WHAT was the first play acted in North America by professional players?
Dunlap, in his History, says that the earliest play seen in New York was Sir Richard Steele's comedy The Conscious Lovers, performed at the Nassau Street Theatre, September 17, 1753, by the Hallam company. But, as we shall see, Dunlap is again in error. The first play presented in New York of which we have actual record was George Farquhar's comedy The Recruiting Officer. This, the earliest play known to have been acted in North America by professional players, was seen at what was described as the "New" Theatre on December 6, 1732, or twenty years earlier than the date which Dunlap gives as the first performance in America by regular performers.
The "New Theatre"  --the first playhouse in New York of which we have any knowledge--was in a building belonging to the Hon. Rip Van Dam, then acting governor of the city. The opening of the theatre was noted by the New York correspondent of the New England and Boston Gazette who contributes to the issue of that journal of December 11, 1732, under the heading "New York News," the following:
On the 6th instant, the New Theatre, in the building of the Hon. Rip Van Dam Esq, was opened with the comedy of The Recruiting Officer, the part of Worthy acted by the ingenious Mr. Thomas Heady, barber and Peruque maker [1a] to his Honour.
No further details were given and the complete list of the company is not known, but the names of Messrs. R. Bessel, Drown, Eastlake, Cone, Mesdames Drown, Chase, Cantour and Miss Brennan were advertised as taking part in the performance.
Where these players came from or what their standing was is not known. There names to not appear again in theatrical history. Brown in his History describes them as "a company of professional actors from London." He does not give his authority for this statement, but, after having related that they arrived in New York in September 1732, goes on to say: "They secured a large room in the upper part of a building near the junction of Pearl Street and Maiden Lane, which was fitted up with a platform stage and raised seats, capable of seating about four hundred persons. They continued their performances for one month, acting three times a week. Early in December of the same year they resumed, having made several additions to their party. This company continued (playing in New York) until February, 1734; it was then disbanded." 
It has been suggested that those taking part were not professional actors but merely amateurs. There is nothing either in the newspaper announcement or in the circumstances to warrant any such assumption. If there was acting in New York by professional actors as early as 1702, the year of Anthony Aston's visit, there is no reason why the strolling mummer should not have plied his calling there thirty years later. Moreover, in an age when acting was looked down upon as a hardly avowable occupation, it is far more probable that professional players should be found braving public scorn than young people of standing in the community. Because Mr. Heady, "his honour's barber," was in the cast, it does not necessarily follow that he and his associates were amateurs. It was not uncommon in those days to find actors officiating with the razor when a dull theatrical season or some other reason prompted a change of occupation. John Moody, the English actor-manager, who was the first to cross the Atlantic with a theatrical troupe, was a barber by profession, and Mr. Huggins,  a well-known member of Harper's Rhode Island Company in 1793, left the stage to become one of the most famous barbers New York ever had.
Farquhar's witty comedy, written during Marlborough's victories, at a time when all England blazed with the martial spirit and the recruiting officer was busy in every town, was a very popular play throughout the Eighteenth Century and continued to be acted up to about thirty years ago.  Some of the lines border closely on indecency and the jests are broader than modern audiences are accustomed to, but the gaiety and good humor of the piece make ample amends for what may be lacking in propriety. Leigh Hunt considered it one of the best of Farquhar's plays. It was revived at the Park Theatre, New York, in 1843, and again by Augustin Daly in 1885 when John Drew was seen as the dashing Captain Plume, a rôle originated by the celebrated Wilks, and Ada Rehan played Sylvia, a part originally acted by the famous Mrs. Oldfield.
No newspaper comment on this New York performance of 1732, other than the paragraph from the Boston journal quoted above, has come to light, but incontestable corroboration of the fact that there did exist a theatre in New York about that date we find in an advertisement which appeared a few months later in the New York Gazette, which refers to the New Theatre as if it were an established institution, the location of which was known to all. The advertisement appeared in the issue of October 15, 1733, and runs as follows:
To be sold at reasonable rates. All sorts of Household Goods viz., Beds, Chairs, Tables, Chest of Drawers, Looking Glasses, Andirons and Pictures, as also several sorts of Druggs and Medecines, also a Negro Girl about 16 years of age has had small pox and is fit for Town or Country. Enquire of George Talbot. Next door to the Playhouse. 
