The Dawning of American Drama: American Dramatic Criticism, 1746-1915

By Jürgen C. Wolter | Go to book overview

2
The American Theatre As Seen by Its Critics: A Historical Survey: From the Devil's Den to the Nation's Temple

1746-1789: STRUGGLING FOR A FOOTHOLD

Remarkably, the Southern colonies never enacted laws to prohibit the building of a theatre or the public performance of a drama; drama in colonial New England on the other hand was a major target of Puritan prejudices. In New England, the drama, just as the novel, was considered dangerously nonconformist because it constructed a world of the imagination, which, for many members of the community, was more attractive than the world of God's creation. In addition, any form of entertainment was considered a waste of time that should be much better employed in religious investigations. However, since the drama, in contrast to the privacy of novel-reading, is dependent on public performances and as such on the institution of the theatre, it was soon made an object of controversies in New England courts and local parliaments: the issue was not only, as it was with the novel, whether it should be tolerated, but whether theatrical entertainment and the establishment of a theatre building should be legalized.

Because of the public context of the theatre it received much more attention than the novel. Church annals and records of colonial courts document that drama and theatre had become issues of public concern as early as 1665, when the actors who had presented Ye Bare and Ye Cubb were summoned before the court of Accomac County, Virginia. However, true to Southern tolerance for entertainment and belles lettres, the justices acquitted the actors.1 In Calvinist New England the profession met with much lea sympathy, and as soon as magazines started to be published there in the eighteenth century, they were immediately pushed to the forefront of the public war of words. However, irrespective of their attitude, almost all the arguments for the condemnation or toleration of theatrical performances used moral criteria.

The enemies warned against the "Lewdness or Impiety of most of the Plays" and commented on the "infamous Characters of the Actors and Actresses" [1]. If they had to concede that a few plays were acceptable, they were quick to

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