With his circus career at an end, Durang turned to Thomas Wignell, manager of the Chestnut Street Theatre. Wignell, a fine British comedian who had performed with the Old American Company at the same time that Durang had, became an independent manager early in 1792.
Wignell, with Philadelphia composer and musician Alexander Reinagle, envisioned a new theatre for a new nation:
“The new System of Government of the United States, having already had the most visible effects in promoting the general happiness and in extending and improving the Agriculture, Commerce, and Manufactures of the Country—it is natural, that the increasing Wealth, and importance of this great City deduced from these Principles and the present residence of that Government should require for its Citizens, and others resident therein, that its public places of Amusement should be put on a larger and more suitable Scale, than they yet have ever attained to, more especially as the present liberal spirit of the Legislature appears to be favorable to the advancement of the fine arts, and the promotion of a pure and correct taste therein; Consideration of this kind, together with a sincere wish to elevate the elegant pleasure of the Drama in the highest possible degree of Reputation, have induced Messeurs Wignell and Reinagle to unite in an undertaking for erecting a new Theatre.”
The New Theatre—sometimes called the Chestnut St. Theatre or the Philadelphia Theatre—was built on the north side of Chestnut St. at Sixth Street. It opened in 1794.
Durang approached his old acquaintance for a job with the New Theatre: “I thought myself sure of an engagement, but to my disappointment [Mr. Wignell] told me he could not give me one. I went away meditating whether it could be from prejudice that I did him an injury by performing with Ricketts, or some particular cause”— perhaps the intense rivalry between Wignell’s enterprise and Ricketts’ circus, with Durang, when their seasons overlapped. Durang needed a job: “I waited on him again and ask’d him if he had any objections agains’d my personel character or any other motive; he told me, in his usuel gentlemany manner, that he could not afford to give me the salary which I had been accustomed to receive lately of Mr. Ricketts.” Negotiations began. Wignell “frankly made me an offer which I excepted and immediately became a member of the Philadelphia company with the determination not to quit it to join any other theatre. I rely’d on my own conduct to make it a permanency.” Late in his career, Durang could look with satisfaction on his Chestnut St. career: “I have succeeded in my resolution in years of succession and speak with pride of this company. Its regulations are founded on good principle and respectebility, first established by Mr. Wignell, a worthy gentleman and man of honour.”
Durang joined the Chestnut Street Company at a low ebb in Philadelphia’s history. In 1799, the state capital had moved to Lancaster, and a year later, the national capital moved to Washington, D.C., withdrawing much excitement and energy. The “National Theatre,” also under Wignell and Reinagle, opened in the new capital, where Durang played in his first season with the troupe, summer 1800. Philadelphia still had a strong core of powerful families, and the city developed as a center for study and practice of law, medicine, art, and literature. Commerce flourished, the population of the city and suburbs continued, after some lull, to grow, and building moved westward toward the Schuylkill River. Although New York would surpass Philadelphia as a cultural and commercial center, Philadelphia’s literary and scientific associations, schools, libraries, civic associations, assemblies, and meeting places thrived. The Chestnut Street Theatre contributed to the city’s vibrancy.
Charles Durang praised the design of the Chestnut Street (or New) Theatre, which was based on the theatre at Bath, England. The handsome façade featured “figures of Tragedy and Comedy, (by Rush) on each side of the great Venetian window, over which, in two circular tablets, are emblematical insignia” and a row of Corinthian columns. The audience seating had galleries, pit, and boxes, each area with separate entries, accommodating 2000 viewers. The building was well decorated and elegant.
Actors’ quarters were “very comfortable in every particular,” with “numerous” dressing rooms, and two green rooms, one specified for rehearsals of the orchestra and dancing corps. The other green room was a place of “perfect etiquette.” The stage was 36’ wide by 71’ deep, probably raked, with drops or grooves for changing scenes, which were standard settings such as streets, offices, castles, woods, and so on. Adjustable oil lamps lit the action. The stage front was crowned with a figure representing “America encouraging the drama, under which were the words, ‘For useful mirth or salutary woe.’” Costuming styles, periods, and materials were mixed rather freely.
