“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Richmond Theater Part One- "An Edifice Devoted to the Tragic and Comic Muses:" the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

The old Theatre near the Capital’…was so far old, that the walls were well browned by time, and the shutters to the windows of a pleasant neutral tint between rust and dust coloredWithin, the play-house presented a somewhat more attractive appearance. There was box,’ ‘pit,and gallery,as in our day; and the relative prices were arranged in much the same manner.
                                John Esten Cooke, 1854

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 1813

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London,


 Like the temple and the palace, the ancient building type known as the theater is, in the most general sense, where the community gathers to remember the great deeds of the past and to imagine the future. From the Renaissance to the early twentieth century theatres incorporated tightly curving plans and raked stages derived from what was known of the ancient theaters of the Greeks and Romans. This tight arrangement allowed each theater-goer present not only to enjoy the spectacle of an opera or play, but to participate in the collective experience of a gathered company. The Renaissance interpreted the form and content of classical drama in ways that continue to affect theater design today, basing their work on surviving texts and the accessible physical fabric of actual theaters.

The theaters of the continental Renaissance had no exteriors presence, since they served the court and were located within the princely palace. As drama became democratized in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the theater emerged from the palace to take its place as a civic building, equipped for this role with the elements of the classical orders.

On the interior, the intention was not to produce a realistic illusion, but instead, through sumptuous music and art to transform and inform the vision of an entire community. American theaters by the mid-nineteenth-century were well equipped, spacious, and architecturally sophisticated. Never simply a place of amusement, theater managers followed a conventional program incorporating in the same evening popular entertainment and dramatic works that stimulated the moral imagination. In order to take its place in the civic order, the theater was given a prominent location and a high level of architectural finish, often including a fully articulated architectural order.


Most American theaters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like their European models, were urban buildings in which the height of the stage and auditorium were concealed behind a classical streetfront. While stages tended to be very deep, they did not have tall fly lofts. Lobbies were often minimal in size and scale. Demands associated with the development of the dramatic art and the expansion of building amenities caused a gradual bloating of the structure housing the theater, which continues to this day. The nineteenth-century impulse to present theaters and other buildings as singular temple-form structures became problematic as the secondary features of the theater form, such as the fly loft and lobby, expanded.

The interiors of many of the nation’s most sophisticated nineteenth-century theatres were inspired by Londons Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. This famous building, as rebuilt in 1812, utilized the baroque horseshoe theater or opera house plan, with several tiers of boxes and sloping seats arranged in a horseshoe shape around a central floor or pit.

St. Charles Theater, New Orleans of 1843 shows the familiar form derived from the Theatre Royal, Drury lane.

Theater in Early Virginia

The first documented theater in British North America stood on the east side of the Palace Green in Williamsburg. It was built between 1716 and 1718 and was used for amateur and student plays until it was sold to serve as a city court building. It was replaced by a new structure just beyond the eastern end of town in 1751. This new theater was built for the Murray-Kean Company, a troop of actors whose first performance in Williamsburg was of Shakespeares Richard III. A new group of actors, probably the first professional theater troop in the colonies, arrived in Williamsburg in 1752. The London Company of Comedians, managed by Lewis Hallam, arrived in the colony and purchased and improved Williamsburg's theater building. After a season of plays, including the Merchant of Venice and the Anatomist, or Sham Doctor, the troop departed. Soon after the theater was seized to satisfy Hallams debts and converted into a house. The troop returned under different management in 1760 and built a new theater, used sporadically by the London Company and others over the following twelve years. The theater or playhouse became a popular social center and was patronized by colonial leaders like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  There is no evidence that the theater was used after 1772 and by 1780 it had been demolished.

Study Model of The Old Theater, Williamsburg, from http://research.history.org/vw1776/revcity/

Archeology at the site of the 1752 theater shows it to have been an earthfast frame structure measuring about 72 feet in length and 44 feet in width and built of posts spaced about eight feet apart. Traces of a brick foundation at the west end indicated some sort of brick entrance. A large excavation at the center, bounded by a low brick wall near the center of the building, would have been the pit  which held much of the theaters audience. The stage took up approximately half of the theaters volume,
According to Lisa E. Fischer, whose "Douglass-Hallam Theater: Excavation of an Eighteenth-Century Playhouse," produced for Colonial Williamsburg, documented the early theater,

These itinerant companies developed a touring circuit and, whenever possible, presented their plays in actual theater buildings, sometimes even constructing their own prior to their first scheduled performances in a city. Typical Colonial theaters were relatively large structures, measuring at least 70′x30′, and resembled provincial theaters found in England at the time. The interior of the theater would have exhibited a large stage area on one end, possibly taking up as much as half of the building. An unusual characteristic of eighteenth-century stages was that they were commonly lined with a set of iron spikes designed to discourage audience members from getting onto the stage to disrupt the performance. The seating within the theater was divided into three sections. In front of the stage, sunk below the ground would have been the pit, crammed with benches. The most expensive seating was in the boxes around the sides and back of the theater. The cheapest seating was in the gallery located around the theater above the boxes. . . .An evening at the theater in the eighteenth century would have consisted of two plays, a longer opening play and a shorter and lighter concluding one, and possibly several entractes.                                   
Virginians were never long without access to theatrical performances.  A single thread of theatrical endeavor was nearly continuous with the colonys urban history, beginning in 1718 and corresponding closely to the annual gathering of leaders associated with the legislative function. Theater was, however, temporarily discouraged by the authorities as frivolous during the Revolutionary War.

