1790s Theater and its Attendant Whores

While we delight in taking the movies we watch seriously, historians have a curious way of glossing over what people watched on stage in the past and how they watched it. For elite society, plays were the thing. The Theatre at this season engages all tongues, so easy is it to talk about what all see, & few comprehend. Elihu H. Smith wrote in 1795. Theater reflects the sexual mores of the time in two ways: characters on stage became models for emulation or scorn, and the audience set the fashions of the day.

William Dunlap, son of a British army officer born in New Jersey, became a theatrical producer and playwright. He set out to raise the morals of the stage and the audience. Or to put it bluntly: he wanted to get the whores out of the box seats. He realized that a first step in the project was to find plays to replace the Restoration comedies that delighted audiences. For example, early in his presidency George and Martha Washington attended the theater with a group consisting of old war comrades and their wives, Baron Steuben unaccompanied. The play they saw was Garrick's comedy "Clandestine Marriage." Such is what the heroes of the late war were eager to see. When the federal government moved to Philadelphia one of the first plays the president saw there was Sheridan's "The School for Scandal." The next season Washington saw "The Beaux Stratagem," Farquhar's late Restoration comedy. He also saw "Every One Has His Fault," and modern comedies like "The Young Quaker, or the Fair Philadelphian" by O'Keefe, and "The Rage" and "The New Way to Get Married."

To effect his reform Dunlap began translating the Romantic dramas of Kotzbue and writing plays about heroic moments in American history, so that soon, as he watched Dunlap's Major Andre, George Washington could see himself on stage. While Dunlap never mastered the genre, the American stage moved from comedies of manner to sentimental melodramas. The audience too changed. There was no longer a place for overt displays of wanton intentions. The whores were out of place when sexual innuendo on stage became out of place. The whore and fop were out, the noble savage and damsel in distress were in. The comic load in theater, which the whore and the fop had long carried, was taken up by the bumpkin and the ethnic stereotype.

I am not suggesting that in the 1790s the whore and the fop had a place center stage in the life of elite society. The American elite fashioned their own versions. Before carrying the idea further let's be certain about what we mean by fop. A recent article on Restoration theater by Andrew Williams explains, the fop "delights" in the social attention that comes from being the focal point of dramatic speech or action. But while the dramatic characterization of the fop requires that his attempts to garner this social attention be comically inept and grounded in the ludicrous, the fop's ability to successfully monopolize and control the locus of attention within his social setting enables him to move from the periphery of the dramatic action and assume a key position within the social dynamics of the stage. (Williams, Andrew P. "The Centre of Attention: Theatricality and the Restoration Fop." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.3 (January, 1999): 5.1-22 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-3/willfop.html>.)

Translated into real life, that suggests that men whose being was not grounded in work, family and ambition, could assume a position of power. It is difficult to understand exactly what Abigail Adams meant when she wrote in 1799 I always despise the appelation womans man - to be a Gallant a man must have a little of the Fop. She wrote this in reply to gossip relayed to her by her nephew in Philadelphia who had attended an elite social function. That nephew, William Smith Shaw, with his penchant for gossip and the companionship of men, may very well have been one of those redefining the idea of the fop from an incompetent heterosexual into a fascinating homosexual.

Abigail Adams and her nephew did not discuss whores. That word, which was liberally bantied about the Restoration stage, did disappear from polite conversation in 1790s America. In stage directions the whore was often identified as a courtesan with decided decolletage. For all the cinematic efforts to capture the life and times of the Founders none, surprisingly, has explored the virtual nudity that became the hallmark of Directory fashions which also set the tone in Philadelphia. As James Flexner, the Washington biographer who suggests that the great man had an affair with Mrs. Samuel Powel, explains, the great ladies of the day had no desire to dress or behave for the Republic of Virtue. They favored British aristocratical ideas in the ways of society, and French fashion in the look of society.

In this thread, then I hope to explore the plays seen by the elite in the 1790s and their reactions to them. And, if possible, see if the characters of the days were in part molded by stage characters, or probably more likely, the sense of theater shaped the way men reacted to each other. In the context of L'Enfant's life, was he recognized and stigmatized as a character who, like the fop, was carving out a place of power to which he had no right? To return to an idea of Andrew Williams, the fop's command of social space threatens the more rakish and witty males, making them acutely aware of their own needs to control social space.

William Dunlap's morality campaign

1790s Fashion

Transformation of the Fop

Sexual Discourse in the Plays George Washington Saw

Beaux Stratagem

School for Scandal

Clandestine Marriage

by Bob Arnebeck