Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Theater in America, circa 1800

When Rebecca was a young woman, going to the theater was a popular pastime among those in her social set. The theater provided variety, with a mixture of Shakespeare, other favorites from the past and recent London hits. People went even though productions could be very uneven. Maria Fenno, Rebecca's best friend, reported to Rebecca from New York that she would be going to see King Lear, as performed by a "band of butchers," with a Cordelia "who has frequently been obliged to go to bed in the middle of a play in consequence of intoxication." On the other hand, America in 1800 had begun to attract young English actors whose stars rose much more quickly here than on the London stage. They would be the first matinee idols in the new nation.

Most of the social elite, as devotees of the English literary heritage, attended regularly. Others, like the Quakers, stayed away on principle. The middle classes generally avoided the theater, believing it to be a den of vice, and it can be argued that they were correct. Nearly every theater had its infamous third tier, the highest balcony where prostitutes displayed themselves and booked assignations. Theater owners early realized that this secondary attraction brought in a regular clientele, whose tickets provided the profit necessary to keep the dramatic arts alive in America.

The third tier was a frequent source of noise and disruption, but the prostitutes and their johns were not alone in impropriety. Wealthy young men felt entitled to exercise their wit in voices loud enough for the whole theater to hear. Rebecca's sister Rachel found their conduct disgusting on at least one occasion:

"We had several of them in our box at the theatre [who] annoyed me almost to death. Every word that [the leading actor] uttered was repeated by them with some comments."

Despite the rowdiness of the third tier and the "arrogance and affectation" (Rachel's words) of some young men, respectable men and women, safe in their theater boxes, continued to attend, and even to bring their adolescent children. In 1805 Rebecca wrote of taking 14-year-old Matilda Hoffman to see a play.

(Maria's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Rachel's is from the Gulian C. Verplanck Papers at the New York Historical Society, and the information about Rebecca and Matilda's theater-going is from a letter written by Rebecca in the Gratz Papers at the American Jewish Historical Society.)

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