August 1786 (235 years ago)
Irish-born actor John Henry, of the Old American Company, made an agreement “over a bottle” to lease some land for Baltimore’s first playhouse. The rent was “fifteen box tickets a year for an undetermined number of years.” The venue was a “large frame building” located near Philpot’s Hill. The company began performing in the new venue on Aug. 17, 1786. They offered over 10 different English plays that season, almost all comedies that had premiered earlier in New York. The company returned for several seasons, rotating between New York and Baltimore, with stops in Philadelphia.
August 1861 (160 years ago)
Bull Run, or the Sacking of Fairfax Court House had a successful opening at New York City’s Bowery Theatre. The performance was a reenactment of the Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the American Civil War, which had occurred in Manassas, Va., just three weeks prior to the play’s opening. The play was written by a journalist named Charles Gayley who had previously produced melodramas and farces. Gayley focused the story of the play on a New York comic actor named George L. Fox who had been a lieutenant for the Union in the battle. Fox agreed to produce the show and hired his younger brother to play himself, while he played the role of a comic character named Ironsides. The performance was part spectacle, part melodrama, and part ripped-from-the-headlines news, and was a hugely popular success.
August 1931 (90 years ago)
The evening of Aug. 15, 1931, marked the final run-through rehearsal for The House of Connelly at the Group Theatre’s first summer residency at Brookfield Center in Connecticut. Founders Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman, and Lee Strasberg gathered 28 theatre artists and their families—including Stella Adler, Elia Kazan, Morris Carnovsky, Clifford Odets, Sanford Meisner, Lee J. Cobb, and Phoebe Brand—and drove them out of New York City to Connecticut, where they lived communally in the retreat center. For 10 weeks they rehearsed Paul Green’s play in a barn on the property. The final evening rehearsal was described by company members as “an intoxicating moment, the culmination of all their work thus far—a religious rite as much as a rehearsal.” The company returned to New York City and opened the play on Broadway in September.
August 1936 (85 years ago)
On Aug. 18 or 19, 1936, Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet, playwright, and theatre director, was assassinated in Granada, Spain, by a fascist militia. Some argue he was killed for his socialist political beliefs, some say he was killed for being gay. His remains have never been found, but some expect they might be recovered in a mass grave in Barranco de Viznar that is currently being investigated. In 1929, Lorca came to New York from Madrid to study at Columbia University. It was a difficult time for him. Though his book of poems, Romancero Gitano, had become a best-seller in Spain, he was heartbroken after an estrangement from Salvidor Dali and a breakup with sculptor Emilio Aladrén Perojo. But in New York, Lorca found solace attending theatre performances. On his return to Spain, we wrote three of his most famous plays: Blood Wedding, Yerma, and The House of Bernarda Alba. Scholar Howard Young argues that New York “provided the springboard into a social, poetic theatre” for Lorca.
August 1956 (65 years ago)
On Aug. 14, 1956, 58-year-old Bertolt Brecht died from heart failure in East Berlin. Brecht was a German theatre practitioner, playwright, and poet whose theory and practice of drama, referred to as Epic Theatre, has had a profound impact on 20th and 21st Century theatre. As a young dramatist working in Berlin in the 1920’s, Brecht studied Karl Marx. Brecht’s films and plays were critical of the Weimar Republic and Nazism. He fled Nazi Germany in February 1933 and lived in exile in other parts of Europe and the U.S. until he returned to East Berlin in 1949. Early in his career, before visiting the United States, Brecht was quite fascinated by the country. Later, he became disillusioned while living in the U.S. from 1941 to 1947, a time when he was surveilled by the FBI and subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Brecht initially resisted giving testimony to the committee, but eventually did testify that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. Brecht was a prolific writer, authoring over 50 works for the stage and screen, hundreds of poems, and multiple theoretical works.
August 1966 (55 years ago)
On a hot night in August in 1966 at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, a transgender woman took a stand against the repeated police harassment of drag queens and trans people. While being arrested on a pretense of “female impersonation,” she threw her coffee in a police officer’s face. Other queer patrons at the cafeteria joined in her efforts to repel the brutality of the police by throwing sugar shakers and forcing the police out onto the street. Susan Stryker, in her documentary Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria calls it, “the first known instance of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in United States history.” In 2018, the Tenderloin Museum opened an interactive, original theatre piece inspired by the events of that night. The piece was written by Collette LeGrande, Mark Nassar, and Donna Personna, directed by AeJay Mitchell, and conceived by Mark Nassar and Katie Conry.
August 2011 (10 years ago)
William S. Yellow Robe Jr. ‘s play Thieves opened at the Public Theatre on Aug. 3, 2011, presented by Amerinda Theatre. Yellow Robe was an Assiniboine and Sioux playwright, actor, director, and teacher, born and raised on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Poplar, Mont. We mark this anniversary with sadness at the news that Yellow Robe died in Bangor, Maine, on July 19, 2021, after a long illness. His obituary notes: “Although he had hoped to return to teaching in the fall, his body lost the fight against the traumas of colonization.” Yellow Robe received multiple awards for his contributions to theatre, including a Helen Merrill Award from the New York Community Trust, which was announced in this publication the day after he died. With over 70 plays to his credit and associations with multiple theatre companies and universities, William S. Yellow Robe Jr. made a profound impact on American theatre.
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