The actors whom Wignell hired modeled their performances on the best English stars of the eighteenth century—Booth, Garrick, Kemble, Macklin, Siddons, and others. Mr. E. Bordley, of an influential Philadelphia family, wrote a friend, upon first seeing the new company: “I wish you could see these players, they are much superior to the old set [the OAC]. I have been but twice. The houses are so crowded, ‘tis impossible to get a box, without much trouble.” The orchestra, often directed by Reinagle from the harpsichord, was excellent, often playing music that Reinagle had written or arranged. The company’s dance forces, too, were strong. Despite the expense of maintaining so fine a house and company, ticket prices over the course of John Durang’s lifetime held steady at $1.00 for a box seat, $.75 in the pit, and $.50 in the gallery.
Frenchman Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, who lived for a time in Philadelphia, complained not of the sightlines to the stage, but of those permitting the spectators to see one another across the house: “it is hard to recognize persons seated at the rear of the boxes which have seven rows of benches.” Moreau described the the audience’s behavior: “People eat and drink in the pit,” purchasing their expensive treats “in a pretty little shop in the lobby.” He found the performers “of a bearable mediocrity from the English point of view. The performance is boisterous, and the interludes are even indecent. It is not unusual to hear such words as Goddamn, Bastard, Rascal, Son of a Bitch. Women turn their backs to the performance during the interludes.” Yet, he noted, “There are dancers whom Nicolet would have been able to claim.” This is high praise; Nicolet was a prominent Parisian producer of pantomime and movement works.
Charles Durang also noted that the Chestnut St. Theatre gave benefits for public charities. It was a proper American institution, serving the public and mindful of its civic duties.
Several fine English actors constituted the Chestnut Street Company — Thomas Wignell, William Warren, William B. Wood, Thomas Abthorpe Cooper, and Anne Merry, among others. The most influential figure in the company for John Durang and family was William Bodley Francis.
Francis became Durang’s teacher, partner, and friend. As his gout progressed in later years, Francis relinquished to Durang some dancing roles. Francis had been a successful ballet master, actor, and harlequin in provincial theatres such as Birmingham, Dublin, Edinburgh, and Manchester. It was at London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1792 that Wignell saw Francis’s pantomime, The Enchanted Wood at London’s Haymarket in 1792, at which point he engaged both Mr. and Mrs. Francis for the Philadelphia troupe. Francis played old men, comic characters, rustics, and foreignors, in addition to his work in ballet and pantomime. Mrs. Francis, a respectable actress, started in Philadelphia with soubrette roles, and moved on during her long career to matronly parts. Both Mr. and Mrs. Francis, themselves childless, “adopted” the children of the theatre, like the Durang brood. Charles Durang regarded them as “the personification of goodness and pure benevolence, without vain display…. Like merry, unsophisticated English folks, their comforts they would have; they freely shared them with the members of their household and friends.” They nurtured the children as young performers, too, as Charles Durang wrote: “In those days the very minor business, and the ballet performances, were executed, principally, by the sons and daughters of the performers, who had received a suitable education in all of those requirements, ” so that “the theatre was then a school,” where the children “were taught dancing and music, and the accomplishments necessary to a theatrical education, and which would make them, afterwards, acceptable in society,” although Charles noted that the children also studied outside the theatre for regular school subjects.
John Durang’s first season with the Chestnut Street Theatre opened in October 1800. In the “heroic pantomime,” Alexander the Great (Lee), which included “The Siege of Oxytrace,” Durang played a Slave. In his History, Charles Durang remembered “The splendor with which the piece was gotten up,” as Alexander and his troupes scaled the walls by mounting “on the large Grecian shields of the soldiery, who formed bridges, one rising above the other like turrets or platforms of scaffolding.” Fight scenes were staged on high battlements, as real, armor-clad horses crossed stage. The victory procession included banners, trophies, eagles, elephants, lions, and papier-maché props “in the most artistical style.” To swell the company, eighty Marines from Philadelphia’s navy yard participated.
The Chestnut St. players next opened the Holliday Street Theatre (also called New Theatre) in Baltimore from April to June 1801.
