THE THEATER

THE THEATER

Source: The Early Life of Lexington [KY] before the Year 1820, Mary Estelle Delcamp, A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of Transylvania College in Candidacy for the Degree of Master of Arts June, 1916

The theater was one of the earliest forms of amusement in Lexington. In 1799 the first notices of theatrical performances appear in the Gazette. But these performances were not the first, because the advertisements stated that considerable additions to the scenery had been made (Nov. 14. 1799). In 1802 another brief notice appeared in the paper (Jan. 1, 1802). Such notices do not again appear, until 1809, when several such insertions show a revival of interest in theatricals (Apr. 11. 1809). For seven months of the next year the townsmen were amused and instructed by monthly or semi-monthly entertainments (Mar. Mar. 13, 1810; Apr. 17, 1810; May 8, 1810; June 5, 1810; Sept. 18, 1810; Oct. 2, 1810; Dec. 18, 1810). It was not until this year, however, that the plays seem to have been presented by professionals. At least the Gazette of Dec. 18, 1810 is the first to announce the arrival of actors from other parts. The regular days for performances were Wednesdays and Saturdays of each week (Jan. 24, 1811). These days were probably chosen because they were the market days of the town, and thus the support of the surrounding country was obtained. In one instance the theater was closed a week, on account of bad weather (Sept. 17, 1811).

Towards the close of the year 1811 the company of professionals, which had been playing in Lexington, left for Frankfort, to be gone two months during the session of the General Assembly (Dec. 3, 1811). In 1812 the first season ran during February, March and April, and the next did not begin until September (Sept 11, Feb. 18, Feb. 25, Mar. 10, Mar. 17, Mar. 24, Mar. 31, Apr. 7, Apr. 14, Apr. 21, Sept. 29, 1812). In the time intervening, however, there were several performances by amateurs (May 26 1812; June 9, 1812). The fall season of 1812 closed in December, and the theater was not reopened until the following May. Performances then continued for the rest of that year, with a short vacation in September (May 18, May 25, June 1, June 15, June 22, June 29, July 13, July 27, Aug. 10, Aug. 17, Aug. 24, Oct. 5, Oct. 12, Nov. 1, Nov. 8, 1813). In 1814 there were only two notices of theatrical performances in the issues of the Gazette (May 30, June 6, 1814). Beginning in June of the next year, plays were given uninterruptedly until the following October, when the performances were stopped by a lawsuit over the control of theaters in Louisville and Frankfort (July 10, June 12, June 19, June 26, July 3, Aug. 31, Aug. 28, Oct. 9, Oct. 16, 1815). In 1816 Mr. Drake, late manager of the Boston and Albany theaters, assumed the management of the local play-house, with the intention of establishing it on a firm and permanent basis. He also planned an annual visit of a few weeks to the principal surrounding towns. In July of the same year, the Kentucky Company of Comedians set out to visit some of the ‘neighboring villages.’ This tour lasted until September of that year (Apr. 29, May 20, July 8, 1816). From 1817 to 1820 there were few notices in the Gazette, but these show the theater to be in a thriving condition (Aug. 30, 1817; Sept. 28, 1818; Apr. 9, 1819; Sept. 10, 1819; Jan. 14, 1820; Feb. 25, 1820).

The first performances were given in the court house (Nov. 14, 1799; Feb. 28, 1799). By the year 1802 a theater had been built and henceforth this was the only place used for the staging of plays (Jan. 1. 1802). This building seems to have been in constant need of repairs. In 1810, new machinery, music and decorations were added (Apr. __, 1810). The next year the building received considerable alteration and was newly painted (Jan. 24, 1811). Again in June of the same year, new machinery, music and decorations were installed (June 25, 1811). Four years later the proceeds of one night were used to remodel the interior of the building. This could not have been a stupendous task, for in less than a week the house was ready for use (July 31, 1815; Aug. 7, 1815). The rule was made in 1812 that no ‘segars’ should be smoked in the theater (Feb. 18, 1812). Seven years later (1819) the Gazette locates the theater of that time on the corner of Water and Spring Streets. It further states that the play-house was a large and capacious building, which had been recently redecorated at the cost of $2,000. The seating capacity was declared to be such as to accommodate a $600 or $700 audience every night. To add to the comfort of the patrons, a coffee room had been fitted up in the rear of the boxes; and in a side room, a confection and refreshment stand (Apr. 9, 1819).

