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Theatre in Colonial Virginia

Williamsburg's First Theatre
Broadway may be the center of musical theatre today, but the first theatre in British North America was built on the Palace Green in the colonial capital of Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1716.

When Merchant William Levingston signed a contract with his indentured servant Charles Stagg—actor, violinist, and dancer—the document stated that both would "bear equal share in all the charges of cloathes, musick, and other necessaries for acting in play . . ." From this time forward, music played a vital role on the colonial Virginia stage.

The first theatre was a short-lived venture, but a second one was built on a site near the Capitol building in 1751. It was here that Lewis Hallam's "Company of Comedians from London" performed the first professional theatrical performance in British North America in 1752.

In an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, Hallam claimed they were “perfected” in “all the best Plays, Operas, Farces “Beggar’s Opera, Act Three,” by Williams Hogarth, London, England, 1790. Accession # 1950-740.and Pantomimes, that have been exhibited in any of the Theatres, these ten years past.” The announcement for the company’s first performance also stressed the songs in the plays. Later playbills continue the emphasis on music. A theatre built around 1760, also near the Capitol, was home to most of Williamsburg’s theatrical activity, and it was here that many Virginians from all walks of life—including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington—enjoyed countless evenings at the theatre.

Music in the Theatre
The American Company—successors to the Hallams—placed increasing importance on both instrumental and vocal music in their productions, as noted in their advertising. Moreover, they added plays to their repertoire that featured more stylized music than their earlier "ballad operas."  Their manager, David Douglass, announced in 1765 that he had

“collected some very eminent performers from both the theatres in London, particularly in the Singing-Way so that the English Comic Opera, a species of entertainment that has never yet appeared properly on this side the water, is likely to be performed…this winter to great advantage.”

The company advertised the use of an orchestra for a performance of Love in a Village, the first English “comic opera” in Williamsburg in 1771. Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church organist, Peter Pelham, had previously served as the “conductor” of the music for The Beggar’s Opera in 1768.

Design of the Theatre   
The typical colonial theatre was shaped like a shoebox, with one-third of the space consisting of the stage. The remaining area contained the seating—the boxes, pit, and gallery. The wealthier colonists sat in box seats, which were raised on either side of the theatre and faced each other rather than the stage. The object of sitting in box seats was to be seen and admired—in addition to watching the play, of course. The “pit” consisted of backless, wooden benches on the floor area of the theatre where the “middling sort” watched, although George Washington was said to have preferred the pit. The gallery was what we call the balcony today—a raised seating area used by the “lesser sort,” students, sailors, and even slaves. In England, these lowly theatre patrons were known as “the gallery gods,” because their cheers or jeers could make or break a play.

Pattern of Theatre Presentations
An evening’s entertainment in Williamsburg’s eighteenth-century theatres followed a pattern of presentation firmly established in the English-speaking theatre by mid century. Surviving handbills and advertisements of the colonial companies indicate the same plays and types of entertainment were presented as their counterparts in the Old World. Colonial troupes continued these presentation formats not only because it was what they knew, but also because their audiences expected it.

Programs were varied and rich in entertainment, designed to appeal to the taste of as broad an audience as possible. Although all elements of the format do not appear in every announcement, some aspects were presented each evening.

An evening’s entertainment lasted from three to five hours and consisted of the following:

Opening Music
The amount of music colonial companies provided most likely depended on available musicians.

This introductory event was usually spoken but sometimes sung before the mainpiece.

The main body of work was a play of three to five acts, ranging from Shakespeare to contemporary works. The great majority of the plays demanded music in some form such as songs, dances, choruses, atmospheric background, and fanfares. The musical plays could not be performed at all without music—plays such as the ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera, the quasi-operatic type such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and comic operas such as Love in a Village.

An epilogue
Like the prologue, the conclusion or afterward was usually written as part of the mainpiece and sometimes sung.

Plays contained dance in some form, whether individual dances such as solo minuets, character dances, or English country dances.

An Afterpiece 
This consisted of one or two acts that might be a farce, pantomime, ballad, or composed opera.

Popular vocal or instrumental music
These were performed during the seven-minute intermissions between the acts, known as “entr’actes” and after the mainpiece.

Specialty acts 
These took the form of individual or group dancing, instrumental or vocal music, rope dancing, and other forms of entertainment. These were often performed as "benefits," the proceeds of which would go to support a member of the troupe. Often the evening would conclude with a general dance by all the performers.

Professional Actors
The efforts of the colonial players should not be compared to the performances at the great patent theatres in London—Drury Lane and Covent Garden—the pinnacle of theatrical achievement in the English-speaking world. Rather, they should be compared to those of the smaller London and town theatres, and to the touring and summer suburban companies.

Colonial players were not cast-offs from English companies. They were competent actors—substantial, all-round players, thoroughly trained professionals who capably filled the secondary positions in the London theatres. They came to the colonies not only in search of employment but—especially in the case of the younger actors—also to gain further experience. A study of the London, provincial, and Irish theatre cast lists reveals names of actors who came to America, some of whom returned to England to reach the coveted goal of performing on the stages of Drury Lane or Covent Garden.

Virginia Gazette (Rind), May 26, 1768.

A benefit was a show from which the proceeds would go to support a member of the company.

Shakespeare in the Theatre
Some of Shakespeare's plays were performed in Williamsburg, but they were usually bowlderized versions such as David Garrick's rewrites with happy endings. There was no attempt at period correctness in settings or costumes until the very end of the century, after the theater had left Williamsburg; instead, actors wore the very best of fashionable clothing the company or actors could afford.

Sophisticated Audiences
A number of Virginians had firsthand acquaintance with the finest of English theatre music through their visits to the London playhouses. Much of this music was owned by Virginia gentry and could often be found for sale in Williamsburg at the printing office and certainly at booksellersin larger cities such as New York and Philadelphia. Scores in reduced form for home use—the text of plays and books that featured theatre music along with other popular songs—were all owned by men such as Jefferson, Washington, and Robert Carter. The playhouse in Williamsburg was a favorite way for Virginians to spend an evening in town.

Source: Encore! Music from the 18th-Century Theatre notes selected from John W. Molnar’s “Songs from the Williamsburg Theater,” 1972, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; supplemented by Jane F. Hanson.