During hot summers, which were frequent periods of epidemic, large gatherings were prohibited for public health reasons, so the Philadelphia Company’s regular circuits to Baltimore were held in spring and fall, abutting the longer Philadelphia runs.
A fine edifice from the start, the Chestnut Street Theatre underwent renovations in 1801, “for completing the building and extending the accommodations.”
Durang was one of the “principal figures” in the dream sequence of Adelmorne, the Outlaw (Lewis and Kelly), dancing with Francis. This was one of several melodramas shown that season, appealing to audience tastes for cathartic, movement-based spectacle. The players again brought this repertory to Baltimore for spring and autumn seasons. Some members of the company also toured Washington, D.C. and Virginia in the summer, although Durang and family typically undertook their own summertime tours.
The Chestnut Street Theatre opened, after renovations, on 13 December 1802. Durang played frequently that season, mostly small roles in plays, and he took a major part in performing and staging pantomime works. Charles and Ferdinand Durang began regular stage appearances. Of course, they played in Mr. Francis’s benefit on 16 March 1803, when the brothers appeared in a “pigmy pantomime” in Harlequin Prisoner, or the Genii of the Rocks, co-directed by John Durang.
The fruitful unfolding of the season was interrupted by the sudden death on February 21, 1803 of manager Wignell. John Durang wrote: “About this time Mr. Wignell died and the management devolved on Mrs. Wignell. I was sorry to see her in the situation, harass’d by some of the performers as she was. Mr. Warren relieved her of that anxiety by marriage and took on himself the management, in whose reign the well-meaning actors are happy.” With actor William Wood co-managing, the season continued, followed by the usual circuit to Baltimore in spring and fall 1803. A feature of the Baltimore season was the performance by several Shawnee and Delaware Indian chiefs of a Corn Dance and some War Dances. William Wood recollected that the chiefs danced with such energy that “piece after piece of their scanty drapery became so unfixed and disarranged,” that several ladies fled their seats.
For the Philadelphia season of December 1803 to April 1804, Mr. and Mrs. Durang, along with Charles and Ferdinand, played small roles in an extensive repertory. An important work in which the Durang family performed was the landmark production of Holcroft’s melodrama, A Tale of Mystery, which Charles calls “the first melo-drama ever acted in Philadelphia.”
Despite his disdain for the melodrama as a form, Charles recognized that this particular production was not only “profitable,” but also “well acted, and well put upon the stage.”
After its spring and fall seasons in Baltimore, the Chestnut Street Theatre opened in Philadelphia from 3 December 1804 to 3 April 1805. Recollecting this period, Durang wrote fondly of the theatre’s support staff—property men, housekeepers, wardrobe staff, and carpenters—as “genteel,” “worthy,” “honest,” “capable,” “respectable,” “trusty,” and “polite.” He added, “I wish I could say so much for the actors in general.” The theatre was undergoing change: the star system was emerging, which may have stimulated the pleas and puffs published in the newspapers for actors’ benefits. Mrs. Wood’s benefit was preceded by a notice that read, “The admirers of dramatic excellence and individual worth, are strongly called upon to patronize this fascinating actress and amiable lady,” while business for Mr. Blissett’s night was drummed up by announcing, “With peculiar satisfaction, we congratulate the friends of the Drama, on the opportunity offered them this evening, of proving by liberal patronage, how justly they estimate the sterling merit of this indefatigable and original Performer.”
During their years with the Chestnut Street troupe,the Durangs were granted benefits occasionally. But their regular employment, as in the 1804-05 season, kept the Durang family busy, including appearances in the many Shakespeare works presented. In that repertory, Durang had small roles in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry IV, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear.
To educated Americans, Shakespeare was a symbol of polish and status; all kinds of audiences enjoyed his plays’ powerful themes, clear characterizations, humor mixed with pathos, and opportunities for spectacle. This latter element, along with song, dance, and humor, was highlighted in the Shakespearean adaptations by playwrights such as Cibber, Garrick, Dryden, and Tate, while they downplayed sexual innuendo and morally questionable characterizations. Also much in evidence this season were operas and farces. Many dances, often choreographed by Mr. Francis, were given as interludes or insertions into plays. Six-year-old Augustus Durang made his Chestnut-Street début in a statue dance in Harlequin Shipwreck’d; or, the Grateful Lion, with John Durang as an Indian Chief doing his Osage and Chippewa dances.
