Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series - 299
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library
A Fair Booth Theatre Project
…The truth is that Lewis Hallam found greater encouragement in the North than the South, as is proved by the fact that he did not return to Williamsburg after the Philadelphia season of 1754, and never played Annapolis at all. The capitols of Virginia and Maryland were both small towns in 1752-4, incapable of yielding a prolonged support to a theatrical company. At Williamsburg much of the patronage came from the Virginia planters, who differed from the plain farmers in the neighborhood of Philadelphia, and the self-sufficient country gentlemen of the county of Westchester in New York, but the Virginians of that period were too busy with schemes of territorial aggrandizement to devote much time to the drama, and the comedians of Hallam's company found the columns of the Virginia Gazette devoted to negotiations with the Mingoes, Shawnees and Twightees, and accounts of Indian massacres instead of criticisms of plays and players. While the stage in Virginia was not retarded by the opposition of sectarian narrowness, it suffered from the neglect due to the hard conditions of life in a new land.
…American society and morals at the middle of the eighteenth century were not to be measured by the same standard that was applied to the stage. The rich were higher and the poor lower in the social scale than they are today…Wealth everywhere was a species of aristocracy. The Virginia planter was a fox-hunting squire with the airs of an English duke. In the cities the first families were scarcely less haughty than royalty itself…The condition of the working population was little better than that of the slaves. It thus happened that at its dawn the drama in America was encouraged almost wholly by the middle class, through whose influence the Republic itself was established.George O. Seilhamer History of the American Theatre Before the Revolution; pp.81-2, 86
0, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million,
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confin'd two mighty monarchies,
Whose high, upreared, and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think, when we talk of horses that you see them
Printing their proud hoos i th' receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there, jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who, Prologue-like, your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
WILLIAM LEVINGSTON, THE SON OF A SCOTTISH CIVIL SERVANT, COMES OVER from Britain [to] New Kent County, Virginia, around 1716. He is about 30 years of age, a merchant, who has decided to enter into the uncluttered Colonial marketplace. Levingston's first aim is to organize a dancing school but his ambition soon leads him to build and support a theatre in Williamsburg. He has no theatrical ability aside from recognizing talent when he sees it. He cobbles together an oddly assorted acting troupe then goes into partnership with former indentured servants and with them Levingston founds the first play house in the English-speaking colonies.
His experiment in entertainment entrepreneurship does not work very well. Financial reverses take almost everything Levingston owns. Legal complications arising from debts and property disputes chase the merchant and his wife Susanna out of Williamsburg.
CHARLES AND MARY STAGG, a Colonial song and dance team, are made indentures of William Levingston just before his departure from Scotland. They are present at the creation of the first theatre and share in the short-lived financial awards. The Staggs not only outlive their master/partner but come to enjoy the respectability of a healthy, upper middle class life.
MARY ANSELL, MARY PEEL, NICHOLAS HURLSTON, ALICE IVES, ELIZABETH IVES, have association with Levingston through his indentures and business ventures. They are working-class people whose meagre talents are capitalized upon by the merchant. They form the core of his theatrical company which is, for a time, the only show in town.
WALTER MURRAY AND THOMAS KEAN in 1749 form their acting company in Philadelphia. Their need for a performance space is met by William Plumstead who, after his being kicked out of the Quaker fellowship, has turned Anglican. Plumstead will shortly become Philadelphia's mayor.II.
Thomas Kean has been in the Colonies since after 1714 when he left Drury Lane to search for better parts. Half a life later Kean is throwing in his fortunes with Walter Murray. Murray's biography, like many of these early performers, amounts to an incomplete list of playing dates. The Murray-Kean partnership proves an unhappy one. Kean leaves the company in early 1751 only to rejoin it later in the year but then as the third man in a management team composed of three men. A sniping observer calls the Murray-Kean group "stage-struck tradesmen and their wives." Some of them are Dicky Murray (Murray's son); Mrs. Taylor, Mr. Jago, the widow Osborn, Mrs. Beccely, a singer; cabinetmaker John Tremaine and his wife, and the Robert Uptons. Mr. Upton has came from England as an advance man for the Hallam Company. The lure of the stage is too much for him, though, thus without a word to his employers he joins up with Murray--Kean. A Philadelphia girl, Nancy George, runs away from home to be with them. They do not excise offensive profanity from their productions. They extend scenes of battle and murder for the greater amusement of the crowds. Among the officialdom of Quakers and Presbyterians, Murray and Kean are considered servitors of the Devil. The company arrives in Williamsburg in October, 1751, facing two common problems of the Colonial theatre--no money and no functional play house. LEWIS HALLAM, THE ELDER, brings over his intrepid London Company of Comedians during the Spring of 1752. His troupe of a dozen is made up partly of his near relations and in-laws all of whom safely arrive at Yorktown on the Charming Sally.
Hallam comes out of a not quite famous English acting family. He is recognized primarily as a comedian. Hallam's brother William has essentially put the company together from the remnants of his own unlicensed London organization: the Goodmans' Fields Theatre and Booths at the London Fairs. Lewis Hallam will do well by the trust placed in him to manage the players in the genuine wilderness of the Colonies. Hallam has a knack for self promoting showmanship. Audiences were drawn together through the use of fireworks, novelty musicians and acrobatic dancers. Hallam's talent for huckstering is imaginatively illustrated by a novelist from another era:
A drum comes from the distance quickly rolling, trumpets blare aloud and split the ears, and mounted on his car of state…a cart fixed with a platform and pulled by three III. mules…the great Hallam rides in state above the tuneful throng…the company will that night enact the tragedy of Hamlet…This information is conveyed in letters half a foot long and with a profusion of exclamation points…
The London Company of Comedians includes the Clarksons, the Rigbys, a musician named John Singleton, athletic actor Patrick Malone, Hallam's wife and their children. When the players finally arrive in Williamsburg they find that the Royal Governor has forbade them to perform due to some moral reservations.
LEWIS HALLAM, THE YOUNGER, makes an inglorious debut in The Merchant of Venice on September 5, 1752, but overcomes his youthful trauma to become a powerful figure in the real historic drama of the Colonial theatre. The younger Hallam grows up thin, straight and an able dancer. An early injury from his instruction in sword play cuts a scar near his right eye which gives him, at times, a quirky, cunning cast to his face. He receives the typical training of an actor in this era: fencing, dance, and the acting style, probably Colley of Cibber and Dame Quin. William Rigby influences the development of Hallam's acting style. Critics accuse Hallam of swallowing the delivery of his speeches and inserting small oaths where there is no call for them in the script.
Hallam's off-stage character earns him the reputation of one who goes [out] of the way to be difficult and mean-spirited. Everything is a potential argument. He is arrogant, petty and spiteful. Before Lewis Hallam, Jr., is through, however, he will have behind him 30 years of acting experience. By 1774, he has learned over 100 roles and most of them are lead parts. It does not hurt him, either, to have a father who runs a theatre company.
DAVID DOUGLASS leads his troupe to Williamsburg for the first time in October, 1760 when Douglass is about 40 years old.
He was born around 1720 into the British gentry either of English or Scottish heritage. Douglass becomes known as a Latin scholar and a man of sense, discretion and integrity. He goes to Jamaica as a tradesman, a printer, but as early as 1751, John Moody's Kingston-based company carries Douglass' name in the cast lists. (Moody later became a successful comedian at Drury Lane under Garrick's management.)
The London Company of Comedians is left without effective leadership when in 1756, the elder Lewis Hallam dies of yellow fever. Douglass enters from the wings, as it were, takes over as manager, subsequently marries Hallam's widow and gives the troupe a significant change of name to The American Company.IV.
Douglass has a talent for able administration. He strives to maintain cordial relations with the sometimes wary and intolerant religious officials of the Northern colonies who view players as a threat to the spiritual well-being of church-going people. And yet, Douglass' houses are full almost every night. The house was probably built by him, too, for when the American Company arrives in Williamsburg, Douglass has overseen the construction of significant play houses in Philadelphia and Annapolis. Before he quits the Colonial stage, the manager will be chief architect for seven additional theatres where earlier none existed.
Jamaica serves as a talent pool for the Colonial theatre and David Douglass makes good use of it. Many of the performers whom he takes on are either recent products of the London stage, graduates of the Jamaican experience, or a satisfying combination of both.
By 1760 Mrs. Douglass has outlived one husband and has reached middle age, a fact which does not prevent her from playing in youthful parts, like Juliet. Besides, the public is accustomed to seeing her in certain stock roles or "lines" and audiences of this period in theatrical history do not accept change very well. Stereotyping is desired and encouraged. Popular acclaim keeps Mrs. Douglass as Juliet even though, as one critic explains, the actress has matured into rather matronly proportions.
David Douglass also encourages genuine youthful energy. Among his company are the wonderful Nancy Hallam and the melodramatic Lewis Hallam, Jr. The younger Hallam's wife, Sarah, has little stage presence and not much enthusiasm for the strolling life. Owen Norris can acquit himself well in parts calling for low jest and buffoonery while Mrs. Norris, some years his junior, is a beautiful and accomplished performer. Mrs. Morris cannot compare to the company's duenna, Catherine Maria Harman. Mrs. Harman's life seems as though it has been lifted out of one of the plays. Her mother Charlotte is daughter of Poet Laureate Colley Cibber and the wife of a sweet voiced knavish musician named Richard Charke. He abandons Charlotte for Jamaica in 1759. Catherine Maria marries a mediocre talent, Harmon, and both of them join Douglass; however, by early 1760 the husband is gone.
Other players of the American Company include the Charles Loves, the Tomlinsons, Mr. Horne, Mr. Reed, Miss Crane and Mrs. and Miss Dowthaitt. Even old Walter Murray joins the fold at least for a little while.V.
WILLIAM VERLING is among the English recruits Douglass brings over in 1765 to replenish his ranks. Verling is with the temperamental Henrietta Osborne, singer Stephen Woolls and the womanizing Thomas Wall. Douglass cannot keep them around for long. They all defect from his management during a 1766 run in Charleston, South Carolina. Wall takes up teaching guitar, Mrs. Osborne, (who may use the "Mrs." merely for respectability's sake), says she is leaving for Europe and William Verling wanders off into the Colonial hinterlands in search of fame--or at worst--a steady job.
Verling eventually forms his own Virginia Company of Comedians with a core of Douglass' veterans all of whom are trying to find better career advancement. There are familiar faces: Henrietta Osborne, the Dowthaitt women, and Mrs. Godwin. When the Virginia Comedians leave Williamsburg, every player goes while owing money to somebody in town.
WILLIAMSBURG'S THEATRICAL HISTORY BEGINS WITH AN ENIGMATIC WOULD-BE showman named William Levingston. He was not himself a playwright, an actor, or even vaguely attached to the dramatic arts.
He presumably was the son of a William Levingston or Livingston and Elizabeth Skene. The elder Levingston, around 1669, operated a merchandising firm in Aberdeen, Scotland, then before Mary, 1685, became Collector of Customs followed by service in Parliament as a representative of Aberdeen during 1711-1713. The son William was baptized on November 19, 1682.1 Perhaps as an extension of the family business, the younger Levingston immigrated to New Kent County, Virginia, sometime prior to 1716. There he not only moved merchandise but capitalized on the dancing talents of Charles and Mary Stagg whom Levingston brought with him from Britain. The Staggs were contracted out to give lessons to dance-crazed Virginians.
The circumstances of the affiliation between Levingston and the Staggs are unclear. The couple was under his indenture from September, 1715, when they were bound to "ye sd Wm Levingstone to serve him in ye colony of Virga in ye Arts, Professions…"2 What are the reasons why the merchant decided to indenture two dancers? Perhaps knew he could make money off them in Virginia and could the Staggs have figured into a larger plan of Levingston's for building a play house even before he left Scotland. All of these curiosities must go unanswered as no record preserves Levingston's intentions. At any rate, he used the Staggs to operate a "peripatetic dancing school" in New Kent County and the surrounding region.
In early 1716, a flurry of contractual activity set in motion events that would eventually culminate in the founding of the first theatre in British North America.
On March 16, 1716, the College of William and Mary gave permission to Levingston for his utilization of a "lower Room at the South end of the College 2 for teaching the Scholars and others to dance until his own dancing school in Williamsburg could be finished."3 This measure has the guiding hands of the Staggs behind it. On July 11, 1716, the Staggs were released from their indenture but they immediately entered into a contract with their former master. It was a shrewd business deal and the document reads as though all concerned had reason to believe that they would soon be making quite a bit of money.
Charles Stagg was given allowance to retain all moneys due him from his dance instruction since his arrival in Virginia, and conversely, Stagg would pay Levingston within eighteen months a total of 35 pds. 17s for costs accrued by the merchant in ferry charges, tolls, advance money, etc., while the Staggs were teaching in and around New Kent.4 Levingston agreed to build "at his own proper Costs and Charge in ye City of Wmsburgh One good Substantiall house commodious for Acting such Plays as shall be thought fitt to be Acted there."5 This is an important agreement. Within less than five months Levingston has moved from the relatively modest use of a spare room at William and Mary for dancing classes to declaring his ambition to construct a play house. No explanation is given anywhere for this shift of emphasis.
