The 18th century theatre » The beginnings of American theatre The strongly Puritan sentiments of settlers in North America prohibited the development of theatre until the early 18th century, when a number of English actors arrived in the South and began staging plays in temporary venues. The first theatres were built in Williamsburg, Va. (c. 1716), and Charleston, S.C. (1730). By the mid-1730s a number of theatres had opened in New York, and in 1752 the first visiting company from London performed in Williamsburg. Although there was no lack of enthusiasm for developing an indigenous American theatre at the end of the 18th century, the plays written and produced during that period proved lifeless and derivative, often little more than adaptations of English successes. Thomas Godfrey’s Neoclassical tragedy The Prince of Parthia (1767) is often considered the first play by The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870 - 1920 The period 1870 to 1920 was a dynamic time of change in the United States. It was marked by massive European immigration and major population shifts between regions of the country, including migration from rural to urban centers that led to the dramatic growth of cities. During these fifty years, the nation's urban population increased from a total of less than ten million to more than fifty million people. Blue-collar and white-collar working people alike benefited from an increase in personal income and leisure time. Tourism developed as an American pastime, annual vacations became a national habit, and city dwellers began taking half-holidays on Saturday. Public amusements appealed to growing numbers of people from many walks of life. Popular, live entertainment gained momentum in the late nineteenth century and reached a peak in the first decade of the twentieth. During the fifty-year period covered by this collection, minstrel shows were eclipsed by the unprecedented success of variety theater and an ever-increasing diversity of popular entertainment. Burlesque developed into a full-fledged theatrical form and modern amusement parks attracted huge crowds. In 1909, for example, Coney Island drew over 20 million visitors. (After adjusting for population differentials, this is a greater number than the combined attendance at Disneyland and Disney World in 1989.) World's fairs, the three-ring circus, nightclubs, and the ballpark also flourished. Theatrical road shows traveled into the American hinterlands. The cinema was born. The American Variety Stage Collection features materials that illustrate the diverse forms of variety theater that dominated the burgeoning entertainment world in the United States. Variety stage, in this era, drew greater audiences than the "legitimate" theater which presented serious literary works. Compared to the legitimate theater, which appealed, for the most part, to elite audiences, the variety stage was democratic and broad in approach. The variety stage strove to attract all classes of people from every cultural background by offering varied programs and relatively low admission fees. To succeed at show business (as all forms of variety theater were called), entrepreneurs provided public entertainment that transcended the specific tastes of a particular class or ethnicity. It emphasized action and caricature. Nevertheless, however broad or vulgar its humor, it sought an aura of moral respectability. Even burlesque shows attempted to do this by billing themselves as "vaudeville" and "extravaganza" and playing in theaters that had previously been certified as "respectable."
Of all the types of variety entertainment, comedy is the best represented in this collection. The English-language playscripts provide a wealth of information about what audiences found amusing, or at least what writers thought the audience would find funny. One can also learn about such things as comedic techniques used, the structure of comic sketches, subjects used for...
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