Introductory Essay

by John W. Frick, Associate Professor,
Department of Drama, University of Virginia

When you hear the words, “American Theatre,” what comes to mind? A virile, muscular, undershirt-clad Marlon Brando, bellowing for his Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire? The lines at the TKTS booth in Times Square on a summer's eve? Jo Mielziner's claustrophobic, skeletal set for Arthur Miller's classic Death of a Salesman? Ethel Merman belting out "Everything's Coming Up Roses" in Gypsy? Perhaps it’s Joseph Papp standing on a flat-bed truck on West 44th Street, protesting the demolition of three historic Broadway theatres; or a defiant James Earl Jones as the prize fighter Jack Johnson, standing center stage in Arena Stage's production of The Great White Hope; or the glittering silver costumes of a chorus line, in front of a backdrop of mirrors, high-kicking to the song "One" at the conclusion of Michael Bennett's legendary musical. Regardless of what comes to mind, it’s bound to be vivid, for the American theatre evokes just such distinct images and memories—images and memories that are as much a part of the American landscape as baseball and fireworks on the Fourth of July.

In its infancy, however, the American theatre proved less than memorable. In fact, given the high degree of sophistication of the images just described and the professionalization of the contemporary theatre, it is difficult to imagine its humble beginnings with roots in itinerant British acting companies that traveled around to the American colonies and in amateur productions like Ye Bare and Ye Cubb, a simple play staged in Accomac, Virginia, in 1665 that was subsequently closed by the local authorities for "showing forth profane." It is equally difficult to imagine a time when audiences could find entertainment in something as patently racist as minstrel shows, as unabashedly lowbrow as early vaudeville, or as politically incorrect as burlesque. By now, it is becoming increasingly difficult to remember a time when traveling theatrical troupes crisscrossed the country by rail, presenting classics like East Lynn, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and The Drunkard in one-night appearances in America's small towns. It is virtually impossible to envision a time when there were no stars whose names appeared above play and playwright on theatre marquees. Yet, these vehicles, conventions, and traditions of the past are as integral to America's theatrical story as Brando's Stanley or Jones's Jack Johnson.

Despite its rustic, amateur beginnings, the American theatre grew rapidly and almost from the outset moved toward professionalization. Shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, second-rate British actors migrated to the United States to make their debuts in New York where, given the absence of experienced American performers, they attained star status and increased the prestige of struggling American companies. If early nineteenth-century theatre managers remained unconvinced of the benefits of attaching a star to their companies, they quickly changed their opinions with the arrival in 1810 of George Frederick Cooke, already a star of the first rank on the London stage. Cooke's performances consistently sold out, and American theatre managers saw unmistakably just what a boon a star performer could be at the box office. Soon after, native-born actors, like Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman, supplanted British performers as the stars of the American stage, planting the seeds of the present-day “star system.”

If the star system marked the first component of what we now recognize as the modern theatre, the second facet was the long-run performance. Before the 1840s, common practice dictated that a play be presented for one or two performances and then rotated into a company's repertoire to be resuscitated at a later date. However, with the success of such shows as The Drunkard at the Boston Museum in 1844, Uncle Tom's Cabin at Purdy's National Theatre in New York in 1853, and The Black Crook at New York's Niblo's Garden in 1866, astute theatre managers discovered that keeping a show open for a long run proved a means to reduce production costs while attracting sizeable audiences. While the mid-nineteenth century shows just listed ran for one hundred to three hundred consecutive performances, today's hits stay open for runs exceeding 10,000 nights and what was considered a long run just a few years ago is now required just to make back the initial investments in a show.

The latter years of the nineteenth century brought specialized districts devoted exclusively to theatre in large cities; a national network of theatres linked by America's railroads; acting troupes traveling between the country's small towns to bring the latest Broadway hit to people in the hinterlands; the concentration of management and distribution power in the hands of a few managers (called the theatrical syndicate); and the consolidation of business trends and interests into a full-fledged industry—show business. At the same time, audiences witnessed the demise of the stock company, the theatrical structure and mode of operation originally imported from England and the staple of the early American stage. The stock company disappeared in the wake of the Panic of 1873 and the simultaneous rise of the combination company, which formed not for an entire season, as did the stock company, but for the run of one show only.

