure, and school, all in one, Charles wrote: “While out on one of these professional summer jaunts, Blissett would study, and elaborately analyze some character of comedy that he was desirous to play in the regular winter theatres, but had been fearful, from his constitutional timidity, of not fitting the part to his preconceived notions of its true characteristics. He would thus act them in the country, by way of a rehearsal, as he termed it, in order to become familiar and easy in the representation…. Blissett drew from nature. He ever selected some marked original in society, whereon to found his stage creation.”
But what of the dreaded Mrs. Blissett? Her few appearances at the Chestnut Street Theatre were primarily in 1814-15, also the period that Durang lists the Blissetts for his troupe. Perhaps her low status in the big company spurred her ambitions in Durang’s small one.
Durang next refers to his summer touring in 1804. The troupe opened in Annapolis and then moved to Baltimore where, Durang wrote, “After the close of the Baltimore season Mr. Layman of the Columbia Garden engaged me at a salary of fifty dollars a week and a clear benefit. We gave a miscellaneous entertainment under the head of “Concert” twice a week. I constructed a stage with a cover and dressing rooms underneath, an orchestra in the front, a curtain with the decorations of scenery; a circus ring was formed between the stage and the boxes, an elevated gallery.” His tours with Ricketts gave him experience in designing and erecting temporary theatres for stage and ring acts and his earlier seasons at Esterly’s “Vauxhall” in Philadelphia served him here as well.
Leaman’s Columbia Garden had charming grounds, illuminations, snacks, liquor, and entertainment. Durang and troupe performed 3 nights a week from July through September 1804. After a rough opening, when the musicians’ late arrival spurred the crowd to demolish the stage, Leaman published an apology promising “in future, to make it his study to have the arrangements of the garden conducted with more regularity.” The plan worked and Durang did well financially. His troupe included “Mr. Degraf,” whom he had worked with after Ricketts left the United States, and his brother, probably Jacob Durang, Jr., who lived in Baltimore as an umbrella-maker. Durang’s shows at Leaman’s followed the circus format: “I introduced horsmanship in the ring by Mr. Degraf and myself. Mr. Hupfield was the leader of the orchestra. Singing by Mrs. Coffea. For the ballette and pantomime was my brother, Mr. Mestayers, Mr. Roach, Miss Mullin, myself and sons.” In late July, the Durang troupe shared the stage with the Osage Indians, and in mid August, Manfredi’s acrobats were featured.
Durang performed again at Leaman’s Garden in 1805 and would likely have continued annually, except “Mrs. Layman assumed the rein of management so I quit the garden.” Instead, Durang played at Baltimore’s lovely Pantheon for two weeks in 1806: “The city springs are attach’d in the front. This is an ornamentel beauty of Baltimore; the water is celebrious and conducive to health, and situated in the elegant street and fashionable prominade leading to Howard’s Park within the space of Washington’s monument.”
In 1808, Durang undertook annual summer tours as an independent manager, choosing his own troupe and works: “My second excursion in the country I made my company with (beside my own family) Miss Mullin, Mr. Goodwin, and Mr. Loaft, a musician; he was an English man, and it was with difficulty that I could keep him sober enough to play.” The Durang family was composed of John and Mary, sons Charles (seventeen years old), Ferdinand (thirteen), and Augustus (nine), and daughters Charlotte (five), Catharine Juliet (three), and baby Mary Ann.
The Durang troupe’s 1808 itinerary is not entirely clear, but the possible route begins in Lancaster, at “Mr. Roarer’s [Rohrer] ball room,” and might have included York, Reading, Harrisburg, Carlisle, Fredericktown [Frederick, Maryland], and Hanover. For the German-speaking population of Hanover, Durang had a special treat: “In one of my journeys to Baltimore, I traveled on at the slow pace on horse back with the part of Richard the Third in my hand most constant, studying the character with a determination to play the part in the German language in some of the German settlements. I had nearly compleated my study when I arrived at Baltimore. I play’d the part of Richard 3d and Petruchio, the greatest part in German, in Hanover; I always gave the cues in English.” Durang far preceded the next known Pennsylvania German translator of Shakespeare—Edward Henry Rausch, in the 1870s. Richard in German was successful, and Durang presented it in later years, as a York playbill from 1813 records: the troupe gave Richard the 3d — Der Falsche Koenig, with Durang as Richard.
The “stagey” nature and bold characterizations in Richard III, particularly in the Colley Cibber version (or “mutilation,” as one commentator called it), made it the most frequently performed of Shakespeare’s plays in early America. Durang had played bit parts in this work, but now he had the chance to exercise his full imagination in the lead, as he did also in the swaggering role of Petruchio in an adaptation of Taming of the Shrew.