The alternation of runs in Baltimore and Philadelphia continued for 1805-6 and 1806-07. In January 1806, the Theatrical Censor (published in New York, but with a wider reach in its news coverage) specifically praised the theatre’s children and those who directed them, probably Francis and Durang: “The pantomimical powers of some of the children are extremely amusing, and prove the exertions of their instructors.”
Theatre was flourishing in Philadelphia this season. Not only was the New Theatre (Chestnut St.) in full swing, but the city also enjoyed an acrobatic company at the Southwark, dramatic recitations at the university, music concerts, and dancing assemblies. A sign of the maturing American attitude toward theatre was the emergence of critical press devoted to dramatic, literary, and social commentary. One such publication commenced in winter 1805-06. The Theatrical Censor and Critical Miscellany, quoted above, was written by “an American” publishing under the name “Gregory Gryphon.” A slightly earlier and longer-lived Philadelphia paper, the Port Folio, also published clever commentary on the theatre, actors, staging, works, and audiences. Washington Irving, writing as “Lancelot Langstaff,” published Salmagundi, devoted to theatrical entertainments and social commentary, between 1807 and 1808.
In 1809, The Thespian Monitor and Dramatick Miscellany appeared, while a year later, the Mirror of Taste and Dramatic Censor debuted, and “Growler Gruff’s” The Cynick came out between 1811 and 1812.
Newspapers, too, printed critiques, usually written under pen names. American audiences, critics, and theatrical companies matured together, spurring one another onward in theatrical refinement, spectacle, and development.
Toward the end of the Chestnut Street season from 1 December 1806 to late April 1807, the Durang family took a benefit featuring the children in dances such as a “minuet de la cour,” a “pas russe,” and a hornpipe.
For their version of Tom Thumb (Fielding), Augustus played the lead. A short spring season in Baltimore followed, after which a group of Chestnut Street players, with John Durang, held a season from 22 June to 10 July 1807.
Durang and a troupe of actors, including his own family, then played in the “Old Theatre” (the Southwark) into September.
The Chestnut Street troupe then played its 1807 autumn season in Baltimore before returning to Philadelphia.
Political events shaped theatrical choices. In addition to troubles with Barbary piracy, European and American shipping were affected by the Napoleonic wars. Impressments of sailors on American ships into the British navy became a trigger issue, when the British fired on the ship Chesapeake in June 1807, among the events that led to the War of 1812.
The patriotic fare gave some balance to the American stage, dominated by plays written and acted by Englishmen. Arabian raids on American ships was a theme in Francis’s pantomime, The Sailor’s Return, and in transparencies such as The Battle of Tripoli and American Heroes. The season opened on 7 December, and on 26 December the interlude The Spirit of Independence, featured “Singing, Dancing, and Recitation, in which will be introduced, a Grand Emblematical Transparency of the Genius of America, containing 180 separate feet of canvas.”
For General Washington’s birthday celebration 22 February 1808, the theatre presented “A grand emblematical Transparency & Apotheosis.”
The company, with John Durang, then played its usual May-June season in Baltimore in 1808, then started the Philadelphia season on 7 November. A young child, performing solo, proved stiff competition to the New Theatre. This attraction, one of several such child stars, toured major cities as “The Infant Roscius.” In Philadelphia, the six-year-old gave recitations, advertised as a “Phenomenon of early acquired Literature” who “recites the most difficult passages in the whole range of the Drama, with manliness, feeling, grace, and dignity of deportment, moving the passions powerfully.”
His roles included such figures as Hamlet and Macbeth, quite adult when compared with the “Pigmy,” “Cupid,” and “Tom Thumb” parts the Durang children played. Perhaps the appeal of child stars caused the Chestnut St. management, in fall 1809, to feature “Master Whale, the infant Vestris” in a “Pas Seul, and in Madame Parisot’s celebrated Hornpipe, being his first appearance on the American stage.”
