Theater in the United States

From Academic Kids

Theater of the United States is based in the Western tradition, mostly borrowed from the performance styles prevalent in Europe. Today, it is heavily interlaced with American literature, film, television, and music, and it is not uncommon for a single story to appear in all forms. Regions with significant music scenes often have have strong theater and comedy traditions as well. Musical theater may be the most popular form: it is certainly the most colorful, and choreographed motions pioneered on stage have found their way onto movie and television screens. Broadway in New York City is considered the pinnacle of U.S. theater, though this art form appears all across the country. Regional or resident theatres in the United States are professional theatre companies outside of New York City that produce their own seasons. Even tiny rural communities sometimes awe audiences with extravagant productions.

Note: Both "theater" and "theatre" are common spellings in the U.S. when referring to stage productions, and "theatre" is often encountered when there might be some doubt as to whether someone is discussing cinema or the stage.


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Edwin Forrest, a popular early American actor

Early history

The birth of professional theater in America is usually thought to have begun with the Lewis Hallam troupe which arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1752. However it is certain that theatre existed in North America before that. A theatre was built in Williamsburg in 1715, and Thomas Kean played the part of Richard III in New York City in 1750, and probably performed in Williamsburg shortly before the Hallams. (Amateur theater is recorded to have existed as early as 1665, when performers of a play were prosecuted in Accomack County, Virginia on charges of public wickedness.) In any case The Hallams were the first to organize a complete company of actors in Europe (London in this case) and bring them to the colonies. They brought a repertoire of the most popular plays from London, including Hamlet, The Recruiting Officer, and Richard III. The Merchant of Venice was their first performance, shown initially on September 15 1752. Persecuted by religious intolerance, Hallam and his company left for Jamaica in 1754 or 1755. Soon after, Lewis Hallam's son, Lewis Hallam, Jr., founded the American Company which opened a theater in New York and presented the first professionally-mounted American play, The Prince of Parthia by Thomas Godfrey, in 1767.

Throughout the 18th century there was widespread opposition to theatrical performances. In the puritanical climate of the time, especially in the North, the theater was considered a "highway to hell". Laws forbidding the performance of plays were passed in Massachusetts in 1750, in Pennsylvania in 1759, and in Rhode Island in 1761, and it was banned in most states during the American Revolutionary War at the urging of the Continental Congress. In 1824 President Dwight of Yale College in his "Essay on the Stage" declared that "to indulge a taste for playgoing means nothing more or less than the loss of that most valuable treasure: the immortal soul.". However it is likely that these ordinances were not strictly enforced, for we have records of performances in many cities during this time.

The 19th century

In the early 19th century, theater became more common in the United States, and many celebrity actors from Europe toured the United States. There were even a few famous American actors, such as Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman. Many theater owners, such as William Dunlap and Thomas Abthorpe Cooper, similarly became well known throughout the young nation.

Most cities only had a single theater. Productions were much more rudimentary then, and sometimes plays would be staged in barns or dining rooms when no theater was available. Provincial theatres frequently lacked heat and even minimal props and scenery. As the Westward Expansion of the country progressed, some entrepreneurs staged floating theaters on boats which would travel from town to town. Eventually, towns grew to the size that they could afford "long runs" of a production, and in 1841, a single play was shown in New York for an unprecedented three weeks.

Shakespeare was the most commonly performed playwright, along with other European authors. American playwrights of the period existed, but are mostly forgotten now. American plays of the period are mostly melodramas, often weaving in local themes or characters such as the heroic but ill-fated Indian. The most enduring melodrama of this period is Uncle Tom's Cabin, adapted by H. J. Conway from the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

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1906 postcard advertising a minstrel show

A popular form of theater during this time was the minstrel show, arguably the first uniquely American style of performance. These shows featured white actors dressed in blackface and playing up racial stereotypes. These shows became the most watched theatrical form of the era.

Throughout the 19th century, many preachers continued to warn against attending plays as being sinful. Theater was associated with hedonism and even violence, and actors especially female actors, were looked upon as little better than prostitutes. A serious rivalry between William Charles Macready and Edwin Forrest mirrored the sports rivalries of later years. The Astor Place Riot of 1849 in New York was sparked by this rivalry, and brought about the deaths of 22 people. Then, at the end of the United States Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theater while watching a play.

