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A HISTORY OF THE NEW YORK STAGE
SN 1832 William Dunlap published a “History of
the American Theatre" and stated that the first
dramatic performance ever given in America 1 occurred Sept. 15, 1752, at Williamsburg, the
capital of Virginia.
At Castle Garden one hundred years later, as I shall tell in detail, that date was celebrated as
the centenary of the introduction of the drama into America. James Rees (“Colley Cibber ") says that “a portion of Hallam's troupe, combined with several artists engaged for America by John Moody, arrived in Philadelphia about 1749, and opened the first theatre dedicated to the dramatic muse with a well-organized company in the Colonies.”
Anthony Aston, otherwise known as Mat Medley, a lawyer, poet, actor, soldier, excise man, and publican in England, narrates a number of adventures by sea and land that, so far as we are concerned, ended with his being wrecked twenty leagues southward of Charleston, S. C., whence he made his way on a sloop to New York, and where he positively asserts that he acted in the year 1732.
In September, 1732, a company of professional actors arrived from London and 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 people. They continued their performances for one month, acting three times each week. Early in December of the same year they resumed, having made several additions to their party. I have been unable to get a complete list of the company, but I know that Messrs. R. Bessel, T. Heady, Drown, Eastlake, Cone, Mesdames Drown, Chase, Centour, and Miss Brennan were among those advertised to play in “The Recruiting Officer" December 6. This company continued until February, 1734; it was then disbanded. In Bradford's New York Gazette of Oct. 8, 1734, there appeared the following advertise
“For Sale - All sorts Household Goods, viz: beds, chairs, tables, chest of drawers, looking-glasses, andirons and pictures, as also several sorts of drugs and medicines; also a negro girl, about sixteen years of age, has had the small-pox, and is fit for town or country. Enquire of Geo. Talbot, next door to the Play House.” There also appeared in the same paper the following advertisement:
"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 Busy Body.'"
These performances were kept up for three nights each week until Dec. 31, 1734, when concerts were given. On Jan. 13, 1736, Mr. Pachebell, a harpsichord player, gave a concert for his benefit. On Feb. 21, 1739, "The Adventures of Harlequin and Scaramouch, or the Spaniard Tricked," was acted in Hall's Long Room. In 1743, an entertainment was given at the house of Governor Kip, in Broad Street. The programme consisted of camera obscura and microscope displays. On Aug. 31, 1743, a "Punch and Judy performance took place at Hamilton Haverton's house, near Whitehall Slip. It was advertised as “Punch's Opera of Bateman, or the Unknown Marriage; with a dialogue between Punch and his wife Joan." In the winter of 1749 a company crossed the Atlantic. It consisted of Messrs. Smith, Daniels, Douglass, Kershaw, and Morris, and their wives, and Miss Hamilton, the latter playing the leading business. This organization continued in New York for a season of eight months.
THE FIRST NASSAU STREET THEATRE
'HE First Nassau Street Theatre was located on the east
Tide of Kipa snow Nassau) Street, between John Street and
Maiden Lane. Kean and Murray appeared here March 5, 1750. The room in which the performances were given was in a wooden building, which had belonged to the estate of Hon. Rip Van Dam.
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 The opening bill was “Richard III.” The company consisted of Messrs. Jago, Scott, Marks, Woodham, Taylor, Tremain, Master R. Murray, Nancy George, Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Davis, and Mrs. and Miss Osborne. They acted twice each week, and the season lasted five months. Thomas Kean played Richard. Our ancestors had a Kean to impersonate the crooked-backed tyrant, Mr. Dunlap to the contrary notwithstanding. “The Beau in the Suds,” “The Spanish Friar," Otway's "The Orphan,” “The Beaux' Stratagem,” “The Mock Doctor,” “Love for Love,” and “The Stage Coach" were presented during the season. On Sept. 13, 1750, the next season opened with “The Recruiting Officer, followed September 20 with "Cato." On Jan. 8, 1751, “A Bold Stroke for a Husband " was given for Mr. Murray's benefit. For Mr. Kean's benefit, January 14, "The Beggar's Opera," "Miss in Her Teens," and selections from an oratorio sung by Mr. Kean, comprised the bill, which reads: "As an additional attraction a harlequin dance, a Clown dance, and a drunken peasant, all by a gentieman recently from London," which were done between the acts.
The next benefit was that of Mrs. Davis, announced for the purpose of enabling her to “buy off her time." It was the practice for masters of vessels to bring passengers to New York upon the condition that they should be sold immediately upon their arrival as servants to any person who would pay their passage money. They were sold for a definite period of time, and were called “Redemptors," of which class Mrs. Davis was one. On the occasion of a benefit to Mr. Jago the advertisement stated: “Mr. Jago humbly begs that all ladies and gentlemen will be so kind as to favor him with their company, as he never had a benefit before, and is just come out of prison. Before the season closed, April 29, 1751, Kean took a farewell benefit, when he left the profession and resumed his former duties — those of a writer. He played “Richard III.” to a crowded house. That my readers may know what a crowded house was, I will state that there were 161 pit tickets at five shillings each, ten box tickets at eight shillings each, and 121 gallery tickets at three shillings each. This was the capacity of the house. The following season Kean returned to the stage.
During the winter of 1751, Robert Upton visited America as the business agent for William Hallam, who gave him considerable money to carry out his speculation. On arriving here, he appropriated the money to his own use, and by securing most of Murray's company, was able to appear at this house December 21, with “Othello” (first time in America) and “Lethe.” The company played on Mondays and Thursdays. After losing all Mr. Hallam's money, Upton closed March 4, 1752.