Friday, June 07, 2024 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

The earliest recorded performances of drama, dance, and opera in Charleston occurred during the late winter of 1735, when a group of thespians advertised a brief series of ticketed events at a familiar venue. Their stage was a multipurpose room within a tavern at the northeast corner of Broad and Church Streets, which South Carolina’s provincial government rented periodically for judicial proceedings. These “Court Room” events were not the first dramatic productions in the colony, but they formed an innovative prelude to the creation of Charleston’s first purpose-built theater.

Brief newspaper notices printed in Charleston nearly three centuries ago demonstrate that an anonymous collective of actors presented two plays and one opera for a total of six performances between late January and late March of 1735. No playbills, reviews, or personal memoirs survive from this brief period of activity, which scores of historians over the past century have described as some of the earliest theatrical efforts in colonial America. To help modern audiences re-imagine the sights and sounds of these poorly-documented performances, I’ve assembled a brief overview covering the historical context, the players, the venue, the repertory, the audience, and the impact of this activity on Charleston’s cultural evolution.


The Historical Context:

The landscape of urban Charleston, like other communities in the American colonies during the early eighteenth century, did not include a proper theater or any other public venue reserved for cultural performances. Despite this lack of specialized infrastructure, colonists gathered occasionally in private settings to perform drama, music, and dance for their own amusement and the entertainment of their friends and families. Information about such activity survives only in a small handful of anecdotes, but South Carolina’s cultural canvas expanded rapidly in the early 1730s during a new era of political stability.

King George II had in 1729 purchased the struggling colony from the neglectful Lords Proprietors of Carolina and commissioned Robert Johnson, deposed by a coup d’etat in 1719, to return to Charleston and establish a new political administration under royal authority. Johnson’s arrival here in December 1730 coincided with a wave of positive British publicity about the commercial prospects of royalized South Carolina. Hundreds of new settlers, rich and poor, streamed into South Carolina during the early 1730s to obtain generous grants for free land, to import larger numbers of enslaved Africans to transform the Lowcountry landscape into productive rice fields, and to profit from the expanding trans-Atlantic commerce flowing through the Port of Charleston.

The demographic and commercial expansion of South Carolina also triggered the emergence of new cultural activities. At some point in 1731, a collection of professional and amateur musicians launched a subscription concert series within the provincial Council Chamber—Governor Johnson’s office—at the east end of Broad Street. Details of that musical series, which the governor must have personally endorsed, appear among the earliest issues of the South Carolina Gazette, the colony’s first weekly newspaper, which commenced publication in January 1731/2.

Advertisements for ticketed concerts of vocal and instrumental music at the Council Chamber declined sharply in the autumn of 1734, however, when Robert Johnson became ill with an unidentified chronic malady. The fifty-eight year-old governor was likely the principal patron behind this exclusive concert series, and his protracted illness evidently curtailed its cultural vitality. Persons disappointed by the dearth of concerts during the winter of 1734–35 and hoping to expand the town’s cultural life brainstormed about various ways and means of achieving their goals. Their solution in Charleston, as in other communities in Britain and its American colonies, was to pursue a commercial path that appealed more directly and publicly to the town’s urban population. The driving force behind the sudden appearance of theatrical entertainment in the late winter of 1735 was a collection of individuals willing to take a financial risk.

Amateurs of drama, dance, and music in the eighteenth century routinely sated their cultural appetites by hosting private performances, in which their willingness to risk personal embarrassment was rewarded by the pleasure of participation and the amusement of friends and family. For example, an enigmatic woman tentatively identified as Mrs. Hutchinson, who chatted with Governor Johnson at various cultural events during the winter of 1732–33, informed her sister in London that Charlestonians hosted a variety of unadvertised cultural activities: “Besides balls, which on publick occasions, such as [royal] birth-nights, &c are given by the governor and others, we have plays and concerts, and well perform’d too.”[1]

Public exhibitions of the arts, in contrast, represent a form of cultural commerce in which entrepreneurs risk their collective assets and reputations to sell entertainment to strangers in the hopes of making a profit or at least breaking even. The brief burst of theatrical presentations in Charleston during the late winter of 1735 was fueled by the emergence of a group of individuals, largely unidentified, who recognized a potentially valuable opportunity. In their estimation, the community included a sufficient pool of talent and interest to warrant an attempt to present cultural activities on a scale heretofore unavailable in Charleston. Their efforts might seem slight by modern standards, but the modest productions of 1735 represent a significant turning point in the city’s cultural history.