It was further agreed in the instrument of July 11 that Levingston would receive the rental money for the building and on each March 25 until 1717 Charles Stagg had to pay the merchant 60 pds. Stagg was permitted to deduct 5 pds. a month for the time that he performed for the mutual benefit of the partnership.6 Under the provisions of this covenant both parties would share equally "all Charges of Cloaths Musick & other Necessaries." They would also split any profits gained from the performances of the "Plays…fitt to be Acted." Levingston "at his own proper Cost & Charge sent to England for Actors & Musicians for ye better Performance of ye sd Plays…"7
On November 4 and 5, 1716, Levingston acquired for 45 shillings three lots of land, two on Palace Green with the rearmost facing Nicholson Street. His agreement with the Trustees of the City of Williamsburg "stipulated that Levingston would within two years complete the construction of a house upon each of these lots or forfeit their ownership."8 He continued in possession of the land beyond the given two years thus it is probable that William Levingston had erected his theatre by November 5, 1718.
The merchant turned impresario hoped for a monopoly. In July he and the Staggs arranged to "use their best endeavor to Obtain a Patent or Lycence 3 from ye Governour of Virga for ye Sole Privileges of Acting Comedies, Drolls or Other Kind of Stage Plays within any part of ye sd Colony not only for the Three Years next Ensueing the date hereof but for as much longer time as the sd Governour shall be pleased to grant."9 It was an arrogant request that Governor Spotswood never honored. Events would soon prove that Levingston's wish to ban future competition was not necessary. His theatre was the only one of its kind in Virginia, and, for that matter, the sole playhouse in what was most of North America.
This bold move of the merchant and the dancing masters to build a theatre in Williamsburg is not fully understood. Levingston may have been persuaded by the solicitation of entertainment starved townsfolk in addition to the urgings of the Staggs. Certainly Levingston was intrigued by the possibilities of turning a handsome profit in a town where no theatre had ever existed--he had no negative precedents for thinking he might not make a considerable amount of money. Williamsburg was Virginia's largest settlement, her capitol city, and it aspired to adequate mimicry of London culture.
The overture was finished. The curtain was about to rise on the Levingston-Stagg Theatre's first production.
* * * *
Nothing is known about the inaugural performance. It is generally agreed that the first known presentation at the Livingston-Stagg Theatre was on May 28, 1718. Governor Alexander Spotswood decreed on that day a "publick entertainment" and a portion of the festivities included a play. The cause for celebration was the birthday of King George I.10
Spotswood's entertainment fizzled, however, due to the deliberate machinations of James Blair who used this public occasion to exert his considerable personal influence and embarrass Spotswood. Blair and seven other members of Governor's Council ignored the planned fete. The rebellious councilors staged their own entertainment at the Capitol where they "invited all ye Mobb to a Bonfire" and gave out free drinks to all comers.11 (1*)4
This upstaging of Spotswood was part of the social fall out from 1718's political turbulence. The Governor's relationship with Council during the previous seven years was characterized by slow erosion. Spotswood unapologetically criticized the power wielded by the Blair faction in Council. Those eight men were raised to wrath by being passed over for judicial assignments; what they felt was consistent misrepresentation of their opinions by Spotswood to the Board of Trade and a genuine personal animosity between the Governor and James Blair. The birthday honors for George I were ignored particularly because Spotswood had in blunt terms suggested to George Hamilton, Lord Orkney, "that the council be purged." The recalcitrant council members then petitioned London for Spotswood's removal.13
* * * *
The type of production viewed by the Governor and his somewhat diminished entourage on May 28, 1718 in unknown. The historic memory does not recount the players or the play.
The composition of Levingston's theatre troupe is a source of some speculation by chroniclers of the Colonial stage in Williamsburg. It is theorized that a pragmatic and economically-minded impresario such as Levingston may have recruited unemployed performers into his indenture which gave the actors fairly steady work and allowed the manager to readily assemble a small group of entertainers. Perhaps this core membership was complemented by the "young gentlemen of the College", and Williamsburg townspeople who had their own inclinations toward taking the stage.
Six individuals are forwarded for consideration as at least partial composition of the Levingston-Stagg group: Alice Ives, Elizabeth Ives, Mary Ansell, Mary Peel, Nicholas Hurlston and Thomas Sellers. A child, George McFarlin, and one William Jones, may have also participated in some fashion.
The widow Alice Ives and her daughter Elizabeth enter the scene on a strand of Levingston's legal entanglements. Elizabeth Ives' East Indian servant had an illegitimate child which provoked an unrewarded suit on the part of Ives to have the servant's time of indenture extended. In September, 1721, William Levingston was an assignee of 5 Elizabeth Ives in the case of Levingston versus Weller. Ives was a defendant in two other suits concerning debt. She died before November 19, 1722 upon which Alice Ives became administratrix of her daughter's estate. The mother, however, followed Elizabeth Ives within three months of the latter's death. The daughter's affairs were left untidied but Alice Ives "disposed of her own and Elizabeth Ives' property 'in Virginia or which shall hereafter be sent in.'"14 Once all debts were paid out of the estates, both of them were sold and the remainder delivered to Alice Ives' son, William, of Oxford, England, who was to send by his mother's wish 40pds. sterling to a daughter Needham of Plymouth in South Britain. Levingston's servant Mary Peel witnessed the naming of the will's executor who was William Blaikley.15
On May 18, 1724, Blaikley gave the court the estate's inventory. The Ives' possessions appear to have consisted completely of clothing, fabrics and sewing materials. It is almost as an afterthought that such things appear as dining room furniture and a damaged book titled The History of China. The Ives could have provided their services as wardrobe and property mistresses, perhaps even acting, for Levingston's players.16
William Levingston brought two complaints against his servant Mary Ansell in York County Court. On February 20, 1721, he requested an extension on Ansell's indenture due to the trouble brought to Levingston's house when Ansell bore a child out of wedlock and caused the merchant inconvenience "during the time of her lying in." Ansell had in addition cost Levingston ten shilling and seven weeks of discomfiture when the servant left the house without permission. The total time added onto Mary Ansell's indenture was one year, seventeen weeks and four days.17
Mary Peel, another servant, in court on May 15, 1721, "agreed voluntarily" to remain indentured to Levingston for two years past the requirement of her contract. No reason was given as to why she consented to this addition of time. Levingston further involved himself with legal wranglings through the estate of Nicholas Hurlston, who may have been a professional actor.20
Another possible member of the Levingston-Stagg Theatre was an indentured servant of Charles Stagg. One-eyed, "Battle-ham'd" and violin-playing, "little" Thomas Sellers, who, despite flat feet, managed to escape and elude capture for two weeks before Stagg took Sellers in to court. On January 6 26, 1734/35, the servant was sentenced to give his master twenty-eight days beyond his contracted time plus payment to Stagg of 4 pds., 15 shlgs. and 9 qd. and 200 pounds of tobacco or Sellers had the option of working off the cost.21
Two more of Levingston's servants are worth mentioning. The court adjudged one George McFarlin to be ten years of age May 16, 1720. A William Jones was ordered to give Levingston 4pds. 4 shlgs. and 6 qd. Jones had been sent to jail and to get him out Levingston paid 1 pd. 12 shgls. and 6 qd. plus 200 pounds of tobacco.22 These two people could have assisted in same way the productions at the Levingston-Stagg Theatre. In McFarlin's case, child actors were not unknown during that time, as indeed the notion of an actor going to jail was not unthinkable--especially for debt.
Levingston's servants were apparently in trouble quite often. Possibly the merchant gave these people cause to run away and in general create trouble. If indeed they were more than simply indentures, but performers besides, they would have occupied an odd niche in Williamsburg's society. Levingston perhaps tried to maintain a cohesive theatrical troupe through his use of contracted labor. He was, however, probably a little out of his depth in his role of theatre manager.
* * * *
Once the play house was a firm establishment Levingston extended his activities to better support his theatrical endeavor. On lots adjacent to the theatre were placed a bowling green, lodging-house, stables, kitchen and outbuildings. Levingston received license to use his own dwelling as a tavern. He agreed in 1720-1 to "constantly find & provide in his ordinary good wholesome and cleanly lodging & diet for Travellers & stabelage & provender or pasturage & provender (as the season shall require) for their horses…& shall not suffer any unlawful gaming in his sd house nor on the Sabbath day Suff(er any person to) Tipple or drink more than is necessary."23 Levingston then bore the responsibilities of merchant, theatre manager, inn-keeper and may have further varied his business by turning his hand to surgery. It is of some interest that apothecary Dr. George Gilmer lived very close at hand, would soon own the play house if but for a brief period, and even act in at least one production. Any association between Levingston and Gilmer, however, remains speculative.24
The dreams of easy money did not manifest into reality. On May 29, 1721, Levingston mortgaged his entire holdings to Archibald Blair. The merchant 7 soon defaulted and Blair leased the property for five years to Robert Faldo on June 24, 1723. Levingston could not let go of his property as easily as a clerk could confirm the transaction. A vivid if quick glimpse of the man's temperament can be had by noting Levingston's reaction to Faldo's moving into the house. The merchant "by force & arms…Ejected and expelled & Amoned" Robert Faldo and "other Enormities to him did offer."25 The appropriately dramatic and affronted language indicates that Levingston physically attacked Faldo, kicked him off the property while cursing him in a way only a livid Scotsman could. Levingston was yet again summoned into court but this time for his own behavior and not that of one of his servants.
The court judged Archibald Blair to be the rightful owner but Levingston paid one shilling in damages to Faldo who was allowed to reoccupy the buildings. Levingston also paid court costs.26
The erstwhile impresario was in this way forced to quit Williamsburg. He removed to Spotsylvania County between April, 1726 and 1727, where, near the site of what would become the town of Fredericksburg, he opened an ordinary. William Levingston died there in 1729, survived by his long-suffering wife, Susanna, who outlived him by some sixteen years.
William Byrd II may have made mention of Susanna Levingston when he wrote in his diary during a 1732 visit in Fredericksburg that he "must not forget Mrs. Levingston, who acts here in the double capacity of doctress and a coffee woman. And were this a populous city, she is qualified to exercise two other callings."27 The widow Levingston was apparently taking up where her husband left off with his attempt at playing the surgeon. She was also managing a coffee-house. The lascivious tendencies of Byrd, which he dutifully records elsewhere in his diaries, (and are often similar to the aside quoted above), indicates that he was intimating that the widow Levingston may have turned to prostitution as another means of supporting herself. The impression is that William Levingston died with debts and not a shilling to his name.(2*)
* * * *
In time the originators of the Levingston-Stagg Theatre were scattered by their fortunes and fates. An assessment of their accomplishment might be 8 this: A motley collection of financially straitened individuals who fancied themselves as players and performed in a theatre built by a man with no formal training in the dramatic arts; and furthermore, absent of the advice rendered to him by his former servants, Charles and Mary Stagg, he would not likely have managed by himself the short-lived but nonetheless significant founding of the first theatre in British North America.
While the broken William Levingston fled to Spotsylvania to die, the former entrepreneur's servants turned business partners managed very well for themselves.
Levingston must have possessed a measure of respect for the talents of the Staggs else he would not have built a theatre for a troupe of performers which the Staggs' help organize. The merchant's goal was to produce entertainments in a town where there were none to speak of and in so doing make money. It is not exactly known why Levingston's theatre foundered. A couple of factors may have contributed to its unmaking. The mismanagement by Levingston of his available resources is the most prevalent theory. His sudden expansion into the operation of a hostelry and bowling green probably strained what was already a difficult financial situation. Williamsburg's small population could give only limited support to the theatre. The town was not prepared for a permanent company of players. If Levingston's group had survived, perhaps he would have taken it on the road while using Williamsburg as a home base. The mixed assortment of unemployed actors and indentures pressed into service as players may not have performed well together. Then again, in this small provincial capitol that wanted for a theatre, expectations on the part of the audiences may have been lowered by their desire to be entertained. It was the only show in town.
Whatever his demerits, William Levingston's legacy to Williamsburg was the play house itself. What happened with the building cannot be fully determined because of the lack of accurate records. The Virginia Gazette did not begin printing until 1736 thus there is little indication of the activity at the Levingston-Stagg Theatre.
Charles and Mary Stagg, however talented as actors, managed to earn a decent living as dance instructors. Charles Stagg died sometime prior to January 21, 1735. His sizable inventory of possessions included two slaves, (one old 11 blind man and a woman named Coldstream), and two servants, Ann Walker, (five years service), and violin-playing Thomas Sellers, (two years service). The Staggs owned a complete set of household furnishings that was made up of, among other things, 36 chairs; 141 bottles of wine; 9 sheep; 3 cows and a heifer.1 This suggests they succeeded in tavern keeping as well as dancing.
An indication of how the theatre and cultural activities fared in Williamsburg during this time comes from a letter written on January 21, 1735 by William Byrd II to Sir John Randolph.
Upon the news of Mr. Stag's death, Madam La Baronne de Graffenreidt is in hopes to succeed to part of his business in Town. And were it not for making my good Lady Jealous (which I would not do for the world), I would recommend her to your favour. She really takes an abundance of pains and teaches well, and were you to attack her vertue you would find her as chaste as Lucretia.
We are told that there is a Bristol ship arrived at York River; if she brings any news be so good as to communicate it to your Country Friends, and in case you should have nothing Forreign we should be glad of a little Domestick, which of your Actors shone most in the Play next Isabinda, who I take it for granted is the Oldfield of the theatre? How came Squire Marplot off? with many a clap I suppose, tho I fancy he would have acted more to life in the comedy called the Sham Doctor. But not a word of this for fear in case of sickness he might poison or revenge your (obedient servant).2
Plays of some kind, strictly amateur efforts, were being mounted at the theatre although neither their frequency nor consistency are known.