For the first few years, until the arrival of Mr. Douglas in 1810, the actors were chiefly amateurs. The Transylvania students were giving comedies in 1799 (Feb. 28, 1799). In 1810 the students gave a charity performance, the proceeds of which were to go to poor students in the University; but student theatricals were few in number, and the trustees soon forbade them, unless given with the consent of the board (Trustee Book, Transylvania University). The members of an organization, termed the Thespian, supplied most of the actors for these amateur performances. During the was of 1812 this society gave a performance to raise money for arms and ammunition (May 26, 1812). About the same time the members of the organization presented a drama for the benefit of two actresses belonging to the local company of professionals (June 12, 1812). On one occasion The Musical Society assisted in one of these productions (Apr. 17, 1810). Another organization, termed The Military Society, gave performances for the chief purpose of raising money for military supplies (May 15, 1810). The report of the receipts and expenditures of the Military Society’s performance is interesting:

Cash paid Usher for rent of theater two nights without the bar $50.00
Paid Marsh’s acct for performance 20.00
Paid for copying Revenge 10.00
For expenses of rehearsals 12.25
Expenses at performances 7.50
Wardrobe 7.25
For liquor 10.75
For printing 19.25
Doorkeepers, servants, barbers, & 12.75
For Music 8.00

Total taken in $275.00

Balance in treasurer’s hands $117.25

The Roseias Society also made one theatrical appearance before the public of Lexington. Their purpose was to raise funds for the new Oil Floor Cloth Factory (Sept. 11,1810).

The paper is silent as to the ownership of the theater before 1811. But in this year Mr. Usher is named as proprietor (Oct. 22, 1811). He remained as the owner during the entire period, altho he turned the management over to various people during the time.

At the end of 1810 Mr. Douglas, after an absence of eighteen months, arrived with a company from Montreal, Canada. One citizen, in commenting upon this influx on histrionic talent, remarked that the company would contribute much to dispel the gloom of the season (Dec. 18, 1810). Among the actors of the year 1811 appeared the names: Messrs. Kennedy, Turner, Jones, Marsh, Douglas, Williams; the actresses were Mesdames Turner and Cipirani (Feb. 19, 1811). One of the residents, describing the town as a place where the most shocking immoralities were common and even fashionable, where the various scenes of vice and folly were more or less known to the greatest stranger, hoped that the theater would help to do away with these evils. She further characterised some of the players thus: "American can boast of but few, if any actresses, more chaste and correct in style than Mrs. Turner. Her stage knowledge and dramatic talents are more extensive than usual. Mr. Douglas is an old and general favorite. Mr. Kennedy is always respectable and has deserved and obtained much popularity by never o’erstepping the modesty of nature" (Feb. 19, 1811). The personnel of the actors did not change much: now and then a new player arrived. In this same year (1811) Mr. Huntington of New York and Charleston, and Mr. and Mrs. Usher arrived to become members of the company (Sept. 24, Nov. 26, 1811). The next year a Mr. Bland of Boston and a Mr. Webster made their first appearance before a Lexington audience (Sept. 29, Nov. 24, 1812).

In 1813 Mr. Usher relinquished the management of the theater to the company (June 1, 1813). In the future the profits were to be divided among the players. This arrangement, however, did not interfere with the former custom of having benefit nights for the actors. From the first arrival of the professional actor, the salaries of at least the leading members of the troupe seem to have depended on benefit performances. Thus we read of Marsh’s benefit (Mar. 5, 1811), Jones’ benefit (Apr. 2, 1811), Mrs. Turner’s benefit (Apr. 9, 1811), Mr. Douglas’ benefit (Mar. 24, 1812), Mr. Kennedy’s night (Apr. 23, 1811), Mrs. Usher’s night (Mar. 31, 1812), Mr. Huntington’s benefit (Apr. 7, 1812). In the same year in which the new arrangement for paying salaries of players went into effect, 1813, there were announced in the Gazette seven benefit nights for various actors (June 22, June 29, July 13, Aug. 10, Aug. 17, Nov. 1, Nov. 8). This custom continued until the close of the period under consideration (Jan. 14, Feb. 25, 1820).

In 1815 Mr. Turner became the manager of the theater. Towards the close of the year trouble arose, because Mr. Turner claimed that he had contracted with Mr. Usher for the Frankfort, Louisville, and Lexington theaters, but the latter refused to give up any except the one at Lexington (June 12, 1815). This disagreement caused a change of management the next year, when Mr. Drake, lately in charge of the Boston and Albany theaters, became director of the local playhouse (Apr. 29, 1816). In 1819 a union was made between Mr. Drake’s Company and Mr. West’s Equestrian and Melodramatic Company (Sept. 10, 1819).