The Players:

Extant newspaper notices for the dramatic performances of early 1735 do not identify any of the performers, but the anonymous cast was likely led by a young Englishman named Henry Holt. Known primarily as a dancer, Holt tread the boards at various London theaters from the spring of 1729 to the summer of 1734. Perhaps inspired by news of expanding fortunes in South Carolina, he sailed across the Atlantic to Charleston. In early November 1734, he described himself as “lately arrived in this province” and announced the opening of a dancing school within his rented rooms in Church Street.[2]

During the subsequent winter, Henry Holt evidently met a number of Charlestonians who embraced the opportunity to improve their dancing skills and enjoyed conversing about theatrical topics. Locals occasionally mounted amateur dramatic productions, as mentioned by the enigmatic Mrs. Hutchinson, but the community had heretofore lacked sufficient resources to expand such activity into the commercial realm. With Holt’s assistance, augmented by the support of local benefactors, an entrepreneurial team coalesced by the beginning of January 1734/5.

The anonymous band of theater buffs in Charleston at that moment likely included several amateurs drawn from the ranks of affluent ladies and gentlemen eager for convivial diversion. They were perhaps joined by several less affluent but culturally-savvy professionals such as teachers and musicians. It’s also possible that Henry Holt came to Charleston with one or more fellow actors from London, who quit the metropolis for a sojourn in the American colonies.


The Venue:

The theatrical space used in 1735 stood at the northeast corner of Broad and Church Streets, which formed the western edge of Lot No. 28 in the Grand Model of Charleston. Governor Joseph West obtained a grant for Lot No. 28 in the spring of 1682/3 and built some kind of residential or commercial structure at or very near the street corner. Four years later, in the summer of 1687, West sold the occupied western half of Lot No. 28, with the aforementioned “house,” to a Huguenot immigrant named Pierre (Peter) Burtell. Monsieur Burtell acquired a number of properties in urban Charleston during the final decade of the seventeenth century, including the site of the 1713 Powder Magazine in Cumberland Street, most of which he leased to generate rental income. Following his death at the turn of the eighteenth century, Burtell’s heirs leased the property at the northeast corner of Broad and Church Streets to a series of proprietors who operated a tavern or public house standing at the center of the “walled city” of Charleston.[3]

A vintner named Charles Shepheard took over the management of this prominent corner tavern in the spring of 1734 and continued operations for a dozen years.[4] Ownership of the premises changed hands in the spring of 1736, however, when the heirs of Peter Burtell sold it to Paul Jenys, a merchant, importer of African slaves, and Speaker of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly.[5] In his will, made in 1737, Jenys described the tavern at the northeast corner of Broad and Church Streets as a two-part structure, perhaps indicating a bifurcated tenement with separate entrances facing Broad Street. He identified its eastern half as a “mansion or dwelling house . . . wherein Mr. Charles Shepheard, vintner, now liveth,” and the western half, at the corner of Church Street, as a “mansion or dwelling house . . . commonly called the Court House.”[6]

South Carolina’s first purpose-built courthouse opened in the late 1750s, within the colony’s first proper state house at the northwest corner of Broad and Meeting Streets. Prior to that time, the provincial government convened its courts of civil and criminal law within various commercial venues rented from private parties. Periodic court proceedings took place in the corner tavern in question as early as 1721, and continued therein (with a few interruptions) for more than thirty years. Throughout Charles Shepheard’s twelve-year tenure as the proprietor of the corner tavern, he received annual compensation of £100 currency (approximately £14.5.0 sterling) from the South Carolina General Assembly for periodic use of the multipurpose courtroom.[7]

The “Court Room” of the 1730s was the performance venue specified in the theatrical advertisements of 1735. It occupied some portion of Charles Shepheard’s tavern complex, but no details of its physical character or dimensions survive from that era. Because it was distinct from both the tavern’s barroom on the ground floor and Mr. Shepheard’s residence above, the courtroom was probably located up a flight of stairs, and perhaps occupied the middle level of a three-story building. Several later deeds and plats of this property, created during the 1770s and 1780s, describe a single, large brick “mansion”—perhaps a duplex tenement—measuring more than forty-nine feet on the north side of Broad Street and approximately thirty-seven feet on the east side of Church Street. To visualize such an edifice, note that the three-story double tenement at 89–91 Church Street, a late-eighteenth-century structure known as “Cabbage Row,” occupies a nearly-identical footprint.

