A Historian Reflects on Theatre, Shutdowns, and the American Revolution

This blog post was originally published in The Arlington Players “Tappenings” newsletter in November 2020. 

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This 1733 etching by William Hogarth, titled, “The Laughing Audience,” depicts a theatre audience in Great Britain. It provides some indication of what the colonial American theatre experience may have been like. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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Playbill from the June 20, 1770, performance of the American Company’s production of The Clandestine Marriage and Thomas & Sally: Or, the Sailor’s Return in Williamsburg, Virginia.  Image credit: Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

As we enter the ninth month of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems hard to believe that in early March I was tap dancing alongside my cast mates as we rehearsed The Arlington Players’ production of Monty Python’s Spamalot. The pandemic has since changed almost everything about our lives. For our theatre community and others around the world, the impact on the performing arts has been heartbreaking to watch. As a historian, I often understand life’s ups and downs by thinking about the past. Today, I want to share a reflection on another period in American history when theatres remained dark: the American Revolution. By looking back on this often forgotten part of American theatre history, I hope we can find some lessons and hope to help us as we experience our own theatrical shutdown. 

The American Revolution might seem like a surprising selection. The obvious choice would have been to examine the 1918 influenza pandemic. But quite honestly, I have pandemic fatigue, both from living through one and studying one. As a specialist on the First World War, I have been thrilled that people are finally paying attention to the Influenza Pandemic. However, researching and writing about a past pandemic while experiencing one, and seeing similar mistakes being repeated a century later, is draining. I needed a break, and I also wanted to think more locally about theatre specifically in Virginia, where The Arlington Players performs.

Virginia holds a special place in American theatre history. Some of earliest recorded performances of European theatre in North America occurred in Virginia.1 During the colonial period, Virginia contained a thriving theatrical scene.2 Scholars believe that sometime between 1716 and 1718, Williamsburg became home to the first purpose-built theatre in North America and the city contained a series of playhouses throughout the colonial period.3 In 1996, archaeologists with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation excavated the third of these theatres, believed to be constructed in 1760 and patronized by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.4

Despite the popularity of theatre in colonial Virginia and throughout the South, not all of the colonies embraced theatre so warmly. The New England colonies, with their Puritan origins, did not encourage theatre, and other northern colonies proved hostile to this art form.5 As the colonies began to unite against Great Britain, these differences of opinion proved important. In 1774, delegates to the First Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Association in response to actions by the British government.6 In the Articles, Congress stated their desire to “encourage frugality, economy, and industry” and, among other things, they declared their intention to “discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of games, cock fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.”7 In their effort against the British crown, Congress deemed theatre to be a non-essential extravagance detrimental to the patriot cause. 

After war broke out with Great Britain, the Continental Congress went one step further. On October 12, 1778, they issued a resolution that more formally banned theatre in the new United States.8 They explained that, “whereas true religion and good morals are the only solid foundations of public liberty and happiness,” they had resolved to recommend the states “to take the most effectual measures” for “the suppressing of theatrical entertainments, horse racing, gaming, and such other diversions as are productive of idleness, dissipation, and a general depravity of principles and manners.”9 The 1774 and 1778 measures indicate that in these consequential moments, the Continental Congress believed the suppression of theatre to be necessary. In 1774, opposition stemmed from an effort to encourage frugality and economic independence in the face of British taxation and the colonies’ reliance on British goods. By 1778, with the war in full swing, Congress cited religion and morality as the foundations of a successful democracy and believed theatre would harm the war effort. In sum, they considered theatre to be non-essential and destructive to the nascent American republic.

But what does this have to do with the present-day pandemic that has closed our theatres? While we may not be fighting a war of independence, we are fighting an enemy in the form of a disease. Our government, much like the Continental Congress, has deemed the performing arts to be a threat to that battle, and for rational reasons given what we know about how COVID-19 spreads. Theatre and other arts have, in most cases, been tossed aside as non-essential and dangerous, in a strange echo of the government’s actions in the eighteenth century, albeit with much different circumstances. While theatre is certainly a risk in a pandemic, and while safety must remain the first concern, it is disheartening to see that over two hundred years later, theatre continues to be devalued in the face of adversity. As thespians, we know the benefits the arts can bring to society, and it is thrilling to see how our community is adapting to keep the arts alive, even virtually.

So what lessons can be gleaned from the experience of theatre during the American Revolution in relation to our situation today? The answer lies in what happened after the war’s conclusion. Eventually, traveling companies of actors began to return and new playhouses were constructed.10 Plays written by Americans about uniquely American issues began to be performed, such as Royall Tyler’s The Contrast, the first major play by an American author.11 A uniquely American theatre rose from the ashes of the war, and it is here that we can find inspiration. Theatre returned to American stages and evolved to represent the audiences of the new nation. Like our predecessors in Virginia, we will also return to the stage. When we do, we will create vibrant art that speaks to our collective experience during the pandemic and feeds our need for theatre, whether that is in the form of comforting golden age musicals or reflections on the loss of life we have witnessed. The house lights will dim, the curtain will rise, and we will become the leading players in this significant next chapter of American theatre history.


1 Several scholars and sources contend Virginia was home to the earliest recorded performances of British theatre in the British colonies of North America. For example, Susanne K. Sherman asserts that the first such performance occurred in Virginia in 1665 in Accomack County. Jason Shaffer discusses a 1702 performance by students at the College of William & Mary, but also notes a putative performance by a Harvard student in 1690. However, the William & Mary Department of Theatre, Speech, and Dance maintains that the 1702 William & Mary student performance was the first to take place in the British colonies. With records from the early colonial period so sparse, it is difficult to definitively know which performance was actually the first. Susanne K. Sherman, Comedies Useful: Southern Theatre History, 175-1812  (Williamsburg, Virginia: Celest Press, 1998), 5; Jason Shaffer, Performing Patriotism: National Identity in the Colonial and Revolutionary American Theatre  (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 107; William & Mary Department of Theatre, Speech, and Dance, “History,” William & Mary Theatre Program www.wm.edu/as/tsd/theatre/history/index.php.

2 Dwayne W. Pickett, Margaret W. Cooper, and Martha McCartney, “The Old Theatre Near the Capital”: Archaeological and Documentary Investigations into the Site of the Third Theatre,” (Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series, 2003),1-10 research.colonialwilliamsburg.org/DigitalLibrary/view/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports\RR1676.xml&highlight=theatre.

3 Hugh F. Rankin, The Theatre in Colonial America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1965), 13-21.

4 Dwayne W. Pickett, Margaret W. Cooper, and Martha McCartney, “The Old Theatre Near the Capital”: Archaeological and Documentary Investigations into the Site of the Third Theatre,” 9, 22.

5 See Allison Sarah Finkelstein, “Unhappy Differences:” The American Revolution and the Disruption of the Course of Theatre in Virginia,” undergraduate thesis (College of William & Mary, 2008), 16-22.

6 National Archives Foundation, “1774 Articles of Association,” National Archives Foundation www.archivesfoundation.org/documents/1774-articles-association/.

7 “Journals of the Continental Congress: The Articles of Association October 20, 1774,” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/contcong_10-20-74.asp.

8 “Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Monday, October 12, 1778,” Library of Congress, American Memory: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc01236)).

9 “Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Monday, October 12, 1778.”

10 See Finkelstein, “Unhappy Differences,” 62-77.

11 Royall Tyler, The Contrast, ed. Montrose J. Moses (Project Gutenberg, 2009), 428 www.gutenberg.org/files/29228/29228-h/29228-h.htm ;Shaffer, Performing Patriotism, 9; Finkelstein, “Unhappy Differences,” 62-77.