American theatre didn’t really become popular until the 20th century. But make no mistake; it existed long before then. Native Americans are believed to have performed stage plays within their communities long before the first European settlers arrived in America. Just like modern plays reflect the goings-on in society, their plays were largely centered on issues that affected their day-to-day life. They used plays to depict their rituals, ceremonies, battles, seasons and the like. Plays were a social activity that not only brought them together but also passed along their beliefs and values to the younger generation.
When the white settlers showed up, they brought along the medieval European theater culture. The plays settlers staged in the 16th century had heavy Christianity influences and largely touched on morality. Even though colonists outlawed plays in some areas when they took over America, it was not forbidden outright in all colonies and performances continued to be held openly. As an indication of the changing times, the plays now often included dramas about treaties and negotiations.
The first English play ever staged in the US was recorded in 1665 in Pungoteague, Virginia. It was a three-act piece titled “Ye Bare and Ye Cub” or The Bear and The Cub in modern English. Although no record of the original script was ever found, the play is thought to have had political connotations. Modern interpretations show England as the bear, with the colonies representing the cub. One Accomack County resident, Edward Martin, was so incensed by the performance that he sued the three actors, William Darby, Cornelius Watkinson, and Philip Howard, on unspecified charges. The judge, fair man that he was, ordered a repeat performance during the next court session. When he saw the performance, he ruled that the three men were not guilty of the charges brought against them.
Here are more fun facts about a stage play that will make you appreciate what a long way this creative art form has come.
Did you know that every action, movement and positioning of the actors during the play is predetermined and is not a spur-of-the-moment thing? This is called blocking in play talk and falls under the director’s responsibility. Some directors are flexible and will allow the actors determine their every movement and position on the stage.
At times, the director will pre-block certain scenes. This means they plot the movements on their own and simply give the predetermined blocking to the actors for rehearsal. In some cases, the playwright provides blocking instructions along with the script. The director can then decide to go with the provided blocking or change it to suit how they want the play to flow.
If something goes wrong during the performance, the actors are to take note of it and somehow make it part of the plot or act in character. This requires a precise knowledge of what’s supposed to happen at every stage. Talented actors are so good at this that the audience won’t notice when a hitch happens. A fun tradition we had back in college was that we would have old fashioned creamy rice pudding after every major play.