AMERICAN THEATER | This Month in Theater History


A program and seating plan for the first Tony Awards. (Photo by Worth Point).

Southwark Theatre, built in 1766. (Photo courtesy of Hidden City Philadelphia)

April 1767 (255 years ago)

The Prince of Parthia premiered April 24 at the Southwark Theater in Philadelphia. It is often cited as the first play by an American-born playwright to be performed by a professional company. Sadly, the young playwright, Thomas Godfrey Jr., died of a fever four years before it opened. Godfrey’s friend Nathaniel Evans included the piece in a posthumous collection of Godfrey’s poems. Indeed, the tragedy in blank verse in five acts seems strongly influenced by Nicolas Rowe’s play Tamerlane. Since we know Tamerlane was executed in Philadelphia in 1754 by the Hallam Society, researchers suspect that 17-year-old Godfrey was in the audience. It is therefore fitting that Godfrey’s play was created by the American Company (renamed the Hallam Company, run by David Douglass) and starred Lewis Hallam Jr.

April 1787 (235 years ago)

Americans had to wait another 20 years after The Prince of Parthia to see the first comedy written by an American-born playwright and performed by a professional company. The title page, as seen in a facsimile of George Washington’s copy of the published play, advertises Royall Tyler’s The contrast as “A Comedy in Five Acts: Written by a Citizen of the United States.” Tyler is originally from Boston. On his first visit to New York as assistant to Major General Benjamin Lincoln during Shay’s Rebellion in 1786, he saw a production of Sheridan’s The school of scandal. Using this classic restaurant comedy as a template, Tyler penned an early draft of The contrast in three weeks. The first production started on April 16 in New York at St John’s Theater and was executed by members of the American Company. A prominent comic actor of the time, Thomas Wignell, won rave reviews as the character Jonathan. “Brother Jonathan” was a fictional character in print at the time, portrayed as an outspoken New Englander. Tyler was the first to establish this typical New England Yankees character on stage. Tyler’s first play was a smash hit, and he went on to write more plays, often collaborating with his friend Joseph Dennie.

Mae West. (Photo by Irving Lippman)

April 1927 (95 years ago)

On April 19, playwright-actress Mae West was charged with obscenity and behavior aimed at corrupting the “morals of youth” due to her performance in the play. Sex. She was sentenced to 10 days in a hospice and had to pay a $500 fine. In Sex, set in Montreal, West played a sex worker in Montreal. The play had over 370 Broadway performances and was a sensational and hugely popular play. It dealt with themes of misogyny, same-sex attraction, and feminism. When it was first produced, it had been approved by the city’s gambling jury. But as the Roaring Twenties faded, more conservative values ​​emerged, and the show was discontinued in February 1927. Just one day after Mae West was indicted, the New York State Legislature passed the Padlocks Act of Wales. This allowed authorities to shut down any theater featuring “sexual degeneracy or sexual perversion”. This restriction would limit theater depicting LGBTQ characters for four decades, until 1967, when the law was repealed. For her part, Mae West has gained so much notoriety thanks to the case against Sex that she was able to make it her big breakthrough in a Hollywood career.

Tickets to the first Tony Awards in 1947. (Photo by American Theater Wing).

April 1947 (75 years ago)

The first Tony Awards ceremony was held this month at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, costing just seven dollars and broadcast on the radio. The Antoinette “Tony” Perry The Broadway Theater Excellence Awards are named after an actress, producer and director who served as co-founder and secretary of the American Theater Wingwho sponsored the awards with the Broadway League. Before the Tonys were first broadcast live on television until 1956, businesses and Broadway fans savored the radio show and the live awards show. Directors, actors, set designers, dancers and authors were all represented at the first Tonys, including Patricia Neal, José Ferrer, Ingrid Bergman and David Wayne. The Tonys’ 2021 broadcast drew nearly 3 million viewers.

April 1964

The 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth is celebrated across the country. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, a Bardophile who invited Shakespearean actors to the White House to perform and recite speeches from her favorite plays, had previously formed the American Shakespeare Committee in 1964 and served as its president. Mrs. Kennedy had planned to attend the festivities in the fall of 1964 at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, but after President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 she decided not to make any public appearances for a year. In his place, American Shakespeare Committee Chairman Eugene Black traveled to England for the celebration. Mr. Black is perhaps best known as President of the World Bank from 1949 to 1963.

Telegram from Eugene Black to Levi Fox. (Picture from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust)

April 1997 (25 years ago)

The North Stage moved into the historic Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt. Founded by Brooke Ciardelli as a nonprofit regional theater in Burlington, Vt., in 1994, the company is a member of the BOLD Theater Women’s Leadership Circle. Brooke Ciardelli has directed more than 60 productions for the company, which has won five Moss Hart Awards for Excellence in Theater from the New England Conference. Northern Stage is currently led by Carol Dunne, who oversaw the company’s move to a new state-of-the-art venue, the Barrette Center for the Arts, also in White River Junction.

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