Burlesque became a popular form of entertainment in the middle of the 19th century. Originally a form of farce in which females in male roles mocked the politics and culture of the day, burlesque was condemned by opinion makers for its sexuality and outspokenness. The form was hounded off the "legitimate stage" and found itself relegated to saloons and barrooms. The female producers were replaced by their male counterparts, who toned down the politics and played up the sexuality, until the shows eventually became little more than pretty girls in skimpy clothing singing songs, while male comedians told raunchy jokes.

The Civil War ended much of the prosperity of the South, and with it, its independant theaters. Only New Orleans was able to recover its theatrical tradition in the 19th century, if only partially. In the North, theater flourished as a post-war boom allowed longer and more frequest productions. The advent of railroads allowed actors to travel much more easily between towns, making theaters in small towns more feasible. By the late 19th century, there were thousands of cities and towns with at least a rudimentary theater for live productions. This trend also allowed larger and more elaborate sets to travel with players from city to city. The advent of electric lighting led to changes in styles, as more details could be seen by the audience.

By the 1880s theaters on Broadway in New York City, and along 42nd Street, took on a flavor of their own, giving rise to new stage forms such as the Broadway musical (strongly influenced by the feelings of immigrants coming to New York with great hope and ambition, many of whom went into the theater). New York became the organizing center for theater throughout the U.S.

In 1896, Charles Frohman, Al Hayman, Abe Erlanger, Mark Klaw, Samuel F. Nixon, and Fred Zimmerman formed the Theatrical Syndicate. Their organization established systemized booking networks throughout the United States and created a monopoly that controlled every aspect of contracts and bookings until the late 1910s when the Shubert brothers broke their stranglehold on the industry.

The 20th century

Vaudeville was common in the late 19th and early 20th century, and is notable for heavily influencing early film, radio, and television productions in the country. (This was born from an earlier American practice of having singers and novelty acts perform between acts in a standard play.) George Burns was a very long-lived American comedian who started out in the vaudeville community, but went on to enjoy a career running until the 1990s.

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John Drew, a famous American actor, playing the part of Petruchio from The Taming of the Shrew.

Some vaudeville theaters built between about 1900 and 1920 managed to survive as well, though many went through periods of alternate use, most often as movie theaters until the second half of the century saw many urban populations decline and multiplexes built in the suburbs. Since that time, a number have been restored to original or nearly-original condition and attract new audiences nearly one hundred years later.

By the beginning of the 20th century, legitimate (non-vaudville) theater had become decidedly more sophisticated in the United States, as it had in Europe. The stars of this era, such as Ethel Barrymore and John Drew, were often seen as even more important than the show itself. The advance of motion pictures also led to many changes in theatre. The popularity of musicals may have been due in part to the fact the early films had no sound, and could thus not compete. More complex and sophisticated dramas bloomed in this time period, and acting styles became more subdued. Even by 1915, actors were being lured away from theater and to the silver screen, and vaudeville was beginning to face stiff competition.

While revues consisting of mostly unconnected songs, sketches, comedy routines, and scantily-glad dancing girls dominated for the first 20 years of the 20th century, musical theater would eventually develop beyond this. One of the first major steps was Show Boat, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. It featured songs and non-musical scenes which were integrated to develop the show's plot. The next great step forward was Oklahoma!, with lyrics by Hammerstein and music by Richard Rodgers. Its "dream ballets" used dance to carry forward the plot and develop the characters.

The massive social change that went on during the Great Depression also had an effect on theater in the United States. Plays took on social roles, identifying with immigrants and the unemployed. The Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal program set up by Franklin D. Roosevelt, helped to promote theater and provide jobs for actors. The program staged many elaborate and controversial plays such as It Can't Happen Here by [Sinclair Lewis]] and The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein.

After World War II, American theater came into its own. Several American playrights, such as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, became world-renowned. In the Sixties, experimentation in the Arts spread into theater as well, with plays such as Hair including nudity and drug culture references. Musicals remained popular as well, and musicals such as West Side Story and A Chorus Line broke previous records.

American theater today

Earlier styles of theater such as minstrel shows and Vaudeville acts have disappeared from the landscape, but theater remains a popular American art form. Broadway productions still entertain millions of theatergoers as productions have become more elaborate and expensive. Smaller urban theaters have stayed a source of innovation, and regional theaters remain an important part of theater life. Drama is also taught in high schools and colleges, which was not done in previous eras, and many become interested in theater through this.


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