The Theater

VIRGINIA has always cherished the drama. The pleasure-loving Cavaliers were not sympathetic with the dour denials of enjoyment that prevailed in some of the other colonies. Fragmentary records of Virginia's first century reveal the not infrequent appearance of amateur plays and strolling players. just what the plays were and where they were produced are unknown, except for a court record of Accomac County, dated 1655, which sets forth a charge made by a pious gentleman against several persons for presenting a play entitled Ye Bear and Ye Cub. The court adjudged the play harmless, and charged the complainant with costs.

In 1716 the first playhouse in America was erected at Williamsburg. Built by William Levingston, who entered into contract with Charles and Mary Stagg, dancing teachers, the theater was designated for the acting of 'Comedies, Drolls, and other kind of stage plays . . . as shall be thought fitt to be acted there.' Though Levingston's theater was used for both amateur and professional performances, it was frequently in financial difficulties. Governor Spotswood, in a letter written June 24, 1718, tells of having been slighted by eight committeemen who failed to accept his invitation to a celebration of the king's birthday or to 'go to the play that was acted on the occasion.' Other references are found to presentations, by students of the College of William and Mary, of Cato, The Busybody, The Beaux'Stratagem, and The Recruiting Officer by 'the company.'

In 1745 the theater was presented to the city for use as a town hall. But in the fall of 1751 another playhouse was built, 'by way of subscription,' just back of the capitol. This was opened on the night of October 2 1, with a performance of Richard III by Thomas Kean, Walter Murray, and Charles Somerset Woodharn of New York. After a few performances the company moved on to Petersburg but returned to Williamsburg in the following spring. In May it played at Hobbs' Hole (Tappahannock), and at Fredericksburg during the June fair.

The playhouse in Williamsburg housed the first well-rounded and welltrained dramatic company to arrive in the New World from England. In June 1752, the Hallams-Lewis, senior, his wife, and two children-with a supporting company disembarked from the Charming Sally at Yorktown and made their way to Williamsburg. 'A select company of Commedians,' they were styled by the Virginia Gazette. 'The Scenes, Cloaths, and Decorations are entirely new, extremely rich and finished in the highest taste . . . so that Ladies and Gentlemen may depend on being entertained in as polite a manner as at the Theatre in London.'

The barnlike playhouse was altered 'at great expense . . . into a regular Theatre fitt for the reception of Ladies and Gentlemen and the execution of their own performance.' In September the Hallam company opened with the first performance in America of The Merchant of Venice, and remained in Williamsburg for I i months. Reference to later performances occurs in a letter mentioning that Othello and a pantomime were played on October 9, with 'the Emperor of the Cherokee Nation, his Empress and their Son, the Prince, attended by several of his warriors, the Great Men and their Ladies, present at the play.'

On February 6, 1768, a group of players known as the Virginia Company of Comedians appeared in Norfolk. In Williamsburg on April 4 Of the same year this group presented a tragedy called Douglas, and later continued its season with a repertory that included The Drummer, The Beggar's Opera, Miss in Her Teens, The Harlequin Skeleton, Venice Preserved, and The Constant Couple.

In the winter of 1770 the 'American Company,' as the Hallams and their group were then called, played a short season in Williamsburg. In 17 7 1 another company presented King Lear. In 1772 the American Company was back in Williamsburg, appearing before large and brilliant audiences.

The theaters of this early day were crude and flimsy structures built entirely of wood, with benches in 'the pit' for common folk and boxes for the gentry. They were heated in winter by a stove in the foyer, around which the half-frozen audience would gather between the acts. Posters in the lobbies 'respectfully requested' the audience 'not to spit on the stove,' and notices on the house bills or programs suggested that 'Ladies and Gentlemen bring their own foot warmers.'

Candles were used for illumination. In the midst of a performance it was not uncommon for a stagehand to snuff a smoking candle in the footlights. Performances usually began at six o'clock, and for hours before the rise of the curtain Negro servants solemnly held seats for their masters and mistresses. The evening's entertainment generally consisted of a prologue, a complete drama, a farcical afterpiece, and often singing or dancing.

A system of benefit performances, prevalent in this period and lasting for many years thereafter, provided the actor with a substantial part of his income. According to this custom, actors 'who were of good talents, industrious habits and of fair character . . . were allowed the privilege, toward the close of the season, of a benefit night.' The cards of actors and the playbills solicited 'the patronage of the Ladies and Gentlemen' of the community; and if the actor was well esteemed, his receipts were usually substantial.