The hours of theatrical performances had to be conformed to the habits of the early Lexingtonian, who believed firmly in the out-of-date method for becoming healthy, wealthy and wise. For a number of years the doors opened at five p.m., and the curtain went up at six (Feb. 28, 1799). By 1810 there seems to have been a demand for a strictly evening performance, for the doors did not open until six-thirty (Dec. 25, 1810). Two years later there was a compromise between the old and the new regime, since the doors opened at five, but the curtain did not go up until seven (Feb. 18, 1812). In the course of the next two years the respective hours for opening and beginning were changed three times: five-thirty and six-thirty (Sept. 29, 1812); seven and eight (June 1, 1813); six and seven (Oct. 5, 1813).

The price of admission ranged from fifty cents to one dollar (Jan. 1, 1802; Feb. 12, 1811; Nov. 8, 1813). At first tickets were sold at the ticket office or by individuals, and no money was received at the door (Nov. 14, 1799). The boxes had to be secured of Mr. Usher (Nov. 8, 1813). In 1813 the admission to boxes and pit was one dollar; to the gallery, fifty cents (Nov. 8, 1813). By 1817 a box office had been established at the lower end of the theater, and was open every day of a performance from four to nine p.m. (Aug. 30, 1817). Sometimes half-price tickets were sold to children who belonged to parties (Apr. 16, 1811). Negroes of course were excluded (Apr. 2, 1811).

The early hour of performance was perhaps due not merely to the early-retiring habit of the citizen, but partly at least to the length of the program. It was customary to give a three or five act drama, followed by a two act farce (Nov. 14, 1799; passim footnotes in this chapter under plays). Comedies, tragedies, historical dramas, and dramatic romances were among the plays offered. The first Shakespearean drama recorded was MacBeth in 1810 (Oct. 9, 1810). This was followed by Romeo and Juliet (Feb. 19, 1811; July 13, 1813), Catherine and Petruchio (Mar. 5, 1811). The first part of Henry Fourth (or, as it was designated, The Humors of Sir John Falstaff) (June 4, 1811), Othello (Feb. 18, 1812), Richard Third (May 30, 1814), King Lear and his Three Daughters (June 19, 1815), Hamlet (July 24, 1815), Henry the Fourth (Oct. 2, 1814), and the Merchant of Venice (Sept. 18, 1815). These were presented in the course of eight years; while two of them, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, were repeated. This bespeaks of a splendid interest in the finest type of drama.

The farce, often designated by two titles, was the most popular form of theatrical entertainment. The following titles show the nature of this type: Animal Magnetism or the Doctor Outwitted (Apr. 11, 1809); Jonathan Postfree or the Honest Yankee (Oct. 2, 1810); The Weather Cock, or love alone can fix him (Dec. 25, 1810); Matrimony, or the happy imprisonment (June 25, 1811); All the World’s a Stage (Apr. 9, 1811); Love a la Mode, of the humors of the turf (Jan 24, 1811); Raising the Wind, or how to live Cheap (Oct. 9, 1810); ‘Tis All a Farce (Feb. 11, 1820).

During this period the Gazette advertised 38 of these farces (Aug. 31, 1815; July 3, 1815; June 26, 1815; July 10, 1815; Aug. 17, 1813; Aug. 10, 1813; July 27, 1813; June 29, 1813; June 22, 1813; June 15, 1813; June 1, 1813; Apr. 7, 1812; Nov. 26, 1811; Sept. 27, 1811; Feb. 12, 1811; Feb. 26, 1811; June 5, 1810; Apr. 11, 1809; Nov. 14, 1799; Feb. 25, 1820; June 17, 1816; Sept. 28, 1818; Aug. 14, 1815; July 13, 1813; Feb 18, 1812; Oct. 8, 1811; Apr. 23, 1811; Jan. 1, 1803; Sept. 30, 1816; Oct. 13, 1812; Dec. 1, 1812).

Comedy stood next in popularity, if one can judge by the number presented. Some of the subjects were: John Bull, or the independent mechanic (Oct, 9, 1815); The Wheel of Fortune (July 3, 1815); The Rivals (June 12, 1815); The Soldier’s Daughter, or an example to volunteers (Apr. 7, 1812); The Way to Get Married (Sept. 4, 1815); Town and Country, which is best (Aug. 14, 1815); She Stoops to Conquer (June 10, 1816). In all 25 comedies are mentioned in the columns of the Gazette (June 26, 1815; Oct. 12, 1813; June 22, 1813; June 15, 1813; Sept. 29, 1812; Nov. 26, 1811; Oct. 22, 1811; Sept. 17, 1811; Mar. 5, 1811; Feb. 12, 1811; Jan. 24, 1811; Dec. 25, 1810; Mar. 13, 1810; Nov. 14, 1799; Feb. 28, 1799; Oct. 2, 1814; Nov. 24, 1812; July 31, 1815; Feb. 25, 1820); but many of the titles point rather to farces, and suggest that the editor or advertiser was not careful in discrimination.