The governor of the colony from 1720 to 1728 was Governor Burnet, who is described by Smith,  the first historian of New York, "as a man of sense and of polite breeding, a well read scholar, sprightly and of a social disposition." Such a man would probably have looked with favor on the drama and it is more than likely that, during the eight years of his administration, dramatic performances were given in New York with some degree of regularity. Rip Van Dam, owner of the building in which the New Theatre was situated, was acting governor from the time of Burnet's departure until the arrival of Governor Cosby in 1732, a few months before the New Theatre was opened.
There is considerable confusion as to the exact location of the 1732 players owing to the statement in the New England and Boston Gazette that the New Theatre, where they acted, was in a building belonging to the Hon. Rip Van Dam. When, eighteen years later, the Murray and Kean Company arrived from Philadelphia, they also took a large room in a building owned by Rip Van Dam and converted it into a theatre. Are we to conclude that Rip Van Dam owned several large lofts suitable for dramatic performances and rented a different one to each troupe, or is it not more probable that the newcomers from Philadelphia would in preference choose a room that had already been used for the same purpose? Judge Daly  leans to this view: "The two theatres," he says, "were probably in the same building now generally referred to as the Nassau Street Theatre." On the other hand, Brown, in his History of the New York Stage, makes a wide distinction between the two theatres. "The 1732 company," he says, "was located near the junction of Pearl Street and Maiden Lane, while the First Nassau Street Theatre, where Murray and Kean and later the Hallams appeared, was located on the east side of Kip (now Nassau) Street, between John Street and Maiden Lane." Yet it is significant that Dunlap refers to the Hallams as appearing "at the New Theatre in Nassau Street." The New Theatre, it will be recalled, was the name of the house where the 1732 players were first seen. The weight of evidence, therefore, would seem to point to the Nassau Street Theatre being the cradle of the earliest known theatrical performances in New York.
What did this early American playhouse look like? Brown gives this description of it:
It was a two-storied house with high gables. The stage was raised five feet from the floor. The scenes, curtains and wings were all carried by the managers in their "property" trunks. A green curtain was suspended from the ceiling. A pair of paper screens were erected upon the right and left hand sides for wings. Six wax lights were in front of the stage. The orchestra consisted of a German flute, horn and drum players. Suspended from the ceiling was the chandelier, made of a barrel hoop, through which were driven half a dozen nails into which were stuck so many candles. Two drop scenes representing a castle and a wood, bits of landscape river and mountain comprised the scenery. 
Theatres in the early days of the drama in this country were, as a rule, little more than large rooms with a crudely arranged stage, rough benches for seats and a few boxes on either side. Built entirely of wood and invariably painted red, they were of the flimsiest construction and could be put up or pulled down in very short order. The Beekman Street Theatre, the fourth playhouse erected in New York, cost only $1625. There was no attempt to erect more substantial theatres until the American public had given unmistakable proof of its ability and desire to support the drama as a permanent institution. Philadelphia claims the honor of having erected the first permanent temple of Thespis--the old Southwark Theatre, a brick building opened in 1766 and partly destroyed by fire in 1821. Annapolis comes next with a brick theatre erected in 1771. But playhouses really worthy of the art they served were not seen until the approach of the Nineteenth Century when four theatres, as finely and elaborately equipped as any in Europe, were opened to the public--the Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia (1794), the Federal Street and Haymarket theatres, Boston (1794-96), and the Park Theatre, New York (1798).
The seating capacity of the earliest theatres was about three hundred and performances were given every second or third night. The heating and lighting arrangements were of the most primitive order. There was, of course, no general steam heating plant. Usually, there was one large stove in the centre of the foyer, near the street entrance, and round this, during each entr'acte, the chilled spectators would crowd to thaw themselves out. Notices posted conspicuously in the lobbies "respectfully requested the audience not to spit in the stove." Notices also appeared in the house bills requesting "ladies and gentlemen to bring their own charcoal foot warmers." These were small square boxes with perforated lids and metal receptacles inside for hot embers, such as were commonly used in the pews of churches. When Allen played with his company in Albany in the winter of 1785-6, as an extra inducement to those seeking comfort as well as pleasure, this announcement was made: "An additional stove is provided and the floor of the boxes lined in order to make the theatre as warm and comfortable as possible." Even as late as 1830 there were posted conspicuously in the fashionable St. Charles Theatre, New Orleans, such notices as this: "It is particularly requested that dogs will not be brought to the theatre, as they cannot be admitted." Another house rule read: "Peanuts are proscribed."
