Today in Theatre History: THEATRE WINS THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION–October 17, 1777.

On this day (October 17) in 1777, British General John Burgoyne lost the Battle of Saratoga, surrendering over 6000 of his troops to the Continental Army and effectively turning the tide of the American Revolution in favor of the colonists. Many historians consider Burgoyne’s loss at Saratoga the beginning of the end of Great Britain’s effort to contain the growing rebellion, ultimately proving to be the turning point of the war.

Why did he lose and what did theatre have to do with it? Essentially, General Burgoyne was not one to travel light. Like many British officers at the time, he carried a lot of personal baggage with him wherever he went. He was also a renowned amateur thespian. The year before, for instance, during his occupation of Boston, he defied the local ban on theatre to stage shows for his troops–including a production of his own farce, The Blockade of Boston, that was interrupted when American forces attacked the city.

In his 1777 campaign, Burgoyne’s plan was to isolate New England from the southern colonies by attacking New York from Canada, marching south into the Hudson Valley. But his supply train was so weighted down and the terrain so difficult, it gave the Continental troops time to head him off at Saratoga. Among the 500 carts and wagons he hired to supply his army, no fewer than 30 were just for his personal possessions alone–including cases of champagne, his extensive wardrobe, household furniture, his mistress’s possessions (along with his mistress), and most likely scripts, costumes, props and other theatrical supplies he thought he would need once he arrived in New York City to meet up with his colleague and fellow amateur thespian, General William Howe.  Howe had already begun setting up a small theatre company in the old John Street Theatre that year in anticipation of Burgoyne’s arrival, eventually performing entire seasons of plays during the extended occupation.

Burgoyne learns the hard way that traveling light is important for any good theatre tour.

Burgoyne surrenders at Saratoga and learns the hard way that traveling light is essential for any good theatre tour.

But with his loss at Saratoga, Burgoyne’s military career was over, along with his plans for playing New York.  He was immediately sent home in disgrace where he spent the rest of his days writing mediocre plays for the Drury Lane Theatre.  Clearly, there were many reasons Burgoyne lost the Battle of Saratoga, but certainly his love of theatre played a vital role.

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Today in Theatre History: A NON-UPLIFTING VIRGINIA WOOLF HITS BROADWAY–October 13, 1962


Melinda Dillon, Arthur Hill, George Grizzard and Uta Hagen failing miserably at being uplifting.

On this day (October 13) in 1962, Edward Albee’s first major play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theatre. Directed by Alan Schneider and starring Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, Melinda Dillon and George Grizzard, the production was the hit of the 1962-63 season–eventually winning Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Director, Leading Actor and Leading Actress.  It was also the top selection by the drama jury for the Pulitzer Prize. But, in an infamously controversial move, the Board of Trustees at Columbia University overturned the decision and elected not to award a Pulitzer for Drama that year.  At the time, the university trustees served as the final arbiter of all Pulitzer Prizes.  In their view, the play was not sufficiently “uplifting,” owing to the adult themes and profanity.  Two of the jury members, John Mason Brown and John Gassner, quit in protest–Brown declaring “they made a farce out of the drama award.”  Not long afterwards, “uplifting” was dropped as a requirement for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama and few winners have been uplifting ever since…

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Today in Theatre History: MRS. IBSEN GIVES BIRTH TO HENRIK–March 20, 1828

Little Henrik.  Had he survived, he'd be 187 today.

Marichen’s little Henrik. Had he survived, he’d be 187 today.