When he played Lancaster, Durang advertised himself as “Mr. Durang, of the new Theatre Philadelphia, and a native of Lancaster,” embracing his hometown and big-city status. The notice includes little detail about the program, promising “the particulars [to be] explained in the handbill.” One of the works presented there was “An entertainment got up for the occasion, entitled, Harvest Frolic. A Burletta, Dialogue, Pantomime, and German story, on the poetical epistle called Stoffle Rilps und Annalis, or Seu Shwam Wedding.” The lyrics for Stoffle [Christopher] Rilps had been published in the Lancaster Journal on 6 June 1801, a few days after it was written in “Seu Schwam,” a name for the neighboring town of New Holland. It must have been during his summer 1801 visit to Lancaster under Broomly that Durang spotted this text in the local newspaper, for he immediately used it in his performances that year at Harrisburg.
Durang worked the text into a musical entertainment with dance, song, and dialogue, which he also played at a benefit show at Baltimore’s Columbia Garden in summer 1804. It was a funny number, as these excerpts from the text reveal:
Dose lofeing lines I here haf pend;
Mit all mine heart I hand you dis-
‘Bout fashions dings unt all I send.
Wen lasht upon de down I be,
I sees de womens small unt big,
Mit gurtain’s dat de cannot see;
Und Schneider’s Katy wears a wig. …
Und Anna Lis you shtink so sweet,
You is all over vite und ret:
You wears no glances on your feet,
Nor huddlewish upon your het.
Hensy marries Eafa grate,
Und Lisbet has got too a man;
Now mine lofe gum unt pe not blate,
Und make mine vife so soon you gan. …
To this, Anna Lis replied, in part:
I say von ding now Stoffle Rilb[b]s,
For wen you go upon de down,
For vat you dinks on ladies’ silks,
Und shanks a look pelow her gown.
Mit schtraw unt rippons on dere het,
For vat you poaks your nose pefore;
Oh! Anna Lis is not so blate,
De vite unt ret schpots come no more….
But Gutlip says you wish to zee
Dere flouncing rippons tuck’d pefore;
Oh! Stoffle wish such dings for me,
Unt Lis shall ax for nodding more….
In addition to works in German or dialect, Durang also presented audiences with comedies, songs, dances, ballets, pantomimes, machinery shows, and transparencies. Children, popular in this era as entertainers, helped to make the Durang family shows even more appealing; For example, the twelve-year-old Augustus sang the humorous “Thimble’s Wife” during one tour to York in 1811.
The tours Durang undertook at the start of the nineteenth century meant moving wagons full of people and performance baggage on long overland journeys. Fortunately, the thousands of miles of paved roadways laid from 1790 made such travel from cities to outlying towns possible.
The Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike, completed about 1796, allowed a stagecoach to travel one way in twelve hours. Other turnpikes followed, linking Philadelphia to York, and moving beyond Lancaster to Pittsburgh via Harrisburg, Carlisle, Shippensburg, and Chambersburg. A toll road from Baltimore to Frederick and Hagerstown was developed after 1787. Thus was the way literally paved for the Durang troupe’s summer itineraries. Still, some routes were rugged; in 1812, for example, the wagons were upset crossing a brook between Hanover and Frederick, forcing Durang to return to Hanover and wait for repairs. He used the time to perform there an additional week.
Durang included in his Memoir a record of his earnings for some of his years on tour:
|Frederick, Md., Stalling’s Inn||$289.95||unlisted|
|Hagerstown, Md., Smith’s coffeehouse||$390.51||$220.29|
|Chambersburg, Colonel Snyder’s||$382.64||$187.75|
|Lancaster, Pa., Rohrer’s Inn||$286.64||$71.75|
|Hanover, Peter Eckert’s||$98.61||$12.00|
Durang typically paid to store his performance baggage in Hanover until the next summer’s tour. He would pass through Hanover on his way from the Baltimore spring season to pick up his goods, and he often then opened the tour in Lancaster.
Although his itinerary varied a bit from year to year, Durang and troupe became known in several Maryland and Pennsylvania towns, where they performed regularly. Their shows were typically held at the public room of an inn. Durang developed his management skills: “My plan was to have all the pieces I ment to play in the season studied in the first town and got up with as much correctness as possible, for I well knew that the performers would not study after they once was in pocession of money in a nother town, for I have found them so. Therefore I made my arrangements in the commencement and made a selection for seven or eight nights, the bill affair of each night new, after the first town. I always mentioned the number of nights at the top of my bill; by that means I had the house fill’d every night and could play every night in succession and then off to the next place. And that was the only way to save myself and to make anything, tho’ the labour was great.”
