Curious about theater in the early republic? Virtual Williamsburg, a website that provides 3-D tours of the city ca. 1776, has some gorgeous images of the Old Playhouse, also called the Douglass Theater. Built in 1760 by the manager of the London Company of Comedians, it sat on a corner southeast of the Colonial Capitol building.
Imagine what Thomas Jefferson and George Washington might have seen during their visits to the theater in 1772: cross-sections clearly indicate how gallery, pit, and box seating would have looked, as well as the rectangular stage.
Unlike the elaborately decorative theaters built a century later, the exterior is plain and unremarkable, just like that of the Richmond Theater (built in 1805).
Images of the illuminated stage are particularly delightful, and the spiked wall between gallery seating (which would have held non-whites) and the upper box seats is surprising and a little chilling (see below).
The attic winch (below), which lowered the chandelier onto the stage is a reminder of the risks inherent in theater performances of this era. Read The Richmond Theater Fire for more on how that fatal disaster began…with a tiny flame and a set piece chandelier.
Thank you to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for providing this insightful glimpse into a venue that Americans in Virginia’s early years enjoyed! (If you’re wondering how the Digital History Center creates such vivid images, read here.)
*all images from the Virtual Williamsburg Project