A Lexington audience seems to have been appealed to very much by the romantic type of drama (The Gazette also mentions two plays it styles melodramas: The Fortress, Sept. 25, 1815; Tekeli, or the siege of Montgatz, June 25, 1811; but these are undoubtedly the Romantic type). The Gazette advertised these romances: Abaellino, or the Venetian outlaw (June 26, 1810); Ademorn, the Outlaw (Oct. 1, 1811); Rudolph, or the robbers of Calabria (Mar. 31, 1812); The Castle Spectre (July 17, 1815); Abrellino, or the man of two faces (Apr. 2, 1811); Fontainville Forest, or the apparition of the abbey (Oct. 5, 1813); The Man of Fortitude, or the robber spectre (Sept. 4, 1815); Blue Beard, or female curiosity (Apr. 17, 1810). An outline of the last named will show the general characteristics of the romantic type of drama.

Blue Beard, or Female Curiosity.

Dramatis Personae

Abomelique (Blue Beard).
Ibrahim.
Selim, in love with Fatima.
Shacabac, a confidential slave.
Hassan, a black slave.
Fatima, bethrothed to Selim, but forced to marry Abomelique, and daughter to Ibrahim.
Irene, sister to Fatima.
Beda, a slave.
Turkish soldiers, slaves &.

Act one – "Blue Beard makes his entrance thru a magnificent arch, attended by a number of slaves dressed in Turkish habits, to a grand march; the procession closes with the grand chorus of Mark his approach with thunder."

Act two – "Magic chamber. When Fatima puts key in the enchanted door, it vanishes and discovers the interior of a sepulchre. Ghastly and supernational forms appear; in the center, a large skeleton seated on a tomb, over his head in characters of blood is written: The Punishment of Curiosity."

Act Three – "At close of act three, after a hard contest between Selim and Abomelique, Selim overthrows Abomelique at the foot of the skeleton; the skeleton instantly plunges a dart, which he has held suspended into the breast of Abomelique, and sinks with him beneath the earth. A volume of flame arises and the earth closes."

Tragedies were also common. They appear to have been the special favorites of male actors, whenever a benefit night was given for them; but whether they made such a choice for ironical, or psychological, or personal reasons, cannot be affirmed. The tragedies advertised were: The Gamester (Jan. 1, 1802); the Revenge (May 1, 1810); The Roman Father, or the deliverer of his country (Apr. 23, 1811); De Montfort, or the force of hate (Apr. 14, 1812); Zara (Apr. 21, 1812); The Rival Queen, or Alexander the Great (Oct. 6, 1812); The Widow of Malabar, or the tyranny of custon (Nov. 1, 1813); Adrian and Orilla, or a mother’s revenge (May 27, 1816); Isabella, or the fatal marriage (Feb. 11, 1820); Barbarossa, Tyrant of algiers (Mar. 5, 1811); Mahomet, the Imposter Oct. 15, 1811); Douglas, or the noble shepherd (Oct. 8, 1811).

Many of the so-called historical dramas may have been merely romances, with the leading character suggesting some event of history. A few titles will illustrate the nature of this type: Columbus, or a world discovered (Sept. 19, 1809); Venice preserved, or a plot discovered (Sept. 24, 1811); Gustavus Vasa, the Hero of the North (Aug. 28, 1815); Death of Andre, or West Point preserved (Mar. 24, 1812); Bunker Hill, or the death of Gen. Warren (Sept. 11, 1815). Grand spectacles of events in American history often found place in this sort of drama. One of these represented the brilliant victory of Commodore Perry. After a play given on July 4, 1811, there was presented an appropriate emblematical, scenic spectacle. "In the center of the stage stood a grand triumphal arch of the Corinth order, supported by four columns, on which were inscribed the names of the states. On the keystone of the arch rested the American eagle, surrounded by glory, holding a ribbon having the motto: We laud the men who saved the states. In the center of the arch there were a monument and vase, containing fire. In the pedestal of the former was a transparency, representing the favorite and savior of his country, Washington. On the other parts the names of his glorious and heroic fellow-warriors. The scene closed with a grand march of Hail Columbia" (date not provided).

One of the most popular pseudo-historical plays was Pizarro, one of the Spaniards in Peru. This play, which was but a romance parading in historical guise, was produced a number of times by both amateurs and professionals (Aug. 21, 1815; May 25, 1813; Sept. 11, 1810; Mar. 17, 1812; Mar. 10, 1812; Feb. 25, 1812). In one of the issues of the Gazette was given an outline of the drama:

Act 1, scene one: Elvira sleeping under a canopy and a view of the Spanish camp.