Theater in Early and Antebellum Richmond

The capital was moved to Richmond in 1779.  Clearly, one of the essential urban building types that moved with the capital to Richmond was the theater, direct heir of its predecessors in Williamsburg. Indeed, the second act of the Common Council of the newly formed City of Richmond at its meeting on July 3, 1782 was to require that Mr. Ryan, the theatre manager, account for the number of performances since the last settlement and pay the required tax. The first theater building for which there is a record stood on Main Street near the market. This old theater was mentioned in 1788 [Christian, 1912]. A large frame school building was built in 1785 on the Academy Square, in Turpins Addition on the eastern slope of Shockoe Hill. After the academy failed to prosper, the building, known as the New Theatre, was leased to Hallam and Henry, a successor to the English company that had previously put on plays in Williamsburg.  According to early historian Samuel Mordecai, Hallam and Henry converted the Academy into a theater, "and here the tragic and the comic muses first bestowed their tears and smiles — in an edifice devoted to them — on a Richmond audience." The Beggars Opera was performed in 1787.  This building served for theatrical purposes until it burned in 1802.

The Academy (Theater) Building shown at the letter "P" on the Young Map of 1809.

This diagram of a 1788 English theater (The Theatre Royal in Richmond, Yorkshire)
shows the typical relationships between stage, boxes, and pit seating in a provincial theater of the period [Richard Leacock, Development of the English Playhouse. Methuen, 1973]. Trap doors provided entries for supernatural effects and tracks in the floor permit the sliding of set panels into place.
In 1798, Benjamin Henry Latrobe prepared a design for a ground-breaking theater/hotel to replace the academy building at this key nodal location where the main route (Broad Street) turned to descend the hill. The plan was never executed. Had it been built, it would have represented a new and unique building type, but it still employed a pit, boxes, and a gallery as seen in the section below.

Latrobe's extraordinary drawing of the disorderly state of the Green Room at the Richmond Theatre in 1798

Section through Latrobe's Theater

After 1802, plays were performed in the hall over the market house and in Quarriers Coach-shop at Cary and Seventh streets until a new brick theater was built in the rear of the Academy or Theater Square in 1806. It was this three-story building that burned, with terrible loss of life, in 1811 and was memorialized by the construction of Monumental Church on the site.

Engraving of the Richmond Theater Fire. The theater is depicted as a three-story building with windows in the front area. A central door is apparently flanked by doors to the upper floors, while windows in the body of the building are few. The building to the rear (the west front of First Baptist Church) is shown inaccurately, so the drawing cannot be treated as completely reliable, but the form is similar to theaters from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
According to several accounts, Richmonders abandoned theatrical endeavors for a time after the disastrous 1811 fire. A new theater was built in 1818 on the southeastern corner of Seventh and Broad on Shockoe Hill. In 1838, it was remodeled and named after Chief Justice John Marshall [Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, Celebrate Richmond Theater (Richmond: The Dietz Press, 2002)]. An evening there was remembered by the editor of the Richmond Daily Dispatch. His description of the night provides clues to the form and fittings of the theater, which seems similar to that of the eighteenth-century examples mentioned earlier. A evening at the theater in 1820 included a performance of Virginius, followed by a farce called High Life Below Stairs. We believe we half exhausted our power of laughing that night; for we never have been able to laugh as we did then, from that time to this. We roared, we shouted, we screamed, we fairly danced in the box, until we attracted the attention of everybody in the house. We leant over, as though we were ready to jump into the pit [Daily Dispatch on 5 Jan 1862].

