American Theatre Essay

Soon after the American Revolution, Americans began their expansion to the west.

It was our Manifest Destiny to tame the wilds of the west and expand our nation
from coast to coast. Families from all over would load up their belongings and
travel to the newly purchased lands. People from New York, Philadelphia, Boston
and all parts of the new nation brought with them their language, culture and
belief systems. Along with this they also brought the theater. It was not long
after people would begin to live in an area that the theater would take root.

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The progress of the theater in the United States can be traced along the same
routes as the settlement of the west. Beginning on the east coast with early
colonies the theater was carried with our ancestors to their new homes in the
west. From St. Louise to Kansas City, from Kansas City to California and all
parts in between. Horace Greeley said “Go west young man” and the
theater followed. In 1492 Christopher Columbus left Azones on a trip to discover
a western sea route to the Orient. Seventy days later Columbus made land fall on
what he thought was an outlying portion of Asia. Columbus would go to his death
believing he had landed in Asia, he was wrong. Although he did open up a new
world for Europeans to expand their culture into.(Billington 15) Thought many
early attempts where made to settle this new land. Most ended in disaster. In
1620 however, 128 years after Columbus made his brave but mistaken discovery of
the new world, the pilgrims set out to make a permanent settlement in America.

They put a shore in what is now called Massachusetts and formed a thriving, self
governed colony.(Billington 57) 10 years later, John Wintrope brings 1000
colonist and founds the city of Boston. Wintropes British settlement had not
been in the new world long, in fact less than a year, when they discovered that
the Dutch had formed their own nearby settlement. The Dutch called their town
New Amsterdam. This caused immediate competition and rivalry between the
settlements.(Billington 60) After a war with the Dutch the city of New Amsterdam
came into the possession of the British Empire and King Charles the Second. King
Charles had newly been restored to the throne of England after a long forced
vacation on the mainland of Europe. As a reward to those who supported his
return, he annexed New Amsterdam and renamed it New York and gave large portions
of it to his most loyal supporters.(Billington 67) In the ensuing years many
English colonist came to the new world setting up towns and cities all along the
Atlantic coast line. It is in these towns and cities that we see European
culture, especially English culture, being planted in the new world. With this
new culture being brought to this new and untamed land it is natural that the
forms of entertainment would also not be far behind. The lands of the new world
where now fertile for the seed of the theater. In 1716 we have records of a
theater being built in Willamsburg Virginia. This is probable the first theater
built in the Americas. While there where probable plays and some small
theatrical productions being done earlier, this is our first ever record of a
building being built for this specific purpose.(Hornblow) We know that in New
York in 1752, the Hallams performed the Merchant of Venice. We also know that
the Hallams used a theater that was build for use by Murray and Kean who had a
troupe who had performed the same play along with Richard the III many years
earlier. (Hornblow) So theater came early to the Americas but was contained to
the coastal areas much like the colonies where. It would take the formation of a
new country and an expansion of the boarders of this new country to help theater
on its western trek across the great expanses of North America. Caused by what
they believed was an erosions of their natural rights and being governed with
out representation The colonies in America decided to take a bold move and break
their ties with their English masters. This of course was not well received by
the King of England and what is known as the American Revolution ensued. In 1775
in Lexington and Concord fighting broke out between American Colonist and
English Troops. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress signed a
document that had been penned by Thomas Jefferson. The document was a
Declaration of Independence. While the matter was by no means decided and a long
war followed, for all practical purposes the United States Of America was
born.(McKay 696) In an effort to expand the borders of the United States and to
help get European interest off the continent. Thomas Jefferson, now president of
the United States purchases from France a vast area called Louisiana. So on
April 30th, 1803 the territory of the fledgling country of the United States was
more than doubled. In this territory there where already established cities and
populations. Cities like New Orleans and St. Louise had long been active trading
areas for the French and Spanish governments.(Billington 244) These areas
quickly became attractive for new migrations of the Americans. Although both
cities spoke very little English. The rapid movement of Americans into them
caused a need for English spoken entertainment. In New Orleans there where
French speaking theaters as early as 1809 but there had never been any English
language plays performed. A man named Noah Ludlow with the help of some actors
from the Turner company decided to go to New Orleans and perform. They had been
told that there was a large English speaking population there now and they where
in need to spend their money on English speaking plays. This is all that Ludlow
needed. Although some of his partners protested and left the troupe, Ludlow with
many others departed from Nashville on Oct. 20th 1917. (Hornblow) They traveled
down the Ohio river to the Mississippi They arrived in Natches some days later
and upon the insistence of the local movers and shakers performed one of their
plays. “The Honeymoon” was the first play to ever be performed in
Natches. The troupe stayed for a few days but then continued their travels to
New Orleans. On Dec. 24th 1817 Ludlow and his trouped opened their theater in
New Orleans with the plays “The Honeymoon” and a farce called
“The Hotel, or a servant with two masters”. The theater was called the
St. Philip because it was on St. Phillips St. The venture was a huge success
before Ludlow decided to go back to Nashville for other endeavors. (Hornblow) It
is only fitting that the man who brought theater to the Louisiana territory be
the one who brings it to St. Louis. Noah Ludlow decided that the small city of
St. Louis was ripe for his theater troupe. With a population of some 4000 St.

