Dunlap's View of Vice in the Audience

William Dunlap's History of the American Theatre and Anecdotes of the Principal Actors is one of the best sources about morals and manners in the early Republic. Dunlap had an intense love of the theatre and an abhorence of vice. In this book and in a work that forms a sequeal, his biography of the British actor George Frederick Cooke, Dunlap manages to be both a moralist and a historian without letting either calling mar the other. He is not lurid; nor does he preach. We might wish for more detail, but no one else, as far as I know, dared to write about the whores who were so conspicuous in the box seats at theatres.

In his chapter "Cause of the Decline of the Drama, and Remedies proposed," which closes the first volume of his history, Dunlap argues for government support of theatres so that theatre managers will not have to carry on certain English and American traditions that gave theatre a reputation for evil. He writes: The evil we mean, and shall protest against, is that which arises from the English and American regulation of theatres, which allots a distinct portion of the proscenium to those unfortunate females who have been the victim of seduction.... [N]o separate place should be set apart, to present to the gaze of the matron and virgin the unabashed votaries of vice, and to tempt the yet unsullied youth, by the example of the false face which depravity assumes for the purpose of enticing to guilt. In the 1790s a new theatre was built in Boston. Dunlap regretted that "the Federal Street theatre provided a separate entrance for those who came for the express purpose of alluring to vice. The boxes displayed the same row of miserable victims, decked in smiles and borrowed finery, and the entrance could only, by its separation from those appropriated to the residue of the audience, become a screen inviting to secret guilt." (Dunlap's proposed solution was a rule "that no female should come to a theatre unattended by a protector of the other sex, except such whose standing in society is a passport to every place.")

His history doesn't give any specific examples, nor any sense of how the problem varied over the time span of his history which was written in the early 1830s. Dunlap does note that there was less immorality on stage by the 1830s: All Farquhar's comedies, whose dialogue for wit was unrivalled but by Shakspeare's, are laid on the shelf, or occasionally revived at a benefit, cut down to afterpieces. Colley Cibber's Careless Husband, pronounced by Pope the best comedy in the language, cannot be tolerated; and even Bishop Hoadley's Suspicious Husband exhibited licentiousness that we turn from as unfit for representation. The two comedies named were rarely played by the 1790s. Farguhar's The Beaux' Stratagem was played then but Dunlaps notes that in the 1830s "it cannot be tolerated."

by Bob Arnebeck

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