Act 2, scene one: A bank surrounded by wild wood and rocks. Scene two, The Temple of the Sun; in the center a magnificent altar. Scene three, A wood between the Temple and the camp. Scene four, A view of the Peruvian camp and village.

Act 3, scene one: A wild retreat among stupendous rocks. Scene three, Pizarro’s tent.

Act 4, scene one: A dungeon in rock near Spanish camp. Scene two, The inside of Pizarro’s tent.

Act 5, scene one: Thick forest, a hut, &. Scene two, A background, wild and rocky, with a torrent falling down the precipice, over which a bridge is formed by a felled tree. Scene three, Ataliba’s tent (Sept. 11, 1810).

In 1810 Mr. Ves spoke an original prologue and epilogue, written by a citizen on Lexington and adapted to the times. The prologue ran thus:

Here am I come, a licens’d spy,
And from yon hostile camp I fly;
To mark what foes we have to dread,
Whether they’re home or foreign bred.
But sure this land can never hold
A wretch that’s bribed by foreign gold.
In tyrants’ courts, they’re only known
Who dare such monstrous acts to own.
Columbia’s Sons! Glorious name!
In seeking the bright paths of fame,
Let honor, justice be your guide.
Let party spirit ne’er preside;
Like Rolla, spurn a foreign foe,
Soon shall you lay the oppressor low;
Then like his, we’ll bless your name
And wondering nations sound your name
This night we prove the direful woes,
That might from foreign hand have rose,
Columbians! Rise in awful might,
Round the wide world, now prove your right.
To freedom, commerce, justice, truth!
To honored age, to manly youth!
To matron sage, to daughters fair!
To fruitful fields, to balmy air:
O’er oceans hold your boundless way:
Nor king, nor tyrant e’er obey!
This night uphold your country’s cause,
With hands, with voice proclaim applause (Sept. 25, 1810).

Musical productions were also held at the theater. In 1811 a comic opera, the Poor Soldier, was produced (Oct. 22, 1811). Four years later a musical drama, The Hunter in the Alps, was advertised (Sept. 4, 1815). In 1812 there was produced what the paper called a musical piece, The Children in the Wood (Apr. 21, 1812). In the same year notice was also given of a musical entertainment, called The Waterman, or the First of August (Dec. 1, 1812). Just what was the nature of the last two, is not clear. From time to time there were also advertised musical farces. The titles of the nine mentioned, such as, The Romp, or a cure for spleen (June 12, 1815); The Blue Devils (June 6, 1814); The Review, or the wags of Windsor (May 27, 1816); No Song, No Supper (June 10, 1816); - suggest the common farce. In fact, some of these, like The Blue Devils, which was advertised several times, could have the adjective, musical, applied to them in only one of the notices (Mar. 17, 1812; June 6, 1814; Feb. 18, 1812; Oct. 5, 1813). Perhaps, therefore, the title, Musical Farce, is to be taken as meaning, a farce with music interspersed.

To bridge over the interval between the play and the farce, when these occurred on the same program, comic songs, dances, recitations, and even interludes were inserted. We read of such songs as, Old Woman of Eighty (Feb. 12, 1811); The Little Woman and her Little Dog (Mar. 5, 1811); Tom, Our Pussy (Feb. 12, 1811); My Deary (Jan 14, 1820). The last mentioned song, however, must not be thought of as sentimental in idea, as its modern namesake, for the program expressly labeled it comic. Recitations were given on subjects like: Jealousy (Feb. 12, 1811); Bucks have at ye all (Mar. 5, 1811). Interludes had such titles as: Father Outwitted (Aug. 31. 1815); Yankee Chronology (Sept. 18, 1815).

Pantomines also played a part in the programs of the theater. When given, these took the place of the farce. The three, advertised in the Gazette, were: Harlequin’s Vagaries, or love triumphant (Mar. 5, 1811); Don Juan, of the Libertine destroyed (Nov. 8, 1813); The Bear Hunter and The Milkmaid (Jan. 14, 1820).

Wonderful things were done in the course of the acting. In one instance a milliner’s box was changed into a grate, a parasol, to a gridiron, a closet, to a clock; and the leading character made a leap right thru the clock (Feb. 19, 1811). In Romeo and Juliet the garden and portico of the Capulets was shown, the funeral procession of Juliet in which a solemn dirge was sung, and a view of the churchyard with monuments of the Capulets by moonlight (Feb. 19, 1811).

Transcribed February 2003 by pb

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