On this very day (March 20) in 1828, Marichen Ibsen, wife of wealthy merchant, Knut Ibsen of Skien, Norway, gave birth to a healthy baby boy.  For some reason they decided to name him Henrik and eventually got him involved with the town’s league of youth, hoping to interest him in becoming a master builder and break his unsettling habit of sitting for hours in his sister’s doll’s house slamming the little front door.  Henrik’s other obsession–ghosts (that he swore he saw emanating from the burial mound in the basement)–became particularly worrisome for his parents, who felt it might brand him for life and stir up resentment from the local pillars of society, especially Olaf Liljekrans (who always fancied himself a bit of an armchair emperor and Galilean anyway).  But Henrik knew instinctively they were all pretenders–and so, like the Vikings of Helgeland, he began keeping company with the lady from the sea, who smelled of kelp and tended to visit every other Thursday as well as St. John’s Eve, despite the Vikings.  Sensing imminent raid and plunder, he quickly tired of kelp and soon love’s comedy overwhelmed Henrik.  In a fit of uncontrollable laughter he ran off to Rosmersholm with Lady Inger of Oestraat’s daughter, Cataline, and her odd little sister, Norma, cryptically declaring he’ll return only “when we dead awaken,” causing his mother to shout, “Stop it with the ghosts already!” as she stormed out of the house slamming the front door repeatedly for dramatic effect.  Multiple redundancies not withstanding, this amused Henrik to no end.  Shortly after, during the annual feast at Solhaug, Henrik got into a particularly bitter altercation with local enemy of the people, John Gabriel Borkman, who had drunkenly spewed a little eyolf on Henriks’s new saddle shoes while attempting to pluck a hedda gabler with his teeth.  Avoiding a roundhouse right, Borkman made a wild duck to his left, cuffing Henrik squarely on the eye .  From then on, whenever Henrik smiled, people noticed a slight peer gynt.

There.  I think that just about covers his entire dramatic canon.  You’re welcome.

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Today in Theatre History: SHAKESPEARE ARRIVES IN NEW YORK–March 5, 1750

The version used by Murray and Kean for the premiere in New York.

The version used by Murray and Kean for their NYC premiere–clearly chosen to soothe the rebellious spirits of an American audience.

This day in theatre history–March 5, 1750–marks the first verifiable performance of Shakespeare in the city of New York when a semi-professional assemblage of colonists performed Richard III at an improvised playhouse on Nassau Street.  But this was not the version we know today.  It was, instead, a popular 1700 adaptation by Colley Cibber that preserved only 800 of Shakespeare’s original lines, added a completely new first act based on the murder of Henry VI, and enhanced the on-stage violence–just the sort of mollifying amusement for a mid-century colonial American crowd.  The performance began “precisely at Half an Hour after 6 o’clock,” stipulating with knowing authority that, “no persons to be admitted behind the scenes.”  The evening was produced by Walter Murray and Thomas Kean, two entrepreneurs from Baltimore who created the first recognized touring company of players in the colonies.  Little is known of the physical playhouse, having likely been a warehouse hastily converted for the purpose with a temporary stage, a small pit and even smaller galleries.   Tickets could be had at a nearby printing shop– “PITT 5s.  Gallery 3s.”  Little else is known, unfortunately.  Murray and Kean continued to perform sporadically over the next year or so.  But by 1752, they’d been supplanted by the arrival of the famed Hallam family from London, the first true professional company to hit the colonies.  Nonetheless, on this day, Shakespeare finally arrived in New York City for the very first time.

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Today in Theatre History: PAUL ROBESON AS OTHELLO–August 10, 1942

Paul and Uta share a lighter moment.

Uta and Paul share a lighter moment.

On this day in theatre history (August 10, 1942) one of the greatest actors of the 20th century, Paul Robeson, first performed what would eventually be recognized as among the greatest roles of his career:  Othell0.  Directed by the legendary Margaret Webster with Jose Ferrer as Iago and Uta Hagen as Desdemona, the production opened at the Brattle Street Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, becoming an instant hit.  The show soon moved to the Shubert Theatre on Broadway, where it ran an astounding 296 performances (from October 19, 1943 to July 1, 1944), setting the record for the longest run of any Shakespeare play on Broadway–a record that remains unbroken to this day.

Hewlett at Othello (1887)

Hewlett as Othello (from an 1887 reprint)

Most histories credit Robeson with being the first African-American to perform Othello on a professional American stage.  But this may not be the case.  While Robeson gets the credit, it’s likely that James Hewlett earned the honor back in 1821 while a leading actor with the African Grove Theatre in New York City.  The evidence is not entirely clear–Odell, for instance, fails to mention Hewitt in the role while acknowledging him as a popular Shakespearean actor.  But other secondary sources appear to confirm Hewlett’s singular achievement as the country’s first African-American Othello.  Whether the African Grove qualifies as a fully professional theatre is debatable, of course, but in no way diminishes its importance to American history or the significance of Hewlett’s performance.  And Hewlett as Othello must have been a remarkable experience for any 19th century audience–as impressive and bold, I would guess, as Robeson’s groundbreaking work in the 20th century.