For a decade or two before the Revolution, the theater at Williamsburg was the scene of some of the gayest and most brilliant gatherings in the colony. When the Virginia general assembly was in session, the town overflowed with visitors, the inns were filled to capacity, and every house in town entertained guests. Theaters elsewhere in the colony also did a thriving business. Washington from his youth was fond of the theater. His ledger contains many entries for 'play tickets,' and often his diary records that he 'went to the play.' But the Provincial Congress, meeting on October 24, 1774, issued a warning against extravagance and dissipation, naming among other things 'gaming, cock-fighting, exhibition of shows, plays and other expensive diversions and entertainments.' Theaters were dosed; many actors departed for the English West Indies; and the first period of Virginia's theatrical history ended.

After the Revolution, however, interest in the theater revived. In 1779 the capital of Virginia was moved to Richmond. Though many plays had been staged in the old Market House there, the first theater in the new capital was opened in a building erected on Shockoe Hill in 1786. The Virginia Gazette and Advertiser announces a performance of The Recruiting Officer 'at the new theatre on Shockoe Hill on Saturday Evening next , November 17th, 1787,'with Lethe, or Aesop in the Shades as the afterpiece. Among subsequent announcements are those of 'the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet to which will be added a farce called The Citizen, to be presented November 30th, 1787; and a benefit for Mr. Bissett on December 7, 1787, presenting The Beggar's Opera 'to which will be added (particular desire) Macklin's celebrated farce of Love d la Mode. . . . the whole to conclude with the comic song of Four and Twenty Fiddlers All in a Row by Mr.Bissett.' Edgar Allan Poe's mother appeared many times on the stage of the Shockoe Hill Theater, closing her professional career there in 1811, in December of which year she died.

The burning of this theater, in 1811, was one of the most tragic episodes in Richmond's history. Before a holiday audience on the night of December 26, a benefit was being held for two players, Alexander Placide and his daughter. The curtain had been rung down on the feature, The Father, or Family Feuds. During the afterpiece, Raymond and Agnes, or The Bleeding Nun, a lamp drawn up into the scenery started a blaze, which soon became a seething inferno. The governor of the State and 72 others lost their lives. After this tragedy, people hesitated to congregate in large buildings, and theaters all over the country were affected.

It was seven years before Richmond ventured to build another playhouse. The list of subscribers who in 1818 made possible the new building at Seventh and Broad Streets included many well-known Ricbmonders, among them Chief justice John Marshall, for whom the theater was named. It was a much longer time, however, before the theater came into fullest use. According to the Southern Literary Messenger of February 1835, 'the commodious theatre which succeeded the old one . . . which is placed in a far more eligible situation and is of much safer construction, is only occasionally patronized when the appearance of some attractive star or celebrated performer is advertised.' Among the most famous of these celebrated performers was Junius Brutus Booth, who on July 13, 1821, made his first appearance in America on the stage of the Marshall Theater in Richard III.

Richmond's 'golden age of the theater' began toward the middle of the nineteenth century. Great plays were then given, with great actors who remained throughout the season. The names of William Charles Macready, Edwin Forrest, the Booths, and James W. Wallack appeared in the playbills; and William Rufus Blake, Joseph Jefferson, and John Wilkes Booth served at various times as stage managers at the Marshall.

A collection of old playbills of this theater, covering the years from 1848 through 1852, is owned by the Poe Shrine at Richmond. It is mounted in yellow ledgers, with marginal notations and records of receipts in code written by the managers. Beside a handbill advertising Romeo and Juliet on January 14, 185o, is written: 'Clear night but very wet walking. Mr. Wise's speech at the capitol on the slavery question and the people fools enough to listen to a dishonest politician.' On April I of the same year is this terse statement. 'Mr. Booth was Drunk and Did Not Appear.'

The great jenny Lind sang in Richmond at the Marshall Theater in 1850. Another outstanding local event was the appearance in 1854 of Ole Bull, immortal Norwegian violinist, in the old Exchange Hall and in the African Church. Adelina, Patti sang to delighted audiences from the rostrum of the same church. By the middle 1850's Richmond had become one of the four or five most important dramatic centers in the United States, and for years every notable actor of the American stage played in this city more or less regularly. Richmond's verdict in matters dramatic became authoritative, and there were times when plays were tried out in Richmond before presentation in New York.

The Marshall Theater burned during the night of January 2, 1862. Almost before the bricks were cold, Mrs.Elizabeth McGill, its owner, began the building of a new theater on the same site; and in 1863 this new playhouse, the Richmond, was opened with As You Like It, presenting Ida Vernon and D'Orsay Ogden in the leading roles. Though the War between the States was now at its height, the theater in Virginia suffered less than it had during the Revolution. As Mrs. McGill (later Mrs. Powell) wrote, 'Everyone seemed to need relaxation and the house was full every night. President Davis used to come often with his cabinet.' Sally Partington, a favorite among the soldiers, played opposite most of the celebrated male actors of the day. Strangely enough, the soldiers seemed to prefer tragedy to comedy, and during the war many of America's great tragedians were seen in Virginia's capital.