A few months later, Whale’s brother pranced with him across the stage. These youngsters appealed to an audience eager for both novelty and educated refinement.
The 1808-09 Philadelphia season presented yet more competition to the New Theatre: a circus, reportedly from Spain, under Victor Pepin and Jean-Baptiste Casimir Breschard, who built a lavish edifice at the corner of Walnut and Ninth Streets, featuring equestrian and acrobatic acts. On the circus’s opening night, 1 February 1809, the New Theatre premiered James Nelson Barker’s The Indian Princess, or La Belle Sauvage, John Durang playing the minor role of the Indian Talman, and probably also performing in the “Dance of Indians” closing act one.
This patriotic melodrama, noteworthy for being the first American-written play on an Indian theme, was loosely based on John Smith’s General History of Virginia. It met American theatrical tastes for action, romance, and humor. Such spectacular melodramas and ballets, some arranged by Francis with Durang, were intended to compete with circus fare.
By the second decade of the nineteenth century, theatre had become legal in every state of the new nation. An affordable entertainment for people of all classes, theatre was well established in all American cities, and in many smaller towns. Audiences remained rambunctious.
Dunlap wrote: “The frail or the vicious must be admitted to every temple, but not when they are openly marked and arrayed as such…. It was the triumph of learning over her barbarous foes that reared the stage; let us not aid those barbarous foes in their attempts to destroy it.” Theatre managers, like Dunlap, and the actors themselves were responsible for taming rude audiences who disrupted shows.
On one occasion, for example, actress Mrs. Merry stared so hard, in silence, at the box from which a loud conversation issued that the ladies there were shamed into silence, and the audience applauded. Mr. Dwyer of the Philadelphia troupe once announced a pause in the play until the military officers disturbing the audience finished their own entertainment.
The star system of the early nineteenth century was, in part, an attempt to satisfy and divert difficult audiences. It put the regular actors in the shadows, as Charles Durang explained: “The starring system, which received an impulse about this period, had the sad effect of destroying the stock nights. The members of the regular company were considered dull, drowsy clods, without animation, intellect, or fancy.” The result was “a system of pecuniary aggrandizement by which good stock actors are compelled to starve, whilst bad stars grow rich.”
The greatest stars were all English, such as the popular John Hodgkinson of the New York theatre and Thomas Abthorpe Cooper in Philadelphia—further pushing into obscurity American-born performers. The stars, often demanding, arrogant, and uncooperative, traveled from city to city with their scripts and set repertory, which local companies were obliged to present. The works were all dramatic or, in a few cases, operatic, resulting in far fewer presentations of pantomimes and ballets. Durang’s qualities as a native-born performer and dancer were not, in these circumstances, advantages.
A further blow for the dancers came when Alexander Reinagle, co-founder of the Philadelphia Theatre, died in September 1809, resulting in a shift in the theatre’s focus away from opera and ballet and toward more purely dramatic fare.
The Chestnut Street Theatre, now under William Wood and William Warren, opened on 20 November 1809 for a season through 27 April 1810. Pepin and Breschard’s Circus competed with the theatre in November, but then departed. The eighteen-year-old American, John Howard Payne joined the Chestnut Street for part of the season, to enormous appreciation.
British stars Cooper and Dwyer also dropped in for star turns this season.
While there were a few dance works presented, the main dance star was again the young Master Whale, although John Durang’s daughter Charlotte made her début this season, perhaps in the “grand Characteristic Dance” that Francis composed as an interlude tribute to “the Immortal Washington.” Then, it was the usual spring and autumn tours to Baltimore, followed by a Philadelphia season opening on 26 November 1810.
Throughout much of the season, as was typical in this period, a concert series ran simultaneously, in which the theatre musicians participated. Master Whale’s dancing was featured again; ballet offerings included revivals of La Foret Noire and Oscar and Malvina.
At the end of March, for about a month, the English star George Frederick Cooke performed with the Philadelphia troupe.