Candles and, later, oil were the methods of lighting. Candles did service everywhere until oil lamps came into favor. The picture of Thomas Wignell, the manager, carrying a pair of silver candlesticks as he lighted President Washington to his box is familiar to all. Candles were also used for the footlights and it was nothing unusual during a tender love scene or a moment of tense tragedy for a stage hand to come down and snuff the smoking candle wicks. "Sconces with candles," says Frank Chouteau Brown,  "were used along the walls or projecting from balconies or boxes as these could easily be trimmed when necessity required by an usher or any individual seated nearby who felt so disposed." He continues:
A little later the footlights were arranged on a separate wooden strip or on a long platform which could be lowered into or below the front edge of the stage, thus reducing the illumination on the scene (and also giving a chance to trim the wicks when that was necessary). This same crude method of controlling the footlights was continued for a number of years, and used with both the sperm and oil lighting, and from this came the origin of the word "float," as applies to the footlights.
Joe Cowell, the English comedian, who came to New York in 1821, gives this description of the lighting arrangements at the then highly fashionable Park Theatre:
The house was excessively dark; oil, of course, then was used, in common brass Liverpool lamps, ten or twelve of which were placed in a large sheet-iron hoop, painted green, hanging from the ceiling in the centre, and one, half the size, on each side of the stage... Later, glass chandeliers were purchased to supply the place of the iron hoops. 
That the players of 1732 continued giving performances at the "New Theatre" is proved by subsequent announcements that appeared in the New York Gazette. Some time after the opening of The Recruiting Officer, this advertisement appeared:
This evening will be performed the tragedy of Cato, and for three evenings next week the following comedies will be acted Viz: The Recruiting Officer, The Beaux Stratagem and The Busybody.
It will be noted that this bill is identical with that of the 1736 performance in the Playhouse at Williamsburg already referred to. Unless we are satisfied beyond doubt that the latter was nothing but an amateur enterprise, one is irresistably carried along to the only alternative conclusion, that the company of players who appeared in New York in 1732 and the players who acted in Williamsburg in 1736 were one and the same troupe. They continued acting in New York until 1734.
The next we hear of play-acting is in the South. The scene shifts from New York to Charleston, S.C., where, it is not unlikely, the New York company proceeded after leaving the New Theatre.
Charleston (or Charles Towne as it was then spelled) was a rapidly growing community and for many years enjoyed with New York, Philadelphia and Williamsburg, Va., the distinction of being one of the most active theatrical centres in America.
The town did not boast of a theatre in time for the earliest performance of which we have any record, Otway's tragedy, The Orphan, which was given in the "Court Room" on January 24, 1735. This play was followed by others, all presented in the same place. The patronage received was probably so satisfactory that before the next season came round a regular theatre was built in Dock Street, or Queen Street as it was renamed later. A map of Charleston dated 1738 shows the site of the theatre on the south side of Queen Street, a little west of Church Street, on the lot of land now occupied by the rear portion of the old Planters' Hotel, within less than a hundred yards of the Huguenot and St. Phillips churches.
On January 24, 1736, the South Carolina Gazette contained the following announcement:
On Thursday, the 12th of February, will be opened the new theatre in Dock Street, in which will be performed the comedy called The Recruiting Officer. Tickets for the pitt and boxes will be delivered at Mr. Charles Shepherd's on Thursday, the 5th of February. Boxes 30s. Pitt 20s, gallery 15s. 
There is no mention of the opening of the theatre in the news columns of the Gazette, but on February 23 is advertised a performance of Otway's Orphan, followed later by advertisements announcing The Recruiting Officer and George Barnwell,  a very popular melodrama of the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century.
The season closed with the ever popular Orphan on March 23, 1736. After this, things appear to have gone badly with the enterprise, for the Gazette for May 23 contains the following:
- ON THE SALE OF THE THEATRE
- How cruel Fortune, and how fickle, too,
- To crop the Method made for making you!