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Today in Theatre History: THE FLAMMABLE BEGINNINGS OF CHICAGO THEATRE–February 24, 1834

Chicago in 1833, just before the theatrical explosion of 1834.

Chicago in 1833, prior to the theatrical explosion of 1834.  Looking very closely, one can just make out Steppenwolf’s first theatre in the upper lefthand corner.

It was on this very day in theatre history (February 24) that Chicago saw its very first documented theatrical performance back in 1834.  A “Mr. Bowers,” billed as a “professeur de tours amusant,” gave an evening’s performance on an improvised stage in the house of one “D. Graves.”  At the time, Chicago was the largest commercial settlement in Illinois with a population of 3200 inhabitants and fifty-one stores.  As described in some detail in the Chicago Democrat, Mr. Bowers performed a series of tricks that began with his impersonation of:  “Monsieur Chaubert, the celebrated Fire King, who so much astonished people of Europe, and go thro’ his wonderful Chemical Performance.  He will draw a red hot iron across his tongue, hands, &c. and will partake of a comfortable warm supper, by eating fire balls, burning sealing wax, live coals of fire, melted lead.  He will dip his fingers in melted lead, and make use of a red hot spoon to convey the same to his mouth.”  The second act consisted of Bowers introducing “many very amusing feats of Vantriloquism [sic] and Legerdemain, many of which are original, and too numerous to mention.  Admittance 50 cents, children half price.”  There is no indication if Mr. Bower’s performance was a success.  And nothing more was heard from him after this announcement.  But clearly it was a very short step from eating fire balls and displays of vantriloquism [sic] to the extraordinarily vibrant theatrical scene we find in Chicago today.   Within just a few months, in fact, the very first groups of university students were already setting up their storefront theatres on the northside in hopes of becoming the next “Mr. Bowers.”  I guess Chicago theatre had to start somewhere…

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Today in Theatre History: WHITE RATS ON STRIKE!–February 22, 1901

The original White Rats--preparing to take on the Keith-Albee vaudeville chain by posing for a photo.

The original White Rats–preparing to take on the Keith-Albee vaudeville chain by first posing for a photo.  Just look at all them beady little eyes…

On this day in theatre history (February 22) in 1901, a group of American vaudeville performers, fed up with the Keith-Albee conglomerate, staged a strike against the Vaudeville Managers Association (VMA)–which Keith-Albee controlled.  Their key complaint was the 5% fee (or kickback) performers were required to pay to VMA in order to secure booking at the most popular venues.  Known as “The White Rats,” the union was formed the year before as a way to protest the oppressive practices in an increasingly lucrative industry.  Curiously, the White Rats were surprisingly effective in this initial strike, considering they were not yet a fully recognized union (that wouldn’t happen until 1910 when the AFL granted them a charter), and given the general distaste big business had toward labor organization.  Within a few days, most of the VMA branches had acquiesced and agreed to drop the fee.  Within a month, Keith and Albee (yup, that’s Edward’s adoptive grandfather) both claimed to have always disliked the 5% kickback scheme anyway and the White Rats won.  Their success was probably due to their rather moderate demands and the fact that VMA was not keen to lose a cent of revenue to their strongest competitor–cinema.  But their luck wouldn’t last.  In 1916, the White Rats staged another strike and this time VMA was not in such a generous mood.  In retaliation, Albee announced a nationwide blacklist that barred any members of the union from being booked in any of the nearly 15,000 theatres under the control of the VMA.  After a year, the strike failed and the union disbanded.  It would take the famous 1919 strike by Actors’ Equity to finally turn the tide of unionized theatrical entertainment in the United States.  Nonetheless, the White Rats are remembered as one of the early attempts to improve the lives and working conditions of professional performers, though their efforts are now often forgotten by students of American theatre.

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