A 1787 plat of the old corner tavern also depicts an adjoining structure to the north, identified as a “long room” measuring approximately sixty-five feet along the east side of Church Street and twenty-five feet wide. This long room might have been synonymous with the “Court Room” of the 1730s, but it could also represent a later addition of unknown vintage. It is possible, therefore, that the courtroom used for dramatic performances in 1735 was simply the western half of the middle floor of the brick mansion facing Broad Street, a space measuring approximately twenty feet wide and approximately thirty feet deep.[8]

This multipurpose space, regardless of its precise dimensions, probably did not include a permanent stage on which a judge’s bench or actors might have stood. To elevate the players slightly, however, the thespians of 1735 might have built a modular dais that could be removed at the end of each performance. Similarly, there were no dedicated dressing rooms, green room, or backstage area, although an adjacent room on the same floor might have served as general-purpose workspace. The production team likely suspended several painted backdrops or scrims behind the actors, and likewise might have built rudimentary wings on each side of the stage area to facilitate the entrance and exit of various actors.


The Repertory:

The first advertisement for a theatrical production in Charleston appeared in the South Carolina Gazette on 18 January 1734/5, announcing that “on Friday the 24th inst[ant]. in the Court-room will be attempted a TRAGEDY, called The Orphan, or The Unhappy Mariage [sic].”[9] Thomas Otway’s five-act, neo-Classical tragedy in blank verse, The Orphan, was first produced in London in 1680 and was still popular a half-century later. Its cast features ten characters, including three women and one page boy—a role frequently performed by a young lady in England. The story, set in the distant land of Bohemia, concerns the intrigues of a domestic love triangle, in which all three of the principal characters die in the climactic final scene. Dialogue rather than action dominates the play, which includes six scenes that transpire in three contrasting sets—a garden, a “saloon,” and a “chamber.”[10]

Due to popular demand or simply a lack of alternate material, Charleston’s nascent theatrical troupe repeated The Orphan at the Court Room on January 28th and again on February 4th. The third performance included the addition of a comic afterpiece, described in the newspaper as “a new pantomimic entertainment in grotesque characters, called, The Adventures of Harlequin and Scaramouch, with the burgo-master trick’d.”[11] This dance piece reflected English fascination with the Italian commedia dell’arte genre, and included a number of ensemble parts for actors flitting around the principal pair like a choreographed chorus. It was almost certainly a vehicle for Henry Holt, who had participated in London productions of the same piece one year earlier.[12]

Charlestonians returned to the Court Room on the evening February 18th to witness the presentation of a three-part bill. The main piece was a 1729 English opera titled Flora; Or, Hob in the Well. In contrast to the continuous singing heard in Italian opera, which was a very new phenomenon in London during the first quarter of the eighteenth century, English operas of that era like Flora include spoken dialogue interspersed with songs cobbled together from pre-existing popular and traditional tunes matched with new lyrics. The first opera performed in Charleston, and the first in North America, was the short comic tale of an affluent young couple, Flora and Mr. Friendly, who, despite several obstacles, desired to marry. Friendly employs a country bumpkin named Hob to deliver a secret letter inviting Flora to elope, but Sir Thomas Testy, Flora’s cruel guardian, intercepts the letter and throws Hob down a garden well. In the time span of two brief acts, Hob is rescued, the cruel Sir Thomas is defeated, and Flora and Friendly are happily united.[13]

Immediately after that that merry conclusion, Henry Holt’s troupe presented two pantomime afterpieces. First, they staged a piece of choreography called “the Dance of the two Pierrots,” then repeated The Adventures of Harlequin & Scaramouch.[14] No details survive of the story line or action featured in these works, but they undoubtedly continued the comic spirit of the evening and entertained the provincial audience with a mix of professional and amateur stage dancing.

Finally, on March 25th, Charleston’s small band of actors presented another serious work of Restoration-era drama from the late seventeenth century. John Dryden’s 1681 tragicomedy, The Spanish Fryar; Or, The Double Discovery, reflects the political and religious biases of that era. The plot line, which alludes to the restoration of Charles II to the English throne, follows the struggles of a conservative young man to regain his noble station in the face of obstructions manifest by liberal Dissenters and corrupt Catholics. Set in courtly Spain, the cast of eleven characters includes three female roles and one comic foil, the eponymous friar called Father Dominic. Charleston’s brief theatrical season of 1735 concluded on the evening of March 27th with a repetition of The Spanish Fryar at the Court Room, presented as a benefit or bonus gratuity for the unidentified actor who had portrayed Monimia, the principal female role in The Orphan.[15]

The six Charleston performances of 1735, like those in contemporary England and elsewhere, probably included selections of vocal or instrumental music between the acts and scenes to distract the audience while actors shifted their costumes and scenery. The town hosted a small coterie of professional musicians at the time who collaborated with local amateurs to present the aforementioned concerts series at the Council Chamber. The band assembled for the production of Flora in 1735 likely included just a handful of instruments. The pastiche score of pop and trad tunes required one or more melody instruments, like violins and flutes, one or more bass instruments (almost certainly a bass viol rather than a cello or double bass or bassoon), and a spinet (a compact version of a harpsichord) to fill the midrange of the sonic palette. All of these instruments were present in Charleston at the time, and the compact size of the band suited the physical limitations of their temporary performance space.[16]


