Segments in this Video

Overview of American Theater History (05:07)


Spanning 200 years of constant transformation, the history of American theater includes how style, technique, culture, history, and politics affected the training of American actors.

America's First Theaters (03:34)

Once considered sinful, theater became popular in New York City by 1810, and families read play scripts at home for entertainment. The earlier English theater companies came from Jamaica, where they went to escape England's strict rules.

Theater Managers Lewis Hallams and David Douglass (02:45)

Lewis Hallams' theater company was the first in America. He and other companies also brought the British training system, the apprenticeship system. After Hallams' death, David Douglass married his widow and continued the theater tradition.

American Theater and Stars (01:48)

After the Revolution, the Park Theater in New York emerged as a major trendsetter by starting the star system. Manager Stephen Price imported stars from England and changed companies from itinerant to resident theater companies.

African Grove Theater (03:04)

Created as an entrepreneur adventure for Black audiences, the African Theater, begun as the African Grove by William Henry Brown, remained active until 1823. Brown, a former ship's steward, had toured theaters in various ports in England and America.

Actor James Hewlett (02:46)

James Hewlett became the star of the African Theater Company. Trained as an apprentice, Hewlett, like British actor Edmund Kean, broke from traditional Shakespearean performances with emotional and dramatic readings.

African Grove: Politics and Its Audiences (04:38)

For various reasons the African Grove Theater moved several times, including once by the Park Theater, to the dismay of Douglass. Brown's "The Drama of King Shotaway," became a statement about the Blacks' role in society and slavery.

Legacy of the African Theater Company (03:05)

Although some whites did not like its existence, the African Grove became an important part of American culture, drawing mainly on the Black community for its audience. In the 1920s, historians, striving to know the truth behind the theater, resurrected its history.

Actor Ira Aldridge (04:20)

Born in 1807, Ira Aldridge apprenticed at the African Grove Theater at 17 and then moved to England. A self-taught actor, Aldridge became a Shakespearean star in Europe, but prejudices prevented him from performing much in America.

British Acting Style (03:42)

The British acting apprenticeship system forced actors to know hundreds of roles, thus preventing them from showing much emotional depth. American acting drew on this artificial style until the nineteenth century when native-born actors rose to fame.

Edwin Forrest: First American Theatrical Super Star (03:40)

British William Macready and American Edwin Forrest rose to theater fame in America. Influenced by British actor Edmund Kean, Forrest became America's first theater star with his fiery delivery, strong physical presence, and commanding voice.

Edwin Forrest's Political Views and the Theater (02:47)

Forrest, a member of the No-Nothing political party that opposed abolition and new immigrants, hosted an American playwriting contest. "Metamora," the winning play, made him rich. American theaters welcomed all audiences, including prostitutes.

Astor Place Opera House Riots (07:37)

Politics and acting came together at the Astor Place Opera House riots in 1849 during a performance of "Macbeth." The many layers of conflicts included rivalry between Macready and Forrest, British and Americans, and the different socio-economic classes.

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Prelude and First Curtains

Part of the Series : A Search for an American Voice in Theater
DVD Price: $99.95
DVD + 3-Year Streaming Price: $149.93
3-Year Streaming Price: $99.95



In this program, Brooks McNamara, expert on 19th-century theater at New York University; theater historian and author Mary Henderson; playwright Michael Dinwiddie; and New York City historian George Thompson examine the efforts at theater-making in America from the 1750s to the eve of the Civil War. Among the topics discussed are actor training; the stage careers of Ira Aldridge, Edwin Forrest, and William Macready; the African Theater Company; the Astor Place Opera House riots; and issues such as immigration and segregation. The program also sets the stage for the entire series by asking questions that are explored over the course of the six episodes. (52 minutes)

Length: 53 minutes

Item#: BVL9163

ISBN: 978-1-4213-3382-3

Copyright date: ©1999

Closed Captioned

Performance Rights

Prices include public performance rights.

Only available in USA and Canada.