Several actors toured repeatedly with Durang, but others proved disappointing, as was the case with Mrs. Blissett, mentioned earlier, and Mr. Cross, of Edinburgh, who had been with the Chestnut Street Theatre since 1806 as singer, pantomimist, and actor, and whom Durang hired for his 1810 summer tour. This “fine, athletic looking man” showed great early promise, but according to Charles Durang, “from an idle and vicious propensity to low gratification, he soon rendered those services and his professional talents nugatory to his employers and himself.”
Some of the works presented required a band, such as the 1810 production of Tobin’s Honey Moon; or, a School for Matrimony, with “a Rural Dance.” The music listed for the Lancaster show included clarinet, cymbals, triangles, drum, tambourine, violins, and bass viol – some of these players probably hired locally.
It was in Harrisburg in 1812 that Durang and family suffered the grievous loss of Mary Durang, in the course of the Harrisburg summer run. He wrote in his Day Book: “On account of the indisposition of my wife, I closed after a few nights and waited with heart heavy […] to take Mrs. Durang from this world to a better world.” She had been suffering for two years from tuberculosis. Durang’s sorrow is palpable: “It was the Almighty’s will to draw a vail of moarning on myself and family at this time in Harrisburg. I must speak in the highest terms of the ladies and gentlemen and citizen in general of Harrisburg. They have my heart’s thanks for the politeness which they have done me on this occasion. It is a just due to them to say they are a [sic] religious, humane, charitable, and of brotherly love, in particular to strangers.” Mary was buried in Harrisburg, and although the grave has been moved, it can still be visited there.
On the stone is written: “Sacred To the Memory of Mary Durang Wife of John Durang (resident of Philadelphia) She died Sept. [blurred] 1812 Aged [blurred] In her was combined the domestic and affectionate wife, the tender Mother and sincere friend.” Durang, age forty-four, was a widower, his youngest child just four years old.
Yet, the following summer, 1813, Durang was back on tour with his family members and two other actors, Mrs. Jacobs and Mr. Carroll. A notice for this season at York reveals how Durang deployed his small company to present varied bills during these summer tours. The evening opened with the Harvest Frolic, a version of Stoffle Rilbs and Annalis. Durang played Stoffle, Charles undertook the roles of the Barber and Hensey, Ferdinand was Yawkup Isenbry, Jane Petit Durang (Ferdinand’s wife) was Efa Grate, Mr. Carroll played Barbara Rilbs (“an old woman”), and Mrs. Jacobs was Annalis. Richard the 3d, Der Falsche Koenig, was played in two acts with reduced characters: John played Richard, Ferdinand was Henry, Carroll played minor roles (lieutenant, officer), and Mrs. Jacobs was Lady Anne. “A Grand Emblematical Transparent Painting, In honor of those lamented Heroes, who fell in our Sea engagements,” was accompanied by Ferdinand and company singing “Our Rights on the Ocean.” John danced a hornpipe, Charlotte did a broad sword hornpipe, and the company danced “King Lilliput,” a version of the “Dwarf Dance.” The interlude acts ended with John singing the lead in “The Dutch Fisherman,” and the last piece was the two-act farce Raising the Wind (Kenney), with John as Didler, Ferdinand as Plainway, Charles as Rainwood, Augustus as Sam, Mrs. Jacobs as Peggy Plainway, and Jane Petit Durang as Miss Durable. Tickets cost fifty cents for a box seat and twenty-five cents for the gallery, children half price.
The 1814 summer season proved personally significant for the Durangs. Aside from his family, he gathered a sizable troupe including Mr. and Mrs. Blissett, Mr. Caulfield, Miss White, Mr. Sheneman, and Mr. G. and Ed Cole. Caulfield was a fine actor with whom Charles also served in the War of 1812. Mary White was born in Dublin in 1798, moved with her family to the United States when she was young, and trained under the fine English-born actor James Fennell. She “possessed personal and mental qualities of a fine order,” wrote Charles, who was so taken with her that they married during a later tour. The Cole family, not much mentioned in theatre sources of the peirod, soon played a special role in Durang’s life. After opening the tour in Lancaster toward the end of June, a marriage took place at Lancaster’s First Reformed Church, joining “John Durang, wid.” of Philadelphia, and “Elizabeth Kohl, wid.” of Baltimore on 2 July 1814. The Baltimore American on 9 July 1814 reported: “Durang, John, of Phila., … and Mrs. Elizabeth Cole of Balto. married in Lancaster by Rev. John Henry Hoffmier.” Was Elizabeth the “E. Cole” whom Durang took on his tour? Nothing more is known about Elizabeth Cole Durang, beyond John Durang naming her in his will (March 1817) as “Wife. Elizabeth Durang.”