- Changes tho' common, yet when great they prove,
- Make men distrust the care of Mighty Jove.
- Half made in thought (though not in fact) we find
- You bought and sold, but left poor H. behind.
- P.S.--Since so it is ne'er mind the silly trick.
- The pair will please, when Pierrot makes you sick.
It is not known who sold or who acquired the property, but later advertisements show that its general character remained unchanged, plays, balls and concerts continued to be given.
There is no further mention of plays in Charleston for several years and to find the players again we must retrace our steps to New York.
The 1732 company, as we have said, had discontinued their performances at the New Theatre in 1734 and left for parts unknown, possibly Williamsburg or Charleston. But the drama in New York was by no means dead. There is no mention to be found in the public prints of further theatrical activity for some time after the departure of the earlier players, but that the stage of the New Theatre again became active five years later seems to be proven by a volume of poems now in the possession of Mr. William Nelson of New Jersey. The book is entitled Poems on Several Occasions, one of the poems being headed:
Intended for the second opening of the Theatre of New York. Anno 1739.
Nothing more is known about it, and the theatrical history of New York goes unrecorded until the arrival of the Murray and Kean company from Philadelphia in 1750.
Meantime the drama had taken a timid hold in the city of Penn. Destined to play a few decades later such a brilliant part in the annals of our stage, the birthplace of Joseph Jefferson, the town where Edwin Forrest grew to manhood, lived and died, Philadelphia was, at that period, the leading city on the American continent, and up to the beginning of the Nineteenth Century the most important theatrical town in the United States. Its citizens were wealthy and enterprising and more public spirited than the people of any of the sister colonies. Yet, notwithstanding its ever growing importance and the fact that the founder had opened Pennsylvania as a land of refuge for liberty of conscience, there was the most determined opposition on the part of the Quakers to any attempt to introduce play-acting. While the players had many warm friends and supporters in Philadelphia the anti-theatrical party was the majority. This hostile element did everything possible to check and harass the players, invoking the existing statutes, causing new and more severe laws to be passed, and organizing meetings of protest.
There will still be another barrier to the success of any theatrical enterprises. This was the fact that Philadelphia was proud of its scientific and literary eminence in the Colonies. "The golden youth of the metropolis," says Seilhamer, emulating the solid attainments of Dr. Franklin, "affected to regard the lectures of Professor Kinnersly on electricity and his practical experiments at the Academy as more instructive and entertaining than the exhibition of stage plays by a company of strolling players."
Yet plays were acted in Philadelphia as early as 1749. To that fact a MS. journal kept by John Smith, a son-in-law of James Logan, bears witness. An entry in the journal is as follows:
August 22, 1749. Joseph Morris and I happened in at Peacock Bigger's and drank tea there and his daughter being one of the company who were going to hear the tragedy of Cato acted, it occasioned some conversation in which I expressed my sorrow that anything of the kind was encouraged.
Some historians believe this was only an amateur performance. Dunlap says, "It is on record that the magistracy of the city had been disturbed by some idle young men perpetrating the murder of sundry plays in the outskirts of the town; but the culprits had been arrested and bound over to their good behavior after confessing their crime and promising to spare the poor poets in the future." Other authorities give these Philadelphia theatricals far greater importance. Seilhamer sees in them the "real beginning of the drama in America." He goes on to say:
There is no reason to doubt that the company of comedians from Philadelphia which appeared in New York for the first time on March 5, 1750, was substantially the same that Dunlap describes as "Some idle young men perpetrating the murder of sundry plays." The managers were the same Messrs. Kean and Murray, and in both cities Thomas Kean played the leading role, both in tragedy and comedy.
Robert Venable, an old negro who was still alive in 1844, told John F. Watson  that he went to the first play at Plumstead's store and that "many fell out" with Nancy George because she went there to play. Nancy George, as is wll known, was one of the principal actresses of the Murray and Kean company in New York.
The theatre used in Philadelphia in 1749, and in which the Hallams appeared later, was in a warehouse belonging to William Plumstead,  situated on the corner of the first alley above Pine Street. This building remained standing until 1849. It was used as a sail loft for many years, and Dunlap said in 1832 that "the remains or traces of scenic decoration were to be seen in it within forty years."