Louis had never seen a professional performance of a play. There where some
amateurs performing in the area and in their theater is where ludlow decided to
set up. (Hornblow) On Nov 20th 1819, Ludlow and his troupe boarded a keel boat
in Nashville and started on his journey to St. Louis. This journey was much more
difficult than the one to New Orleans for part of the trip was up current on the
Mississippi. They had to travel by a procedure called Cordelling. This entailed
men with ropes pulling the boats up the river. Finally arriving in St. Louse
Ludlows troupe performed in mid December 1819. They once again performed the
play “The Honeymoon”. (Hornblow) Theater had now expanded to the
western shores of the Mississippi. The United States would soon conquer from
coast to coast in North American. Expanding from the Mississippi to the coast in
California. As the Mormons expanded into the great Salt lake area of Utah and
the Mexican War would add vast new land, including California into the United
States the theater would not be far behind On may 16, 1846 the United States
declared war on Mexico. Caused partially because of United States annexation of
Texas, disagreements on borders and President Polks desire to expand the United
States territory.(Clark) While preparations for war where ensuing in Texas, Col.

Stephen Kearney was on his way west to take New Mexico and California. On Jan.

10th 1847, California was conquered. The treaty of Guadeloupe-Hidalgo was signed
on Feb 2, 1848 after the United States had defeated the Mexican troops and
captured the Mexican capital of Mexico City. This treaty set the new borders
along the Rio Grande river and gave to the United States New Mexico and
California. With these new accusations the west was now ready for its infusion
of the theater.(Billington 586) On July 24th, 1847, A group of Mormons lead by
Brigham Young founded the city of Salt Lake in the territory of Utah.(Billington
541) The Mormon had always been supporters of the theater and they carried their
love of the theater with them west. Joseph Smith encouraged the formation of a
Theatrical company long before their exodus to the west. (Hornblow) Soon after
settling in their new homes Salt Lake City plays where being performed. In an
area called the Bowery the Mormons would congregate to watch all sorts of
productions. It was here in 1850 that the Salt Lake Theater Stock Company was
created. Their first play was “The Dead Shot” In 1862 Brigham young
built the Salt Lake Theater. (Hornblow) While this was going on in Salt Lake
City American where rushing to California to cash in on the gold rush. In 1849
the famous gold rush began in California. (Clark) As American headed west to the
shores of the Pacific ocean theater followed. On Jan 1850 in Washington Hall, a
building in San Francisco. The first professional play was performed in
California. A play by Sheridan Knowles called “The Wife” played to a
packed house. By 1851 there where at least 3 professional theaters operating in
San Francisco.(Hornblow) Manifest Destiny, this became the call of many
Americans as the United States expanded westward. We got on boats, filled our
wagons and populated North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Times where
hard for these early settlers but in it all they found time for entertainment.

The theater has been there from the beginning to entertain, educate and make us
think. Not only has the theater expanded across the land it has expanded across
time. While some would argue it was a natural expansion of the theater to the
camera and then to the television. Our lives are totally entwined in the
theatrical arts. So when Horace Greeley said “Go west young man” we
did and we took the theater with us.

Billington, Ray Allen. “Westward Expansion; A history of the American
Frontier.” New York: Macmillan, 1967 Clark, Dan Elbert. “The West in
American History” New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1937 Horblow,
Arthur. “A history of the Theatre in America from its Beginnings to the
Present Time.” New York: B. Bloom, 1965 c1919 McKay, Hill, Buckler. “A
history of Western Society 5th Edition” Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company


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