Despite his difficult personality and “indispositions” due to violent drunkenness, Cooke’s effect on American audiences was electric. His favorite vehicle was Richard III. Charles Durang wrote, “The contest for seats was unprecedented…. Coats were torn from backs of those who tried to get near the box office; hats were lost; black eyes and bloody noses were to be seen by hundreds.” The managers attempted to strictly regulate admission and behavior as the public pressed to see Cooke in other roles. Charles Durang wrote with awe of Cooke’s acting: “His style was quiet, but astonishingly impressive. You felt everything he did…. You did not see Cooke; you only saw the character.”
The Philadelphia company played Baltimore in May and early June1811, but missed the fall season because theatre renovations were underway. The Philadelphia troupe opened in their home city early, on 9 September 1811. Despite appearances, in succession, by Cooper, Cooke, and Payne, it was a poor season. The horrific Richmond Theatre fire of 26 December 1811, which claimed 72 lives, instilled fears that kept crowds from theatres everywhere.
This work featured what Charles Durang called the “celebrated Tramp March,” arranged by John Durang, “a very original thing in its way.” John still danced, but increasingly he passed leading roles to son Ferdinand. Lady of the Lake was brought out to compete with the new Olympic Theatre, managed by circus masters Pepin and Breschard, who presented a full range of stage and ring acts.
The year 1812 was significant for the nation and for the Durang family specifically. In June, war was declared against England. On the family front, the spring season in Baltimore saw the marriage on 17 May 1812 of Ferdinand Durang, then about seventeen, and Miss Jane Petit, who had been with the theatre several years. Alas, the young Mrs. Durang died in Philadelphia in March 1814. In September 1812, the death of Mary Durang bereaved John Durang deeply. Later that month, the great actor George Frederick Cooke died in New York, plunging the entire theatrical community into mourning.
Some bright spots did appear. Cooper and other stars performed, and the victory of the American ship Constitution against the British was celebrated in the theatre’s production of The Constitution; or, American Tars Triumphant. Another patriotic work, this by James Nelson Barker, was presented in January: Marmion, based on Walter Scott’s poem. Barker, who saw drama as a force for launching the United States beyond its cultural dependence on England, highlighted the work’s patriotic potential. He was proven right: at the play’s Philadelphia premiere, a scene between the villain Marmion and the King of Scotland stimulated a ten-minute patriotic display by spectators.
During this season, the Southwark Theatre presented competition: three Irish dancers, the Misses Abercrombie and brother James, performed ballets, pantomimes, and melodramas. Soon, the sisters accepted contracts with the Chestnut Street, allowing the Philadelphia players to present such lovely ballets as Foundling of the Forest and Mirth by Moonlight, usually under the direction of Mr. Francis. For his benefit, Francis featured the athletic Ferdinand Durang with the Abercombies in the “French pantomimical ballet,” Arlequin dans la Lune.
According to Charles Durang, the Abercrombie sisters “were the first who brought the altered operatic style of dancing to the country. As dancers, they were not first rate; but they performed neat terre-á-terre steps, with occasional entrechats, and their attitudes were grace itself.” Was he referring to pointe technique and the ethereal Romantic ballet?
Ferdinand was granted a benefit, the only Durang to have one this season; this and his several leading roles suggest his fine accomplishments as a performer. Yet Durang felt slighted because of his nationality: in an advertisement for his shared benefit, Ferdinand Durang noted, “If foreigners (we say it not in reprehension) patronize their countrymen, why should not Americans do so likewise. Yet, it is a melancholy fact, tho’ honorable to our character, that while our sympathies for strangers induce us to extend them the fostering hand of liberal patronage, we suffer the sons of this our own, our native land often to go unrewarded for their meritorious exertions to rise.”
The spring 1813 season in Baltimore was held in a fine new theatre, although its partly unfinished state caused some audience discomfort. It was still wartime; stage scenery shipped from Philadelphia to Baltimore was burned by the British at a warehouse in Havre-de-Grace, necessitating costly last-minute replacements before the company could open. The Abercrombie sisters, along with the Durangs, danced in many ballets and pantomimes. The company returned to Baltimore for its autumn season in 1813 with Sophia Abercrombie dancing; sister Charlotte had died that summer. The Philadelphia season ran from 22 November 1813 until 16 April 1814.