Isabenda and Squire Marplot are characters out of Mrs. Susanna Centliver's The Busy-Body. Anne Oldfield made both roles famous on the London stage. The physician Byrd jibes was one Dr. Potter, "a writer of plays," who served as Byrd's personal physician.
Barbara de Graffenreidt started a career as an entertainer and hostess of polite Williamsburg society because the plantation owned by her husband Christopher de Graffenreidt had fallen into an unprofitable slump. Madame de Graffendreidt set up her dancing school in a townhouse adjacent to the Governor's Palace.
Mary Stagg was not to be bested by this titled interloper. And in this way the contest was joined.
Madame de Graffenreidt advertised for two months in advance of a planned ball on Tuesday, April 26, 1737 which would be followed by an assembly. 12 she ran another notice on April 22. The same issue of the Virginia Gazette boldly announces Mrs. Stagg's plans to have social affairs at the Capitol on April 28 and 29. The fee for entrance is given as a half pistole each and a teasing addition of "several valuable Things set up to be raffled for."3
The dancing instructors vigorously competed against each other throughout 1739 with balls and counter balls. Mrs. Stagg inclined toward awarding doorprizes at her events. The rivalry took on a rather ugly element when in March, 1738, Mrs. Stagg advertised an April 27 function with reference to, "several Grotesque Dances, never yet perform'd in Virginia," accompanied by prizes won by lottery which included a young Negro male. Mrs. de Graffenreidt would not allow herself to be shown up in such a manner. For her April 28 affair, she offered a raffle for a "likely young Virginia Negro woman, fit for house business and her child." Admission for the ball was five shillings and the assembly just half a pistole.4
Mary Stagg then turned to augmenting her income by converting her residence into a sweets shop. She sold hartshorn and calves-foot jellies; currant and other varieties of jellies, macaroons, confectionary and sweet-meats in large or small quantities at rates advertised to be very reasonable.
Stagg's attempt to diversify her business came as a result of yet more attacks on her market. In November of 1737, William Dering arrived in town for the instruction of "all Gentlemen sons" in dancing according to the newest French style, "at the College."5 Jones Irwin, in April, 1739, offered the talents of his indentured servant, Stephen Tenoe, who would hold classes in dance at Hampton, Yorktown and Williamsburg.6
By this time the Virginia Gazette had started its publication and its surviving copies help dissipate the cloud of unknowing that shrouds Williamsburg's past. The appearance of the Gazette gave advertisers a greater audience than could be reached by handbills or word of mouth. Readings of the paper's columns could give the impression that there was a sudden surge of a giddy social life in the town when, instead, for the first time Williamsburg had the means of which it could broadcast what was happening there and elsewhere in the colony. The advertisements that announce assemblies probably reflect activity which was ongoing prior to having a public record of the events. Besides the offerings of busy socialites, attempts to bring renewed life to the theatre were made on several occasions by local talents.13
"Gentlemen and Ladies of this Country" staged productions of The Busy-Body, The Recruiting Officer and The Beaux-Stratagem. The oddly assorted cast members included the sister and son of Governor William Gooch, Mayor Abraham Nicholas, the "merry" Doctor Potter, apothecary and theatre-owner George Gilmer and "a Painter and several others."(2*) 150 pds. in subscriptions was raised "to encourage their Entertaining the Country with like Diversions at future Public Meetings of our General Court and Assembly." Williamsburg wanted to be amused.7
The groves of academe began to resound with histrionic efforts as the College of William and Mary officially sanctioned "dayly Dialogues" in the Grammar School, to complement the teaching of Greek and Latin.
..if there are any sort of Plays or Diversions in Use among them, which are not to be found extant in any printed books, let the Master compose and dictate to his Scholars Colloquies fit for such Plays, that they may learn at all Times to speak Latin in apt and proper Terms.8
This pronouncement may have given impetus for a group of young scholars to organize some form of a dramatic club that performed on September 10, 1736, the tragedy of Cato. This was immediately followed by The Busy-Body with a cast expanded by the "Company" of "the Gentlemen and Ladies of this Country." The ensemble then gave The Recruiting Officer and The Beaux Stratagem.
A casting problem arose in filling a pivotal role in the popular Beaux-Stratagem. Colonel Thomas Jones asked his wife in a letter dated September 17, 1736, to inform their step-daughter,
You may tell Betty Pratt there has been but two Plays since she went which is Cato of the young Gent'm of the College as they call themselves, and the Busy Body by the Company on Wednesday Night last, and I believe there will be another to Night, they have been at a great loss for a fine Lady who I think is to be called Dorinda; but that difficulty is now overcome by finding her, which was to be the greatest Secret, and as such 'tis said to be Miss Anderson that came to Town with Mrs. Carter.9
"Arabella Sly" asked in a front-page letter to the editor of the Virginia Gazette if laughing at the slightly naughty scenes in the Beaux-Stratagem made her any less of a lady. 14
I Beg Leave to know, if it be decent to laugh at a Humorous Scene, without putting my Fan before my Face? When I was last in Town, I had the Pleasure of being an humble Spectator to see the Beaux-Stratagem perform'd; where, I confess, I was highly delighted with Love's Catechism, Miss Tancrede (who sat next to me), of a sudden, gave me a most terrible Hunch with her Elbow, and told me, I was the most insufferable Coquet that liv'd; that she should never be able to come in Company with me for so indecent an Action, as to giggle at Archer's kissing of Cherry, without hiding my Face. I look upon this to be as gross an Affront as ever was offered to a Woman of my Fashion. If your Worship thinks if worthy your Notice 'twill be sufficient Satisfaction to your humble Servant,
A few days later an 18th Century classified personal message appeared on the Gazette's first page.
WHEREAS a Gentleman, who, towards the latter End of the Summer, usually wore a Blue Camlet Coat lin'd with Red, and trim'd with Silver, a Silver lac'd hat and a Tupee Wig, has been often observ'd by Miss Amoret, to look very languishingly at the Said Amoret, and particularly one Night during the last Session of Assembly at the Theatre, the said Gentleman ogled her in such a Manner as shew'd him to be very far gone; the said Miss Amoret desires the Gentleman to take the first handsome Opportunity that offers, to explain himself on the Subject.
N.B. She believes he has very pretty teeth.11
The Young Gentlemen of The College played in the Drummer, or The Haunted House on September 20, 1736. This was likely their final performance of the season. A month later Elizabeth Holloway, grandmother of Betty Pratt, commented in a letter, "I hear there will be no plays this court so my dear B(etty) Pratt will lose no diversion by being absent for heare is not nor is there like to be anything to do."12
Aside from the competing entertainments of Mary Stagg and Madame de Graffenreidt the theatre appears to have slid into a long dormancy.
The biggest recorded attraction came in April of 1738 when Williamsburg paid host to a visiting circus-quality acrobatic family. They may have rented the theatre for their act. A husband and wife and their two children performed "The Agility of the Body, by various Sorts of Posture, Tumbling and Sword Dancing, to greater Perfection than has been known in these Parts for many Years, if ever."1315
The theatre's next mention comes on December 4, 1745, when a deed was drafted that confirmed a previous sale that passed from Dr. George Gilmer the "House call'd the play House" to thirty-one "Gentleman Subscribers" for 50 pds. (For further details of this sale see Appendix B). These subscribers consisted of a glittering array of the Virginia gentry. What they did not explicitly state was their reason for combining funds to acquire the theatre building. It could have been that these men originally intended to restore the dilapidated structure for continued use as a play house. Then, too, the old Capitol had recently burned and for some time the General Court had "by courtesie" resorted to using the courthouse building in Jamestown. A more convenient arrangement was wanted by Williamsburg's town elders. The mayor, recorder and aldermen petitioned the thirty-one Gentleman Subscribers that they might bestow their "present useless house on this Corporation" for use as a public building in which common halls and courts of hustings might be held. A deed of transferral was recorded on December 16, 1745. On December 19, the Virginia Gazette carried a call for bids by the mayor for the extensive refurbishing of the old Levingston-Stagg Theatre.
The good Dr. Gilmer retained his residence in Levingston's house.
The old theatre then went out with a scintillating display. One William Johnson brought his exhibition of electricity to Williamsburg in October, 1766, which the Gazette spoke of as "instructive and entertaining." Such a description befits this closing era of the Williamsburg stage.
There is nothing more commendable in the Fair Sex, than a free and easy Behavior: A woman of sense may take all innocent Liberties, without deserving that malicious title of Coquet, and may observe a proper Decorum, without coming under the Censure of a Prude…
…a Prude is the most unsociable Creature living.
Williamsburg, August 27, 1751.
By permission of His Honor the PRESIDENT,
"WHEREAS the Company of COMEDIANS that are in New York intend performing in the City; but there being no Room suitable for a PLAY-HOUSE, 'tis propos'd that a THEATRE shall be built by Way of Subscription: Each subscriber, advancing a Pistole, to be entitled to a Box Ticket, for the first Night's Diversion.
"Those Gentlemen and Ladies who are kind enough to favour this Undertaking, are desired to send their Subscription Money to Mr. Finnie's, at the Raleigh, where Tickets may be had.
"N.B. The House to be completed by October Court.1
Somehow the industrious tavern owner Alexander Finnie had heard of the impending appearance of an acting troupe and he knew if he could get a suitable house erected in time, he could stand to make a considerable sum of money. Beyond the occasional traveling novelty act, and the rare amateur attempts at dramatics, Williamsburg had gone without players for years. A professional company had never come through the town.
Finnie moved. On September 2, 1751, he leased from prosperous Benjamin Waller two lots east of the capitol where a theatre could be built.(3*) Finnie hurried the construction despite his not having the ready money to pay for the undertaking. A rumor then infiltrated society gossip to the effect that the actors were not coming. Old John Blair, President of the Governor's Council, cursorily noted in his diary on October 6, 1757, "Hear ye Actrs are dispersed Presid will not coame."2
Blair's pessimism proved unfounded. The players did come and were ready to present by October 21, Richard III coupled to "an exotic added" afterpiece called the Royal Captive performed "after the Turkish Manner."3 The acting company made this announcement on September 26--they were eager to perform 18 but as they had no place in which to play.
They called themselves the Company of Comedians and they were managed, (or ill-managed), by the controversial team of Walter Murray and Thomas Kean. The Murray-Kean company had recently completed a strenuous tour of several Northern cities where the Quaker and Presbyterian religious leaders were less tolerant of the worldly language and situations of the plays of Farquhar and Otway than the Anglican ministers and their parishioners in Virginia.
The Murray-Kean Company was left in the predicament of having no play house, and, as it so happened, very little money. On October 24, 1751, a plea for funds was given in the Virginia Gazette. Murray-Kean needed money "in Order to procure proper scenes and Dresses…for the payment of the House and lots, each Subscriber to have a Property therein, in Proportion to the Sum subscribed." Messers Mitchelson and Hyndman would collect the money and have the deeds delivered to than once the subscription drive was completed. Finnie is noticeably absent from these proceedings. He could have rented the theatre lots to Murray-Kean as a means of off-setting his costs with Benjamin Waller.4
A Virginia Gazette advertisement of October 17, 1751 reveals that the play house construction took into consideration formalities that William Levingston either did not have the money or expertise to realize in his building. Varying prices were asked for seating in the boxes, pit and gallery. It is probably that here, too, such divisions were only roughly approximate to a "legitimate" London theatre. The box seats, for example, may simply have been chairs set at either sides of the stage. When the Waller Street theatre underwent later refurbishing, it is likely that proper seating arrangements were set up.
While the play house was taking shape, the management of Murray-Kean went through a transition. Thomas Kean had bowed out of his administrative role before arriving in Williamsburg. Kean had given a final benefit performance and surrendered his "title to all properties of the company." He did not leave the troupe altogether because apparently Kean played Richard III while in Williamsburg. The bulk of Kean's responsibilities were adopted by singer Charles Somerset Woodham. Kean was likely not cut out of the decision-making processes, (perhaps out of deference to his years of stage experience), and some historians take to referring to the "Murray-Woodham-Kean" company.
The Williamsburg engagement was a short one. By mid November, the 19 group moved on to Norfolk then Suffolk.
This short exposure to theatre generated some dramatic excitement among the young gentlemen attending William and Mary. There, on November 11, commenced a practice of Cato. A professor of moral philosophy, one Mr. Preston, took exception to this effort. John Blair observed that "Mr. Pres(st)on to prevent the young gentlemen at ye college from playing at a rehearsal in ye dormitory, how they could act Cato privately among themselves, did himself, they say, act the Drunken Peasant; but his tearing down the curtains is to me very surprising."6
Murray-Woodham--Kean again swung through Williamsburg in mid-December but only to solicit funds for clothing. William Hunter, editor of the Gazette, purchased "A Suit of Cloaths for the Players." What Hunter meant by this, either theatrical costumes or actual warmer winter clothing, is not understood. The company was then Petersburg-bound and off into unrecorded performance dates.