Surprisingly, Durang does not mention his marriage in his Memoir. After six weeks in Lancaster, the troupe moved to Harrisburg and then to York, but by then Durang had lost the core of his company: “Charles and Ferdinand Durang and Geo. Cole entered as volunteers in Harrisburg, and march on to York and were encamped with 5 regiments on south side of Yorktown. From this the whole march’d to Baltimore to the battle of North Point,” part of the Battle of Baltimore on 12 September 1814. Durang wrote that “all the country towns were left desolate of men; most all had march’d to the seat of war. While the army lay in Yorktown, I assisted in making cartridges in the court house.” Durang planned his next theatrical move: “after the army had march off I plan a project to draw to gether what people was yet remaining. I gave an exhibition of fireworks in front of my theatre. It being entire noval in York, the rockets was such an astonishing sight and wonder that all the inhabitents assembled, old and young, rich and poor, and so much pleased at the fireworks that when the firework was done I lid up the theatre and it was crowded on the same evening.”
Performing in the summer, the troupe often contributed special July Fourth shows, such as the 1812 performance in Lancaster and 1815 in Harrisburg.
Of the latter event, Durang wrote: “Harrisburg celebrated the 4th of July in a manner I never witnesset before. It was all sociability and harmony, without distinction, rich and poor: the whole appeared independence, liberty, and equality. All march’d in social bands to a pleasent spot situate on a hill in a wood near the north end of the town, where a colation of all kind of refreshment were provided, with fix’d tables and benches, bars and store rooms, an appropriate canopy decorated with the ensign and banners of America elevated for the President and officers of the day. On the opposide the orchestra, the guests or rather the citizens sat in a circle devided by the canopy and orchestra. All the young gentlemen of the town who could perform on any instrument of music play’d.”
By 1816, the forty-eight-year-old Durang was “well weary of the business” of “country schemes.” (p. 137). His first stop, in Chambersburg’s Sign of the Eagle proved unpleasant, as Durang recollected: “they did not treat me and my family well enough for the money I paid them. Besides the house was resorted by gamblers and we were obliged to set at the same table with them. Besides they lamed one of my horses in the stable by cutting a deep hole in his shoulder. They refused me assistance to cure the horse or give any kind of satisfaction. He took the privilege of the bar of the theatre and admitted all his relations without the least recompence, but charged me well for every thing.” Moving lodgings, to Albright’s mill outside town was a happy choice: “we was very pleasently situated at $9 a week for the whole family.” Further comments reveal the players preparing the season, and also Durang at his leisure: “Our room was on the first floor fronting a large orchard where I past sometimes with my gun. We had a well stock’d dairy which the family had the privilege to take refreshments at their pleasure. Near the plantation is a delightfull woods in which the performers of my company would retire into, to study their parts. I myself pass’d many hour in this wood in study. Adjoining was a mill dam wherein are a variety of fish and ducks. In short it is the best place for sportsmen about Chambersburg, and we passed many an agreeable hour at this mill and plantation.” This idyllic setting may have prompted the romance between Charles Durang and Mary White, whose nuptials were held on 11 August 1816 at the Fall Spring Presbyterian Church. Mary retired from the stage soon after marriage but, while raising and educating her family of ten, she wrote several children’s books.
Later that season, in Frederick, Maryland, dissension in the troupe erupted for reasons Durang does not explain. He reports that a “refractory” crew of performers “proposed to give a concert at Mrs. Kimble’s and by that scheme to crush the contented part of the company and raise the town against me.” Durang was a step ahead, however; he had at hand that reduced version of all works played, should necessity arise: “as I always keep’d provided against such storms, I put out bills for two nights, which to their great astonishment they were not aware of. It was a double bill crowded with favorite entertainments and novalty such as I knew would draw and please…. I brought out The Attack on Fort McHenry [probably using transparencies] with the bombardment by the British fleet to crowded houses. The other party gave up the idea of their concert and left town.” But the incident took its toll: “here I took leave of all country schemes for the future. If I had always only confined myself to a small company of my own family we would have been more happy and better paid for our labour.”
His touring over, Durang undertook one more summer program in July 1817 at the Pavilion Garden, Baltimore. The summer’s diversions ended early, however: “1817, August 9th, The great fload occur’d in Baltimore. The excessive rain caused an overflow of the falls and all the waters and streams about and in Baltimore.” It was a “grand and awful spectacle” of the current sweeping buildings, trees, and animals down the falls. This was the final run for Durang and Company who had had the satisfaction of bringing theatre to populations rarely touched by regular dramatic entertainments. His extensive repertory, from Shakespeare in German to comic operas, from ballets to burlettas, had pleased audiences and provided a summer income for his family and other actors.