After his Boston, Philadelphia, and New York stage experiences, John Durang was ready to produce his own theatre – of sorts. Apparently, his room in his parents’ home was a perfect staging ground for him; it “had the appearance of a museum decorated with a great collection of paintings, a variety of instruments of music, swords and fencing foils, fowling pieces, pistols, fishing tackles, birds and squirel in cages.” His bed curtains, like those on a stage, could “festoon up or lower by a single coard,” and he had a camera obscura—probably inspired by the magic llantern shows he had seen and performed.
Amid this theatrical paraphernalia, Durang “began to make a company of wooden actors” to entertain his friends. The puppets were about two feet tall, constructed of wood and papier maché as perfectly proportioned male and female characters “with correct changes of characteristic dresses,” according to Jacob Durang’s helpful instructions. Durang’s friends urged him to make the show public. To do so, John and Jacob Durang had “to clear away all the partitions of the second story of his house”—a major renovation that suggests the father’s confidence in his son’s “theatre in miniture.”
John recalls: “I erected a stage of twelve foot square with appropriate scenery, a curtain, with frontispiece, and stage doors, stage lamps, and chandeliers, the stage raised two foot, with an orchestre in front. The band consisted of 6 musicians; a harp was one. The seats where theatrical arranged. . . . The ceiling of the 3d story over the stage was cut away to have a quick communication with the upper floor for a thunder loaft and to hoist my flats strait up and down.” Sister Catharine assisted her brother, along with “several young men of some talent,” probably including Charles Busselot, soon to be husband of Catharine Durang, whose theatrical-machinery expertise was valuable in such an enterprise.
The puppet-theatre bills included the opera The Poor Soldier; pantomimes and ballets, including in an “antique” dwarf dance with eight real-life children; and machine shows, including The Magic Chamber; or, Les Grande Ombres Chinoises. The house, at 2nd St. near Pine, was full every night during this fall 1786 run, at fifty cents a seat. Durang was manager, theatre-builder, scenery-rigger, lighting designer, and performer.
No newspaper record of Durang’s bills has been found, perhaps due to persistent anti-theatre laws. The semi-private nature of the productions and the focus on puppets rather than live performers may have allowed Durang to evade the attention of authorities. The Old American Company’s (OAC) Mr. Hallam came through town during Durang’s puppet theatre run, and made “flattering” remarks to the youth on his venture. In April 1787, according to Charles Durang, the puppet show moved to “the southwest corner of South and Front Streets,” perhaps to accommodate larger audiences.
Durang also played a small but visible role in the Federal Procession at Philadelphia celebrating the ratification of the United States Constitution. Durang proudly recalled, “I was in the pageant of the first grand federal procession in celebration of the ever memorable 4th of July 1776 in the character of Mercury, on the printer’s press. Mrs. Beach [Bache], Dr. Franklin’s daughter, made the dress, cap, and wings for me. Dr. Franklin was in the room at the time she fit the cap on my head. The dress was flesh couler, the cap and sash blue, the wings of feathers.”
The aged Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia’s leading statesman, had returned from his years of diplomacy abroad to encourage the constitutional process, undertaken in the summer of 1787. The ratification period was long, tense, and uncertain. Pennsylvania ratified the Constitution early (December 1787), and as each state ratified over the next months, local celebrations became increasingly elaborate. Anticipating that, by the Fourth of July 1788, nine states would have ratified — thus allowing adoption of the Constitution — Judge Francis Hopkinson of Philadelphia led the planning for a civic celebration of that hoped-for outcome. The Constitution’s adoption was secured when New Hampshire ratified it on 21 June 1788. In Philadelphia, the trades participated in the committee planning the celebration, and Franklin’s grandson, printer Benjamin Franklin Bache, was a key publicist for the event.