They reappear in Williamsburg in April, 1752. On April 17 the Gazette carried the announcement of a benefit performance for Mrs. Beecely who was the "female singer and soubrette of the troupe."7 The customary place for benefit presentations came at the end of the run in a particular location. Mrs. Beecely's was the single benefit given in Williamsburg which indicates to historian Hugh F. Rankin that she had an "agreement with the managers which guaranteed her a well-advertised benefit…"8 Tickets were sold at Mrs. Vobe's and in Yorktown at Mr. Mitchell's place which was some thirteen miles away. The bill for Mrs. Beecely's night included The Constant Couple: Or A Trip to Jubilee; a dance, the Drunken Peasant and a farce, The Lying Valet. Thomas Kean took his turn as Sir Harry Wildair in Constant Couple and Walter Murray played Colonel Standard while Mrs. Beecely was Angelica.9
Two weeks later, on April 30, the Company of Comedians quit Williamsburg for a stint in Hobb's Hole (Tappahannock). Even as this somewhat ragged band departed, never to play in the capitol again, a swift sloop by the name of Charming Sally put into the York River. A dozen of her passengers were a new professional theatre troupe direct from England.
Captain William Lee brought his Charming Sally into the York River on June 2, 1752 after an Atlantic crossing of six weeks. The sloop carried Lewis Hallam and eleven other performers who were eager to begin their new lives in the Colonies. During their voyage, they had taken advantage of the calm seas to rehearse their parts on the quarterdeck. The talents of Hallam's troupe was a varied lot. The repertoire consisted of popular contemporary London productions and confirmed old crowd-pleasers.
William Dunlap nostalgically writes,
The foresight exercised by the Hallams in preparing their company for immediate action on their arrival in America, merits applause. The pieces had been selected, cast, and put in study before embarkation; and during the passage they were regularly rehearsed…the heroes and heroines of the sock and buskin performed their allotted parts, rehearsing all the plays that had been selected, particularly those fixed upon to form the first theatrical exhibition which was to enliven the wilds of America.1
Here Dunlap gives his characteristic exuberant, if somewhat inaccurate, version of events. The Hallam group, as has been seen, was not the first "theatrical exhibition…to enliven" the Colonies. Hallam was, however, the first company that could best be described with the honorific of "professional." William Levingston's theatre was a hardscrabble operation and the Murray-Kean outfit could be viewed as an earnest if ram shackle effort.
The Hallams were an established English theatrical family. Adam Hallam and corpulent Anne Hallam had their dramatic roots in Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Their association with the great houses thus enabled their children to study, at close range, the leading performers of the day.2
William Hallam, the second oldest of Adam and Anne's five sons, became a manager at the New Well's Theatre in Goodman's Fields. William's brother and 22 his sister-in-law, the Lewis Hallams, performed under his direction. William ran into some licensing difficulties which resulted in the shutting down of his theatre in December, 1751. The manager then decided to try his fortunes abroad in the "western wilderness."3 William Hallam formed a company out of the Goodman's Fields refugees while utilizing the defunct theatre's sets and costumes. This newly-formed group consisted of the Lewis Hallams, their three children and several other performers.
Lewis Hallam took on the parts of principal comedian and serious old men while Mrs. Hallam played the feminine leads. Mr. Rigby, the better actor of the troupe, was assigned to the male leads. Mr. Patrick Malone took close supporting characters both comic and serious. Mrs. Adcock played the better old woman parts and Mr. Adcock gave incidental songs between acts. A light comedian, Mr. Singleton, fancied himself as something of a poet and in this capacity, he wrote prologues and epilogues. The other actors, Mr. ad Mrs. Clarkson, Mrs. Rigby, Mr. Wynell and Mr. Herbert were classified as "useful" in the application of their talents.
"It was a good and efficient company," Dunlap says of the Hallam troupe, "willing to leave their country (and perhaps even creditors) behind."4
William Hallam sought first to take the measure of this promised land across the ocean by sending a representative of his interests. The man chosen for this task was Robert Upton. Upton was to set up performance dates, secure play houses, and in general make clear the way for Lewis Hallam's arrival.
Upton was advanced "no inconsiderable Sum" in payment for his work as Hallam's front man. The appointed ambassador took the money and ran.
Lewis Hallam described what happened in an open letter of protest published in New York some time later.
"On his arrival, Upton found here that sett of Pretenders with whom he joined and unhappily for us, quite neglected the business he was sent about from England. For we never heard of him after."5
Upton seems to have thought that acting with the Murray-Kean company was better than playing the messenger for the Hallams.
They waited in England for Upton's description of his voyage to the Colonies, and what he found there, but, finally they could wait no longer. In April, 1752, the Hallams made ready to sail. They boarded Captain William Lee's Charming Sally in early May. William Hallam remained at London to be "viceroy" 23 over his brother Lewis. A daughter of Lewis Hallam also stayed home although she would enjoy a career at Covent Garden as Mrs. Mattocks. Little Lewis Hallam, Jr., was given the choice of remaining in school at Cambridge or joining his family on the great expedition. He not surprisingly elected to go.
* * * *
When Lewis Hallam took out an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette on June 12, 1752, he and the company had been in Williamsburg for over a week and a half.
"This is to inform the Public,
That Mr. HALLAM, from the New Theatre in Goodmansfields, London, is daily expected here with a select Company of Comedians; the Scenes, Cloaths and Decorations are all entirely new, extremely rich, and furnished in the highest Taste, the Scenes being painted by the best Hands in London, are excell'd by none in Beauty and Elegance, so that the Ladies and Gentleman may depend on being entertain'd in as polite a Manner as at the Theatres in London, the Company being perfect in all the best Plays, Opera's Farces, and Pantomimes, that have been exhibited in any of the Theatres for these ten Years past."6
The day after the above-quoted advertisement Governor Dinwiddie placed before Council the request of Lewis Hallam's for permission to perform in Williamsburg. It was decided to "not permit or suffer" Hallam's company "to act or exhibit any plays or theatrical Entertainments in this Government."7 Such blunt disapproval could have come as a result of memories from the visit of the Murray-Kean troupe. Dr. George Gilmer recounted in a letter that the London Company of Comedians, once off the Charming Sally, showed "loose behavior" that caused "great opposition from the governor."8 It is likely that Hallam's ensemble of actors went a little wild after six weeks confinement in the Charming Sally. Then again, what exactly would have been viewed by Dr. Gilmer as "lose behavior" is not known. At any rate, Lewis Hallam ran advertisements in the June 18 and 25 issues of the Gazette. He was not giving up no matter what Dinwiddie said. On June 30, 1752, Dr. Gilmer wrote to Dr. T.P. Walker concerning "the arrival of Hallam and his Company…The Governor and Council, because you would not pass a bill for suppressing ordinaries and players, have made an order that no player should act here; which is likely to prove the utter ruin of a set of 24 idle wretches, arrived in Lee at about £1000 expense…"9
Gilmer's disparaging attitude toward the performers is odd considering that a few years earlier he himself had trod the boards in a couple of amateur efforts. Gilmer had even owned the first play house for awhile.
The situation was an uncomfortable one for the company. There they sat, prepared to perform with a £1,000 debt looming over their future, in a town where the government did not want them. The players did what they could for survival. During that June, John Singleton offered violin instruction to potential students in Williamsburg, Yorktown, Hampton and Norfolk.10
The will of the people prevailed over the official ban on theatre and the executive order was rescinded. The citizens of Williamsburg wanted their entertainment.
Lewis Hallam bought the Waller Street play house from Alexander Finnie on August 8, 1752, for 150 pds. 10 shlgs. Finnie needed to sell off his holdings to raise funds for his passage to England. Dr. Gilmer recounts that Hallam "purchased Finnie's theatre, enlarged it mostly lining it, so altering it as to make it a regular house."
The phrase "lining" could have two meanings. It may refer to a manner of insulating the building against the cold in the winter season, or, "lining" could be a covering of tin for the amplification of sound effects.11
Hallam proudly announced through the Gazette on August 21, that "the Company of Comedians, lately from London,…have, with great Expence, entirely altered the Play-House at Williamsburg to a regular Theatre, fit for the Reception of Ladies and Gentlemen…The Ladies are desired to give timely Notice to Mr. Hallam at Mr. Fisher's, for their Places in the Boxes, and on the Day of Performance, to send their Servants early to keep them, in Order to prevent Trouble and Disappointment."12
A week later the prices for the newly sectioned seating arrangements were given in an ebullient advertisement for the remodeled theatre:
August 28, 1752
By Permission of the Honble ROBERT DINWIDDIE, Esq; His Magesty's Lieutenant-Governor, and Commander in Chief of the Colony and Dominion of Virginia.
By a Company of Comedians, from LONDON, At the Theatre in Williamsburg, on Friday next, being the 5th of September will be presented, a PLAY, Call'd THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. (Written by Shakespear) The Part of Antonio (the Merchant) to be perform'd 25 by Mr. CLARKSON. Gratiano by Mr. Singleton, Lorenzo, (with Songs in character) by Mr. ADCOCK. The Part of BASSANIO to be perform'd by Mr. RIGBY, Duke, by Mr. Wynell. Salanio, by Mr. Herber. The Part of Launcelot by Mr. Hallam. And the Part of Shylock, (the Jew) to be perform'd by Mr. MALONE. The part of Nerissa, by Mrs. Adcock, Jessica by Mrs. Rigby, And the Part of Portia, to be perform'd by Mrs. HALLAM. With a new occasional PROLOGUE. To which will be added, a FARCE, call'd, The ANATOMIST: or, SHAM DOCTOR. The Part of Monsieur le Medicin, by Mr. RIGBY. And the Part of Beatrice, by Mrs. ADCOCK.
No Person, whatsoever, to be admitted behind the Scenes. BOXES, 7s. 6d. PIT and BALCONIES, 5s 9d. GALLERY, 3s 9d. To begin at six o' Clock.
"This was the first theatre opened in America by a company of regular comedians," eulogizes manager and historian William Dunlap, "and although within the boundaries of the metropolis of the Ancient Dominion, the seat of William and Mary College, and residence of all the officers of his majesty's government, was so near the woods that the manager (Hallam) could stand in the door and shoot pigeons for his dinner, which he more than once actually did."14
The evening of entertainment on September 5, 1752, began with Mr. Rigby, "a general player of no ordinary merit," giving the prologue written by John Singleton.
The Muse still labor'd to encrease her Fame: Summ'd her Agents quickly to appear, Haste to Virginia's Plains, my Sons, repair, The Goddess said Go, confident to find And audience sensible, polite, and kind.
We heard and strait obey'd; from Britain's shore These unknown climes advent'ring to explore: For us then, and our Muse, thus low I bend, Nor fear to find in each the warmest Friend; We ne'er can fail to find Protection here; The Stage is ever Wisdom's fav'rite Care; Accept our Labours then, approve our Pains, You[r] smiles will please us as equal to our Gains; And as you all esteem the Darling Muse, The gen'rus Plaudit you will not refuse.15
After these suitably dramatic declarations were cast out upon the audience, the actual performance of The Merchant of Venice got under way. Patrick Malone interpreted Shylock as "a mere farce part."16 Twelve year old Lewis Hallam, Jr., "had one line to speak, apparently an easy task, but when he 26 found himself in the presence of the audience, he was panic-struck. He stood motionless and speechless, until bursting into tears, he walked off the stage."17 Mr. Adcock sang his "Songs In Character" with the accompaniment of one Cuthbert Ogle. Mr. Ogle was a bespectacled and accomplished harpsichordist with a penchant for wearing grey coats. He may have been joined by John Singleton's violin when the actor was not called to be on the stage.18
The London Company of Comedians played before large houses three nights a week. During the times of Court Hallam's troupe sometimes earned 300 pds. a night. This fact supremely irritated Dr. George Gilmer who wrote in November to Walter King that money "flew among this Association of indigent wretches with a lavishness you would be surprised at…Notwithstanding they take so much money never were debts worse paid…"20
* * * *
The scarcity of hard information pertaining to this period of the Williamsburg stage has led other chroniclers of the time, such as Seilhamer, Hornblow, Bost and even the Williamsburg Foundation's researcher Mary Stephenson, to use--with prefatory doubts--to mine fiction for clues. All of the historians just mentioned have used excerpts from John Esten Cooke's highly romanticized 1854 novel, The Virginia Comedians or Old Days in the Old Dominion. "Unfortunately," George Seilhamer writes in 1888, "Mr. Cooke drew too largely upon his imagination for his facts."