War heroes Major General Harrison and Commodore Perry honored the theatre with their attendance. Patriotic works and the increasing presence of German-based romantic plays such as Pizarro (Kotzebue/Dunlap) and Abaellino, the Great Bandit (Zschokke/Dunlap) drew good audiences. In the next spring season in Baltimore, the Durang family—Ferdinand, Charles, Charlotte Elizabeth, Juliet Catherine, and Mary Ann—all performed.
In August 1814, Charles and Ferdinand enlisted in the Pennsylvania Militia, to serve for the duration of the War of 1812. On September 13 of that year, the British attacked Fort McHenry near Baltimore, the battle lasting through the night.
This stirring battle, observed by Francis Scott Key from a ship off shore, inspired him to pen the poem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Among those acclaimed as the first to sing that poem to its current tune are Ferdinand and Charles Durang, according to the following story: Key had copies of the poem printer as broadsides, one of which came to Ferdinand’s attention while he was with Charles and other soldiers at a tavern near the Holliday Street Theatre, a location familiar to the Durang brothers.
The cry arose from the crowd for the poem to be read or sung. Ferdinand, the experienced performer and a handy musician, quickly realized the fit between a popular drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” and the poem. With a table for his stage, he sang Key’s words to that tune, brother Charles leading the crowd in the chorus. When the theatre opened in town soon thereafter, with the Durang brothers in the company, the audience again demanded the song, to which Ferdinand complied. While there are other versions of the story of the anthem’s setting to this tune, it was definitely sung at the theatre, as recorded on a playbill.
The Baltimore season opened on 10 October, so some weeks elapsed between the night the poem was written and the time the Durang brothers performed it on the Baltimore stage, but their participation in this signal event in American history became a highlight of their lives.
The Chestnut Street season that opened on 28 November 1814, again featured members of the Durang family along with Miss and Mr. Abercrombie. A peace treaty had been signed to end the costly war, resulting in a relieved population and good business at the theatre. The usual seasons in Baltimore followed in spring and fall.
For the Philadelphia season of 27 November 1815 to 16 April 1816, the company was reinforced with new players, receipts were good, and even the stock players had fine benefits. Of all the Durangs, Ferdinand was most frequently mentioned in advertisements, with roles in plays and leads as a dancer, but the other family members were also performing.
Again, the Philadelphia troupe played spring and fall seasons in Baltimore in 1816. But, between those two Baltimore runs, Ferdinand Durang departed the Chestnut Street troupe under circumstances detailed with relish in Charles Durang’s History. The story starts with a competitor to the Chestnut Street Theatre. In August, circus and theatre entrepreneur Victor Pepin opened the Olympic Theatre in Philadelphia, mixing circus acts with ballets and pantomimes.
To compete with the opening of the Chestnut St. Theatre, Pepin brought on the fine English equestrian James West in late November. In December, the Olympic troupe announced production of the melodrama Timour, the Tartar (Lewis, music by King), earlier produced at both the Olympic and the Chestnut Street Theatres. With West aboard, the Olympic went far beyond earlier productions, according to Charles Durang: “Ramparts were scaled by the horses, breaches were dashed into, and a great variety of new business was introduced. The horses were taught to imitate the agonies of death…. In the last scene, where Zorilda, mounted on her splendid white charger, ran up the stupendous cataract to the very height of the stage, the feat really astounded the audience…. The people in the pit and boxes arose with a simultaneous impulse to their feet, and, with canes, hands, and wild screams, kept the house in one uproar of shouts for at least five minutes.”
