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Theatre Resources

The Society's holdings for studying the early American theater are rich, varied, and found throughout the collections of books, manuscripts, newspapers, periodicals, children's literature, and graphic arts. Basic subject browsing in the online catalog yields interesting citations under headings such as "drama," "theater," "plays," "Children's plays," "playbills," "actors," "promptbooks," to name but a few. Several of the smaller collections can be searched through inventories on this website. For more information on theatre resources, read about the Society's collection of plays and librettos.


Among the highlights of theater materials in the books collection is Royall Tyler's play The Contrast, first performed at the John Street Theatre in New York City in 1787, and later printed in 1790. This play, a landmark in American theater history, was the first comedy written by an American and produced by a professional company. The engraved frontispiece is from a drawing by William Dunlap (1766-1839), a producer, playwright, actor, historian, and artist. Many theater historians consider Dunlap to be the "father of the American drama." The Society's copy of Dunlap's A History of the American Theatre (1832) is a pioneering chronicle of the American stage. This memoir, along with his posthumously published diaries, are among the invaluable primary sources for studying the early American theater. The range of reference materials is extensive, and includes George C.D. Odell's 15 volume Annals of the New York Stage, (1927-1949). This stunning source details all aspects of the New York stage from colonial times through 1894. Modern scholarly works are also well represented. Several of the studies are based on research undertaken at AAS, such as Renée Sentilles' recent book Performing Menken (2003), an interdisciplinary study of the controversial actress and poet Adah Isaacs Menken. Audiences flocked to the theater in droves to see her perform the title character Mazeppa in the play, Mazeppa; or, The Wild Horse of Tartary.



While the AAS manuscript collections do not have theater as a particular focus, there are a number of collections related to the subject. The Society owns a number of plays in manuscript, such as “Rustic Love: A Dialogue in two acts" was written by Yale College student Leonard Withington for performance at the college commencement in 1814. The play has hypocrisy as its theme and concerns a country family whose virtues are almost destroyed by a confidence man posing as a fashionable gentleman. The collection also includes diaries in which people describe attending the theatre, such as the diary of Charles H. Wiggin, a Boston teenager, from 1859 to 1860. Wiggin attended many theatrical events. There are numerous entries regarding these events, and several advertisements and programs bound into the volume.


Newspapers and Periodicals

Early American newspaper collection is a rich resource for researching theatre. They contain such useful information as advertisements, reviews of shows, cast lists, and occasionally may be the only confirmation that shows were performed at particular times and places. Small, regional newspapers often provide the only evidence that live entertainment was available outside of major metropolitan areas. The collection also includes periodicals published about theatre. These included periodicals of criticism and review, amateur dramatics, and trade periodicals aimed at those in the profession, such as The Prompter and Figaro. The Prompter was published in New York by Cornelius Mathews, and also served as a promotional tool for dramatic works by Mathews. Figaro is a periodical aimed at those in the profession or those that had interest in it. It includes news about shows or theatres, gossip, tidbits about particular acts, and scandal.


Children's Literature

Plays written specifically for children can be found in Children's Literature Collection. Among the earliest children's plays held at the Society is An Accurate Description of the Grand Allegorical Pantomimic Spectacle, of Cinderella (1806), published in conjunction with the actual production at Philadelphia's New Theatre. It was probably issued as a promotional tool. Early nineteenth-century didactic authors like Maria Edgeworth wrote dramatic plays to educate and inform in a lively way; the Society has various children's plays by Miss Edgeworth, including Eton Montem (ca. 1824), set at the famous English boys' school. With the development of the common school system in the United States, the school became a legitimate medium for children's theatrical performances. A catalog for New York textbook publisher Sheldon, Blakeman & Co. from 1856 has an advertisement for The Exhibition Speaker and Gymnastic Book that features children acting in a school play complete with stage, curtains, and props. The family parlor also became a popular spot for children's plays, as so lovingly described by Louisa May Alcott in Little Women. The Society has the series Little Plays for Little Players (1884) written by George Mooney expressly for parlor productions, and he gives detailed descriptions for costumes and scenery. The collection includes children's fiction about child actors; one example is Jimmy's Cruise in the Pinafore (1879), Louisa May Alcott's story about a boy who supports his impoverished family by acting in a children's production of H.M.S. Pinafore. This charming story features illustrations depicting characters from the operetta.


Graphic Arts

The graphic arts collection has an interesting variety of theatre-related materials to choose from, including photographs of actors and performers, lithographs, portraits prints, Cartes-de-Visite, Sheet music, and broadsides. When searching for portraits of actors such as Joseph Jefferson, who became famous for his role in the play Rip Van Winkle, the Cartes-de-Visite, cabinet sized photographs, and American portrait prints are useful. There is an inventory available for the cabinet-sized photographs of actors and performers. The lithograph collection contains over 90 portraits of actors, and the sheet music collection has some pictorial covers that include approximately 50 portraits of actors, such as one of Edwin Forest on the cover of the Drama March. The lithographs also have some wonderful interior and exterior views of theatres. The broadsides collection has the largest group of theatre-related material. There are several thousand playbills, with about 1000 of them accessible through the online catalog, including National Theatre, from 1849.


James David Moran, Director of Outreach here at the Society, has written a play on the life of Isaiah Thomas, who founded the Society in 1812. The play was published in The Proceedings, and an abbreviated introduction to it can be read here. The Society also offers a program called Isaiah Thomas- Patriot Printer, a dramatic presentation appropriate for grades 5-12.

-Laura Wasowicz, Curator of Children's Literature
-Vince Golden, Curator of Newspapers
-Thomas Knoles, Curator of Manuscripts
-Joanne Chaison, Research Librarian

-Terri Tremblay, Assistant Curator of Graphic Arts

Frontispeice from The Contrast, by Royall 
Frontispeice from The Contrast, by Royall Tyler

Performing Menken, 2003, by Rene M. Sentilles
Performing Menken, 2003, by Renée M. Sentilles

Page from manuscript "Rustic Love: A 
Dialogue in two acts"
Page from manuscript "Rustic Love: A Dialogue in two acts"

Advertisement bound in Charles H. Wiggin's 
Advertisement bound in Charles H. Wiggin's diary

The Prompter, a trade periodical for 
The Prompter, a trade periodical for dramatists

Figaro, a trade periodcal for 
Figaro, a trade periodical for dramatists

Detail from advertisement for The Exhibition 
Speaker and Gymnastic Book
Detail from advertisement for The Exhibition Speaker and Gymnastic Book

The Sleeping Beauty, from Little 
Plays for Little Players, 1884
The Sleeping Beauty, from Little Plays for Little Players, 1884

Character from H.M.S. Pinafore
Character from H.M.S. Pinafore

Cartes-de-Visite of Joseph Jefferson
Cartes-de-Visite of Joseph Jefferson

Portrait of Edwin Forest from sheet music 
cover The Drama March
Portrait of Edwin Forest from sheet music cover The Drama March

Detail of National Theatre, an 1849 
Detail of National Theatre, an 1849 broadside

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Last updated September 25, 2007

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