Charles Willson Peale was the event’s design genius. Church bells rang, ships’ flags waved, military units and public officials marched, the professions and artisans joined the ranks, and clergymen of every creed assembled, forming a procession 5000 strong. The ten ratifying states were represented by spokesmen and by ships in the harbor. Floats, banners, and insignia symbolically linked independence and federalism, freedom and plenty, immigration and union. Philadelphia composer Alexander Reinagle wrote a tune to mark the occasion, and the OAC presented a grand occasional piece, The Fourth of July; or, The Sailor’s Festival. The printers’ position in the procession, by lottery, fell in the middle of the tradesmen’s march. Their float included a compositor printing and tossing to the crowd copies of an ode to freedom and unity, written by Hopkinson. Copies of the ode were tied to pigeon’s legs, and these birds John Durang released to the crowd as he posed on the float as messenger to the gods. Judge Hopkinson wrote that Durang played “the character of Mercury, in a white dress, ornamented with red ribbands, and having real wings affixed to his head and feet, and a garland of flowers round his temples.”
Durang undertook other independent ventures. He managed several summer theatres in the course of his life. The earliest of these was a summer garden run by “Mr. Easterly,” which Durang locates just north of Philadelphia’s city limits. Durang and brother-in-law Charles Busselot also converted a warehouse on Front St. in the city’s Northern Liberties into a theatre “in the winter,” but which year is unclear. During November 1789, Durang shared in several evenings at a theatre called Harmony Hall in the Northern Liberties district.
The legalization of theatre in Philadelphia, in March 1789, may have prompted the Harmony Hall venture. Durang and Busselot turned a boat warehouse into a theatre, made all the scenery, procured costumes, “purchased a usefull dramatic library,” and hired a band of musicians. Durang called the players for this season “The Northern Liberty Company,” including his sister and players who were later part of the “K company,” the OAC, or other more minor theatrical groups playing in Philadelphia. The troupe’s light fare included displaying a “Horse of Knowledge” and the plays The Beaux’ Strategem (Farquhar), The Wapping Landlady; or, Jack in Distress (Dibdin) and The Devil Upon Two Sticks (LeSage, Legé), in which the Devil was played by “A Gentleman from London who will eat real red-hot fire and blue flaming Brimstone matches, and show some other Devilish Tricks.” Durang unveiled his “Hornpipe on 13 Eggs, blindfolded, without breaking one.”
George Esterly’s summer garden in 1791 was at Harrowgate near Frankford, outside the Philadelphia city line. A park sprang up around Harrowgate’s medicinal springs, offering relief from Philadelphia’s hot summers. Durang recalled it as “a novel amusement” in Philadelphia:
The entertainment was miscellaneous, the machinery and paintings done by myself. The extent of the garden was several acres of ground. With in the inclosure was a bathhouse, a fishpond, circular, runing round a small island on which stood a Chinese temple, an elegand constructed bridge leading to it over the pond, with a wast number of different discription of fish, a shower bath and a plunging bath, situated near a long range of forest of trees shading the lower part of the garden and baths, neat gravel walks in every direction, emballish’d by dwarf fruit trees of every discription, and chequered with elegant taste constructed summer houses. … A seperate building to hold private balls and occasionelly dinner or supper parties, elegantly furnished.
Musicians played at both the theatre and the dining areas: “The orchestre was placed in the large prominade, being the avenue to the small walks; in a square near it was the stage. … In the evening I had the garden fancifully illuminated in all direction with variegated lamps and transparencies at the end of each walk. … When my performance commenced, hundreds of spectators would visit the garden.”
Early eighteenth-century English pleasure gardens, such as the Vauxhall in Lambeth, were fantasylands of natural and exotic design, dance halls, and culinary delights.
This summer, Durang débuted his acrobatic skills on the rope, dancing in character of Harlequin; playing violin, pan pipe, and drum on the wire; and performing a “grotesque Pantomime Dance called Fandango al Frisco.” His character study on the slack rope featured Durang in a range of “Comic Attitudes,” including Flying Dragon, Skinning the Wild Cat, Topsy-turvey, Skinning the Eel, Sleeping, and Mermaid.
In summer 1792, the Vauxhall at Harrowgate repeated similar fare. Durang’s specialties were wire dancing, the hornpipe, the Dwarf Dance, and a harlequinade.