Theater became a popular and socially acceptable middle class pastime around the 1840s, but before then, playhouses had quite the reputation. It was often portrayed as a symbol of the temptations and dangers of urban life as American cities grew in population and young people moved away from small, family-based rural communities in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Theater has historically been associated with the bodily passions; early 19th century sermons warned against the intoxicating effects of viewing the passions played out on stage. The most condemning argument against theater-going as a respectable pastime were the prostitutes known to work the third tiers (the cheap seats). Theaters’ location in urban centers, the melodramatic and often suggestive content of the plays, the presence of prostitutes, and the cultural imperative for feminine domesticity and privacy influenced perceptions of the theater as improper and morally questionable.
Performances were very common forms of domestic entertainment, however, particularly music and dance; fiddles, whistles and other musical instruments were available for even poor families, and the piano grew in popularity among wealthier families. Dramatic readings and play-acting were also popular parlor games and evening pastimes. For instance, Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women includes several references to domestic dramas; the four March sisters act out the Pilgrim’s Progress, and Marmee uses their play-acting as an educational opportunity. Alcott was an amateur actress, and though she had a very unconventional childhood influenced by her father’s Transcendentalist philosophy, the use of dramatic sketches in education was well-established. The Revolutionary-era author, actress, and educator Susanna Rowson composed textbooks for her Academy for Young Ladies in Boston. Her 1811 textbook, A Present for Young Ladies, included several short dramatic sketches for her young female students to perform for their classes and at semi-public assemblies. Rowson’s school book dramas were always overtly didactic; they presented the students with an ethical dilemma that the characters solved through the virtues she intended to instill in her students: compromise, wisdom, generosity, moderation.
These school assembly performances also prepared Rowson’s students for the type of speech they would likely encounter in social gatherings at the time. Early American culture was quite theatrical, even if it condemned the theater as an institution; the preachers of the Great Awakening were overtly dramatic, students of both sexes were taught rhetoric and oratory in the decades immediately following the Revolution, and exhibitions of oratory and debates were often part of social gatherings. So it is unsurpising that domestic dramas and plays, put on in family parlors, were a popular form of entertainment in early American social life. Situating theater firmly within the domestic sphere bypassed many of the objections to the stage, especially the growing objections to female public speech. Rhetoric and argumentation were highly valued aspects of post-Revolutionary society, especially in the upper and middle classes, and a proper young lady would be expected to exhibit good diction, witty replies, and above all, excellent reasoning. This mode of socialization fell away as the 19th century progressed, however, and notions of femininity shifted to value silence, tranquility, and angelic “niceness,” which would forbid any argumentation.
For further reading on early American theatricality, see:
Carolyn Eastman, “The Female Cicero: Young Women’s Oratory and Gendered Public Participation in the Early American Republic.” Gender & History 19.2 (2007)
Jeffrey H. Richards, “Susanna and the Stage: or, Rowson Family Theater.” Studies in American Fiction 38.1 & 2 (Spring and Fall 2011)