Monday, March 2, 2020

Theater Prohibition

Blogger: Amber Schamel
Most of us are very familiar with the chapter of United States history known as Prohibition. However, there was a prohibition of something other than alcohol back in the early days of our nation.

Believe it or not, Theater, as well as other forms of expensive entertainment, was banned in certain parts of the colonies during the late 1700's. Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Massachusetts had formal laws banning the practice for more than ten years. Why? This goes back to a religious debate in post-revolution America.

“...why ain’t cards and dice the devil’s device, and the play-house the shop where the devil hangs out the vanities of the world upon the tenter-hooks of temptation?” 
~Excerpt from The Contrast play (1787) by Royall Tyler

Painting of the first theater in America - Williamsburg, VA
(Public Domain)

Theater was popular in England, especially in London; however in the Colonies the influence of the Awakening caused many to question the morality of the art.
The first to introduce theater to the Colonies was a duo of brothers from England, William and Lewis Hallam. In 1752, they brought a repertoire of European plays to Williamsburg. However they encountered strong religious opposition, and ended up closing the venture. 
"to indulge a taste for playgoing means nothing more or less than the loss of that most valuable treasure: the immortal soul." ~Timothy Dwight IV in his Essay on Stage

Whether for or against Theater, both sides appealed to the morality of the art. Some that argued in favor of the theater insisted that the United States was a moral nation, and like moral nations that had gone before, it deserved the right to express itself through art...independent from England and its plays. Those opposed argued that the decline of morality in the nation would only be accelerated by immoral plays.

Playbill from 1778

"The debate over theatre focused on the imagined power of theatre as an institution, rather than on the ability of certain plays to corrupt or uplift. Additionally, the debate did not divide between any social classes or political groups, showing that although economic and political events influenced the nature of the discussions, it was an ideological contest that transcended class, race, gender, and political boundaries. It was about the role government should take in shaping society’s amusements, and about what should be considered advantageous and detrimental to society."
~Meredith Bartron, Gettysburg College

The Continental Congress initially sided against the theater, and influenced several of the states to ban such entertainments: Massachusetts in 1750, Pennsylvania in 1759, and Rhode Island in 1761.

These laws were not repealed until 1789-1793, and history is unclear on the basis for the repeals. Judging by the petitions, pamphlets and newspaper articles arguing for or against theater during the Revolutionary era, the main arguments were morally based. However some historians think that the repeal of the laws was an economical decision.

Whether or not the government should censor public entertainment is still an issue today, but thankfully, it has not resulted in a complete ban of such arts as plays, movies or literature. 


Amber Schamel is the author of Dawn of Liberty, and the two-time winner of the Christian Indie Award for historical fiction. She writes riveting stories that bring HIStory to life. Her passions for travel, history, books and her Savior results in what her readers call "historical fiction at its finest".  She lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado as a very happy newlywed. Amber is a proud member of the American Christian Fiction Writers Association. Visit her online at and download a FREE story by subscribing to her Newsletter!

1 comment: