During and after the American Revolution, another war was waged on American soil—for or against “vain sports and pastime” such as theatre and dance. As scholar Kenneth Silverman put it, “Of the four major kinds of artistic activity [painting, music, literature, and theatre] in the North American colonies, the professional theatre was the least developed and the least desired…. In Quaker Philadelphia the theatre survived in a climate of scorn.”
Puritans, Quakers, and Presbyterians powerfully objected to the dissipation and immorality they saw depicted in plays and farces. William Penn’s founding Great Law of Pennsylvania stipulated fines and imprisonment for plays and revels. While friends of the theatre argued for these “Innocent Sports and Diversions,” anti-theatre legislation spearheaded by Quakers passed repeatedly, indicating not only ongoing opposition to such performances, but also that they continued nonetheless. The earliest evidence of such performances dates from 1724, when rope dancing was advertised at a theatre on Society Hill.
Sporadically, other theatre events followed — puppet shows, “Magick Lanthorns,” and traveling acting troupes.
As the non-Quaker population in Philadelphia grew, so did sentiment toward “gentility” and “refinement.” The wealthy Anglican community, seeking something of the social and cultural whirl of England, built elegant mansions, employed dancing masters, and gave balls. By 1748, they organized a Dancing Assembly, counting among its subscribers some of the same gentlemen who, as legislators, voted against plays. In the mid-1750s, the London Company of Comedians, headed by Lewis Hallam, Sr., appeared in Philadelphia after touring Virginia, Maryland, and New York. Hallam knew he would have to “face the batteries of the broad-brimmed and square-toe-shoed Quakers;” his application to perform stimulated a letter-writing battle in the newspapers. To win over the public, the actors opened with charity benefits in April 1754, performing works with clear moral lessons, such as The Gamester by Edward Moore.
The next important theatrical season in Philadelphia occurred 1759, when a reorganized group of Hallam’s London Company again faced petitions and protest letters, but also found supporters. By 1763, David Douglass, then managing the company, had shrewdly changed the troupe’s name to the American Company, although in personnel, repertoire, and production it was all British. The name change failed to endear the players to their Philadelphia opponents. Yet sentiments expressed in some dramatic works, such as the morally unwavering Cato and the “Whiggish” Roman Father, were seen by colonists to express liberty and a new patriotism. Some protest leaders used theatre as a political weapon, while others viewed all theatre as a remnant of morally enfeebled British culture. In 1766, a gang of “Sons of Liberty” attacked a New York theatre where Douglass’s company was playing, expelling the crowd and destroying the building. In response, the actors not only became the “American Company,” but Douglass also presented songs and speeches extolling “liberty.”
Once hostilities between Britain and the colonies erupted, some American propagandists wrote revolutionary plays with such titles as The Defeat (Mercy Otis Warren), The Fall of British Tyranny; or, American liberty triumphant (John Leacock), and The Battle of Bunker’s-Hill (Hugh Henry Brackenridge). Yet the Continental Congress ruled against theatre as early as October 1774, when it resolved to “discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation,” including plays.
Having assessed the situation in the emerging American nation during the War of Independence, Douglass removed the American Company to Jamaica. Occasional lone professionals such as Mr. Templeman [or Templeton], a slack-wire dancer, appeared as meteors to the theatre-starved public.
Of this performer’s season in February and March 1780, Durang wrote, “The first wire dancer I ever saw was one Templeman who was most compleat in the art. He performed in the old Theatre South Street; the house was crowded every night.”
Civic events, such as that planned by Charles Willson Peale for January 1784 celebrating the Treaty of Paris (signed 4 December 1783), were permitted. This celebration left its mark on John Durang, who recalled the city’s illuminations, transparencies, decorations, and fireworks.
At least Philadelphia had some theatre history—troubled though it was; Boston had almost none, beyond the military theatricals produced by British officers before and during the War of Independence, to the moral outrage of the town’s citizens. Puritans, associating theatre with their great enemy, Catholicism, outdid Quakers in opposing theatre. Boston was a rough and riotous city, although some genteel diversions—musical concerts, an occasional ball, a few puppet shows, and several dancing masters—enlivened the eighteenth-century town. But even public reading of a play raised suspicions in Boston. The city was so destitute of theatre that Bostonians traveling elsewhere, like lawyer-patriot Josiah Quincy in 1773, were overwhelmed by their theatrical encounters. Quincy saw the American Company in New York and wrote that he was “much gratified upon the whole, and I believe if I had staid in town a month I should go to the theatre every acting night.” Of course, he went on, “as a citizen and friend to the morals and happiness of society, I should strive hard against the admission, and much more the establishment of a play-house of [sic] any state of which I was a member.” Major political events, such as the birth of the Dauphin and the surrender of Cornwallis, occasioned public celebrations, but nearly ten years would pass after the defeat of the British before Massachusetts would legalize theatre.