Theatre History
American Theatre History
      Brief Background Notes
Arthur Dirks
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Wilson, Garff B. Three Hundred Years of American Drama and Theatre. Prentice-Hall, 1973.
Hughes, Glenn. A History of American Theatre: 1700-1950. Samuel French, 1951.
Brockett & Findlay, Century of Innovation

19th Century Origins

"By the end of the 18th Century dramatic companies enjoyed the novel luxury of freedom to perform openly and honestly in almost every city of the nation==the nation then being confined largely to the east coast."

Four theatre cities in America:

Each town developed a territorial touring area with regular visits (except New York).

All American towns of any size had some theatre activity, resident or touring.

1810 Began succession of English stars to U.S.


American theatre 1850-1900

Theatres in major cities by 1850:

  • -Moved toward long runs to recoup costs.
  • -Became specialized in type of fare
  • -Built dominant star system
  • -Principally relied upon fewer and fewer playwrights.

    Distinct lack of production unity during period in popular theatres.

    Some early directors were eventually successful in making inroads; began using stage business, moving into more varied and directed stage pictures.

    Significant advances in stage technology.

    1856 First American copyright law. Attributed to the efforts of Dion Boucicault. It actually only protected the title of the play.

    Growth of The Road.

    1860 Dion Boucicault began promoting "combination companies". The company with players would travel with scenery for 1 play.

    By 1869 there were 21 theatres in New York, 6 in Boston.

    By Turn of 20th Century:

    Popular entertainments and showboats very popular.
    -Dominance of second-rate plays in regular production, primarily melodramas.
    -Larger cities still had a few productions of "the classics"
    -Considerable non-English-speaking theatre in larger cities and immigrant communities.
    -Well-established American actors.

    In Late 1870s Realism began to compete with melodrama, but only in stage technique.
    With advent of early realism, the regisseur or strong director began developing.

    David Belasco: Apprenticed in San Francisco, 1882 moved to Madison Square Theatre in New York as stage manager, and became independent producer in 1895.

    Theatrical lighting with electricity began about 1885.

    American Theatre: New Century


    Playwriting: Lots of writing, much of it bad
    Business Management: Mass production of popular fare.

    European Contribution:

    Drama League of America:

    College Drama:

    Community Theatre Movement:

    Three particularly significant groups established in 1915:

    1. Washington square players. Lasted 3 years. Many participants were later leaders. Fostered the Theatre Guild.
    2. Provincetown Players. Summer group to produce plays written by members. O'Neill joined in the second year, and it moved to New York year-round in third year.
    3. Neighborhood Playhouse. Served Lower east side in New York; lasted 12 years.

    -By end of 1920s there were over 1000 non-commercial theatres including college and community theatres in the U.S.
    -Increasing plays about blacks and foreign language theatre.
    -Some prominent communistic and socialistic propaganda theatre companies established.
    -1930s saw significant development of summer theatre.

    Major Counter-commercial Theatres of the 1930s:

    Independent theatres prospered and declined:

    Postwar Change:

    Fantastic rise in theatre costs.
    Musicals most popular form.

    Principal approach to production:

    Actors' Studio (1947) by Kazan, Strassberg, others.

    1949: Only 150 legitimate professional theatres serving entire U.S.
    1949: 70 TV stations serving 2 million receivers (in urban areas, as were remaining theatres).
    By 1958 Television penetration reached 85% of population.

    1947: Weekly movie attendance 90 million
    1957: Weekly movie attendance 28 million.

    Growth in some theatre during 1950s:


    Off-Off-Broadway developed. Countered increasing costs of Off-Broadway with experimental amateur avant-garde productions.

    Joseph Papp, producer

    Black theatre Movement

    Radical Theatre:

    Regional/Resident Theatre:

    National Endowment for the Arts 1965

    All original content protected by copyright © Arthur L. Dirks, Taunton, MA., 2005.