The Burning of the Theatre in Richmond, Virginia

Lithograph captioned “The Burning of the Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, on the Night of the 26th December 1811, by Which Awful Calamity, Upwards of Seventy Five of Its Most Valuable Citizens Suddenly Lost Their Lives, and Many Others, Were Much Injured.” Philadelphia: B. Tanner, 1812.

From the Merritt T. Cooke Collection.

Regional Theatre in Virginia

Theatre in the Commonwealth, Introduction

Theatre in the Commonwealth of Virginia has a long and rich history. The first recorded performance of a play in English in the American colonies took place in 1665 in Accomack County. It is further documented that, in 1716, William Levingston erected a playhouse in Williamsburg, the earliest known theatre in the British colonies. The first professional troupes of actors arrived in Virginia in the mid-eighteenth century. These traveling theatrical companies would make their way through the colonies, particularly in the South, and perform in major metropolitan areas, including Williamsburg.

The nineteenth century brought growth and expansion within the Commonwealth, precipitating the desire of communities to build cultural venues for the performing arts. Opera houses, theatres, and public halls thrived in large towns, such as Richmond, as well as in small villages, like Charlottesville. During this time of the star system in American theatre, even the smallest community with a performance space could book a major professional actor and his company to perform there. With the advent of the twentieth century and the concentration of the professional commercial theatre in New York City, theatres elsewhere began to rely on regional talent to sustain the cultural demands of their communities, fostering what became known as the Little Theatre movement. One of the oldest of these types of theatres in Virginia, the Barter Theatre, was founded during the Depression in Abingdon and survived by “bartering” tickets for food. Today, the Barter Theatre is the State Theatre of Virginia, and the Commonwealth is alive with other theatres and resident theatre companies.

From Abingdon’s Barter Theatre to Lexington’s Lime Kiln to Staunton’s Blackfriars to Charlottesville’s Live Arts to Barboursville’s Four County Players to Richmond’s Theatre Virginia to Norfolk’s Little Theatre of Norfolk to Alexandria’s American Century Theatre, the list goes on and on. The citizens of the Commonwealth have many opportunities to watch stages shining with talent.

William Dunlap in his A History Of The American Theatre (1832), described the Richmond theatre fire of 1811:

The house was fuller than on any night of the season. The play was over, and the first act of the pantomime had passed. The second and last had begun. All was yet gayety, all so far had been pleasure, curiosity was yet alive, and further gratification anticipated… when the audience perceived some confusion on the stage, and presently a shower of sparks falling from above… Some one cried out from the stage that there was no danger. Immediately after, Hopkins Robinson ran forward and cried out ‘the house is on fire!’ pointing to the ceiling, where the flames were progressing like wild-fire. In a moment, all was appalling horror and distress.