Drama, Vaudeville, and the Morality Play in America
rama has always played an interesting role in the cultural life of America, and drama native to America antedates the novel and the short story, but has practically no history until the latter half of the eighteenth century. Acting drama was seriously curtailed with the onset of the Revolutionary War when the Continental Congress convened and passed a recommendation that the colonists “discountenance and discourage all horse racing and all kinds of gaming, cock fighting, exhibitions of shows, play and other expensive diversions and entertainments.” The wishes of Congress were generally respected and the staging of plays all but ceased in the colonies.
With the coming of peace, the feeling against plays began to lessen, but it wasn’t until 1787 that the American theatre began to flourish. Philadelphia and New York City became the twin hubs of the theatre, vying for supremacy up through the period of the Civil War when other forms of entertainment began to emerge on the American dramatic landscape.
Of course, as early as the first decades of the nineteenth century, theatre goers could enjoy a performance of Shakespeare, acrobats, singers, presentations of dance, and comedy all in the same evening. As the years progressed, seekers of diversified amusements found an increasing number to choose from. A handful of circuses regularly toured the country; dime-museums appealed to the curious; and amusement parks, riverboats, and morality plays were also popular.
The morality play had been around almost as long as drama itself, using allegory to dramatize the moral struggle that plagues every man. Morality plays were usually short, their serious themes tempered by elements of farce.
American morality plays of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took their place in the realm of mass entertainment alongside dance, comedy, and the circus. The plays often spoke to women, possessing such titles as “Discarded Wives.” (“A tragedy of a wife discarded for a younger woman… it is a question every woman must consider.”)
American popular entertainment was captured on the printing presses in Continental, Ohio. When the print shop ceases to be, America will lose an important link to its past.