West was not himself playing the lead. Instead, as Charles Durang reported, West sought “a fiery Timour, and one came pat to his hands in the person of Ferdinand Durang, then about twenty years of age.” Ferdinand felt he was not advancing adequately at the Chestnut St., and his irritation was peaked when he was fined for a minor theatre infraction. The independent-minded young man resigned from the Chestnut Street troupe and hastened to the Olympic to request that he be considered for the part. Although he had never played the lead, he knew the play, having had a role in the Chestnut-Street production. West agreed. Ferdinand triumphed, recalled Charles: “On the appointed evening Durang played the part to the astonishment of all, both actors and audience.… Although behind the Chesnut street scenes the idea created a sneer and a smile when it was announced that Ferd. Durang, as he was generally called, was to personate the heroic tyrant Timour, the public gave him due credit.” Ferdinand had made his point. After the usual spring and fall seasons in Baltimore in 1817, Ferdinand rejoined the Chestnut Street troupe, although his status and roles did not greatly improve.
The Philadelphia season, running from 1 December 1817 to 25 April 1818, had several novelties. One was the French dancer, M. Giraud, of the Paris Opera. This may have been Jean Pierre Giraud, a leading dancer at La Scala in Milan in 1805. Charles Durang claims that Giraud was “from the opera house of Paris.” In Philadelphia, Giraud staged the ballet Pygmalion; or, the Animated Statue, originally by the great ballet master Franz Hilverding. Charles writes: “It was very well got up by Giraud, himself a perfect artist. But after the Goddess of Beauty had turned his statue into a woman, it should have been something like a Fanny Elssler [so] that he could have finished the piece with a brilliant pas de deux, interspersed with poses and arabesques.” None of the company ladies matched Giraud’s dancing, and certainly no one was near the level of Austrian superstar, Fanny Elssler, whom Charles envisioned in this role.
John Durang’s roles are not given in newspaper notices, but Charlotte and Katharine’s dancing was listed several times.
After spring and fall Baltimore seasons, the troupe opened in Philadelphia on 5 November, playing until 30 April 1819. John Durang performed frequently in small acting roles and ballets. The fine English performer, J. Wheatley, who joined the company this season, gave “valuable instruction” in acting, singing, and dancing, to the company, particularly its young ladies, including Katharine and Charlotte Durang. Visiting Wyandot Indian chiefs performed dances and a War Speech at the theatre one evening. English actor James Wallack came in as a star.
The Swedish nobleman Baron Axel Leonhard Klinkowström, visiting this season, was little impressed with the Chestnut Street Theatre. He remarked on the theatre’s Romeo and Juliet on 25 January: “Only two or three arias were sung; the chorus at Juliet’s funeral was poor and far too shrill. The Capulets’ ball was simple; the masks were dirty; and Romeo’s retainers were slow and dull. There were only two scenes, according to my conception of good theatre, which had any value; and that all to the credit of the leading actors, not the production. Five murders were committed and the audience was delighted.” Also, “The dancers were dressed very modestly; I doubt that any dancer in a Pennsylvania theatre would dare to appear in a costume seen on the European stage. Such dancing and dressing would contrast too greatly with the stern customs and decorum of Philadelphia.”
There was a spring Baltimore season but the theatre was closed in the fall due to yellow fever. When the 1819-20 Philadelphia season arrived, Durang was about to turn fifty-two and he performed much less. His daughters continued as company dancers. With a nationwide depression affecting the theatre, the season was so poor that the managers had to cut salaries. Then, on 2 April 1820, the Chestnut Street Theatre, a foundation of American culture, burned down. The season had already ended and there were no injuries, but the scenery, scores, costumes, and building were utterly destroyed.
After Baltimore seasons in spring and fall, 1820, the players opened in Philadelphia on 10 November, using the Walnut Street Theatre, formerly known as the Olympic, which happened to be empty until mid-April 1821. Newspaper notices were full of the imported stars featured one after another—Edmund Kean, Mrs. Alsop, Mr. and Mrs. Barnes.
Although John Durang performed little, Charlotte, Katharine, and Charles were in the company, usually in dancing roles. John Durang, in his last recorded role in the theatre, played a “Singing Muleteer” in the opera The Mountaineers at the benefit of a young American, Edwin Forrest, destined to become our first native-born dramatic star. A pioneering American man of the stage, supported another young American actor just setting off on his own career.
But for John Durang, performing was now only a memory. Ill with asthma, Durang retired to his home, on Cedar (South) St., where he died on 29 March 1822, having written and beautifully illustrated his Memoir.