Notes on Early American Theatre

51nM3GMWHsL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I am not sure that I am capable of providing an appropriate sociological context for Tice L. Miller’s description of North American theatre before the revolution that disconnected the future USA from its British ‘motherland’, only that it seems much of the theatre performed in the colony was influenced by the fashions of London theatre – Drury Lane, which sent touring companies to the Americas under the leadership of Garrick, dictated the scripts that found their way across the Atlantic – and its earliest appearance was in the slave-states of the South. Quite how this expresses the relationship between Britain and North America is for historical study rather than dramaturgical (at least, that is my excuse for not engaging fully with the implications of theatre emerging in a society that had an economy based on vicious exploitation of humans).

These early manifestations of theatre in the Americas, however, concentrated on the development of a dramaturgy that is sentimental, morally didactic and adapted to the Enlightenment philosophies. Shakespeare was performed alongside the prototype melodrama like The Merchant’s Tale, or Cato (which I remember might have influenced Voltaire in his anglophile phase), and plays were part of an evening’s entertainment that resembles vaudeville, with musical numbers and post-show pieces at the end (half-price admission available for those who didn’t fancy the main show). There are few examples of ‘local plays’, with a repertoire founded on English language scripts, including The Beau’s Stratagem and other post-restoration dramas, which were often adapted for the aesthetics of the day.

In particular, Miller mentions the Tate version of King Lear, with its happy ending, Garrick’s remix of Romeo and Juliet, featuring a death-bed conversation between the unhappy couple, and Cibber’s Richard III, which made the monarch even more of a bad-guy. Lear, now featuring a romance between Cordelia and Edgar and the survival of the cantankerous king, followed not the powerful tragic logic of Shakespeare’s plot but that of poetic justice.

Given that many of the English migrants to the colony in the seventeenth century were puritans, and even into the second generation retained a religious suspicion of theatricals, it fell to Catholic and Anglican communities to celebrate the stage, but it fed the appetite for moral tales and the new-found Enlightenment fascination with morality. Miller suggests that the ‘great revival’ of the South, which featured lecture tours from Wesley and evangelical preachers, did for the theatre down there for a while, yet Miller’s broader intention regards the stage as a locus for public conversation. In short, when it wasn’t being banned for being immoral (those Restoration comedies with all the sex and glamour soon disappeared from the repertoire), the theatre was a vehicle for ideas that allowed the audience to be confirmed in their own value systems. Even Shakespeare wasn’t immune to being changed to be a bit more polite and Enlightened.

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