Can you imagine George Washington laughing heartily while seeing a musical called "The Romp, or A Cure for the Spleen"? Washington might have been "on the stage of human action" but he actually really loved going to the theater. Read on to learn more about Washington's love of entertainment.

Washington the Theater-Goer

3D reconstruction of the Douglas Theater at Colonial Williamsburg. Copyright Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Learn more at williamsburg1776.org.

While the motion picture wouldn’t be invented for more than a hundred years after their deaths, the Washingtons loved to be entertained. In fact, 18th century consumption of media and entertainment was more similar to today than people realize, and George Washington was no exception.

A famously avid theater-goer, Washington’s highly detailed record-keeping provides valuable information about the movement of acting companies throughout the region, and the types of performances offered. These accounts indicate that not only was Washington a devotee of staged entertainments, but his diary entries in some cases are the only record of a professional theater in colonial America. (1)

The Play's The Thing

Washington saw repeat performances of his favorite plays. He favored particular actors, and was even known to take in four plays in one week! The Washingtons frequented plays in Williamsburg, in Philadelphia and New York during his presidency, and at home in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. A huge theater fan even early on, young George Washington even saw "The London Merchant, or the History of George Barnwell" during his trip to Barbados in 1751. The same plays Washington attended were also seen by other notable contemporaries, which speak of the popularity and accessibility of the productions. According to Thomas Jefferson’s Memorandum Books, he and George Washington attended the same theatrical performance on eight occasions. (2)

And...Action!

The Virginia Gazette, printed by Mrs. Rind on November 19, 1772. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

When one thinks of 18th-century plays, stodgy productions of wooden actors with over-pronounced British accents come to mind – real snoozefests. But research shows that many of these productions were highly elaborate and technologically advanced, often using machinery, skilled artistry, and even pyrotechnics.

During intermission and even after the show, dances and pantomimes (performers expressing meaning through gestures during music) would amuse attendees. Washington’s step-granddaughter Nelly Custis saw The Shipwreck or The Aerial Travellers in New York on October 8, 1789. The original billing for this entertainment declared that it concluded with “a grand Pantomimical Finale called The Shipwreck or the Aerial Travellers, in which will be exhibited a real Air Balloon, with new Scenery and Machinery." (3)

The Virginia Gazette, printed by Mr. and Mrs. Rind in Williamsburg on April 14, 1768, advertised that after a performance of “The Orphan, or the Unhappy Marriage”, a comic dance called “The Bedlamites” would ensue. (Just guessing by the title, this probably would have been hilarious.)

The image to the right is an ad in the Virginia Gazette for "A Curious Set of Figures" set to perform in Williamsburg in 1772. It touts water features, elaborate machinery, and fireworks. And if that doesn't prove titillating, you could watch actors try to break a two-hundred pound stone on some guy's chest.

Acting Companies

In Washington’s day, theaters were venues for traveling acting troupes, called companies. These companies had repertoires of different plays, which toured from city to city. Washington saw plays generally staged by one of two companies, the American Company and The Virginia Company. The Virginia Company was formed by a former actor from the American Company and played the Virginia circuit.

Kind of Like Netflix?

William Shakespeare by J. Stockdale, London, England, 1783. Printed etching on paper. Harry R. Beard Collection, given by Isobel Beard. Image courtesy of the The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The genres offered during the 18th century are no different from our Netflix categories today. From situational comedies called farces, to intense dramas, histories, romances, tragedies, and action/adventure, the Washingtons enjoyed them all.

The 18th century had its own share of “classics” and “new releases”. Offerings included the works of Shakespeare and fresh pieces from contemporary playwrights like George Farquhar and Isaac Bickerstaffe. Theatricals such as Columbus; or a World Discovered such as were precursors to historical documentaries and docu-dramas, while plays like Alfred: A Masque addressed contemporary political issues between America and England, which Washington saw performed in Philadelphia in 1757. (4)

Some of the plays Washington enjoyed are immediately recognizable: Robinson Crusoe, Don Juan, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. Other titles the Washingtons viewed are no less fascinating: The Inconstant, or The Way to Win Him; High Life Below the Stairs, The Clandestine Marriage; The Drummer, or The Haunted House; The Spoiled Child; The Miser, or A School for Avarice, and Animal Magnetism.

So which movies do you think Washington would have enjoyed today? Braveheart? The Last of the Mohicans, perhaps?

A Sample of Plays George Washington Saw...

Playbill for

18th century opera on a London stage. Engraving, printed on paper. Image courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

“The Downfall of Shakespeare on a Modern Stage” by William Dawes. Oil on canvas. 1763-1765. Image courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

TITLE OF PLAY DATE LOCATION
The London Merchant, or the History of George Barnwell 1751 Barbados
The Inconstant, or the Way to Win Him 1768 Alexandria, Virginia
The Recruiting Officer: A Comedy 1771 Dumfries, Virginia
A Word to the Wise 1772 Williamsburg, Virginia
The West Indian 1772 Annapolis, Maryland
Cross Purposes 1773 New York City
Cato 1778 Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
Love in a Camp, or Patrick in Prussia 1787 Philadelphia
The Tempest 1787 Philadelphia
School for Scandal 1789, 1791, 1792 New York City and Philadelphia
The Clandestine Marriage 1789 New York City
A Monody, or Eulogium on the American Chiefs who fell in the Cause of Freedom 1789 New York City
Julius Caesar 1790 New York City
Don Juan, or the Libertine Destroyed 1792 Philadelphia
The Rage! 1796 Philadelphia

 

Sources

Decatur, Stephen Jr. The Private Affairs of George Washington, from the Records and Accounts of Tobias Lear, Esquire, his Secretary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933. Print.

Johnson, Odai. "Jefferson and The Colonial American Stage." The Virginia Museum of HIstory and Biography 108.2 (200): 139-54. JSTOR. Web.

 McGinley, Kevin J. "The 1757 College of Philadelphia Production of Alfred: A Masque - Some New Observations." Huntington Library Quarterly 77.1 (2014): 37-58. JSTOR. Web.

Thompson, Mary V. ""Plays Owned and Attended by George Washington and Other Members of His Household, 1751 - 1797." (2015): n. pag. Print.

 Wolf, Edwin, 2nd. "Colonial American Playbills." The Pennslyvania Magazine of History and Biography 97.1 (1973): 99-106. JSTOR. Web.

Footnotes

  1. Johnson, 140
  2. McGinley, 43
  3. Decatur, 72
  4. Johnson, 152
  5. Johnson, 143
Buy Tickets What to See Calendar Shop Restaurant Donate Membership
Estate Hours

Open today from 9:00 am – 4:00 pm

iconDirections & Parking
buy tickets online & save