Digging for the Roots of American Theater

Reprinted from the NY Times Theater Section
Originally Published: March 11, 2007 (See original article)

The quiet, tree-lined boulevards of this reconstructed colonial town may seem an unusual setting for an international conference on the origins of the American commercial theater. But to the people at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the location makes perfect sense.

"This is it," exclaimed Jim Bradley, public affairs manager for Colonial Williamsburg, gesturing at the dirt road dotted with tourists and school groups. "This is where American theater began."

TheaterThe occasion for the conference - "The Williamsburg Playhouse of 1760 and the World of 18th-Century Theater," set for Thursday through Saturday - is the completion of a 10-year excavation of one of the first commercial theaters in America. While not the oldest (that distinction belongs to a playhouse erected in Williamsburg in 1716), the theater was among the most important of the colonial era, and the most popular. Records exist of an incident in 1772, when George Washington - who frequented the theater, as did Thomas Jefferson - struggled to get box seats to a play called "A Word to the Wise" but had to settle for seats in the pit, even though he had helped to underwrite the playhouse.

The decision to focus on the playhouse of 1760 was "in part practical," said Cary Carson, the recently retired vice president for research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Excavations in 1931 and 1947 focused on the 1716 theater, with limited success. But this time extensive documentary evidence allowed the archaeologist Lisa Fischer and her team readily to identify the probable location of the theater on the east side of the Capitol Building, under what had since become a storage shed and an employee parking lot.

"Our archaeological methods have improved greatly," Ms. Fischer said. "We were able to build off of earlier excavations."

But the significance of the 1760 theater was also decisive. Constructed by the Scottish actor-manager David Douglass for his traveling London Company of Players, the playhouse was a far more elaborate structure than either of Williamsburg's two earlier theaters. (Most theaters of the era, like this one, remained unnamed and are referred to today by either the date of their opening or the location of their construction.) "By 1760," Mr. Carson explained, "Williamsburg was a real cultural center, similar to New York City, and the theater reflects that."

Initial excavations began in 1996 and consisted of "digging a series of small holes around the site" for a period of two years, Ms. Fischer said. Finally, in 1998, remnants of structural foundations were discovered. Full-scale excavation began in 1999, with Ms. Fischer and her associates opening up an area measuring 190 feet by 72 feet, and continued for another three years. In addition to a cable thimble used to secure scenery, Ms. Fischer discovered indicators of both the orchestra pit and the stage itself.

It would be another two years before all the artifacts were cleaned, inventoried and studied. In 2003 the foundation's curator of architecture, William Graham, and its senior architectural historian, Carl Lounsbury, embarked on Phase 2 of the project: the archival research and architectural fieldwork that would help fill in the gaps for reconstruction. They began by meeting with scholars of the 18th-century American stage, traveling as far afield as South Africa and the Czech Republic to visit archives and studying more than a dozen 18th-century playhouses scattered across Europe, from England to Sweden. "Most theater historians don't actually have to build anything," Mr. Lounsbury explained. "Having to actually build it makes a big difference."

From this research a clearer picture of the playhouse has emerged. One of Ms. Fischer's most significant findings was a large iron rod, now believed to have been part of a spiked fence near the stage used to keep audiences from rioting. Further archival research revealed no lobby to speak of. And at 270 seats, space was at a premium. "You had no more than 9 to 10 inches of seat space, compared to 40 inches today," Mr. Lounsbury said. "It would make economy-class airline seats seem luxurious." A large shed on the side of the theater is believed to have housed a greenroom and dressing rooms for the actors.

According to the documentary evidence an evening at the Williamsburg theater would have been a long one, including a drama or tragedy, a comedy and several entr'actes. English plays would have constituted most of the material, although the Douglass company is known to have produced the first professional performance of an American-written play, Thomas Godfrey's "Prince of Parthia," in Philadelphia in 1767.

Shakespeare was perhaps the most popular dramatist of the age - "Richard III," "The Merchant of Venice" and "Othello" are all known to have been staged at the playhouse - with the later English and Irish playwrights John Gay, George Farquhar and Richard Cumberland also drawing crowds.

The Williamsburg theater "was basically part of the English tradition," Mr. Graham explained. "In its structure and its repertory it could have easily been a theater in England."

So perhaps it is no wonder that the playhouse fell into disrepair and was destroyed during the American Revolution. So far the reconstruction of the playhouse has been entirely imaginary. Conference attendees will be able to experience a computer-based "virtual reconstruction" of the theater, completed in association with the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. "We designed everything on computer," Mr. Graham said, "down to the nails."

But plans for an actual full-scale reconstruction remain on the table, Mr. Carson said, with the major obstacle the $35 million price tag. "My dream," he said, "is to put together a theater company that would perform archaeologically correct 18th-century plays during the day and modern plays in the evening."

If this happens, the Williamsburg Playhouse will become the oldest functioning theater built on its original foundations in America, and one of only a handful of functioning 18th-century theaters around the world. But Mr. Carson puts the importance of this project in other terms.

"The Williamsburg Playhouse," he said, "was the gateway to some of the most exciting ideas to enter the colony. Williamsburg is incomplete without a theater."