While these Philadelphia theatricals of 1749 hardly mark the "real beginning of the drama in America" as Seilhamer suggests, seeing that there had already been professional performances both in New York and Williamsburg at least fifteen years previously, they are certainly of great importance because it was the first heard of the Murray-Kean company, an organization which, from that time on and until the arrival of the Hallams, was practically the only professional dramatic organization on the American continent. As an organization, it kept intact for twenty years, presenting most, if not all, the plays of the Hallam repertoire and proving a serious competitor of the Hallams, as the latter discovered on their arrival.
Where the Murray-Kean company came from originally we do not know. probably they were English actors from the West Indies, many of whom had been acting regularly in Jamaica and Barbadoes. Perhaps they were that band of players which John Moody, an English theatrical celebrity well known in the West Indies, is said to have recruited in London and brought to America three years before the Hallams crossed the ocean.
John Moody, an actor of Drury Lane and regarded by some historians as the real founder of the American stage, was originally a barber. Abandoning the tonsorial profession for the theatre, and possessing a rich brogue, he acquired some reputation playing Irish parts. Aspiring to be a tragedian, although the London managers insisted he was only a comedian, he became disgusted with England and sailed for the West Indies, reaching Jamaica in 1745. There he found an amateur company giving performances in a ball room. He proposed to them the opening of a regular theatre with a company which he offered to bring out from England. The suggestion was accepted, subscriptions were opened and Moody re-appeared the following year with a company. The success of the venture was such that Moody made a fortune in four years. At the end of that time, however, the ranks of his players had been so thinned by illness that he found himself compelled to return to England to obtain new recruits. When he arrived in London such inducements were made to him by Garrick to return to the stage that he gave up all idea of the Jamaica enterprise and sold out his interest to the company he had already gathered, the chief members of which were Messrs. Douglass,  Kershaw, Smith, Daniels, Morris and their wives and a Miss Hamilton, the principal actress. This little band of players set sail, reaching Jamaica in 1751, "the first dramatic company," says John Bernard,  "that crossed the Atlantic of which there exists any personal record."
But if the Plumstead warehouse players were part of the Moody organization, which is doubtful, why was Philadelphia, of all places, selected for the opening engagement--Philadelphia the stronghold of Quakerism, with its hidebound prejudice against everything pertaining to the stage--when Virginia and the pleasure loving descendants of the gay cavaliers offered an altogether different kind of welcome? Or are we to come to the conclusion that it was the Murray-Kean company we found acting Cato and The Busybody in Williamsburg, Va., in 1736? If so, what were they doing during those thirteen years that elapsed between 1736 and 1749 when they first appeared in Philadelphia? Again, if they were the John Moody players, the Hallams must have known of their presence in America before they themselves left England. In that case, why was Lewis Hallam silent concerning them? Puzzling questions these, that may remain forever unanswered.
In February, 1750, the Philadelphia company, still under the joint management of Walter Murray and Thomas Kean, arrived in New York and applied to Governor Clinton  for permission to act. The New York Weekly Postboy for February 26, 1750, contains this reference to the new arrivals:
Last week arrived here a company of comedians from Philadelphia, who we hear have taken a convenient Room for their Purpose in one of the buildings lately belonging to the Hon. Rip Van Dam Esq., deceased, in Nassau Street, where they intend to perform as long as the season lasts, provided they meet with suitable encouragement.
The theatre secured by the Murray-Kean company is believed to have been the same used by the actors who gave the performance of The Recruiting Officer eighteen years earlier. It is to be noted that Rip Van Dam had died since he last rented his property to a troupe of players. If the new arrivals were occupying the same premises, the publisher of the Postboy did not recall that fact for he makes no mention of it. The same issue of the newspaper contained this advertisement:
- By his Excellency's Permission
- at the Theatre in Nassau Street.
- On Monday the 5th day of March next
- will be presented The Historical Tragedy of
- "King Richard III."
- Wrote originally by Shakespeare
- and altered by Colly Cibber, Esq.
In this play is contained The Death of King Henry 6th, the artful acquisition of the Crown by King Richard, the Murder of the Princes in the Tower. The Landing of the Earl of Richmond and the Battle of Bosworth Field.
Tickets will be ready and delivered by Thursday next, and to be had of the Printer thereof.
Pitt 5/. Gallery 3/.
