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



Religious Reactions to Theater

Religious Reactions to Theater
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: It's an aversion that is concentrated in those states, or those colonies, I should say, that are set up primarily along religious lines. So the first thing that happens in Pennsylvania, or one of the first things that William Penn does when he gets here in the 1680s, is to say "no theater." I mean there's no—there's nothing! So to say "no theater" seems a little paranoid.

The same thing happens with the Puritans in New England. They immediately say "no theater." And it's not that there was anybody trying to do theater here that early, they were just busy building houses and surviving, it's that they see that as part of the thing that has poisoned British society. And part of the reason that they left is this dissipation that they see in England and they want to ensure that the communities they create here won't have those same vices and evils even allowed anywhere near what they're imagining their world to be.

The Anglican community, which maintains very strong ties to England, absolutely wants to continue this connection to fashionable English society. They will advertise these performances by saying "Lately on the British Stage" or with costumes or scenery "Directly from London." So they are using the connection with Britain to draw in audiences. And Washington went to the theater, Jefferson went to the theater. You can go through their daybooks, or their account books, and see how often they're buying theater tickets.