A Year: Day to Day Men: 27th of August, Solar Year 2018

Stretching to the Right

August 27, 1665 was the date of the first documented staging of a play in North America.

In 1665, the performance of a play was a crime, as was violating the Sabbath. Defaming the person or character of his/her majesty or their representatives in the colony was also a crime on the books.

The first documented staging of an English-language play in North America was presented on August 27, 1665 at Fowkes Tavern in Accomac County on the eastern shore of Virginia. After the first performance, the play, which has no credited playwright and was rumored to have been of a political nature, was closed by the local authorities for “showing forth profane”. Edward Martin, an Accomac County resident thought to be a Quaker, brought a complaint against the actors, resulting in all three actors in the performance arrested and charged.

The case was tried two weeks later in the very same room of the tavern where the performance occurred. To prove the charge of being profane, the presiding judge had the offending performers reenact the play before the court. The judge, apparently, found nothing especially offensive with the play and actually thought it “entertaining”. Consequently, the judge ruled the performers not guilty of the charges and freed them; he also ordered the critic Edward Martin to pay court costs for wasting the court’s attention in the first place.

The play in question was entitled “Ye Bear and Ye Cubb” , and was likely the invention of the three offending presenters: Cornelius Watkinson, Philip Howard, and William Darby. It took veiled aim at the mother country Britain’s punitive trade laws. Unfortunately, no copy of the play survives, only the public record that documents this curious little bit of very early American theatre history. This play remains the earliest known performance of a play in the British North American colonies and the first one to receive a very poor review.

Alongside Route 13 in Accomac, Virginia, lies a Virginia Historical Marker labeled “Marker # WY19” showing the probable site of Fowkes Tavern.

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