In his "Virginia Comedians" he brings the Hallams to Williamsburg eleven years later than the year of their arrival——that is, in 1763 instead of 1752. He makes Mr. Hallam, whom he describes as "a fat little man of fifty or fifty-five, with a rubicind and somewhat sensual face," play Bassanio instead of Launcelot and he assigns the part of Portia to Miss Beatrice Hallam, Hallam's daughter, instead of to his wife, Mrs. Hallam. For Mr. Malone…he substitutes a fictitious Mr. Pugsby. Hallam is represented as brutal, base and selfish, and the manager is made to say after the initial performance that "Shylock was too drunk" to play 27 his great role acceptably.(4*) As compensation for this harsh treatment of the real Mr. Hallam, he makes the fictitious Miss Beatrice Hallam one of the most striking, truthful and lovable characters in modern fiction. (5*) All this, it must be confessed, is open to grave objection.21
Seilhamer concludes that instead of presenting a "brilliant picture" of the Colonial theatre that Cooke drew "only a rude caricature of barn-stormers, such as leave New York annually for a Thanksgiving or Christmas 'snap'."22
Historians have drifted into Cooke's fictionalized history because he was a native Virginian and by birth linked to the old Southern tradition of oral literature. Perhaps he had heard heavily embroidered tales of the Williamsburg theatre or even had access to documentary evidence now lost. Cooke admits, however, that the Virginia Gazette was his "authority for many of the facts" used in The Virginia Comedians. Hornblow introduces his excerpt from the novel as "only fiction, but it serves as an acceptable pen picture of the actual scene and no doubt is pretty faithful to the original…"23
Within, the play-house presented a somewhat more attractive appearance. There was a "box," "pit," and "gallery," as in our own day; and the relative prices were arranged in much the same manner. The common mortals--gentlemen and ladies--were forced to occupy the boxes raised slightly above the level of the stage, and hemmed in by velvet-cushioned railings,--in front of a flower-decorated panel, extending all around the house--and for this position were moreover compelled to pay an admission fee of seven shillings and sixpence. The demigods--so to speak--occupied a more eligible position in the "pit," from which they could procure a highly excellent view of the actors' feet and ankles, just on a level with their noses: to conciliate the demigods, this superior advantage had been offered, and the price for them was, further still, reduced to five shillings. But "the gods" in truth were the real favorites of the manager. To attract them, he arranged the high upper railing or velvet cushions, or any other device: all was free space, and liberal as the air: there were no troublesome seats for "the gods," and three shillings and nine pence was all that the managers would demand. The honor of their presence was 28 enough.
From the boxes a stairway led down to the stage, and some rude scenes, visible at the edges of the green curtains, completed the outline.
When Mr. Lee and his daughters entered the box which had been reserved for them, next to the stage, the house was nearly full, and the neatness of the edifice was lost sight of in the sea of brilliant ladies' faces, and strong forms of the cavaliers, which extended--like a line of glistening foam--around the semicircle of the boxes. The pit was occupied by well-dressed men of the lower class, as the times had it, and from the gallery proceeded hoarse murmurs and the unforgotten slang of London.
Many smiles and bows were interchanged between the parties in the different boxes; and the young gallants, following the fashion of the day, gathered at each end of the stage, and often walked across, to exchange some polite speech with the dames in the boxes-nearest.
Mr. Champ Effingham was, upon the whole, much the most notable fop present; and his elegant, languid, petit maitre air, as he strolled across the stage, attracted many remarks, not invariably favourable. It was observed, however, that when the Virginia-bred youths, with honest plainness, called him 'ridiculous,' the young ladies, their companions, took Mr. Effingham's part, and defended him with great enthusiasm. only when they returned home, Mr. Effingham was more unmercifully criticised than he would otherwise have been.
A little bell rang, and the orchestra, represented by three or four foreign-looking gentlemen, bearded and moustached, entered with trumpets and violin. The trumpets made the roof shake, indifferently, in honor of the Prince of Morocco or King Richard, or any other worthy whose entrance was marked in the play book "with a flourish." But before the orchestra ravished the ears of every one, the manager came forward, in the costume of Bassanio, and made a low bow. Mr. Hallam was a fat little man, of fifty or fifty-five, with a rubicund and somewhat sensual face, and he expressed extraordinary delight at meeting so many of the "noble aristocracy of the great and noble colony of Virginia," assembled to witness his very humble representation. It would be the chief end and sole ambition of his life, he said, to please the gentry, who so kindly patronized their servants--himself and his associates--and then the smiling worthy concluded by bowing lower than before. Much applause from the pit and gallery, and murmurs of approbation from the well-bred boxes, greeted this address, and the orchestra having struck up, the curtain slowly rolled aloft. The young gallants scattered to the corners of the stage--seating themselves on stools or chairs, or standing, and the "Merchant of Venice" commenced. Bassanio having assumed a dignified and lofty port, criticized Gratiano with courteous and lordly wit: his friend Antonio offered him his fortune 29 with grand magnanimity, in a loud singing voice, worthy the utmost commendation, and the first act proceeded on its way in triumph.24
Hugh F. Rankin's approach to the matter of John Esten Cooke's treatment of the Hallam company is to make no mention of it.
The record falls silent immediately following that first performance. Dunlap says that "twenty-four plays and their attendant farces" were "cast and put in study" before the Virginia Company of Comedians left England. Most of these plays were in the repertoire Hallam used in New York after the Williamsburg engagement. The plays selected for performance included Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, by Shakespeare; The Beaux-Stratagem, The Constant Couple, Inconstant, The Recruiting Officer and Twin Rivals, by Farquhar; The Careless Husband, by Cibber; Committee, by Howard; The Conscious Lovers, by Steele; The Fair Penitent, Tamerlane and Jane Shore, by Rowe; George Barnwell, by Lillo; The Provoked Husband, by Vanbrugh; Suspicious Husband, by Hoadly; Theodosius, by Lee; The Beggar's Opera, by Gay; Woman's a Riddle, by Bullock; in addition to several farces including Lethe, Lying Valet, Miss in Her Teens, by Garrick; The Mock Doctor, by Fielding; Damon and Phillida, by Cibber; The Anatomist, by Ravenscroft.25
Some seven weeks after Hallam's inaugural performance, the company played for what was undoubtedly the strangest house in their experience. The Emperor of the Cherokee Nation "with his Empress and their Son the Young Prince attended by several of his Warriors and great Men and their Ladies" came to Williamsburg for the renewal of "the Treaty of Friendship" with Governor Dinwiddie's administration.26 The meeting was a backwoods summit of a sort complete with fetes and fanfare such an event warrants. On Thursday, November 9, 1752, Dinwiddie took the Cherokees to the theatre where Othello was being played. The Indians were surprised when during an Othello fight scene, the actors brandished naked swords "which occasioned the Empress to order some about her to go prevent their killing one another."27 The pantomime afterpiece, likely one of the Harlequin settings, also caused some consternation among the native guests but no harm came from any of this. The next night Lewis Hallam crowned an evening of entertainment at the Governor's Palace with an exhibition of "several Beautiful Fireworks" over the Green. The assembled audience included the Cherokees and "a brilliant Appearance of the Ladies and Gentlemen."28 It is an 30 incongruous image. The powdered, bewigged, silk and lace-wearing Virginia gentry politely applauding Lewis Hallam's pyrotechnics while the leather and buck-skin clad red men gaze up with expressions of silent awe. Both groups think of the other as uncivilized warring savages. A compromised plateau of politics allows Cherokee and British subject to stand together. The Roman candles sputter, flicker and die as their colors briefly change the colors of the uplifted faces. An unrehearsed bit of business took place in the theatre around 11 o'clock Friday night, December 8, 1752. Three men, one white and two black, broke into the play-house where they "violently assaulted and wounded" Patrick Malone. The attackers knocked Malone over then threw him on the iron spikes that separated the pit from the stage as a means of protecting the actors from the audience. Malone hung skewered on the spikes "for a considerable Time till he was relieved by some Negroes."13 The assailants were never caught. Patrick Malone survived his rough handling quite well. He went on to become an accomplished dancer, tumbler and slack-rope walker.30
* * * *
Sometime during the season two performers of Hallam's company grew disgruntled over the small parts in which they were consistently cast. Messers. Herbert and Wynell quit the troupe to seek better roles and fame with Murray-Kean in Annapolis.
The players began to make preparations for leaving Williamsburg behind. Saddles and harnesses were made for several of the actors by the sturdy hands of Alexander Craig. Despite the large profits made by the company, some of them left the city with debts. Singleton needed to repay Craig for some work once the entertainer got to New York.
The London Company of Comedians enjoyed an eleven month stand in Williamsburg. Before taking leave on May 19, 1753, Lewis Hallam sold the theatre for five shillings to John Stretch, book-keeper and Deputy Postmaster, and Edward Charlton, peruke-maker. Hallam sold the building but as his comedians departed Williamsburg they also took the theatre with them.
The acting company of Lewis Hallam, Sr., performed in many cities throughout the country until they went to Jamaica where they stayed for about four years. Lewis Hallam died, probably of yellow fever, while there. Not long afterward, his widow married the enterprising David Douglass. Douglass reorganized the players and renamed the group "The American Company." Under his able management, the American Company made it back to the mainland in 1758 for an historic series of tours in the Colonies.
After Lewis Hallam, Sr. left Williamsburg, the town went without an active theatre for around eight years. If any amateur productions were mounted there is no record of them. Plays then could have been read privately among families or in small "literary" associations. Reverend Samuel Davies wrote of the time that in Virginia "Plays and Romances" were "more read than the history of the blessed Jesus."
A novelty act visited the capitol city in October of 1758 called "the MICROCOSM or THE WORLD IN MINIATURE." This was a five foot high gaudily decorated device that displayed moving figures powered by a clock-work type mechanism. An exhibition such as this might also have served as centerpiece for an evening's entertainment. Presentation of "The Microcosm" could have been bracketed by one of the popular comic monologues, like "The Lecture on Heads" and perhaps a dancing act. The whole show would have resembled a cross between a Chautauqua and vaudeville.1
No mention is made of any major dramatic endeavors until October, 1760, and then through cursory mentions of ticket purchases in various account books. The Virginia Gazette is strangely quiet about the unheralded arrival of David Douglass' American Company. Douglass may not have been able to afford printing advertising or else the newspaper was not needed to attract an audience.2
The company was in Virginia between October, 1760 and May, 1761. George Washington jotted in his account book the purchase of play tickets in 1760 and early 1761. Lewis Hallam, Jr., was charged for a pair of shoes by Alexander Craig. Two actresses left the troupe at this time. Mrs. and Miss Dowthaitt went 33 away to find better parts.3
When Douglass left Williamsburg, he did not take with him credentials signed by the Royal Governor. The carrying of signed "characters" was a customary diplomatic maneuver used by theatre managers. A "character" served as a sort of permission slip forwarded to the Governor of the next colony that the given troupe intended on visiting. A favorable character meant that the Governor could then show individuals indisposed to theatre activity that the players had not caused any trouble in other towns. Douglass, who was usually careful about such niceties of the trade, left Virginia without a character and thus needed to have one forwarded to him.
Williamsburg June 11, 1761
The company of comedians under the direction of David Douglass has performed in this colony for near a twelvemonth; during which time they have made it their constant practice to behave with prudence and discretion in their private character, and to use their utmost endeavors to give general satisfaction in their publick capacity. We have therefore thought proper to recommend them as a company whose behavior merits the favour of the public, and who are entertaining a sensible and polite audience.4
Lewis Hallam, Jr. left his wife, Sarah, in Williamsburg during one of the American Company's visits. He had married her in Jamaica, but she apparently either had no love for the stage or the talent or the ability to contend with Hallam's personality. Sarah appeared on stage only once, in Hamlet, when the American Company was engaged in Providence, Rhode Island.
David Douglas returned to Williamsburg in November, 1762. Colonel George Washington bought tickets then and again in April and May of 1763. Some of the plays Washington may have attended at this time may have included The Recruiting Officer, Richard III, Romeo & Juliet, Miss In Her Teens, and Lethe.5
When this flurry of short stints at the Waller Street theatre was over, the play house stood dormant again for several years.
One William Verling came to Williamsburg in January, 1767. Six months earlier, he had been among the players of Douglass' American Company. Now Verling was in town as a freelancer. He rented "the Great Room of the Rawliegh Tavern" where for two nights he gave the Lecture on Heads. After those few hours in the limelight, Verling drops out of record only to emerge as the manager of his own troupe of players.6
Sometime in late 1767, William Verling wound up in Norfolk, Virginia, where he set to work in building his own group of players which he named the Virginia Company of Comedians. Verling filled out his troupe with American Company deserters and other aspirants to the stage who had little experience.
One of the former American Company actors was fiery-tempered Henrietta Osborne. She had made a reputation for herself by her almost exclusive taking on of roles that required her to wear men's clothes. This affectation was an 18th century theatrical convention called "a breeches part" that gave warren the opportunity to "show their leg" in men's breeches. It is possible that Verling and Osborne traveled together since they both had departed from Douglass' company. Another American alum was James Verling Godwin whose primary talent was in dance. Other of the players included a former sailor Christopher Bromadge, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Parker, dancers; and one Mr. Walker.
A benefit performance for Henrietta Osborne was given in Norfolk on January 19, 1768. She spoke the prologue that said, in part:
For ten long years this motley life I've led… Yet though doom'd perpetually to roam Still when at Norfolk thought myself at home.1
The March 17, 1768, Virginia Gazette tersely noted, "The Theatre in this city will be opend on Thursday the 31st Instant."2 On March 31 the full announcement of the company's offerings and cast lists appeared in the Virginia Gazette. The plays for the opening night were the tragedy Douglas and the farce The Honest Yorkshireman along with incidental dancing by Mr. Godwin. The cast was dispersed as follows:
Douglas: Lord Randolph - Mr. Bromadge Glenalvon - Mr. Godwin Norval Douglas - Mr. Verling Old Norval - Mr. Parker Officer - Mr. Walker Lady Randolph - Mrs. Osborne Anna - Mrs. Parker
The Honest Yorkshireman: Sir Penurious Muckwork - Mr. Bromadge Gaylove - Mr. Verling Sapskull - Mr. Parker Slango - Mr. Godwin Blunder - Mr. Walker Arabella - Mrs. Osborne Combrush - Mrs. Parker
New talent joined The Virginia Company of Comedians. Thomas Charlton on April 8, 1768, made his debut in Venice Preserved. Charlton was probably a cousin or brother of Edward and Richard Charlton who were the barbers and peruke makers of Williamsburg. Edward Charlton briefly co-owned the play house and assisted the company during the 1768 season by acting as Verling's ticket agent.4 Two of the newcomers had previously taken the stage as members of the American Company. Mrs. and Miss Dowthaitt first acted under Verling's direction in The Orphan on April 15, 1768. The roles of the Virginia Company were eventually rounded out by Mr. Leavis, Mr. Farrell, Mr. Mallory and Miss Yapp.5
Col. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, then a young lawyer, attended the Verling troupe's performances whenever possible. Washington jotted down purchase of play tickets on May 2 and May 5. Jefferson's accounts of the period reveal an inveterate seeker of entertainment.
