A First for Everything: Richard III (1750 Production) and Shakespeare’s American Debut
Despite the fact that William Shakespeare enjoyed prominence across the pond in the 16th and 17th centuries, his influence hadn’t made its way to the American stage until the late 18th. While the information surrounding the first Shakespearean performance in America is unfortunately somewhat scattered, there still remains a plethora of dots to connect. Could we attribute this scarcity of information to the residual tenacity of religious fervor? What about the mounting tensions leading up to the Revolutionary War? In order to answer these questions among others, it’s necessary to do a little digging through some of the cultural norms and ideals that were prevalent at the time, such as the predominance of Puritanism and the fact that theatre in America began as more of an undercover affair than anything else.
The time was just before the Revolution and America wasn’t exactly America yet as we were still under the thumb of British imperialists. It would seem reasonable to assume that Shakespeare would have already been everywhere considering his infectious popularity around Europe and elsewhere, right? Wrong. Come to find out, Shakespeare didn’t take the American stage until 1750 with a performance of Richard III. Little is known about the individual performance save for that it was carried out on March 5, 1750, in New York. Noteworthy about this tale is that it is widely speculated that the members of this company were largely amateurs who had come over from London in the hopes of planting roots in America. A company formed by actors/managers Walter Murray and Thomas Kean had set up shop “a large room in a building owned by [one] Rip Van Dam and converted it into a theatre” (Hornblow 45). Early details are rife with confusion but signs tend to point to this building being known as the First Nassau Street Theatre which was situated between John Street and Maiden Lane, housing roughly 280 people making it slightly smaller than a modern cinema auditorium. Though Richard III was the debut play at the First Nassau Street Theatre, it also served as the showplace for the first documented comedy performance in New York. In A History of the New York Stage, T. Allston Brown describes the place in detail: It was a two-storied house with high gables. The stage was raised five feet from the floor. The scenes, curtains and wings were all carried by the managers in their ‘property’ trunks. A green curtain was suspended from the ceiling. A pair of paper screens were erected upon the right and left hand sides for wings. Six wax lights were in front of the stage. The orchestra consisted of a German flute, horn and drum players. Suspended from the ceiling was the chandelier, made of a barrel hoop, through which were driven half a dozen nails into which were stuck so many candles. Two drop scenes representing a castle and a wood, bits of landscape river and mountain comprised the scenery. (Brown 2)
This quaint albeit reasonably elegant illustration runs in sharp contrast to most other performance halls of the time and region, which were often composed of little more than crude wooden setups devoid of most of the accoutrements of the theater. Why is this so? An incredibly toxic intermingling of church and state may be to blame. While the South was beginning to develop a thirst for dramatic theatre, “in the North the playhouse was still considered the highway to hell and was everywhere fiercely condemned if not actually forbidden under the severest penalties” (Hornblow 24). For example, legislation was passed in 1750 by the General Court of Massachusetts that “prohibit[ed] stage plays and theatrical entertainments of any kind” with similarly authoritarian laws being passed in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Unfortunately, the First Nassau Street Theatre was eventually bought up, converted into storage space, and finally demolished to make way for a church. Theatre was treated like a vice tantamount to drugs, alcohol, and all manner of other harmful transgressions though given the time, residual Puritanism was largely to blame for the hysteria.
As Puritanism made its way from across the Atlantic into pre-Revolution America so too did its mode of thought. They believed in a literal interpretation and application of Biblical thought completely absent of even the most abstract temptations. In the time leading up to early theatre in America, these “temptations” translated into music, poetry, and you guessed it: drama. Each of these was considered at best not conducive to receiving God and at worst a pathway to a lifetime of immortality worthy of damnation. Sounds like these folks really didn’t know much about having fun. Just half a century before the conception of the First Nassau Street Theater, the number of Puritans in American colonies rose six-fold “from 17,800 in 1640 to 106,000 in 1700. Religious exclusiveness was the foremost principle of their society. The spiritual beliefs that they held were strong. This strength held over to include community laws and customs” (Kizer par 4). Puritanism was infectious as it was antiquated, much like much of our current governing body, though such a discussion would need another essay entirely if not its own book. Before going too far off the rails, one could easily ascertain the significant impact religiosity had on theatre prior to the Revolution. Church and state danced together in a waltz atop a dancefloor made of most everything we take for granted as fun. This religious permeation resulted in newspapers and journals being heavily discouraged from including writings about most anything related to the goings-on of the dramatic stage. It was even custom at the time “for the actors themselves to distribute handbills at the houses of prospective theater goers” (Hornblow 23). Much like the modern denizens of indie musicians performing without the promotion of a record label, theatre in the North was largely an underground affair. America was stuck holding onto religious strings better left to fray.[BL1] [BL2] Despite the hostility, this didn’t stop actors from performing under special permits from local authorities seeing as laws against theatre were very loosely enforced in some of the more densely populated colonies. This can be quite considerably attributed to “a large and growing class in the important centres [sic] who were burdened with no such [Puritan conviction]—people of means and leisure who had only recently crossed the Atlantic…” (Hornblow 26). People crossing over brought with them fantastic accounts of the English theater, which left many of them thirsty for a taste of home upon reaching the colonial shores. Another aspect worth considering, complimentary to the time’s prevailing religious doctrine is the glaring lack of a distinctly “American” literary and dramatic identity. This ties back into the influence of Puritanism as well as the fact that America had yet to fully unify as a country.