A memorable performance of the postwar years in Richmond was that of Edwin Booth and Lawrence Barrett, who in 1888 appeared together in Othello. Among other actors who thrilled and charmed Richmond audiences in the early postwar decades were Charlotte Cushman, the elder Salvini, John McCullough, Francis S. Chanfrau, Laura Keene, Adelaide Histori, Fanny janauscheck, Sarah Bernhardt, Helena Modieska, Fanny Davenport, Adelaide Neilson, Mary Anderson, George L. Fox, Edward A. Sothern, Richard Mansfield, and Robert B. Mantell.

Other theaters were erected in Virginia during these years-among them the Theatre of Varieties in Richmond, introducing vaudeville. The most prominent of Richmond's later playhouses, the Academy of Music, was opened in 1886 with a presentation of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado. Here , in the last decade of the century, came Signor Salvini in Othello, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry in The Merchant of Venice, Frederick Warde in King Lear, and Creston Clarke in his role of Edgar Allan Poe. In memorable performances of Rip Van Winkle and The Rivals at the Academy in 1902, Joseph Jefferson bade farewell to a city that he had loved throughout his professional career.

Among outstanding Virginians in the theater toward the end of the nineteenth century were Wilton Lackaye (1862-1932), born in Loudoun County, a character actor, and George Fawcett (1861-I939), a native of Fairfax County, also a character actor, first on the stage, then the screen, A pioneer in motion pictures is Francis Xavier Bushman born in Norfolk in 1884, who had the lead in 402 early films. Jack Holt (b. 1881), a native of Winchester, began his screen career in 1913. Acting both on the stage and screen are James Harlee Bell, born in Suffolk, in 1894, and Margaret Sullavan (b. 1911), a native of Norfolk. The career of Randolph Scott, born in Orange County in 1903, has been wholly in motion pictures. The outstanding success of the Negro actor, Charles Sidney Gilpin (1878-1930), born in Richmond, was the role of Brutus Jones in Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones. Equally at home on stage or screen is the Negro tap dancer, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, who was born in Richmond in 1878. The role of Amos in radio's ceaseless skit Amos 'n Andy belongs exclusively to Freeman Gosden,, a native of Richmond.

In Virginia, as elsewhere, developments and trends that were radically to alter the theater's destiny began to gather headway late in the nineteenth century and to gain greatly intensified momentum early in the twentieth. Some of these were a reflection of changes in the general pattern of American economic and social life; others had their origin within the theater itself. Abuses of the star system; the rise of the great theatrical syndicates; the increasing domination of Broadway and the decline of 'the road'; the competition at first of vaudeville and then of motion picturesthese were some of the factors that accounted for the rapid recession of the theater's golden age and (outside a few of the largest metropolitan centers) reduced the legitimate stage from opulence to poverty.

Hunger for the legitimate drama brought about a renaissance of stock companies during the early part of the present century. For several years the Academy was the home of a stock company known as the Giffen Players, some of whose members (including Richard Bennett, Margaret Illington, Lucille LaVerne, and Ralph Morgan) later became nationally prominent on stage or screen. The little theater movement, which started later, had its genesis in small groups of idealists eager to experiment with new methods and new media.

Little theaters have been organized and are actively functioning in most of Virginia's larger communities, including Richmond, Lynchburg, Staunton, Danville, Norfolk, and Petersburg. The Lynchburg Little Theatre has a building of its own. The Richmond Theatre Guild is not only the largest nonprofessional theater organization in the State, but also one of the largest in the country. Spiritual successor to many earlier acting societies and dramatic clubs in Richmond, the Guild is a direct descendant of the Little Theatre League, organized in 1918.

Within the past few years, colleges and universities have placed greatly increased emphasis upon dramatic instruction and presentations. The dramatic departments and the players of the College of William and Mary, the University of Richmond, and the University of Virginia are outstanding in this field.

Both little theater and college groups are ambitious in their undertakings. Their repertoires range from miracle and morality plays, through the works of Elizabethan and Restoration dramatists and the foreign playwrights of all eras, down to recent Broadway successes. In their workshops they are producing plays, training actors, designing scenery, and developing an enthusiasm for the drama that is not likely to be extinguished. The next chapter in the history of the Virginia theater, it seems safe to predict, will be written chiefly by the little theaters and the dramatic departments of colleges and universities.