April 11, paid for seeing an elk 7 ½. April 18, paid at play house 5/. April 27, paid for play tickets 22/6. April 29, paid at play house 10/. April 30, paid at Concert 5/.
May 2, paid at play house 5/. May 5, paid at Concert. May 6, paid at play house 5/. May 7, gave Jupiter, (Jefferson's body servant), to pay Bramer for candles 4/. Mayer for bread 7 1/2, Burdet for candles 2/6. May 25, paid for Dr. Pasteur for violin 5 pds. May 30, paid for play tickets 5/. …Paid at play house for punch 3/96
The Virginia Company apparently enjoyed a successful run during that spring of 1768. Virginians had long been without a company of players, Court was in session and the theatre itself was not any more so far out of town that pigeons could be shot from the doorway.
Williamsburg had apparently suffered from severe social somnolence before the Virginia Company of Comedians arrived. Seilhamer sardonically comments : 37
At that time of these performances Williamsburg society was very gay, as was shown by the fact that Peyton Randolph, who became the first President of Congress, a few months later gave a dinner that was the talk of the whole Province. If the players had the favor of this society their lives were cast in pleasant places.7
Heavy spring rains conspired to keep down the good attendance. Verling moved up his benefit night from the scheduled May 12.
Henrietta Osborne had her benefit on the ambitious program of May 18. She appeared in men's clothing the entire evening. Mrs. Osborne played her popular part as Sir Harry Wildair in The Constant Couple, she danced a minuet with Miss Yapp and appeared as the "First Courtier" in The Miller of Mansfield.8 Miss Yapp chose The Merchant of Venice for her benefit. Mrs. Osborne took on Portia's character and Verling played a serious Shylock.
Christopher Branadge's benefit night came on May 29, 1768, on the bill of The Gamester and Polly Honeycomb. Between the two theatrical pieces Messers. Godwin, Walker and Farrell danced "The Cowkeepers."
The June 3 benefit for Mrs. Parker displayed, if nothing else, the company's versatility. The Beggar's Opera was presented with Captain Macheath played by Verling, "his first appearance in that character." Mrs. Osborne portrayed Mrs. Peachum and Lucy Lockit. Mr. Walker played Nimming Ned then turned around to put on petticoats for Moll Brazen.9 Mr. Godwin played Filch and also danced the favorite "Drunken Peasant" with Mr. Parker, who acted the Clown. Peter Pelham, Williamsburg gaoler and the organist for Bruton Parish Church, conducted the music for The Beggar' Opera.
The evening's afterpiece was The Anatomist.
On June 8, the Masons contributed to Thomas Charlton's benefit which featured The Miser and The Brave Irishman.
The Virginia Company of comedians then left town, and none too soon, for several of the players had run up debts and were doubtless eager to make haste.
Christopher Bromadge did not get out. Some "Young Gentleman" acted a benefit for his around the first of August. His prologue gave voice to his personal predicament. 38
…I speak it to my cost;
Pester'd with warrants, writs and scire facias…"10
The money raised from the "Young Gentlemen's" effort allowed Bromadge to join his fellows but he did not fully pay his debts. Thomas Charlton defaulted on a bond when he left town. Tavern-keeper Jane Vobe had cause to be angry with Verling's company because one of Vobe's slaves, Nancy, had run off with the actors. Mrs. Vobe said in the June 30 Gazette that the "brisk genteel wench" had gone away with "some of the comedians who have just left this town, with some of whom, I have been informed, since she went off, she had some connections, and was seen very busy talking privately with same of them." The capacity in which Nancy served the company is not known.11
In an effort to cut his company's losses, William Verling folded up the production and ran.
THE FOLLOWING SERIES OF PHOTOGRAPHS ARE STILL SHOTS TAKEN from the film "Music in Williamsburg." This episode in the movie purports to recreate William Verling's staging of The Beggar's Opera. The setting for this production was the Waller Street theatre, built under the auspices of Murray-Kean and considerably improved by Lewis Hallam, Sr. A play house such as this was probably only in William Levingston's wildest dreams. Note the spikes fitted onto the stage boxes and the doors for exits and entrances at either end of the stage. It was, to say the least, a small, intimate theatre.
A CUT-AWAY MODEL OF THE WILLIAMSBURG THEATRE: It is highly unlikely that Williamsburg ever had a play house as elaborately designed as this one. The illustration, though, is good for demonstrating the component parts of a Colonial-era theatre.
Seating was divided by ability to pay---and therefore, social class. At center was the appropriately termed "pit" which could be entered only through dark subfloor passages that would flood after a hard rain. This was seating for the more middling sort of theatre-goer and especially single people. A night at the theatre was truly a social occasion, and it was possible to meet people there and talk with them throughout the performance. At left in the model is the infamous gallery where the noisiest and worst-behaved group of the audience was crammed. In London, these cheap seats became the domain of the "orange seller girls" who were mostly intent on selling themselves rather than the fruit they carried. If the oranges were sold, though, the "gods of the gallery" felt perfectly free to throw the rinds at the actors. The box and balcony seats, overlooking the pit and directly on the stage, were reserved for the wealthy and other patrons of the theatre.
At the right on the model are shown the sliding sets although in Williamsburg, the play house did not have quite as wide a variety, nor is it likely that there were wind-making machines and other such trademarks of a sizable, firmly established and well-supported theatre.
ANOTHER VIEW OF SEATING ARRANGEMENTS: PIT (CENTER), GALLERY AND BALCONY (top), box, (middle). "The gallery sometimes ran only across the back of the building, but in the larger houses, unless upper boxes had been installed, all three sides of the auditorium all were well utilized. These were the cheapest seats, and were possibly bare of covering…in the colonies it was the less genteel element of mechanics, artisans, laborers and loose women who looked down upon the denizens of the pit."(Rankin, 258-9) Pits in many London houses were equipped with wooden "kick-boards" that audience-members could stomp their feet against to indicate their displeasure. An 18th century theatrical presentation likely more resembled a present-day European soccer match or a stadium full of United States football enthusiasts. Acting in such an environment was an awesome task: when the house fell silent during a particular monologue, of Nancy Hallam or David Douglass, it was as if a greater power were at work and the Prospero had cast a spell.
Note the candles. These burned throughout a five or six hour evening of theatre. An appointed "snuffer" would see to it that the candles nearest the stage were trimmed. The danger of fire was great, yet in Williamsburg, there is no record of any fires at the theatre.
Views within a Georgian-era play house in Richmond, England. (Top) From the pit seats and (Bottom) from the stage into the house. Note doors for entrances and exits at either sides of the stage and the candle sconces or "footlights" at stage's edge. One particularly unpleasant facet of that period's theatre architecture has been removed: the iron spikes that stopped audience members in the pit and stage boxes from leaping onto the stage. Despite the presence of these spikes, there were altercations, anyway, though none were recorded in Williamsburg--aside from Patrick Malone's unfortunate accident. (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation archives)
Two more interior views of the theatre at Richmond, England. Although it was built late into the century, its construction is the closest precedent existing from which extrapolations can be made concerning Colonial play house design. "The auditoriums of the colonial theatres followed no set pattern of construction. Not all seats provided an unobstructed view of the stage, for the roof and the gallery of the Southwark Theatre were supported by large square pillars. Not always did the pit slope downwards toward the front of the building to provide better sight line for the holders of these seats. A level floor seems to have been the fashion in both the 1736 and 1763 theatres in Charleston (South Carolina), probably with an idea of accommodating the balls which were often held in the theatre. The benches of the pit were of the simplest construction, and were without backs. To create the illusion of comfort, they were sometimes covered with rush matting, sometimes with green baize. The purchasers of pit tickets were squeezed into the smallest possible space. As late as 1790 in London's Covent Garden Theatre, a maximum of twenty-one inches was allowed each customer for "seat and void".
"In most instances, the boxes were built in a U-shape around the sides and back of the auditorium. In the earlier theatres there seems to have been only one tier of boxes…spikes were used to separate the box seats from the pit, and in the case of the upper tier, from the gallery…In colonial capitals, as a sop to the vanity of the governor, one box may have been set aside for his door."(RANKIN, COLONIAL THEATRE, PP. 256-258) Those spikes were there to protect the actors, too.
The Waller Street theatre apparently sat empty for sane months after Verling's departure.
Two instances of the building's use were recorded in 1769. In April, magician and puppet-master Peter Gardiner presented his "curious set of figures, richly dressed, four feet high" which appeared "upon the stage as if alive" in the puppet plays Babes in the Woods and Whittington and His Cat.1
Joseph M'Auslane, a school teacher, advertised in the September 14 Gazette that he would "teach Reading, Writing, and Arithmetick…at the Play house." M'Auslane chose this location because, he wrote, it was "the only tolerable convenient place I could procure at that time."2
On June 13, 1770, David Douglass, "with his company of comedians arrived in town from Philadelphia" with the intention of opening the Waller Street theatre that Saturday with the "Beggar's Opera and other entertainments.3 The American Company's Williamsburg run went on to early August. George Washington attended five performances.4
On August 13, several actors of the Douglas troupe went to Edward Charlton who dressed their hair. The Douglasses, the Hallams, Owen Norris and Mr. Parker made us of Mr. Charlton's skill. Lewis Hallam, Jr., paid the peruke maker for his work on the hair of "Mrs. Hallam." He of course had separated from, (or more appropriately, abandoned), Sarah Hallam in Williamsburg some six years earlier. It is possible that Hallam was in the company of a woman to whom "he lent his name for the sake of appearances."5
From Williamsburg the company then made its way to Annapolis where young Nancy Hallam created a sensation. Poets rhapsodized in newspapers about her beauty and talent while essayists virtually ran out of superlatives to praise her. Seilhamer observes that,
Never before had an American actress called forth such eulogy…In Imogen, (Cymbeline's daughter), especially,… admiration for her was unbounded. Not only did the local poets sing her praises comparing her face with Cytherea's and her form with the perfections of Diana, but they involved 42 their native artist, Charles Wilson Peale, to paint her in the part in which they (the Marylanders), liked to see her, an invocation to which he gave heed.6
"But how was I ravished on Experiment!," gushed the Maryland Gazette's Y.Z. "She exceeded my utmost Idea. Such delicacy of Manner! Such classical strictness of Expression! The Musick of her Tongue! The vox liquida, how melting! Not withstanding the injuries it received from the horrid Ruggedness of the Roof, and the untoward Construction of the whole House; me thought I heard once more the warbling of Cibber in my ear!" Y.Z. was comparing Nancy Hallam with Susanna Cibber, Colley Cibber's daughter-in-law, and a great admired London actress. Cibber was an excellent singer, and one of the new, naturalistic actresses. To which talent the comparison refers, it is not known.
"Little" Nancy Hallam was the niece of Mrs. David Douglass. She may have been the daughter of William Hallam. She made her first appearance on the stage in the Colonies in 1759. Her parts then were as children, small, enough to give her taste of acting. Nancy Hallam returned to England in early 1760 where it is speculated she began the formal training of her remarkable singing voice. She soon returned to the Colonies where she spent most of the years of her growing up in the American Company. Her skills were refined. In May, 1769, while in New York City, she moved into the role of Juliet. She succeeded the aging Mrs. Douglas and the popular Margaret Cheer "to become the third Juliet of the American stage."7
At the outset of the new year of 1771, the American Company left Annapolis, and for roughly the next year and a half alternated between the play houses of Virginia and Maryland. By the end of March, 1771, the Douglass troupe had returned to Williamsburg.
Hudson Muse wrote on April 19 from Northumberland County to his brother, Thomas, about, among other things, the play house.
In a few days after I got to Virginia, I set out for Wmsbrg, where I was detained for 11 days, tho' I spent the time very agreeably, at the plays every night, & really must join Mr. Ennalls & Mr. Basset in thinking Miss Hallam super fine. But must confess her luster was much sullied by the number of Beauties that appeared at that court. The house was crowded every night, & the gentlemen who have generally attended that place agree there 43 was treble the number of fine Ladyes that was ever seen in the town before--for my part I think it would be impossible for a man to have fixed upon a partner for life, the choice was too general to have fixed on one.
About the latter end of this month, I intend down again, & perhaps shall make out such another trip as the players are to be there again and its an amusement I am so very fond of.8
An indication of the repertoire of that spring can be gleaned from a surviving playbill which promotes the May 1 presentation of Love In a Village and The Buck: Or, The Englishman in Paris. The May 2 performance, which Washington attended, consisted of the Clandestine Marriage and The Padlock. George Washington was gazing upon Nancy Hallam's loveliness on May 2, 3, and 8.9 Lewis Hallam, Jr. had achieved a certain celebrity with his portrayal of "Mungo" in The Padlock. Mango was black. Hallam had studied black Jamaican dialect during his time there, and thus on stage he interpreted a broad, comic black character.
