Theater in the United States
Theater of the United States is based in the Western tradition, mostly borrowed from the performance styles prevalent in Europe. Fact|date: September 14, 2008|date=September 2008 Regional or resident theatres in the
United Statesare professional theatrecompanies outside of New York City that produce their own seasons.
"Note": "theater" is the preferred spelling in the U.S., see spelling differences.
The birth of professional theater in America may have begun with the
Lewis Hallamtroupe that arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1752. Fact|date: September 14, 2008|date=September 2008 A theater was built in Williamsburg in 1715, and, in January 1736, the original Dock Street Theatre was opened in Charles Town, South Carolina. Fact|date: September 14, 2008|date=September 2008 In any case, The Hallams were the first to organize a complete company of actors in Europe and bring them to the colonies. Fact|date: September 14, 2008|date=September 2008 They brought a repertoire of plays popular in London at the time, including " Hamlet", " The Recruiting Officer", and "Richard III". " The Merchant of Venice" was their first performance, shown initially on September 15, 1752. Fact|date: September 14, 2008|date=September 2008 Encountering opposition from religious organisations, Hallam and his company left for Jamaicain 1754 or 1755. Fact|date: September 14, 2008|date=September 2008 Soon after, Lewis Hallam, Jr., founded the American Company, opened a theater in New York, and presented the first professionally mounted American play—" The Prince of Parthia", by Thomas Godfrey—in 1767. Fact|date: September 14, 2008|date=September 2008
In the 18th century, laws forbidding the performance of plays were passed in
Massachusettsin 1750, in Pennsylvaniain 1759, and in Rhode Islandin 1761, and plays were banned in most states during the American Revolutionary Warat the urging of the Continental Congress. Fact|date: September 14, 2008|date=September 2008 In 1794, president of Yale College, Timothy Dwight IV, in his "Essay on the Stage," declared that "to indulge a taste for playgoing means nothing more or less than the loss of that most valuable treasure: the immortal soul." Fact|date: September 14, 2008|date=September 2008
The 19th century
At 825 Walnut Street in
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is The Walnut Street Theatre, or, "The Walnut." Founded in 1809 by the Circus of Pepin and Breschard, "The Walnut" is the oldest theater in America. The Walnut's first theatrical production, "The Rivals", was staged in 1812. In attendance were President Thomas Jeffersonand the Marquis de Lafayette. [www.walnutstreettheatre.org]
Provincial theaters frequently lacked heat and minimal
theatrical property("props") and scenery. Apace with the country's westward expansion, some entrepreneurs operated floating theaters on barges or riverboats that would travel from town to town. A large town could afford a long "run"—or period of time during which a touring company would stage consecutive multiple performances—of a production, and in 1841, a single play was shown in New York City for an unprecedented three weeks. Fact|date=September 2008 William Shakespeare's works were commonly performed. American plays of the period were mostly melodramas, a famous example of which was " Uncle Tom's Cabin", adapted by H. J. Conway, from the novel of the same name by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
A popular form of theater during this time was the
minstrel show, which featured white (and sometimes, especially after the Civil War, black) actors dressed in " blackface(painting one's face, etc. with dark makeup to imitate the coloring of an African or African American)." The players entertained the audience using comic skits, parodies of popular plays and musicals, and general buffoonery and slapstick comedy, all with heavy utilization of racial stereotyping and racist themes. Fact|date=September 2008
Throughout the 19th century, theater culture was associated with
hedonismand even violence, and actors (especially women), were looked upon as little better than prostitutes. Fact|date: September 14 2008|date=September 2008 On April 15, 1865, less than a week after the end of the United States Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, while watching a play at Ford's Theaterin Washington, D.C., was assassinated by a nationally popular stage-actor of the period, John Wilkes Booth. Burlesque—a form of farcein which females in male roles mocked the politicsand cultureof the day—became a popular form of entertainment by the middle of the 19th century. Criticized for its sexuality and outspokenness, this form of entertainment was hounded off the "legitimate stage" and found itself relegated to saloons and barrooms. Fact|date: September 14, 2008|date=September 2008 The female producers were replaced by their male counterparts, who toned down the politics and played up the sexuality, until the shows eventually became little more than pretty girls in skimpy clothing singing songs, while male comedians told raunchy jokes. Fact|date=September 2008
postbellumNorth, theater flourished as a post-war boom allowed longer and more-frequent productions. The advent of American rail transportallowed production companies, its actors, and large, elaborate sets to travel easily between towns, which made permanent theaters in small towns feasible. The invention and practical application of electric lighting also led to changes to and improvements of scenery styles and the designing of theater interiors and seating areas.
Charles Frohman, Al Hayman, Abe Erlanger, Mark Klaw, Samuel F. Nixon, and Fred Zimmermanformed the Theatrical Syndicate, which established systemized booking networks throughout the United States, and created a management monopoly that controlled every aspect of contracts and bookings until the turn of the 20th century, when the Shubert brothersfounded rival agency, The Shubert Organization.
The 20th century
Vaudevillewas common in the late 19th and early 20th century, and is notable for heavily influencing early film, radio, and television productions in the country. (This was born from an earlier American practice of having singers and novelty acts perform between acts in a standard play.) George Burnswas a very long-lived American comedianwho started out in the vaudeville community, but went on to enjoy a career running until the 1990s.
