Philadelphia’s First Theatre

August 7, 2012

○ TOTUS MUNDUS AGIT HISTRIONEM ○

– motto over the Southwark’s proscenium

* * *

HAMLET ON SOUTH STREET

     As I’ve noted before, Philadelphia Quakers frowned on theatre, dancing and for that matter, most worldy amusements. When Lewis Hallam and his London Company sought permission to perform here in  1754, they raised a storm of controversy. The citizenry urged Governor Hamilton with petitions to prohibit and counter-petitions to allow stage performances. Finally, reason prevailed, and the Hallam Company gave their first performance in a makeshift theatre in a warehouse near the river on Water Street,  see ad, below. Knowing there was still local disapproval for their profession, they passed out handbills which touted the harmlessness of the theatrical arts and also donated a night’s proceeds to the Charitable School of the newly founded Academy.  (Along with the College and Medical School, these institutions would later become the University of Pennsylvania.) No worry. After the intense controversy, performances were packed by curious audiences.

     Even so, when the troupe returned in 1759, now under the direction of David Douglass, who had married the widowed Mrs. Hallam, they shrewdly it renamed themselves “The American Company.” That same year, Lewis Hallam Jr., above, left, would be the first actor to play Hamlet on an American stage. They cautiously avoided municipal objections another way; they erected a series of temporary playhouses just outside the city limits, just to test the waters. In 1766, they constructed a more substantial structure on the south side of Cedar (now South) Street near 4th, again outside the city limits and against the protests of the Quakers, the Presbyterians, the Elders of the German Lutherans and the Baptists. This building, the Southwark Theatre, below, was the first permanent theatre building in Philadelphia. It was fairly plain outside, the bottom half of brick, the upper half of wood, the roof topped by a single cupola, but most agreed the inside was well suited for the lively and very vocal crowds it drew. Until the mid 19th century, in most theatres the house was as well lit as the performers on the stage. This meant that audiences and their reactions were more of an integral part of the whole theatrical experience than today. In fact, the motto over the Southwark’s proscenium aptly read: “Totus mundus agit histrionem: everybody plays a role;” the same motto that was over the Globe Theatre in London and the same motto that William Shakespeare paraphrased as “All the world’s a stage.”

A NIGHT AT THE SOUTHWARK

     Performances started early, usually about 6:00 pm. The candles in the chandeliers over the stage and house would be lit, as well as the oil lamps that ringed the apron at the foot of the stage. Tickets, available at the London Coffee House, were 7 s, 6 d for the boxes, 5 s for the pit and 3 s for the gallery. An evening’s entertainment was more like a variety show and could include not only a a serious dramatic piece, but also a prologue, an epilogue, songs, character dances, tightrope walking, a pantomime and a comic afterpiece. Many of the dances presented in 18th century theatres were theatricalized versions of currant social dances: minuets, jigs, hornpipes and country dances, done as solos, or in duets, trios or groups. Actors from the main piece also performed in the songs and dances, or even played violin. James Godwin, for instance, who had come from Dublin, played the role of Ostrick in Hamlet in 1767, see the advertisement from the Pennsylvania Gazette, above right, but primarily performed as a dancer during the “Entertainments.” Like many theatrical dancers in 18th century Philadelphia, Godwin supplemented his income by teaching social dancing and held balls and dances for his students and the general public. He’d later open a school with his partner and own teacher, John Baptiste Tioli,  at William Penn’s old Slate Roof House on Second Street.

FEDERAL ERA SPLENDOR

     Plays, balls and concerts faded away during the larger spectacle of the Revolutionary War; Congress, in fact, had passed resolutions against such costly and extravagant entertainments. Only briefly, when British officers took it over during their occupation of the city from 1777 to 1778,  was the Southwark open for performances, and those were for the English themselves and for local Tory sympathizers. In the 1780s, the Hallams were still struggling with obtaining permission from the state to open; most of the time they simply operated illegally. In 1783, someone jocularly wrote to the papers that the Hallams had simply decided to attach their playhouse to hot air balloons and raise it 1300 miles above the State House where it would surely be out of the jurisdiction of the Pennslyvania State Assembly! It wasn’t until nearly the end of the century when music and theatre really flourished here.

     Even George Washington, while he resided in Philadelphia during his presidency, was criticized because of his fondness for theatre. He attended performances at the Southwark regularly, seated in a box fitted with cushions, red drapes and the coat of arms of the United States. The opening of the elegant new Chestnut Street Theatre, near 6th Steet, above,  in 1794, soon eclipsed the Southwark. Bolstered by an influx of talented dancers fleeing revolutionary France in the last decade of the 18th century, it helped make Philadelphia the nation’s dance as well as political capital.

     The old Southwark continued to be used, though, until 1821, when it was partially destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt as part of the neighboring distillery, below. Finally, falling under the axe of Prohibition, it was entirely demolished in 1921.  An empty storefront that housed a Payless Shoes stands where the city’s first theatre once stood, a few doors west of another Philadelphia institution, Jim’s Steaks.

REFERENCES

■ “Against Vain Sports and Pastime: The Theatre Dance in Philadelphia, 1724-90,” Lynn Matluck Brooks, Dance Chronicle, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1989)

■ “A Decade of Brilliance: Dance Theatre in Late-Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” Lynn Matlick Brooks, Dance Chronicle, Vol. 12, No. 3 (1989)

Dance and Its Music in America, 1528-1729, Kate Van Winkle Keller, Pendragon Press, 2007

History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884,  J. Thomas Scharf & Thompson Westcott, L.H. Everts & Co., 1884

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One Response to “Philadelphia’s First Theatre”


  1. […] of Chestnut near 6th Street. I’ve already given a detailed account of the Southwark Theatre here, and described how the Chestnut Theatre eclipsed it in 1794. A view of the interior of the […]


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