By May 16 Douglass had taken his company onward to Fredericksburg to catch the large crowds at the annual fair.
Another stint in Annapolis brought more acclaim for Nancy Hallam. The Peale portrait of her may have been exhibited in conjunction with her performance. The artist rendered her as Imogen disguised as Fidele as she emerges from a forest cave with her fearfully raised eyes which acknowledge the presence of the astonished Bellarious and his royal brothers.1
Singer and actress Maria Storer also began receiving hyperbolic accolades in the newspapers but Peale declined to paint her. Miss Storer was an enchanting spritely entertainer with an excellent singing voice. Maria was one of the four Storer sisters who began their stage careers with an aggressive stage mother who brought them in 1761-2 to Jamaica. Maria Storer became the third wife of actor-manager John Henry. Henry had previously wed the oldest of the Storers, Helen, who died in a ship-board fire. Henry evidently found something attractive in the Storer personality because then he took up with Anne Storer. They "lived in sin" until she left Henry for actor John Hogg. Marital bliss finally came to John Henry with Maria Storer who outlived him.
The American Company came back to Williamsburg where the late October season opened with The West Indian and The Musical Lady. George Washington was in the audience as he would be on four other occasions.
The first performance in Virginia of King Lear came on November 12, 1771--Washington missed it.2
Douglass' company briefly changed its venue in preference for a fresher audience in Norfolk. On January 23, 1772, the Gazette carried this notice:
The American Company of Comedians intend for this place by the Meeting of the General Assembly, and to perform till the end of the April Court. They then proceed to the Northward, by Engagement, where it is probable they will continue for some Years.3
"It is impossible," Seilhamer laments, "to give anything like a full list of the company's repertoire this season, but that Mr. Douglass' forces arrived on time and began a vigorous campaign is apparent from an announcement of the intended production of new plays…"446
Williamsburg was expecting to see The Brothers, which was authored by Richard Cumberland of The West Indian fame. Hugh Kelly's 1768 hit False Delicacy and his new effort Word to the Wise were also promised for the Waller Street's boards. Whatever was playing there, George Washington bought tickets for seven performances. He saw the North American premiere of Kelly's A Word to the Wise. Two years before the play was "dammed" out of Drury Lane. Kelly strayed from playwriting into journalism and polemicism. He made numerous enemies, many of whom were politically well-connected, who did their best to have Kelly's next production ruined. Seilhamer says, "The plot succeeded and the piece played only twice."5 Williamsburg was 3,000 miles removed from the heat and intensity of London's squabbles. In Virginia, Kelly's work could do well because it did not carry the onus of being politically incorrect.
The Virginia Gazette carried a favorable review of the play. The notice is particularly interesting because it is not offered by some anonymous "correspondent." Printed theatre criticism of the period is rare.
A WORD TO THE WISE--Williamsburg, April 2d.--Mr. Kelly's new comedy of "A Word to the Wise" was performed at our theatre last Thursday for the first time, and repeated on Tuesday to a very crowded and splendid audience. It was received both nights with the warmest marks of approbation; the sentiments with which this excellent piece is replete were greatly and deservedly applauded, and the audience, while they did justice to the merit of the author, did no less honor to their own refined taste. If the comic writers would pursue Mr. Kelly's plan and present us only with moral plays the stage would become (what it ought to be) a school of politeness and virtue. Truth, indeed, obliges us to confess that for several years past most of the new plays that have come under our observation have had a moral tendency, but there is not enough of them to supply the theatre with a variety of exhibitions sufficient to engage the attention of the public, and the most desirable enjoyment by too frequent repetition become insipid.6
Douglass, the clever showman, did not wish to see his houses decline, thus he put a couple of new plays into rehearsal. The company was joined by one Mrs. Stamper who was cast in big roles, and on occasion, sung, but apparently she was not up to the challenges, and after the Williamsburg season she seldom took to the stage.47
Mrs. Stamper appeared in April's offerings of Thomas and Sally, The Provoked Husband and Dorcas. On April 28 Arthur Murphy's 1760 comedy The Way To Keep Him was presented with Mr. Colley Cibber's 1750 The Oracle which Mrs. Cibber had translated from the French.
Richard Cumberland's popular The Fashionable Lover, then enjoying good audiences in London and Edinburgh, went into production in early May at Waller Street. The performance brought customers from Yorktown which bespoke either the play's draw or people's acknowledgement of the American Company's time in Williamsburg coming to a close. William Reynolds wrote to George F. Norton on May 23, 1772, "I am much obliged to you for the Fashionable Lover which I have had an opportunity of seeing presented on our Williamsburg stage but don't think it by any means equal to his West Indian…"7
The American Company of Comedians then left Williamsburg. The Waller Street theatre would never again be host to a troupe of professional players. In November, 1772, and exhibition of "A Curious Set of Figures" was displayed there but after that date the theatre was left to rot. By 1780 only the brick foundation remained.
Those bricks were sold in January of 1787 to mason and undertaker Humphrey Harwood.
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
WILLIAM HALLAM re-opened his New Wells Theatre at Goodmansfields on November, 1752. The five subsequent shows he produced and in which he performed were all benefits---his. William Hallam visited his brother Lewis in Philadelphia in November of 1754. William's younger brother had done quite well for himself in show business. Lewis purchased William's shares in the troupe. William returned to London where he suffered increased financial problems. Nancy Hallam is thought to have been his daughter and it is possible that he thought Nancy's life would be less strenuous if she stayed with brother Lewis in the Colonies. William was put out of his residence in 1756 when he could not make the rent. For a number of years he continued to operate Playbooths at the London Fairs.
WALTER MURRAY AND THOMAS KEAN left Williamsburg for Hobb's Hole followed by Fredericksburg. The company played at Annapolis; Chester, Maryland, Piscataway, smaller and smaller settlements. Money woes dogged Woodham-Murray-Kean until the strain wrecked the organization during the winter of 1752. It ended a historic if erratic chapter in the history of Colonial theatre.
Walter Murray briefly joined the American Company of David Douglass. His first performance with them was on March 20, 1760, in the Beaux Stratagem at Annapolis. One of the last recorded mentions of him comes up in the Maryland Gazette dated April 3, 1760. While in Annapolis, it seemed an audience member wandering backstage, (as people frequently did in those days despite efforts to stop them), picked up Murray's new velvet-collared great coat. That night he was playing in A Wonder: An Honest Yorkshireman! Like the coat, Murray vanishes. He and Thomas Kean each had their chances at the strolling life. They likely enjoyed many good moments and suffered bad times but both of them lapsed into obscurity.
LEWIS HALLAM, THE YOUNGER rose to great prominence in the Colonial theatre as a player and in 1774, after Douglass' retirement, became the manager of the American Company of Comedians. Like most of his fellow actors, Hallam 50 spent the years of the Revolution in the balmy concord of Jamaica. After the war, Hallam brought the much changed American Company to the New York area. He teamed up with his personal rival, John Henry, the marrier of Storer sisters and an aging "matinee idol." Hallam wanted to achieve greater control of the theatrical field in New York. One way to do that was to make a partner with potential competition. The two men hated each other and feuded constantly. In January, 1793, Hallam married a Miss Tuke with whom he had had an on-going affair. Miss Tuke was an aspiring actress, a had one, with a severe alcohol problem. Lewis Hallam was nearly 50 when he married the 19 year old Miss Tuke. Part of the reason such a disparity existed in their ages was that Hallam needed his former wife, Sarah, to die. Two weeks after she did, he wed Tuke. Sarah Hallam was the mother of his two sons, Lewis, Jr., a physician who died in Jamaica in 1780, and Mirvan. Mirvan was brought up by his father to carry on the Hallam theatrical tradition but the chosen son failed.
Lewis Hallam sold his stock in the American Company in 1794 to a newcomer, John Hodgkinson, who, in conspiracy with Hallam, did everything possible to drive John Henry out of the management. They succeeded. Hodgkinson proved even more difficult than Henry, though, because Hodgkinson's ambition for himself and his wife virtually eclipsed Hallam's incredible arrogance. The almost comically naive William Dunlap was induced into becoming a third partner, as a kind of mediator, despite his complete lack of experience.
Dunlap kept up an outward Christian forbearance while writing of his incredulity and dismay about the character of Hallam, and others, in his private journal.
Lewis Hallam finally left management in 1797, then faded quite ungracefully into the wings. His mental and physical condition was rapidly deteriorating as if his own vitriol was consuming him. The new director of the "Old American" eventually refused to give him any work. Lewis Hallam, Jr., had "sunk almost below the horizon." He staggered from one "last" benefit to the next until he died, aged 73, on November 1, 1808, in Philadelphia. The last major figure of a vanished age was gone.
DAVID DOUGLAS lost his wife in the summer of 1774 when she died in a Philadelphia tavern from an unspecified injury she had received in the theatre. Despite his wife's death, the pragmatic David Douglass planned on another full season in New York City. The attempt was cut short when on October 20, 1774, the 51 Continental Congress passed an emergency resolution which forbade "extravagance and dissipation." This decree served as an austerity measure to close the ranks for the coming conflict. It banned plays, horse-racing, cock-fighting, and other such entertainments. Douglass was not helped in his cause that he was British and probably friendly toward the Crown. Perhaps he thought the whole thing would blow over. He fled with the remnants of the American Company on a ship named Sally to the friendly island of Jamaica.
Douglass made a few stage appearances but perhaps he realized he needed to get on with other aspects of his life. He retired in late 1775 which allowed Lewis Hallam, Jr. to take over. Douglass resumed his former printing career with William Aikman, a Loyalist. Aikman and Douglass founded the Jamaica Mercury and the Kingston Advertiser. These papers evolved into the Royal Gazette. In 1779 Douglas was made the Master of Revels, which made him a sort of Minister for Culture on the island. The position allowed Douglass to sit on the stage at every performance in Kingston and receive proceeds from an annual benefit. Aikman and Douglass were made Jamaica's official government printers. Douglass married Miss May Peters in April 1778, and together they had two children. At his death on August 9, 1789, of a "Complaint of ye Bowels," David Douglass had earned the distinction of being "a Gentleman." His fortune was estimated at 25,000 pds.
WILLIAM VERLING left Williamsburg in 1768 hounded by debts. The Virginia Company of Comedians strolled in Northern Virginia and central Maryland playing wherever they could arrange a stage. Henrietta Osborne had another fit of pique and in January, 1769, left for Great Britain. Verling shrewdly renamed his troupe "The New American Company" to better associate himself with Douglass--Verling's former employer. The name switch reflected a change in the composition of the players. After Mrs. Osborne's departure, Patrick Malone and his wife joined up in Philadelphia. Mrs. and Miss Dowthaitt were gone but they were replaced by Mr. and Mrs. Burdette, Mr. Spencer and Mr. Jefferson. Then Henrietta Osborne returned to the fold in April, 1769. By June Verling's debt-freighted company was back at Annapolis where the troupe disbanded amid a flurry of lawsuits. The charges levied against Verling in Williamsburg finally caught up to him. One of the more curious cases involved Sarah Hallam, Lewis Hallam, Jr.'s estranged spouse, who had settled in the town around 1762. Mrs. Hallam demanded 20 pds. 5s., "Which from her (Verling) Unjustly Detains." The money probably 52 came from an unpaid board bill.
Even lawyer Samuel Chase who defended Verling in court was forced to sue the actor for legal fees. Chase settled for the remaining two years and five months of service from Verling's servant Oliver Anderson.
After this unfortunate legal strife, Verling passes out of history. He may have chosen to stay in Annapolis although William Verling was too much the performer to remain at home at an honest trade. He resurfaces briefly in Petersburg, Virginia, in October, 1787. At Petersburg, he intended to show "new and old faces in a new stile" with players brought together who were "chiefly from Old and New England and e'en part of the Old and New American Company." The Virginia Gazette did not give the outcome of this presentation.
HENRIEITA OSBORNE apparently retired from the stage after Verling's company went to ruin at Annapolis. She opened her own store near the town market house. On September 28, 1774, Mrs. Osborne participated "by Particular Desire" in an honorary benefit in which she reprised her famous part of Sir Harry Wildair in The Constant Couple. She was among friends with the American Company whom she had joined as a new recruit from England nine wild years before. Mrs. Osborne made that September 28 performance her last.
NANCY HALLAM continued to bask in her popularity as a member of Douglass' American Company. During the spring of 1773, she introduced previously hostile Philadelphia to the breeches part. She went down to Jamaica, too, and was listed as a "spinster" there in 1775. On May 15, 1775, she married John Raynard who was the organist of the Kingston Parish Church. Mrs. Nancy Raynard continued to play as a member of the Kingston Company.