Management and funding for the theater were always a problem, but in spite of that Richmond saw about three hundred different plays, some repeatedly, in the years between 1819 and 1838, including fourteen of Shakespeare's. Twelve of these were written in Richmond [Agnes Bondurant, Poe's Richmond, 1942]. During this period Richmond was a major theatrical center, typical in its tastes and requirements to other cities up and down the eastern seaboard. 
The Marshall Theatre, of which no image survives, burned in 1862, likely as a result of arson. Losses included the valuable scenery, painted by the elder Grain, Getz, Heilge, and Italian artists employed by George Jones; all the wardrobe and "property," including some costly furniture and decorations; rich oil paintings and steel portraits of celebrated dramatists; manuscript plays, operas, and oratorios, all are involved in the common destruction. . . in addition to the whole stock wardrobe. . . [while] the orchestra lost between $300 and $400 in instruments and sheet music [Richmond Daily Dispatch, 6 Jan 1862]. The company and theater were managed by Gilbert. Junius Brutus Booth appeared there in 1821 in his first appearance on the America stage. The Marshall saw appearances by many of the great actors of the day, including Edwin Forrest, Charlotte Cushman, John Drew, and Joseph Jefferson, as well as Edwin and John Wilkes Booth.   
Although no image of either the interior or the exterior survives, it seems likely, based on examples in other cities, that the auditorium included, in addition to the central pit filled with benches, a proscenium flanked by classical columns, perhaps similar to the 1798 Park Theater in New York, seen below.

The Park Theatre in New York, built in 1798, occupied a stone structure.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, 9 Oct  1938

While there was enough business for only one theater for the city's first century-- from about 1782 until 1886, it was not the only assembly hall. At first, public events were held mostly in the Masons' Hall of 1787 or the Market Hall of 1794. As the nineteenth century progressed, other venues for shows, concerts, lectures, and meetings were built across the city, often on upper floors to serve a primary purpose as meeting rooms for various organizations. Corinthian Hall on Main Street was the site of Adelina Pattis concert in 1860. Odd Fellows Hall was used for public events from 1842 to 1858. Metropolitan Hall was opened in 1853 with the adaptation of the former First Presbyterian Church building of 1828 for secular audiences. It stood on the northeast corner of Fourteenth and Franklin streets. According to Mary Wingfield Scott, it was used for lectures, theatrical entertainments and political conventions, and later as a rather questionable variety-house. Mechanics' Hall included a lecture room in 1857 to assist young men learning the useful arts.  

Drama was important to the doomed, crowded Confederate capital city. The burned Marshall Theater was rebuilt as the Richmond or New Richmond Theater at the height of the Civil War, opening in 1863. It closed in 1896 [Christian 452], a tired and down-at-heel veteran of many scenes. It seems likely that the Richmond Theatre reused at least a portion of the walls of the Marshall, since few structures were built in the city in 1863. The Greek Revival elements of the building are, however, unlikely to have been features of the previous theatre, built in 1819. Other theatrical venues prospered as well during the years that Richmond served as the Confederate capital. According to one source, these more popular venues included the Metropolitan Hall, the Richmond Varieties, a bawdy precursor to vaudeville, and the Richmond Lyceum [Kathyrn Fuller-Seeley. Celebrate Richmond Theater (Richmond: The Dietz Press, 2002). 

Richmond Theatre seen on the 1876 Beers Map of Richmond.

The Richmond Theatre, which was about 160 feet deep (the size of a Richmond lot),  stood four stories tall. The regular windows on the front and west side do not give any clue of the varied rooms within (some windows on the west side may be false windows, but light was needed on the interior for work associated with preparing for the plays). Like most fully equipped theaters of the time, the Richmond Theater did not have a fly loft for raising sets above the stage.

Richmond Theater shortly before demolition in the 1890s.

As an important civic building, the Marshall Theater was given the full form of a temple. The building was detailed in the Greek “Tower of the Winds” Corinthian order with fluted three-quarter engaged columns on the inset front flanked by pilasters called “antae,” which continue along the west side separating every second window bay. The ornate Corinthian order was appropriate for a building used in the pleasurable festivities associated with drama. Entrance was through five openings in the first floor front, which was detailed to provide a basement to the temple front above.

The interior of the Richmond Theatre soon after the Civil War. The illustrator appears to have increased the dramatic value of the political meeting depicted by combining a view of the proscenium and boxes from the seats with a view of the auditorium from the stage.   http://richmondtheatres.tripod.com 

The images of the interior shows that it was similar to other antebellum American theaters and that it continued the tradition of a central pit surrounded by raised horseshoe seating. Like other theaters derived from English models such as the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the angled boxes to either side to the stage were flanked by colossal fluted Corinthian columns.

Interior of the Richmond Theatre, 1890, Valentine Museum. The flats for the scenery can be seen behind the painted stage curtain. Before electricity, theaters needed windows for illumination when a play was actually not being staged.
The history of theater in Richmond did not end with the burning of a significant portion of the city, in fact the Richmond Theatre wasn't harmed at all and the plays continued. The late nineteenth century saw the further diversification of entertainment. Increased disposable income among the urban working class encouraged the breakdown of theatrical productions into high- and low-brow and the introduction of competition among a growing number of theaters, although entertainment in Richmond at all levels continued to have a decidedly "Southern" plot and cast of characters.
This account is continued in Part Two, located here.