Digging further into colonial religiosity, the rules surrounding drama and theatre were becoming lesser and lesser as the areas grew more populous. This in turn begs the question: why was Richard III the first documented Shakespearean work performed in an American theatre? Think of the time in which the play was performed as well as the surrounding political climate. America was in a groaning, churning state of uneasiness against the British regime with the play’s performance taking place just 26 years before the start of the Revolutionary War. One of the primary themes in Richard III is usurpation. See where this is headed? It would appear as though the choice of Richard III amidst the oppressive regime and Puritanical perforation was a conscious one. Within the context of the play, Richard is an articulate, astute tyrant suffering from a deformity. In the eye of the American audience, Richard could perhaps serve as an allegorical figure for imperialist Britain. Analysis suggests “[Richard’s] ugliness is an aesthetic attribute that symbolizes his evil, but at the same time, Richard artfully crafts false appearances of goodness” (Slotkin 10). This posits the idea that the character of Richard is not merely inebriated by evil and a lust for power; he is fully conscious of the malleability of people beneath him. “In the development of [this] dramatic action, theatricality and deformity become sources of erotic attraction. Richard uses his two contradictory modes of seeming—alternately displaying his virtuous visor and his deep vice to generate two different kinds of appeal” (Slotkin 11). Richard, like the British rule over American colonies, painted a picture of greatness but was ultimately motivated from selfish intent. His charisma stemmed from instilling fear as opposed to exuding genuine swagger. Could Richard’s usurpation and demise at the end of the play represent early thoughts of rebellion and revolution on the parts of the playwrights of the First Nassau Street Theatre? Let’s take a look at the play. In the fifth act of Richard III a climactic storm is brewing between the tyrannical King Richard and one Richmond, who serves as a symbol of goodness and honorability. A duel is about to take place and in a speech to his soldiers, Richmond ejaculates: God and our good cause fight upon our side. / The prayers of holy saints and wronged souls, / Like high-reared bulwarks, stand before our faces. / Richard except, those whom we fight against / Had rather have us win than him they follow. / For what is he they follow? Truly, gentlemen, / A bloody tyrant and a homicide; / One raised in blood, and one in blood established; / One that means to come by what he hath, / And slaughtered those that were the means to help him; (5.3.240-249)
In this passage, Richmond is asserting the righteous necessity to overthrow the despotic rule enacted by King Richard by suggesting that divinity is on his side backed up by the blessing “of holy saints and wronged souls.” Quite possibly these “wronged souls” could be a reference to the people whom Richard had killed off in his lascivious pursuit of the throne of England. Further credence is lent to this concept by the text’s repetitious use of the word “blood” with each instance positing a slightly different meaning. Richard being referred to as “a bloody tyrant and a homicide” characterizes his cruelty, inaugurating him as death incarnate. Him being “raised in blood” could be read as an allusion to his deformity; Richard is marked by that the way others are marked by blood while finally him being “in blood established” insinuates that all Richard has known and will know is violence. The fact that “blood” appears three times in this specific tract could be read as an antithesis of the Holy Trinity, Richard serving as the grotesque amalgamation of the three. Conversely, Richmond is rallying himself as a Godlike figure; a savior to oppressed people. He refers to “our good cause” rather than “his” cause conceivably as an intentional contrast to the bleak and selfish conquest of Richard. Richmond’s endeavor is successful as he winds up overthrowing and killing Richard, a classic example of good overcoming evil. Nearly 300 years later and America is left under a similarly oppressive state being subject to both the rule of imperialist Britain and the influence of colonial Puritanism. It should seem as more than a mere coincidence that Richard III served as America’s Shakespearean debut.
In the years immediately following the performances at the First Nassau Street Theatre, America was starting to see perpetual upheaval. 1754 saw the start of the French and Indian War and in October of 1760, King George III took over rule of the British Empire and “favor[ed] new political leaders and advisors who follow[ed] a stricter policy toward the colonies” (“Timeline” par 5). Perhaps the decision to perform Richard III in 1750 served as a not-so-cryptic reflection of the thoughts of certain people looking for their Richmond. Years later[BL3] following the American Revolution, performances of Shakespeare began to enjoy a great deal of proliferation. “[Starting around 1800], Shakespeare accounted for one-quarter of all dramatic productions in cities up and down the Eastern Seaboard. [People] could see 21 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays” (Grimes par 2). Americans simply couldn’t get enough and the trend continues today.
With America groaning and growing like an angst-ridden teenager, one might often wonder why the works of William Shakespeare took so long to make it to the American stage. Despite a relative scarcity of available information, evidence suggests that religious zeal contributed to a lack of early understanding of literature and drama. Rather than enlighten and enrich their collective cultural palate, people of the time opted to cast off most artistic mediums as salacious temptation. Pairing America’s lack of a unified identity with a predominant religious ideology and the picture gradually becomes clearer: we simply weren’t cultured in the way England and other countries were. We didn’t have literature or dramatic art that was distinctly “American.” There’s a first for everything, whether it be a Shakespearean performance or an armed revolt that leads to unity and developing an independent identity.
Brown, Thomas A. A History of the New York Stage. Vol. 1, Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1903.
Grimes, William. “Measuring America’s Shakespearean Devotion.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Mar. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/03/20/books/measuring-americas-shakespearean-devotion.html.
Hornblow, Arthur. A History of the Theatre in America. J.B. Lippincott Company, 1919.
Kizer, Kay. “Puritans.” University of Notre Dame, www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/puritans.html.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of King Richard the Third.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. 7th ed. Pearson, 2014. 696-7. Print.
Slotkin, Joel Elliot. “Honeyed Toads: Sinister Aesthetics in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III.’”Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 2007, pp. 5–32. JSTOR.
“Timeline: Toward a Revolution, 1750-1783.” Timeline: Toward a Revolution, 1750-1783, The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site, www.history.org/history/teaching/study_visits/resources/timeline.cfm.
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