John Street Theater

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 Birthplace of American Theater

 By: Hannah Hammel and Anna Green

 This happened at: 15-21 John St., New York, NY 10038


John Street Theater was built in 1763 and was demolished in 1798. This wooden theater, with the dressing rooms and green rooms under the stage, is the birthplace of American theater. Some of the first true American plays, musicals, and operas were performed here. The Archers, a show based on the William Tell legend, is often considered the first American musical since it’s the earliest with a surviving score and libretto, had its first three-night run there.
The John Street Theater was a place to see and be seen. People would make their grand entrances to the theater, having their slaves save the seats for them. This tradition was started from a “play-bill dated January 19, 1768 [which said,] ‘Ladies will please to send their servants to keep their places, at four o’clock.’ From four until six and later, the front seats of the boxes were occupied by blacks of every age, waiting until their masters and mistresses made their appearance.”
Even Native Americans made their way to the John Street Theater. Nine Cherokee chiefs came to see a presentation of Richard the Third at the John Street Theater. In response to the show “the Cherokee chiefs and warriors, being desirous of making some return for the friendly reception and civilities they have received in this city, have offered to entertain the public with a war dance.” The bill that announced that reminded the public that “it is humbly assumed that no part of the audience will forget the proper decorum so essential to all public assemblies, particularly on this occasion, as the persons who have condescended to contribute to their entertainment are of rank and consequence in their own country.” The John Street Theater was a place for American theater to develop and a great expression of the conflicts in New York at the time.

Though the John Street Theater was significant in its time, several other performance spaces were integral in shaping New York City theater, beginning with The King's Arms coffee shop, which opened in 1696, and housed Manhattan's earliest theatrical performances. Increasing numbers of plays were staged throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, however, there was no permanent theater space until the Theater on Nassau Street was erected in 1750. Though the structure was a humble two stories, its interior included box seating, reserved exclusively for the city’s wealthy.
Like patrons of the John Street Theater, New Yorkers attended plays at the Theater on Nassau to be seen, and to show off their wealth. However, all the classes in New York attended theater, so there were several opposing theater cultures. There were, of course, the wealthy, who sat in boxes and saw the theater as an opportunity to flaunt. However, members of the working class and lower class were also in attendance. For them, the theater was an opportunity to socialize, heckle the actors by throwing fruits and nuts, and even have sex in the balconies. Prostitution was a common practice in eighteenth and nineteenth century theater-halls and was permitted by many theater owners. The nature of performances varied as well, and included plays, musicals, operas, dances, and even circus.