To begin precisely at half an hour after 6 o'clock and no Person to be admitted behind the Scenes.
The company consisted of Messrs. Murray and Kean, joint managers, and Messrs. Jago, Scott, Leigh, Marks, Smith, Woodham, Moore, Tremain, Master Dickey Murray, the manager's son, and Mesdames Nancy George, Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Davis, Mrs. Leigh, Mrs. and Miss Osborne. Kean, Tremain and Jago played in tragic parts. Murray was a comedian. Miss Nancy George and Miss Osborne were the chief ladies in comedy and tragedy.
Very little is known about Thomas Kean, either as a man or as an actor. He is not believed to be any relation to the Keans who became celebrated half a century later, although Seilhamer thinks it barely possible that he was a brother or other relation of Aaron, the reputed father of Edmund Kean. In any case, his career has gone practically unrecorded in the annals of theatrical history. He is believed to have been originally a writer or writing master who, having some talent for the stage, adopted it temporarily as a profession, for, at the close of the 1750-51 engagement in New York, when the tragedian took a benefit,  it was for the alleged purpose of retiring permanently from the actor's profession to take up his former work as a writer.
That he must have had considerable acting ability, one is compelled to believe. He selected for his first New York appearance one of the most difficult and ambitious rôles in the whole range of the drama--that of the hump-backed Richard, and gave so creditable a performance that the theatre was crowded and the play repeated the following week.
Richard III was acted for the last time on March 12, after which Dryden's Spanish Friar was put on the bill. For April 2 The Orphan, "wrote by the ingenious Mr. Otway," was announced. Performances took place only twice a week, the company continuing to play regularly on Mondays and Thursdays from March 5 to April 30, when the absence of further announcements led Judge Charles P. Daly and other investigators to infer that the season closed. But on July 16 the following appeared in the Postboy:
The heat having prevented the play last Thursday night, it is designed to be presented this evening, as it has the appearance of being moderate weather.
On the 23rd was announced: "The last night of playing this season, Love for Love and The Stage Coach.
That this company was successful may be inferred from the fact that they re-opened the following season, on September 13, with The Recruiting Officer followed the next week by a performance of Addison's Cato. On the 24th the Postboy had this to say about the performance of Cato:
Thursday evening the tragedy of Cato was played at the Theatre in this city before a very numerous audience, the greater part of whom were of opinion that it was pretty well performed. As it was the fullest assembly that ever appeared in that house,  it may serve to prove that the taste of this place is not so much vitiated or lost to a sense of liberty but that they can prefer a representation of virtue to one of loose character.
This editorial comment would seem to indicate that the plays previously seen on the local boards had not been of a very high standard and that criticism had been aroused by the low character of the theatrical entertainment then most popular with the New York theatregoer--a condition of affairs with which we are unfortunately only too familiar ourselves at the present day.
During the two seasons in New York, the following plays were given: Richard III, Otway's Orphan, Dryden's Spanish Friar, Farquhar's Sir Harry Wildair, The Recruiting Officer, Beaux Stratagem, George Barnwell, The Beggar's Opera , The Distressed Mother , Congreve's Love for Love and Mrs. Centlivre's A Bold Stroke for a Wife, with the following farces: The Beau in the Suds, The Mock Doctor, The Devil to Pay, The Walking Statue, The Old Man Taught Wisdom, Damon and Phillida, Hob in the Well and Miss in Her Teens. They continued to act twice a week until June 17, 1751, closing with a succession of benefits, when the company went to Williamsburg, Va.
The various benefits brought forth some curious announcements. Mrs. Davis' benefit, it was stated, was for the purpose of enabling her to "buy off her time." In those days it was the custom of masters of vessels to book passengers for New York on the understanding that they were to be sold as servants immediately upon arrival to any person who would pay their passage money. They were sold for a definite period of time and were called "Redemptioners." Mrs. Davis apparently belonged to this class, "of whom," Ireland reminds us, "many became the parents of aristocratic families, north and south."
Mr. Jago, in an ingenious appeal, "humbly hopes that all ladies and gentlemen will be so kind as to favour him with their company, as he never had a benefit before, and is just out of prison."
