Musical Theatre in America: Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on the Musical Theatre in America

By Glenn Loney | Go to book overview

Good Musical Paste: Getting the Acts Together in the Eighteenth Century

WILLIAM BROOKS

Music and theatre in eighteenth-century America have both been subjects of considerable research. As a result, we have today not only a wide range of bibliographic tools but also a number of excellent interpretations and regional studies. My purpose is simply to offer here some of my own perceptions and attitudes as we at the Smithsonian contemplate the reconstruction that Cynthia Hoover has mentioned.

We must not be misled by words. Eighteenth-century theatre resembled in neither content nor function the theatrical experiences we have today. Rather than tight, compact presentations of isolated dramatic entities, it offered an encyclopedia of entertainment, a potpourri of performance. In a single evening were presented amusements ranging from Hamlet to harlequin, from Handel to hornpipes.

Theatre evenings were long, upwards of four hours, and their diversity both mitigated and justified the extreme length. Between long performance events--plays or acts of plays--were interposed shorter diversions: songs, dances, and dramatic interludes unrelated to the principal offerings. Additions were made even to the principal offering itself: performers interpolated the favorite songs or dances of the day, or those for which they were celebrated. These interpolations, both between and within acts, served two contrasting functions. On one hand, they wove the evening together; they became a sort of patchwork upon which the major pieces were hung. On the other, they were a welcome distraction: they offered a time to relax, to gossip, to flirt, to eat, to conduct business.

In both capacities interludes were regarded as necessities; when the flow of incidental entertainment ceased, the audience protested. In 1787, in a letter to New York's Daily Advertiser, a reader complained that "instead of performing between the play and the farce, [the musicians] are suffered . . . to pay a visit to the tippling house, and the ladies . . . must amuse themselves by looking at the candles and empty benches." 1 And in Boston

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