The Audience:

Details relating to the character and size of the audience who witnessed these theatrical presentations are now lost, but we can use contemporary clues to construct a hypothetical scenario. According to several advertisements published at that time, individual tickets for each of the theatrical presentations cost forty shillings in South Carolina currency (equivalent to slightly less than six shillings sterling). To give you an idea of the value of that sum, consider that Captain George Anson, who was in Charleston at that time commanding His Majesty’s Ship Squirrel, earned six shilling sterling per day from the Royal Navy.[17] He was certainly not the wealthiest man in town at that moment, but his annual income was higher than that of common laborers, shopkeepers, and the humblest men and women practicing various skilled trades. The target audience for these performances, therefore, was a relatively narrow segment of the colony’s urban population, embracing the upper-middle class of merchants, skilled professionals, civil servants, and planters, accompanied by their wives, mothers, and perhaps their marriageable daughters.

The population of Charleston at that moment was between three and four thousand people, at least half of whom were enslaved and therefore not eligible to purchase tickets for themselves.[18] The remaining free white population included a significant number of children and teenagers, leaving a potential audience of approximately five hundred adult men and women. If we figure that perhaps one in ten white adults in the colonial capital of South Carolina possessed sufficient income and interest to purchase a ticket, we can estimate that the courtroom audience in 1735 might have numbered around fifty people for each performance, or perhaps a bit higher.

The multipurpose performance space of 1735 probably did not include fixed seating of any kind. Individual chairs for each guest would have been both expensive and difficult to store when the room was cleared for dancing. As in provincial courtrooms, assembly rooms, and playhouses throughout Britain and its American colonies, the audience almost certainly occupied rows of long wooden benches that could be moved to the periphery of the room at the end of the performance. Try to imagine, therefore, a cluster of ten, twelve, or fourteen benches, each seating five or six people, arranged in two neat ranks with an aisle down the middle.

To this mental picture we can confidently add a small but unquantifiable number of enslaved people who undoubtedly attended in various capacities. House servants, for example, working for Mr. Shepheard or accompanying the performers, likely acted as ushers and maintained the numerous candles used to illuminate the actors. Perhaps they fetched beverages for thirsty spectators from the barroom downstairs, and perhaps they also emptied chamber pots filled by members of the audience during the show. From the shadows of the rudimentary “backstage” area, they likely moved scenery and props between the acts and helped the actors with their costumes and other personal needs. No details of their presence survive from the theatrical season of 1735, but, in a community predicated on the ubiquitous use of unfree labor, it is difficult to imagine any sort of cultural endeavor in early Charleston that did not include the participation of enslaved people of African descent.


The Impact:

No records survive to demonstrate whether Charleston’s first theatrical season produced enough revenue to offset the production costs, but the results evidently convinced Henry Holt and local investors that the community harbored sufficient interest in the dramatic arts to warrant the creation of a proper theater. Construction of the “New Theatre in Dock Street,” as it was initially called, commenced during the late autumn of 1735, and the building opened to the public in February 1735/6. We’ll explore the history of that landmark edifice in a future program.

The courtroom at the northeast corner of Broad and Church Streets ceased to host judicial proceedings in the late 1750s, but the multipurpose space continued to be used for dancing assemblies, parties, and other cultural events. The celebrated tavern managed by Charles Shepheard in the 1730s passed through the hands of several later proprietors before it burned to the ground in a large neighborhood fire on 13 June 1796.[19] A subsequent three-story brick structure at the site, occupying a slightly smaller footprint, operated as a grocery store below and residential rooms above from the turn of the nineteenth century into the early twentieth century. That building was demolished in July 1928 to make room for the present bank building, which opened in late June 1929.[20]

Performance venues and audiences in Charleston grew larger over the generations following the debut events of 1735, transforming the city into a major hub for American theater both before and after the American Revolution. Following the cultural devastation of the Civil War, poverty and the region’s relatively small population limited the growth of the dramatic arts during the twentieth century. Actors and musicians continue to enliven the city’s cultural life in the twenty-first century, but few would now describe Charleston as a major player in the theatrical world. Three centuries ago, however, the Palmetto City was quite literally the frontier of English-language theater in America.




