Today in Theatre History: THE JEW OF VENICE, AMERICA’S FIRST PROFESSIONAL PRODUCTION–September 15, 1752

Landsdowne's comical version, 1701

Landsdowne’s revision of Shakespeare, preformed by the Hallams in 1752.  Given the 11 missing days that year, one wonders if Brigadoon might have been a better choice.

On September 15, 1752, the residents of Williamsburg, Virginia, were treated to a rare event–a performance by a professional troupe of players from London.  In fact, the performance is now regarded by historians as the first genuine example of professional theatre in the North American colonies.  A few months earlier, the Hallam Company (a collection of professional performers from London’s fairs and unlicensed theatres) had arrived in Virginia and spent the summer preparing a facility and securing the proper permissions to perform.  By late August they were ready and on the 21st of the month they announced that the they would open their season with a performance “Written by Shakespear” on the first Friday in September.  Which they did–September 15.   That’s right–September 15 was indeed the first Friday in September.  In 1752, England decided to switch over to the Gregorian Calendar and eleven days were chopped off of early September that year to make the calendar fit the proper astronomical alignment.  Colonists went to bed on September 2 and awoke the next day on September 14.  And a day later, the Hallams opened their season–but not with Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (as most theatre histories claim).  They opened instead with the popular 1701 adaptation by Lord Landsdowne called The Jew of Venice in which Shylock was rewritten as a farcical character (typically played by a company’s comic lead).

Macklin's famous mid-18th century interpretation of Shylock as a sympathetic character.

Macklin’s famous mid-18th century interpretation turned Shylock from a farcical to sympathetic character .

Interestingly, this comical interpretation of Shylock was dying out by the mid-18th century (largely as the result of the great Charles Macklin‘s highly acclaimed 1741 performance at Drury Lane in which he reverted to the original text), giving way to a more sentimental and sympathetic take.  Nonetheless, the Hallams ascertained that Landsdowne’s comical interpretation would be a safer choice for their first performance in the New World.  And apparently it was.  The show was a hit and their run in Williamsburg extended through the early summer of 1753.  Professional theatre had finally arrived in the British North American colonies, eleven day earlier than expected and in a version of Shakespeare few today have ever seen performed.

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