At the same time that the so-called "legitimate" theatre was expanding and becoming more sophisticated, entertainments designed to be enjoyed by the "common man" were likewise developing. Beginning in the 1820s, a popular theatre—unsophisticated, nationalistic, anti-intellectual, and highly visual—emerged to cater to the tastes of the laborer and recent transplants from abroad and from rural America. The blackface minstrel show, emerging from the African-American songs and dances performed by "Jim Crow" Rice and other Ethiopian delineators in the 1830s, grew to such a degree that it rivaled the legitimate theatre in popularity. Variety, the raunchy precursor of vaudeville, composed of a loosely-knit series of songs, dances, novelty acts, sketches, and flagrantly off-color jokes was presented for all-male audiences in museums, saloons, and concert halls. Likewise, circuses and panoramas (large pictorial representations of landscapes or other scenes painted on canvas) grew in popularity, utilizing any space large enough to accommodate them. Practically all of these entertainments—popular and legitimate—could be transported to small-town America by the nation's railroads. By the end of the nineteenth century, the American theatre was both an established art form and a flourishing nationwide industry.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the American theatre followed its European counterparts into the modern era. The one-act form and minimalist staging were imported from Europe, resulting in "little" theatres like the Washington Square Players and the Provincetown Players. In the waning years of the old century and the early years of the new one, playwrights like James A. Herne, Ned Sheldon, and Clyde Fitch, just a generation ahead of the legendary Eugene O'Neill, introduced American audiences to realistic writing, while director/scenographers like David Belasco employed a "facsimile realism" in their production designs. The actor became both laborer and professional. Americans discovered the teachings of Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski, who developed influential acting methods; as a result, schools of acting opened.

The 1920s ushered in a golden age of American playwriting as well as an unprecedented era of economic prosperity, which ended with the debut of the "talkies" and the Depression. A more politicized theatre emerged in the 1930s, capitalizing upon the discontents of the populace, and in 1935 the American theatre was federalized for the first and only time. During World War II, the American theatre served to both provide a respite from the tensions of war and to support the war effort through patriotic plays like Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine and Maxwell Anderson's Candle in the Wind, to take entertainment to the troops in the field in the form of the U.S.O., and to offer relaxation to off-duty servicemen at New York's Stage Door Canteen. The post-war years brought the last of O'Neill's dramas (The Iceman Cometh and A Long Day's Journey into Night) and the disappearance of such renowned playwrights as Elmer Rice, Sidney Kingsley, S. N. Behrman and Philip Barry; but they also introduced the theatre-going public to new names like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and somewhat later, David Mamet and Sam Shepard—to name just a few of the writers who brought life to the American stage during the past half century. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, theatre moved once again beyond the lights of Broadway to create a chain of what came to be known as "regional theatres;" while during the Vietnam era, the theatre recaptured the political fervor of the '30s to experience one of its greatest periods of xperimentation. Most recently, Times Square, New York's theatre district experienced a revitalization, Walt Disney became a theatrical producer, the musical (both American and British) has come to dominate Broadway, and death and AIDS have become subjects for theatrical representation.

The items assembled for "In the Brilliancy of the Footlights: Creating America's Theatre" represent many of these cultural moments and capture the excitement and dynamism of more than two centuries of American theatre history. The exhibition includes playtexts and engravings from sixteenth- to eighteenth-century England—the prehistory of the American theatre—and then focuses on the more than two centuries of theatre in the United States. The exhibition includes a wide variety of correspondence, playbills, broadsides, photographs, rehearsal scripts, programs, tickets, advertisements, scrapbooks, and reviews. Of special interest to local audiences will be original materials courtesy of former Charlottesville resident, Sam Shepard, and memorabilia from the Virginia Players, the Rotunda Stagers, the Heritage Repertory Theatre, and the University of Virginia Department of Drama.