There is very little recorded history of either the American drama or theatre before the Revolutionary period. "Androboros," written by Governor Hunter in 1714, is the single notable exception. Certain it is that the sentiment of those rebellious times exercised a potent influence on the development of both theatre and drama. In the few years preceding the Revolution theatres sprang up rapidly in New York, Philadelphia, Annapolis and Newport, in open defiance of the religious opposition directed against the so-termed "profane stage plays" of that day.
During the tumultuous days preceding the Declaration of Independence, Lewis Hallam's English players, who had been presenting Shakespeare's plays with great success for the first time in this country, were forced to. migrate to the British West Indies, not to return for many years. One or two theatres were torn down by enraged republicans, and other playhouses were seized by the British, who formed companies of players from among their soldiers and officers. Major Andre, besides being an actor in these companies, painted scenes for New York and Philadelphia theatres, never dreaming that they would be used later in Manager Dunlap's great production of "Andre," as scene drops to depict the place where Andre himself had been captured as an English spy.
The drama of that period dealt largely with the subject of the Revolution, pro and con. William Dunlap was the famous American producer of those days, and his influence extended well into the nineteenth century. The first real American play was "The Contrast," a comedy conceived in 1787, based on the now well-worn comparison between the native-bred American and the American who has become an Anglomaniac. An innumerable number of Indian plays, glorifying the savage, also held the stage thereafter for many years, partly as a result of Edwin Forrest's realistic interpretation of the Indian in John Augustus Stone's "Metamora." After this period many tendencies were at work in our drama. With the coming of the Civil War, however, play acting again waned, and many theatres were closed. When the war was under way the theatre business again started and went through a period of extravagant farces, or burlesques, whose crudeness and indecency reflected the moral demoralization then rampant. After the war was ended a reactionary element arose against this abuse, and a second creative period was instituted under the superior management of the eminent Augustin Daly.
The greatest individual strides in American theatre construction have been effected through the personal endeavors of a single architect, Mr. J. B. McElfatrick, of New York City, who should be revered as the Father of American theatres. Thirty years ago theatres in this country were designed and constructed along the sames lines as their English prototypes. They had the same subdivision of the seating on the main floor: the American distinction between the parquet and parquet circles corresponding to the English separation into stalls and pit. They had the same lyre-shaped balcony, the same stage projection or apron, and the same extravagant and distracting ornamentation. Mr. McElfatrick, who had never visited Europe, changed all of this, and to him was intrusted the designing of most of the new American theatres of his day. He perfected the sight lines, arranged the seating to be continuous from front to back on the main floor, and made the balconies flatter and deeper. The useless projecting apron of the stage also disappeared in his design. Since the death of this genial old gentleman theatre designing has not substantially advanced in this country, except perhaps for a marked tendency toward simpler decoration. Theatres have multiplied in number, but they are all more or less replicas of the McElfatrick model.
Before the advent of Mr. McElfatrick there were fewer than ten theatres in the City of New York, and in other large cities throughout the country they numbered scarcely one to every 60,-000 inhabitants. There is today no spot in the world that can boast of so many so-called "first class" theatres in so small an area as that narrow belt in New York City that is termed "Broadway," and still the supply is inadequate to the demand. At the present writing there are more new plays clamoring for admittance and a hearing in New York than ever before in local histrionic history. The greatest impetus to theatre building throughout this country has come within a comparatively recent period. Today the proportion in many cities runs as high as one theatre to every 10,000 persons. Theatres with large auditoriums and great seating capacity were in universal demand a few years ago; now smaller and more intimate theatres are desired. Houses of great capacity are now being erected solely for popular priced variety theatres or picture houses This change from the large to the small theatre is no doubt due in a measure to the influence of the stage reform movement and the uniform success of comedies, farces and light dramas in small intimate theatres, as compared with the failure of similar plays in larger houses. This result has not failed to impress the mercenary theatrical manager.
Aside from its seating facilities, the American auditorium in its form and construction is superior to that of European countries, not excepting England, where the accommodations for comfortable seating are excellent. European theatres, including those of England, often seat from eight hundred to a thousand persons on the main floor in unbroken rows of thirty seats without dividing aisles. This is an inconvenience in time of danger that would not be tolerated by any building laws in this country. The seating superiority claimed for the English theatre lies entirely in its provision of space between the rows of chairs that permits patrons to reach interior seats without causing anyone to arise. The corrections now necessary to make the American auditorium superior to the auditorium of all other countries is an increase of only four inches in the dividing space between the rows of chairs and the substitution of comfortable low-backed chairs for the high-backed variety now in general use, which induces a slouchy and dangerous posture. Sitting with the pressure of one's whole weight on the same bone at the base of the spine interrupts the blood circulation of the lower extremities, and often produces fatal results. In addition to these needed changes in seating, the audience hall would present a more cosy appearance if surrounded at the rear and rear sides with a foyer behind inclosed boxes. This arrangement would limit the area to be supplied with sound and would also improve the promenade facilities between the acts.
The most recent development in theatre evolution is evidenced in the motion picture houses. of which there are now over 20,000 in the United States, representing an investment of nearly $500.-000,000. Their productions appeal to the visual sense, and the success of this silent drama has been so remarkable that it has exercised a potent influence over the construction of regulation theatres. One of these influences is the elimination of the top gallery, originally designed for the patronage of the poor. The merit and cheapness of moving picture entertainments have brought unprecedented success to its theatres and an average daily attendance of over ten million patrons, one in every ten persons in the total population of this country.