Folger Shakespeare Library
Stage and Screen Education and Inspiration The American Identity



Boston's Working-Class Haymarket Theatre

Boston's Working-Class Haymarket Theatre
Heather S. Nathans, associate professor of theater, associate chair of theater department, associate director of the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora, University of Maryland

HEATHER NATHANS: In the working-class—quote unquote "working-class"—theater in Boston in the 1790s, there was a huge controversy over a production of King John. Which—I've never seen King John and I think I've barely read King John. So that there was a controversy in a working-class theater over the present-day political ramifications of a production of King John, suggests to me that you have at least 2,000 people in that theater who are able to see a production of Shakespeare, see its immediate relevance, and be active about it.

It's a little theater—well, not little, it's about 2,000 or 3,000 seats. It's called the Haymarket and it's actually started by a group of kind of disaffected mechanics, i.e., artisans, working-class people, who are tired of what they see as the sort of elite entertainments happening in the Federal Street Theatre, the first official theater that opens in Boston.

And so, when they are not allowed into the same social groups as those men, when they are not made to feel at home in that theater, they literally go and build their own. I mean, it's built by bricklayers. It's built by carpenters who all sort of buy stock and build their own theater and say "We can have a theater, too. We are able to set up our own social sphere if we are not welcome in yours."

They do produce Shakespeare and they bring in English companies. They compete to bring in companies that will produce the same entertainments that are happening in the elite theaters and actually you'll see sort of hopping back and forth—a play will go up one night in one theater and it'll come up two or three days later in the other theater. So they very clearly want what the elite have.