[1] J. H., The Private Character of Admiral Anson (London: J. Oldcastle, [1747]), 14; John Barrow, in The Life of George Lord Anson (London: John Murray, 1839), 13, identified “J. H.” as “Mrs. Hutchinson,” but offered no explanation of the clues leading to this conclusion. That unconfirmed attribution has been repeated by numerous subsequent writers.

[2] See Holt’s introductory advertisement in South Carolina Gazette (hereafter SCG), 2–9 November 1734, page 3. For a useful biographical overview of Holt, see Julia Curtis, “A Note on Henry Holt,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 79 (January 1978): 1–5. Additional details of his London career can be found in the London Stage Database, hosted by the University of Oregon.

[3] The property’s chain-of-title is recited in deeds of lease-and-release dated 22–23 March 1735/6 from Ralph Izard and Magdalaine Elizabeth, his wife (one of the granddaughters of Peter Burtell), and Nathaniel Broughton and Charlotta Henrietta, his wife (another granddaughter of Peter Burtell), and Paul Mazyck and Catharina, his wife (great-granddaughter of Peter Burtell), to Paul Jenys, recorded in Charleston County Register of Deeds, volume Q: 146–52.

[4] SCG, 23 February–2 March 1733/4, page 3: “The Court House lately Mr. Gignilliat’s will be open’d on Wednesday the 6th of this Inst. March, where Gentlemen may be accommodated with good Entertainment and Lodging by their Humble Servant Charles Shepheard.”

[5] A brief biographical overview of Paul Jenys appears in Walter B. Edgar and N. Louise Bailey, eds., Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives, volume 2 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977), 2: 367–68.

[6] South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Will Book 1736–1740, page 359; transcribed in WPA volume 4: 178–81, available in the South Carolina History Room at the Charleston County Public Library.

[7] Evidence of Shepheard’s annual payments can be found among published journals of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, 1735–1746.

[8] The best of the several plats of this property recorded between 1771 and 1787 is annexed to a conveyance from John Webb et al. to Miss Martha Cannon, dated 1 August 1787, recorded in Charleston County Register of Deeds volume A6: 116–21. For more information about performance venues in early Charleston, see Nicholas Michael Butler, Votaries of Apollo: The St. Cecilia Society and the Patronage of Concert Music in Charleston, South Carolina, 1766–1820 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 113–49.

[9] SCG, 11–18 January 1734/5, page 4.

[10] The Gazette later printed a “Prologue spoken to the Orphan, upon it’s [sic] being play’d at Charlestown, on Tuesday the 24th of Jan. 1734-5,” a different prologue spoken before the performance of February 4th, and an epilogue to The Orphan spoken after an unspecified performance; see SCG, 1–8 February 1734/5, pages 1–2, 2–3; SCG, 15–22 February 1734/5, page 3.

[11] SCG, 18–25 January 1734/35, page 3; SCG, 25 January–1 February 1734/35, page 3.

[12] According to the London Stage Database, the pantomimic Adventures of Harlequin and Scaramouch, with the Burgomaster Trick’d was first performed at the Haymarket Theatre on 12 January 1733/4, as an afterpiece following an afterpiece. Henry Holt danced in that piece for the first time on 29 January 1733/4.

[13] The authorship of Flora is convoluted, like that of many English “ballad operas” of the early eighteenth century. Colley Cibber might have organized its pastiche production, but John Hippisley is known to have arranged the music from pre-existing tunes and may have been the principal architect of Flora.

[14] SCG, 8–15 February 1734/5, page 3.

[15] SCG, 15–22 March 1734/5, page 3.

[16] For a more detailed discussion of music and musicians in eighteenth-century Charleston, see Butler, Votaries of Apollo.

[17] Great Britain, Privy Council, Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea (London: s.p., 1731), 142. Six shillings a day was the standard wage for all captains of sixth-rate warships like the Squirrel.

[18] In September 1732, Governor Robert Johnson reported that the population of Charleston was “about 3000 souls in all the town,” but the number was steadily increasing due to favorable economic conditions at that time; see Robert Johnson to the British Board of Trade, 28 September 1732, in CO 5/364, folios 146–50, at the National Archives, Kew. A 1742 report of the enslaved population of urban Charleston counted 2,447 individuals, which suggests a total urban population of approximately 5,000 people; see J. H. Easterby, ed., The Colonial Records of South Carolina: The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, May 18, 1741–July 10, 1742 (Columbia: State Commercial Printing Company for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1953), 460 (3 March 1741/2).

[19] [Charleston, S.C.] City Gazette, 15 June 1796, page 3.

[20] Charleston Evening Post, 6 July 1928, page 2, “Old Building Being Razed”; Charleston News and Courier, 30 June 1929, page 2, “Bank Dedicates Its New Building.”


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