American Theater

The 19th century

From the Wikipedia

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 Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette.

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.

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.

Throughout the 19th century, theater culture was associated with hedonism and even violence, and actors (especially women), were looked upon as little better than prostitutes. 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 Theater in Washington, D.C., was assassinated by a nationally popular stage-actor of the period, John Wilkes Booth.

Burlesque—a form of farce in which females in male roles mocked the politics and culture of 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. 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.

In the postbellum North, theater flourished as a post-war boom allowed longer and more-frequent productions. The advent of American rail transport allowed 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.


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