On this day in theatre history–May 28–some 166 years apart, theatre people do two very different things in the face of war. In 1588, on this very day, the Spanish Armada sailed from Lisbon on its way to attack England and return it to the Roman Catholic faith. The venture would be a spectacular failure, of course. But on board this very day was Lope de Vega, who would soon become one of Spain’s greatest playwrights. Somehow, he managed to survive the defeat of the Armada and returned to Spain where he took up his professional playwriting career–producing perhaps as many as 1,800 plays for the major theatres of Madrid before retiring to a monastery to wait out the rest of his days. Many would maintain that the defeat of the Spanish Armada would lead to the cultural confidence needed to boast the Elizabethan age to its greatest heights with the writings of Shakespeare and others.
Fast forward to 1754 and a small colonial militia, led by Lieutenant Colonel George Washington attacks a French force some fifty miles south of modern day Pittsburgh. In what is now known as the Battle of Jumonville Glen, Washington’s small force would capture and kill many of the invading French in the opening conflict of the American version of the Seven Years War–what we now call The French & Indian War. Why is this important to theatre? Simple, the first professional theatre company to tour the North American colonies was in Pennsylvania at the time–The Hallams–who had arrived in the colonies two years earlier and were working their way around the eastern seaboard from city to city. When word of the hostilities got back to the Philadelphia, particularly of Washington’s subsequent defeat at Fort Necessity in retaliation for Jumonville Glen, the calls for volunteers to fight the French filled the city. Not wanting to get involved and hoping to find more peaceful cities in which to perform, the Hallams fled to Maryland, Virginia and eventually South Carolina–in each case just one step ahead of the rapidly expanding conflict. Finally, in the ultimate act of colonial draft dodging, they boarded a coastal sloop and sailed for Jamaica to wait out the rest of the war.
While in Kingston, the leader of the troupe, Lewis Hallam, died and a new young star, David Douglass, took his place. In fact, Douglass not only took over Lewis’ roles on stage, but he assumed his domestic duties as well as the new husband of the recently widowed Mrs. Hallam. By 1758, with the war all but over in the disputed lands west of the Appalachians and with British victories both in Europe and in Canada, Douglass and the remainder of the Hallam troupe returned to the northern colonies to resume their long-delayed tour. Their evacuation of Jamaica may well have been prompted by Spain’s late arrival into the conflict and the likelihood that hostilities might now be moving into the Caribbean. They remained until the beginning of the American Revolution, when they once again fled to the relative safety of the Caribbean islands.
So, in short, today in theatre history–May 28–one very lucky theatre professional joins up and sails off to fight in a famously ill-fated venture while a group of theatre professionals, hoping to make a killing in a less violent way, retreat for safer climes–proving once again that theatre and war are always an odd combination.