PATRICK MALONE survived that Williamsburg spiking incident to embark upon a full career of dramatic acting, acrobatic dancing, tumbling and stuntmanship. Not only was Malone an athlete but he possessed a genuine charismatic appeal and "a tongue that could wheedle with the devil." Lewis Hallam, Sr. chose Malone to send as a diplomatic envoy to Philadelphia Quakers and Presbyterians in March of 1754. Malone tried to secure assurances from the religious leaders that the London Company of Comedians would be allowed to perform without difficulty. Patrick Malone had struck a bargain with Hallam for better parts in plays if his embassy worked. It did not. Hallam came, anyway, because the company needed to make money. There were great altercations and general consternation, but full houses, which was what mattered.53
Malone was not content with lesser parts for long. He went to the American Company in 1767 and the New American in 1769. Possibly he felt he could do well in important roles, and that he wanted to put his days of entr'acte entertainer behind him once and for all. He was good at it, though. While with Verling in the spring of 1769, he was performing remarkable feats of agility considering his age by this time and his past injuries. The Maryland Gazette of April 20, 1769 describes:
When the Verling troupe fell to pieces, Patrick Malone went to Philadelphia where he tried to rejoin Douglass. This was one adroit maneuver he could not accomplish.
CATHERINE MARIA HARMON remained an actress to the end of her short life. She died of a lingering illness, at age 43, in May, 1773 in New York City.
THE OWEN MORRISES were the classic troupers of the Colonial period. Mrs. Morris, a beautiful and talented actress, died in December, 1767. The accident which claimed her life illustrates the nature of "the dirty little war" that was the existence for a strolling player in those days.
The Douglass Company was on the road from Philadelphia to New York City. Mrs. Morris and her maid were on a stage wagon that was crossing the ferry at Kill van Kull. Somehow the conveyance overturned which pitched the two ladies into the water where they drowned.
Owen Morris sufficiently recovered from the tragedy to marry another actress in the spring of 1770. The Morrises joined David Douglass in Kingston but returned to the newly founded Republic. Owen Morris lived long enough to become a legendary patriarch of the North American stage. The stories he must have been able to tell of those early days! He bowed out at the venerable age of 90 in 1808 at New York City.
The second Mrs. Morris earned a healthy reputation as an actress and singer. Her presentations of "When William" and "I've Kissed and I have Prattled" were frequently encored. Mrs. Norris was one of those show business 54 eccentrics. She wore clothes that were more popular in her younger days: a long trained dress, high heeled shoes, a turban, and a white cravat. She was indeed a startling sight to see. Mrs. Morris died around 1829.
GEORGE WASHINGTON AND THOMAS JEFFERSON, despite their constant play-going, matured into giant talents on the world's stage. The one man generaled a Revolution, while the other provided its intellectual rationale. They drafted instruments of freedom, built estates, oversaw plantations, invented things and eventually became Presidents of these United States; Washington the first, and Jefferson the third.
SARAH HALLAM resigned herself to the estrangement from Lewis Hallam, Jr. She opened a Williamsburg dancing school in August, 1775, and operated it until her death on November 27, 1793. Mrs. Hallam died but local lore kept the widow of an English doctor alive and on the York (Woodpecker) Road as late as 1839/40. This Mrs. Hallam was a large, old woman who passed out sweets to children, held prayer meetings, and who was looked after by the community. She definitely was not the former wife of Lewis Hallam, Jr. Williamsburg townspeople may have confused the biography of Sarah Hallam with another of her family, perhaps, even a daughter of hers.
DR. GEORGE GILMER at 36 years of age was a two-time widower when he made his 1736 stage debut in the Beaux-Stratagem at the Levingston-Stagg play house that he had recently bought. Gilmer came to Williamsburg in 1730 from Edinburgh, Scotland, and London. Dr. Gilmer practiced physic and managed real estate in Virginia. By the standards of Williamsburg, for a man who was not a "planter", Gilmer was a moderately wealthy man. Before his second wife, Mary Peachy Walker, died, she bore three sons. Dr. Gilmer married again in 1745 to Miss Harrison Blair who was a sister of John Blair. Dr. Gilmer may have become more mellow with age as he further insinuated himself into polite Williamsburg society--which may explain his grumbling about the arrival of Lewis Hallam, Sr.'s London Company of Comedians. The third Mrs. Gilmer had a son but then she died in 1755. Dr. Gilmer was about to wed Miss Ambler when on January 15, 1757, he died.
PETER PELHAM, born in 1721, came from England with his father in 1726 to Boston. At Boston he studied music under a former student of Arne's and he played organ for Trinity Church. When he came to Williamsburg in 1750, he became the chief organist at Bruton Parish Church while also teaching young ladies to 55 play the harpsichord and spinet. Pelham even tried his hand at composition.
Mrs. Ann Pelham bore 14 children, not all of whom lived past infancy. Pelham was placed in the common predicament of choosing to pursue his art while also shouldering the responsibilities of living in the world. He supplemented his income by taking on clerical duties for the loyal Governor. The unpopular Dunmore made Pelham keeper of the Public Gaol. He proved a better musician than gaoler. Pelham would often take a prisoner with him to church on Sundays to help pump the organ. More than a few escapes occurred during Pelham's watch, and rumors abounded that he drank a little. He was accused of dereliction of his duties but an investigation undertaken by the General Assembly cleared Pelham of all charges.
A. Histories and Biographies
D. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Reports
No surviving Colonial-era account gives any indication of the physical details of the Livingston-Stagg theatre. Despite what must have been a novel innovation for the small town of Williamsburg circa 1718--a theatre--no diaries or letters remain which give clues as to what the play house may actually have looked like.
The Reverend Hugh Jones, a College of William and Mary mathematics professor, notes in his description of Williamsburg in The Present State of Virginia in 1722, "Not far from hence (Bruton Parish Church and James City County courthouse) is a large area for a Market Place, near which is a Play House and a good Bowling Green." Jones' failure to linger on his impressions of the theatre, as opposed to at least calling the bowling green "good," leads some historians to think the play house was just not noteworthy.
Dr. George Gilmer, some time prior to December 4, 1745, sold the play house, its land and six feet of ground adjoining each side of the building to a consortium of thirty-one gentlemen who paid a total of 50 pds. for the theatre and its attendant property. The names affixed to the subscription document are a glittering array of grand and good Virginia gentry: John Blair, Ralph Wormeley, Robert Tucker, David Meade, Wilson Cary, Beverley Randolph, Pete Randolph, Philip Ludwell, Lewis Burwell, Jr., Henry Armistead, Philip Lightfoot, Thomas Lee, James Littlepage, Benjamin Harrison, Jr., Francis Willis, Nathaniel Harrison, George Braxton (or Jr.(?)), Thomas Bray, Edward Digges, Joseph Temple, (Gov.) William Gooch, Benjamin Harrison, John Grymes, John Robinson, Richard Corbin, Lewis Burwell, Carter Burwell, William Nelson, Jr., John Mercer, and Charles Carter.
On December 4, 1745, these gentlemen turned the property over to the city of Williamsburg. The Virginia Gazette of December 19, 1745, advertised for laborers to assist in the refurbishing of the apparently dilapidated structure. 59
The Play-House in Williamsburg, being by Order of the Common-Hall of the said City, to be fitted up for a Court-House, with the necessary Alterations and Repairs; that is to say, to be new shingled, weather-boarded, painted, five large Sash Window, Door, flooring, plaistering, and proper Workmanship within; Notice is hereby given, to all such as are willing to undertake the doing thereof, That they offer their Proposals to the Mayor who will inform them more particularly what is to be done.
This is the sole surviving reference, albeit an oblique one, to the architectural elements of the Levingston-Stagg building. One of the last mentions of the theatre in the public record came on September 27, 1770 when the city conveyed to John Tazwell the land on which the play house had stood. Ann Morgan Smart writes in her briefing on the First Theatre site that "it is possible that the playhouse/courthouse may have disappeared at this time, or that another structure had been built in its place. However, the price charged for the property would have been quite steep if there was not some building on it. In any case, the Frenchman's map of 1782 shows several buildings in the area, one especially large one to the south, but none where the first theatre stood. It seems that the playhouse, turned courthouse, had disappeared sometime between March 23, 1769, and the time of the Frenchman's map in 1782.
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According to the work of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, archaeologist James W. Knight, the measurements of the Levingston-Stagg Theatre were of 32 feet, 2 inches wide, and 86 feet, 6 inches long, (as compared to the 112 feet by 53 feet of the first Drury Lane). The average size of a theatre building in the colonies came to around 81 feet by 37 feet.
The "five large Sash Window" replaced during the 1745/46 refitting of the play house may have been arrayed in wide-set pairs on each with one over the door. It would have been a typically dimly lit theatre dependant on candles for meager illumination. The building was built chiefly of wood, with typical weatherboarding, of rather rude appearance and probably it resembled nothing more aesthetically profound than a barn.
It follows, too, that the group of Williamsburg's citizens who were casting about for a temporary hustings court simply wanted a large open room in which sessions could be held. Now the foundations that have been isolated as those which supported the Levingston-Stagg Theatre are not thought to have been 60 sturdy enough for a two-story building. This fact precludes the play house's use of balconies or a gallery. The picture which hazily forms is that of a long, narrow room with a stage at the eastern end.
William Levingston was not the legendary theatre-builder David Douglass. Douglass probably had a working set of drawings of English-style houses which he consulted. He personally oversaw the construction of nine theatres. Levingston was a merchant with two somewhat talented indentured servants. He did not have the knowledge or likely even the resources to construct and then maintain a proper play house. After all, this was not Edinburgh or London, Williamsburg was a very small, muddy, provincial out post poised on the edge of the "Western wilderness." His was the first theatre ever built in the English-speaking Colonies. It did not have to look nice, it just had to stand up—which it did—for over thirty years by which time a bigger and better place was built.
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Levingston unwittingly created confusion for future archaeologists working to determine the exact First Theatre site by raising other structures on the property besides the play house.
Since the 1930s, digs have unearthed the Levingston kitchen, (now reconstructed), his lodging-house, dumps from Dr. Gilmer's apothecary and finally, close to the Brush-Everard house, what must be the remains of the First Theatre.(6*)
It is not known how extensive was the 1745/6 refurbishing of the building or if there were other subsequent attempts made to stabilize the structure. The building's floorplan was definitely altered by the addition of a partition wall that bi-sected the place on a north-south direction. It was thought to have been an old wall that perhaps separated a foyer or lobby ruin the main section of the house. Archaeological findings from a 1988 dig, however, yielded pieces of bottles and other fragments which dated from around 1720. Things get hazy with this information. Why would debris ca. 1720 be providing fill for a wall added ca. 1740 in a building, it should be noted, that did not have a cellar? Questions are raised not only about the exact age of the found 61 fragments but of the exterior foundation walls which are considered to be made of "colonial period brick" but have yet to be properly excavated.
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The architectural appointments of the Waller Street Theatre are completely unknown. The building went to wrack and its foundation brick was sold then a tavern was built on the same property.
The deed transacting the parcels on Waller Street to Alexander Finnie survive. The instrument instructed Finnie to build "2 good dwellings 16 ft. x 20 ft. or one good dwelling house 50 ft. long 20 ft. broad at least with brick chimneys thereto, the said houses to front in a line with the row of lots in which they stand…"
The deed is dated September 2, 1751. Murray-Kean's first performance at Waller Street was on October 21, 1751. Finnie built the theatre by subscription. Given the time factor, it is doubtful that the play house had many amenities. Advertised prices speak of seatings for boxes, pit and gallery but these divisions likely had more to do with seating arrangements than the actual social stratification known in legitimate British theatres.
On August 8, 1752, Lewis Hallam, Sr., bought the play house. By August 21, he could proclaim that he had "entirely altered the Play House…to a regular Theatre, fit for the Reception of Ladies and Gentlemen." Prices were set for boxes, pit, balconies and gallery. It is more reasonably assumed that Hallam, working from what Murray-Kean had left, did indeed make Waller Street into "a regular Theatre."
Margin notes in the Stephenson report for Colonial Williamsburg on the Second Theatre indicate a discrepancy in the building's location.
William Page, who kept the Blue Bell Tavern advertised in March, 1768, "that Gentlemen may be provided with good lodgings for themselves and good stables for their horses, at this house, fronting the play house." The Blue Bell faced the Exchange which was the busy commercial section of Williamsburg. The "new playhouse" built by Murray-Kean and redone by Lewis Hallam, Sr., was termed the "old play house," in 1768 when the Mayor of Williamsburg granted William Verling permission to perform there.
A deed of 1780 makes reference to the lot of land "where the Old Play House lately stood, containing 35 feet in length and 30 feet in breadth and bounded by James Moir's line, in the Capitol Square and the Street." Such a 62 transaction could not have taken place in Block 7 which was the original Second Theatre site. Samuel Major and James Moir owned land only in Block 8.
On January 6, 1787, Moir sold the bricks of the theatre's foundation to Humphrey Harwood. Again, he could sell those bricks only from his lot in Block 8.
The odd wrinkle in the certainty of the location of the Waller Street Theatre, (which seems to have somewhat migrated), has caused speculation on the possibility of "Third Theatre," for which there is presently no physical evidence.
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Lapses and losses of records coupled to natural erosion and the additional complication of buildings being raised over top of the remnants of previous structures makes determining the exact nature of the Williamsburg theatres an extremely difficult task. Theoretical drawings and models have been made based on British precedent and the types of construction used in other public buildings in Williamsburg. These are merely educated guesses. Meanwhile, the work goes on.
NOTE: The sources used in compiling this appendix were First Theatre Briefing by Ann Morgan Smart; Robert H. Land's article "The First Williamsburg Theatre" in The William & Mary Quarterly, (Volume 5, 1948); the Second Theatre Report of Mary A. Stephenson, and an interview with Tricia Samford who is a staff archaeologist for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation who spent the summer of 1988 in the trenches.