The advertisement of the widow Osborne, who appropriately selected for her bill The Distressed Mother, is a gem. Her announcement read:
On Monday next will be presented for the Benefit of the widow Osborne "The Distressed Mother," with several Entertainments to which will be added "The Beau in the Suds." As 'tis the first time this poor widow has had a benefit, and having met with divers late Hardships and Misfortunes, 'tis hoped all Charitable, Benevolent Ladies and others will favour her with their company.
Before the close of the second season, Kean announced in the Postboy that he had resolved to quit the stage and follow his former vocation of writing, and that he would on the following Monday evening, enact the part of Richard III for his benefit, it being the last time of his appearance on the stage. For some unknown reason this program was changed as shown by the later announcement in the Postboy, April 29, 1751:
By advice of his friends, Mr. Kean causes to be presented this evening for his Benefit, a Comedy called "The Busybody," with the "Virgin Unmask'd," with singing by Mr. Woodham, particularly the celebrated Ode called "Britain's Charter."
As this will positively be the last time of Mr. Kean's appearing on the stage, he honestly hopes all Gentlemen, Ladies, and others, who are his Well-wishers, will be so kind as to favour him with their Company. Tickets to be had at the Theatre, and at the New Printing Office in Bever Street.
But notwithstanding this formal farewell, Mr. Kean did not leave the stage. As will be seen later, he continued to head the company wherever it appeared.
The Postboy made no editorial or critical comment on these New York performances, with the exception of the brief notice already quoted, but the issue of March 19, two weeks after the players' arrival, contained a leading article, warmly defending the stage and upholding the character of the actor. This probably is the earliest public championship of the drama in the Colonies. While one cannot resist the thought that possibly the money spent by the actors for advertising space may have had something to do with inspiring the writer, the mere fact that such a defense should appear as the leading article, at a time of bitter religious and social prejudice, is of great interest, marking as it does the entering wedge of a determined effort made by the more liberal minded citizens to encourage the drama as a legitimate form of public amusement. The article is too long to quote here in full, but, in part, the writer says:
As we cannot always apply ourselves to Contemplation or Business, she (Religion) sometimes indulges us in Recreation and Amusement and even prompts us to relax the Mind and by innocent Diversions to prepare our Selves for the more serious Employment of our respective Stations. But of all Amusements methinks the noblest and most elevated are those intellectual Enjoyments which improve and divert the Mind without straining the rational Faculties. Of this species is the Diversion of the Stage... "But Plays have been perverted to mischievous Purpose!" And what is free from the same imputation? Because a profligate Fellow takes the gown and preaches Heresy, is it criminal to hear an orthodox sermon? Can the Bee suck no honey from a Flower because the gloomy Spider only extracts its Poison? There is no doubt but the stage may be improved to good as well as perverted to all Purposes. "But do not Plays put the Town to a needless expense and carry off large sums of money?" Nothing like it. On the contrary, the Actors promote the Circulation of Cash by employing Masons, Carpenters, Taylors, Painters, etc., and generally leave their money where they got it. For my own part, methinks 'tis a Pity that the Stage is not held in greater Repute so that the young Gentlemen of the Town might Act without any Prejudice to their character. Sure I am that the Advantages of learning to Act well would richly compensate their trouble and be found an Acquisition of singular Service in the Conduct of Life.
That there was everywhere in the Colonies a steadily growing interest in the acted drama was evinced not only by the new laws constantly being enacted against the player, but by the openness and candor with which things of the theatre were discussed in polite circles. New York, especially, was noted for its fondness for the playhouse. "People," says Esther Singleton , "read plays as literature." The libretto (printed book) of the most recent stage success , was bought as eagerly as the latest novel. If the company wished to produce a play of which they had no libretto they could be reasonably sure that they could borrow it from somebody in town. They advertised in May, 1751: "If any gentleman or lady has the farce called The Intriguing Chambermaid and will lend it awhile to the players, it will be thankfully acknowledged."
The fascination which the stage had for young people was also a favorite subject for criticism with contemporary quidnuncs. A writer in 1739 complained that New York society was going to the dogs. After showing how a young girl was pampered and spoiled from childhood, he went on to say:
She is now ten years of age, her mind is ripe for plays. Here is again a noble field of vanity presented to Madam, her mind is wholly taken up with the pleasure it affords and an actress' part, repeated by heart, yields greater joy to her parents than if she knew the whole Catechism.
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