Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Theater in Williamsburg

Although it's easy to make fun of the Colonial Disneyland that surrounds William & Mary, the resources of Colonial Williamsburg have been a real boon to my American music class this semester. Did you know that the first purpose-built public theater in the British colonies was in Williamsburg, constructed in 1716? I didn't, before I moved here.

I was luckily to be able to invite Sterling Murray to give guest lecture on the subject to my class. Sterling, if you don't know him, taught at West Chester University and has now retired here to the "'burg," as the kids call it, and is now one of a number of scholars looking into the history of 18th century musical theater in this town. There were, in essence, three theaters built over the course of the 18th century, from the first in 1716, to the last which was torn down in 1773. There were no permanent companies in these buildings, but a fairly regular succession of touring companies came through, part of a theater circuit that included a winter stay in Jamaica, and the stops in Charleston, Williamsburg, Annapolis, etc. The repertoire more or less mirrored London theater tastes, from The Beggar's Opera to later pasticcio comic operas like those of Thomas Arne.

The theaters were mostly built next to where the Capitol building once stood. Unlike, the Capitol, however, the theater has not been reconstructed, despite extensive archaeological research that gives us a pretty complete picture of its contours. The design was based heavily upon London theaters, complete with pricey box seats--Washington sat there on occasion--and the notorious row of spikes around the pit to keep the audience from abusing the performers too much. (You can see them in the Hogarth print above.)

Why hasn't the theater been restored? Money is a problem, I am sure, although apparently there have been some successful fundraising attempts. I am told, however, that the major problem is the worry that nobody would want to go see 18th century British musical theater in its four-hour rambunctious glory, mostly viewed from wooden benches crammed together. Plus, you'd have to worry about fire codes, wheelchair access, etc.

Which is too bad. It's typical of many public history projects that buildings representative of public, official culture--the Capitol, the Palace, the Church, etc.--are restored and reconstructed, while the more complicated and marginal parts of eighteenth-century society are deferred. Colonial Williamsburg, however, has made it part of its mission to showcase the daily life of colonial Virginia, and it seems like if anyone should value the theater, it would be them. And I would give tourists more credit--re-staging a night at the theater, completely with bits of Shakespeare, dancing dogs and jugglers, as well as John Gay, could be quite fun. Four hours is definitely a lot to ask, as is the problem of a crowded flammable theater having only one exit, but you know, it's not like any of these reconstructed buildings are truly authentic, and I bet with a little imagination these problems could be surmounted.

1 comment:

Ralph Locke said...

Wonderful to know about these efforts at revealing the theatrical (and musicotheatrical) aspects of early American life!

During my family's stay at Colonial Williamsburg some 15-20 years ago, there were all kinds of events that were not 100% accurate reproductions of what went on in the old days.

An organ recital of pieces from that period, yes (in the parish church), but of a length and diversity that suited the needs of a modern-day tourist audience.

A presentation by a costumed interpreter in the wigmaker's shop, describing what went on there and answering dozens of questsions--obviously something that wigmakers mostly didn't do every hour of the day, since they were too busy making wigs!

A theater in Colonial Williamsburg could certainly show a short anthology of typical staged acts from the period--and have the audience in the palm of their hand!

The Globe Theater in London has experimented in a variety of ways with adapting staging conventions of the time to present-day tastes and knowledge. I attended two full-length productions there, with great fascination--and noted much audience involvement on one of the occasions (shouting out challenges to the actors, etc., in the old manner).