Some vaudeville theaters built between about 1900 and 1920 managed to survive as well, though many went through periods of alternate use, most often as movie theaters until the second half of the century saw many urban populations decline and multiplexes built in the
suburbs. Since that time, a number have been restored to original or nearly-original condition and attract new audiences nearly one hundred years later.
By the beginning of the 20th century, legitimate (non-vaudville) theater had become decidedly more sophisticated in the United States, as it had in Europe. The stars of this era, such as
Ethel Barrymoreand John Drew, were often seen as even more important than the show itself. The advance of motion pictures also led to many changes in theater. The popularity of musicals may have been due in part to the fact the early films had no sound, and could thus not compete, until " The Jazz Singer" of 1927, which combined both talking and music in a moving picture. More complex and sophisticated dramas bloomed in this time period, and acting styles became more subdued. Even by 1915, actors were being lured away from theater and to the silver screen, and vaudeville was beginning to face stiff competition.
revues consisting of mostly unconnected songs, sketches, comedy routines, and scantily-clad dancing girls dominated for the first 20 years of the 20th century, musical theater would eventually develop beyond this. One of the first major steps was " Show Boat", with music by Jerome Kernand lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. It featured songs and non-musical scenes which were integrated to develop the show's plot. The next great step forward was " Oklahoma!", with lyrics by Hammerstein and music by Richard Rodgers. Its "dream ballets" used dance to carry forward the plot and develop the characters.
Amateur performing groups have always had a place alongside professional acting companies. The Amateur Comedy Club, Inc. was founded in New York City on April 18, 1884. It was organized by seven gentlemen who broke away from the Madison Square Dramatic Organization, a socially prominent company presided over by Mrs. James Brown Potter and David Belasco. The ACC staged its first performance on February 13, 1885. It has performed continuously ever since, making it the oldest, continuously performing theatrical society in the United States. Prominent New Yorkers who have been members of the ACC include Theodore, Frederick and John Steinway of the piano manufacturing family; Gordon Grant, the marine artist; Christopher La Farge, the architect; Van H. Cartmell, the publisher; Albert Sterner, the painter; and Edward Fales Coward, the theatre critic and playwright. Elsie De Wolfe, Lady Mendl, later famous as the world's first professional interior decorator, acted in Club productions in the early years of the 20th Century, as did Hope Williams (whom Katharine Hepburn understudied in "Holiday" in the 1920s), and Julie Harris in the 1940s. ACC directors have included Charles Coburn, Herbert Dawley, George Ferencz, Walter Greaza, Josephine Hull, Howard Lindsay, Gene Lockhart, Priestly Morrison, Ruth Rawson, Maida Reade, Jose Ruben, Janet Hayes Walker and Monty Wooley, among others.
The massive social change that went on during the
Great Depressionalso had an effect on theater in the United States. Plays took on social roles, identifying with immigrants and the unemployed. The Federal Theatre Project, a New Dealprogram set up by Franklin D. Roosevelt, helped to promote theater and provide jobs for actors. The program staged many elaborate and controversial plays such as " It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewisand " The Cradle Will Rock" by Marc Blitzstein. By contrast, the legendary producer Brock Pemberton(founder of the Tony Awards) was among those who felt that it was more than ever a time for comic entertainement, in order to provide an escape from the prevailing harsh social conditions: typical of his productions was Lawrence Riley's comedy " Personal Appearance" (1934), whose success on Broadway (501 performances) vindicated Pemberton.
The years between the World Wars were years of extremes.
Eugene O'Neill's plays were the high point for serious dramatic plays leading up to the outbreak of war in Europe. Beyond the Horizon(1920), for which he won his first Pulitzer Prize. Two more Pulitzers were awarded to O'Neill for Anna Christie(1922) and Strange Interlude(1928).
World War II, American theater came into its own. Several American playwrights, such as Arthur Millerand Tennessee Williams, became world-renowned. In the Sixties, experimentation in the Arts spread into theater as well, with plays such as "Hair" including nudityand drug culture references. Musicals remained popular as well, and musicals such as " West Side Story" and " A Chorus Line" broke previous records.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, American theatre began to borrow from cinematic and operatic roots. For instance,
Julie Taymor, director of The Lion King directed " Die Zauberflote" at the Metropolitan Opera. Also, Broadway musicals were developed around Disney's Mary Poppins, Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, and the one that started it all, Beauty and the Beast, which may have contributed to Times Square's revitalization in the 1990s. Also, Mel Brooks's The Producers and Young Frankensteinare based on his hit films.
American theater today
Earlier styles of theater such as
minstrel shows and Vaudevilleacts have disappeared from the landscape, but theater remains a popular American art form. Broadway productions still entertain millions of theatergoers as productions have become more elaborate and expensive. At the same time, theater has also served as a platform for expression, and a venue for identity exploration for under-represented, minority communities, who have formed their own companies and created their own genres of works, notably East West Players, founded in 1965 as the first Asian American theatregroup. Notable contemporary American playwrights include Edward Albee, August Wilson, Tony Kushner, David Henry Hwang, and Wendy Wasserstein. Smaller urban theaters have stayed a source of innovation, and regional theaters remain an important part of theater life. Drama is also taught in high schools and colleges, which was not done in previous eras, and many become interested in theater through this.
List of playwrights from the United States
Dance in the United States
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