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Theater* in the United States

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Theater of the United States is based in the Western tradition, mostly borrowed from the performance styles prevalent in Europe. Today, it is heavily interlaced with American literature, film, television, and music, and it is not uncommon for a single story to appear in all forms. Musical theater may be the most popular form: it is certainly the most colorful, and choreographed motions pioneered on stage have found their way onto movie and television screens. Broadway in New York City is generally considered the pinnacle of commercial U.S. theater, though this art form appears all across the country. Another city of particular note is Chicago, which boasts the most diverse and dynamic theater scene in the country. Regional or resident theatres in the United States are professional theatre companies outside of New York City that produce their own seasons. There is also community theatre and showcase theatre (performing arts group).


The birth of this professional theater in America is usually thought to have begun with the Lewis Hallam troupe which arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1752. A theater was built in Williamsburg in 1715, and in January 1736, the original Dock Street Theatre was opened in Charles Town, SC.

Throughout the 18th century there was widespread opposition to theatrical performances. In the puritanical climate of the time, especially in the North, the theater was considered a "highway to hell". Laws forbidding the performance of plays were passed in Massachusetts in 1750, in Pennsylvania in 1759, and in Rhode Island in 1761, and it was banned in most states during the American Revolutionary War at the urging of the Continental Congress

In the early 19th century, theater became more common in the United States, and many celebrity actors from Europe toured the United States. There were even a few famous American actors, such as Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman.

The Walnut Street Theatre (or simply The Walnut) is the oldest continuously-operating theater in America, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 825 Walnut Street. The Walnut was built by The Circus of Pepin and Breschard, in 1809.

Most cities only had a single theater. Productions were much more rudimentary then, and sometimes plays would be staged in barns or dining rooms when no theater was available. Provincial theaters frequently lacked heat and even minimal props and scenery.

William Shakespeare was the most commonly performed playwright, along with other European authors. American playwrights of the period existed, but are mostly forgotten now. American plays of the period are mostly melodramas, often weaving in local themes or characters such as the heroic but ill-fated Indian. The most enduring melodrama of this period is Uncle Tom's Cabin, adapted by H. J. Conway from the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

A popular form of theater during this time was the minstrel show, arguably the first uniquely American style of performance. These shows featured white actors dressed in blackface and playing up racial stereotypes. These shows became the most watched theatrical form of the era.

Throughout the 19th century, many preachers continued to warn against attending plays as being sinful. Theater was associated with hedonism and even violence, and actors especially female actors, were looked upon as little better than prostitutes. The Astor Place Riot of 1849 in New York was sparked by this rivalry, and brought about the deaths of 22 people. Then, at the end of the United States Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theater while watching a play.

Burlesque became a popular form of entertainment in the middle of the 19th century. Originally a form of farce in which females in male roles mocked the politics and culture of the day, burlesque was condemned by opinion makers for its sexuality and outspokenness. The form was hounded off the "legitimate stage" and found itself relegated to saloons and barrooms. The female producers were replaced by their male counterparts, who toned down the politics and played up the sexuality, until the shows eventually became little more than pretty girls in skimpy clothing singing songs, while male comedians told raunchy jokes.

By the 1880s theaters on Broadway in New York City, and along 42nd Street, took on a flavor of their own, giving rise to new stage forms such as the Broadway musical (strongly influenced by the feelings of immigrants coming to New York with great hope and ambition, many of whom went into the theater). New York became the organizing center for theater throughout the U.S.

In 1896, Charles Frohman, Al Hayman, Abe Erlanger, Mark Klaw, Samuel F. Nixon, and Fred Zimmerman formed the Theatrical Syndicate. Their organization established systemized booking networks throughout the United States and created a monopoly that controlled every aspect of contracts and bookings until the late 1910s when the Shubert brothers broke their stranglehold on the industry.

Vaudeville was common in the late 19th and early 20th century, and is notable for heavily influencing early film, radio, and television productions in the country.

In the late 1990s and 2000s, American theatre began to borrow from cinematic and operatic roots. For instance, Julie Taymor, director of The Lion King directed Die Zauberflote at the Metropolitan Opera. Also, Broadway musicals were developed around Disney's Mary Poppins, Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, and the one that started it all, Beauty and the Beast, which may have contributed to Times Square's revitalization in the 1990s. Also, Mel Brooks's The Producers and Young Frankenstein are based on his hit films.

American theater today

Earlier styles of theater such as minstrel shows and Vaudeville acts have disappeared from the landscape, but theater remains a popular American art form. Broadway productions still entertain millions of theatergoers as productions have become more elaborate and expensive. At the same time, theater has also served as a platform for expression, and a venue for identity exploration for under-represented, minority communities, who have formed their own companies and created their own genres of works, notably East West Players, founded in 1965 as the first Asian American theatre group. Notable contemporary American playwrights include Edward Albee, August Wilson, Tony Kushner, David Henry Hwang, and Wendy Wasserstein. Smaller urban theaters have stayed a source of innovation, and regional theaters remain an important part of theater life. Drama is also taught in high schools and colleges, which was not done in previous eras, and many become interested in theater through this.

* the word is spelled in the American manner

Words to help

pinnacle – кульминация, апофеоз

showcase – смотр, показательное выступление

to ban – запретить

a prop – опора, подставка

minstrel - менестрель

hedonism – гедонизм (направление в этике, прославляющее стремление к удовольствию, наслаждению всеми возможными благами)

raunchy – пошловатый

Task 1

Give definitions to the underlined words in English

Task 2

Complete the test

  1. Which form of theatre performance is considered to be the most popular and colourful one?

    1. drama

    2. farce

    3. musical

    4. comedy

  2. What name is associated with the beginning of American theatre history?

    1. Abraham Lincoln

    2. Lewis Hallum

    3. Harriet Beecher Stowe

    4. Marry Poppins

  3. Whose plays were put on the stage mostly?

    1. William Shakespeare’s

    2. Lewis Hallum’s

    3. Fred Zimmermann’s

    4. Ostrovskiy’s

  4. Who was against theatres considering the art sinful?

    1. Politicians

    2. Republicans

    3. People

    4. Puritans

  5. What was formed in 1896?

    1. The Theatrical Syndicate

    2. Broadway Musicals Association

    3. Chicago Saloon Fund

    4. Metropolitan Opera Union

  6. Were Broadway musicals ever developed around Disney’s works?

    1. Yes, they were

    2. No, they were not

  7. What helps to interest people in theatre according to the text?

    1. Bare sexuality of cabaret musical

    2. Drama colleges and schools

    3. Cheap tickets

    4. Seriousness and deep philosophical ideas


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