American theater dates back to the colonies. The first theater was built in Williamsburg in 1716. By 1750, the liberal cities of New York and Philadelphia dominated the scene, though as was the case throughout puritanical America, attempts to stage plays were often met with protest. The show, as they say, must go on and so it did in Southwark where theater was shaped and protected.
Protests raged outside Plumsted’s “theater” when Lewis Hallam Jr. stepped on the stage with his family in 1754. Hallam’s Company had recently arrived in Philadelphia and were generally regarded to be the city’s first real thespians. Despite opposition posed chiefly by religious groups, the troupe managed to obtain a permit to stage Fair Penitent and Miss in her Teens. The ensemble performed to “a numerous and polite audience” while those who deemed the troupe “an evil to society” distributed pamphlets outside.
Five years earlier, an amateur group of actors had attempted to perform openly on the streets of Philadelphia. Fearing that such theatrical productions would encourage “mischievous” behavior and “idleness,” the governing body of the City, the Common Council, unanimously voted to “take the most effectual measures for suppressing [the acting] disorder.”
A Political and Cultural Ally
Hallam’s Company were very likely aware of the anti-theater climate in Philadelphia when they arrived in the spring of 1754. However, they were fortunate to have the patronage and support of a politically influential merchant. William Plumsted (1708–1765) was a longstanding member of the Common Council, having served since 1739. In 1750, he was appointed for a one-year term as Mayor and was elected a Justice of the Peace shortly thereafter. His proposal to forgo the costly celebration honoring each outgoing Mayor in favor of public works projects was well received and unanimously supported. When Hallam’s Company petitioned for a license, Plumsted probably used his political cache to garner support from his fellow Council members.
In Plumsted, Hallam’s Company had found a political and cultural ally. After being condemned by the Society of Friends for assaulting a man in public, Plumsted severed his lifelong ties with the Quakers and joined the Episcopal Church. This meant that he no longer had any reason to oppose the theater and could become a patron of the arts. Accordingly, Plumsted converted the second floor of his warehouse located at Pine and Water Streets into a makeshift theater for the Philadelphia debut of Hallam’s Company.
The First Playhouses
Lewis Hallam’s father, manager of Hallam’s Company, passed away not too long after the 1754 Plumsted performances closed. Hallam’s mother remarried actor and entrepreneur David Douglass and together they erected Philadelphia’s first theater buildings.
In July of 1759, their first playhouse opened on the corner of Cedar (South) and Vernon (Hancock) Streets. Financed by Douglass, the Society Hill Theater showcased the talents of Douglass, his stepson Lewis Hallam Jr., and other players.
The Society Hill Theater was located half a block south of the city limits and was thus outside of the control of the city officers. Several religious groups launched unsuccessful campaigns to prevent the playhouse from opening. The Presbyterian Synod petitioned the Governor of Pennsylvania while the Society of Friends appealed to Philadelphia Judge William Allen. Allen dismissed the appeal on the grounds that he “got more moral virtue from plays than from sermons.”
Hallam’s Company quickly outgrew the theater. Within six months they set plans in motion to erect a larger playhouse. In December of 1759, the troupe closed the theater with a performance “for improving the youth in the divine art of psalmody and church music” as a benefit for the College of Philadelphia.
Around 1766, Douglass opened the Southwark Theater near Cedar (South) and Apollo (Leithgow) Streets, barely south of the city limits. Fearing that a larger and grander venue would draw considerable moral opposition, performances were billed as concerts “of music” followed by lectures or “dialogue.”
Although the theater had poor lighting and obstructed views, Hallam’s Company successfully staged dramas, comedies, and farces over the next eight years. Featured performers included Lewis Hallam Jr. alongside his mother and stepfather. During this time period, the troupe adopted the name “Old American Company.”
The Southwark Theater went dark during the early years of the Revolutionary War. The Old American Company relocated to Jamaica declaring that they would not return “until the unhappy differences that subsist between the Mother Country and Her Colonies subside.” The theater was reopened briefly in 1777 during the British occupation of Philadelphia. General Howe’s officers staged a few plays there to benefit the widows and orphans of fallen soldiers.
Legalizing Theater in Philadelphia
Lewis Hallam Jr. was merely a teenager when his family’s theater company staged their premiere performance in Plumsted’s warehouse. As an adult, he would become the driving force behind legalizing the theatrical arts in Philadelphia.
After returning to Philadelphia from Jamaica in 1783, Hallam Jr. reopened the Southwark Theater to much fanfare. The roof leaked, the air was oppressively hot, and the best seat in the house was reputedly the “front bench in the gallery.” However, Southwark soon earned the reputation of being the only theater in the new world “with a regular company of all ‘Stars.’” George Washington was a frequent visitor and a stage box was decorated in his honor.
In 1784, Lewis Hallam Jr. submitted a petition to the General Assembly of Pennsylvania to “the repeal of the part of the act of assembly which regards [prohibiting] the exhibition of stage plays.” Hallam Jr.’s petition was supported by a “considerable number of inhabitants of the city of Philadelphia.”
The General Assembly formed a committee to review Hallam Jr.’s petition. Religious groups objected on the grounds that theaters posed a “great corruption of the public morals.” As a result, Hallam Jr. was forced to withdraw and resubmit his petition. After four years of deliberation, the committee determined that “dramatic pieces, in common with other works of taste and sentiment, tend to the general refinement of manners and to the polish of society.” Eventually, Hallam Jr. was victorious and a “bill to license a theater in or near the city of Philadelphia for dramatic representations” was formally adopted by the General Assembly.
In 1793, the first playhouse was erected within the city of Philadelphia on Chestnut Street. It was christened “The New Theater.” Hallam Jr.’s illustrious career and advocacy efforts were celebrated at The New Theater in 1807. At the event, Hallam Jr. marked the 56th year of his appearance on a Philadelphia stage by playing his favorite role, Lord Ogelby in Clandestine Marriage.