250 Years Ago (1768)
A performer billed as Mrs. Wall plays Prince John in Henry IV, Part 1 at the John Street Theatre in New York City. Prominent theatre historians will credit her as the first actress in North America to perform a “breeches” role. (However, later evidence will suggest that Nancy Hallam, a young member of the Hallam-Douglass Company, was acting in breeches roles as early as 1759.)
220 Years Ago (1798)
The first major theatre fire in the United States occurs at the Federal Street Theatre in Boston. The threat of fire in U.S. theatres will be ubiquitous over the next century, with more than 100 blazes destroying or heavily damaging theatres. In 1903 a catastrophic fire at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago will cause more than 600 casualties, leading to stringent laws and safer building materials.
150 Years Ago (1868)
African-American actor Morgan Smith, who had immigrated to the U.K. in 1866, produces and appears in Child of the Sun, or The Bondsmen Brothers in London. Previously, Smith mostly played roles written for white actors. Child of the Sun marks a shift in his career, as he now seeks new material created to showcase his talent. In the coming months he will have three new plays written for him.
120 years ago (1898)
Way Down East by Lottie Blair Parker opens at the Manhattan Theatre in NYC. Parker, a successful performer who has appeared opposite Dion Boucicault and others, makes her name as a writer with the play, one of a dozen melodramas by Parker. The piece will be widely produced, and will inspire a D.W. Griffith silent film adaptation starring Lillian Gish.
95 Years Ago (1923)
The Ethiopian Art Theatre of Chicago premieres with Wilde’s Salome. The troupe is sponsored by the All-American Theatre Association of Chicago, an organization whose goal is to facilitate the growth of African-American theatre artists. Over the next few months the Ethiopian Art Theatre’s repertory will expand to include classical European dramas and African-American folk plays.
90 Years Ago (1928)
Shortly after its New York debut at the Comedy Theatre, Simon Gantillon’s international hit Maya, about a French sex worker whose clients symbolically transform into various women from their pasts, becomes the first play censored for obscenity under the Wales Padlock Law. The show will close early next month, 10 days after opening, which The World calls “censorship in its worst form, irresponsible and obnoxious.”
35 Years Ago (1983)
The Wooster Group in NYC opens rehearsals to the public for L.S.D. (… Just the High Points…). The show’s core text consists of two versions of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; in the second version, the cast recreates a rehearsals of the Miller play during which they had all dropped acid. Ultimately the company will close the production following a letter threatening legal action from Miller’s attorneys.