In the 18th-century, theater thrived in Williamsburg – so much so that it took three venues to accommodate the demand.Theater manager David Douglass built and furnished the third theater in Williamsburg in 1760 in the traditional English fashion of the time. Located just a few steps from the House of Burgesses, Douglass deduced that a captive audience was a faithful audience. It’s easy to imagine exhausted Burgesses frequenting the theater in hopes of some lighthearted diversion and non-confrontational entertainment.
The life of an 18th -century actor
Typical theater repertoire consisted of a mixture of comedies, tragedies, Shakespeare and always a few works of pure fun and entertainment.
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“The actors that Douglass brought over had a background in English theater, often playing in London. He was always recruiting new performers to come, and most if not all were English. Traveling two or three times back and forth from England in the 1760s, he brought new players, scenery and plays. Douglass really would bring the most current plays from the west end of London. They wouldn’t play the old, tired stuff that people had seen many times,” said Carl R. Lounsbury, senior architectural historian at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Theater actors lived nomadic lives working in circuits, or areas, which could sometimes be quite large. Husband and wife teams were common, and it was quite a logistical challenge for the manager to keep them all together and happy as they moved to different locations.
“There are different “circuits” or theater troupes of 10 to 20 actors,” Lounsbury said. “Of course they all aspired to make it to London.”
AND THERE’S MORE
David Garrick is another name that frequently associated with 18th-century theater. This podcast tells you more about a great actor you’ve likely never heard of.
London was the mecca of British theater activity, much like New York City for Americans today.
Entertainment for everyone
Audiences in Williamsburg were typically of the gentry class and perhaps more refined than some. You might find a rowdier crowd in cities like New York City and Philadelphia, for example.
Theater seasons varied according to the social activity of an area. “Companies tried to stay in one place during a season, which would sometimes revolve around the county courts. That is the time when everyone would come in from the countryside and there would be a flurry of balls and social events,” Lounsbury said.
“Sometimes there was a lot of interaction with the audience. It was even common for people to come sit on the stage and comment on the action. It’s hard to perform when you have people right there commenting on what you are doing,” he added.
A theatrical experience to remember
Imagine a theater stage lit by dozens of brilliant candles, creating more light than colonists would otherwise experience. Even the Governor’s Palace balls were dim in comparison. Unlike today’s theater in which the house lights usually go down after the program begins, these candles were always burning. So in addition to the audience seeing the actors, the actors could also see the audience.
The stage was built to extend into the audience. It was here that most of the action took place, essentially in the middle of the audience, creating an intimate atmosphere – sometimes with an air of familiarity. “The actors would even walk over and lean against the box seats and interact with the seated members, not only about what’s going on in the play, but also about their personal lives,” Lounsbury said.
A rough crowd
According to some accounts, unhappy patrons might throw food or even rush the stage when the production wasn’t to their liking. But the audience was equally enthusiastic when they liked something.
A particularly well-played scene was often repeated if the applause was enthusiastic enough. Rousing swordfights or lovely songs between acts were always cause for immediate encores.
Improvisation ruled the day. Depending on the mood and energy of the audience, actors were free to do whatever necessary to keep the audience happy and coming back. This kind of spontaneity was expected and appreciated by the 18th century audience.
But then there was the Revolutionary War
In 1774, the Continental Congress was growing more concerned about the amount of time and money being spent on theatrical entertainment. It felt the citizenry should instead be more concerned about the welfare of their family. In an attempt to cease all things associated with England, theater activity was widely frowned upon from 1774 – 1783. It was only in locations such as New York where British troops were stationed that theater remained an active pastime.
Article 8 of the Articles of Association for the Continental Congress decreed that economy, frugality and industry would be promoted and “all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shows, plays and other expensive diversions and entertainments” would be discouraged.
It was at this point that Douglass sailed off to England for the last time. Some of his troupe members did return after the war, however, becoming the founding fathers and mothers of the new American theater.
But Lounsbury likes to imagine men like Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and George Washington attending the Williamsburg Theater.
“I am sure that after many hours in the capitol, they would go into the theater to try to relax, and I don’t think they threw orange peels,” he said.