An English stage couple trying to make a mark in early American theater in 1818 learned the hard way what a tough town Boston could be. They also learned that puritanical Hartford was even tougher.
George and Sarah Bartley, renowned in England, were among the first foreign stars to appear in early American theater. George Bartley, a comedian, played such roles as Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch. His wife, Sarah, a tragic actress, played in Romeo and Juliet opposite Edmund Kean and read for the Queen.
Then their stage careers foundered a bit by 1818. Sarah lost her leading role at Covent Garden, London’s leading theater. So the Bartleys sold their household possessions and came to America seeking fame and fortune. They would spend the next two years in the States, making New York City their base of operations.
Early American Theater
In December, 1818, the Bartleys boarded a stagecoach and headed toward Boston, where they had an engagement. They stopped for breakfast along the way at the principal hotel in Hartford.
William Warland Clapp, in his A record of the Boston stage, reported word spread quickly that the couple had arrived in the city. Before they’d finished their breakfast, the landlord told him that several gentlemen in the next room asked to speak with him. The gentlemen explained to Bartley that they had heard of his wife’s New York appearance, and they were “most anxious to witness her talents in Hartford.”
They explained then Hartford had no theater, but they did have a large room that they would fill if she agreed to give readings or recitations.
The news that Hartford had no theater should have given the Bartleys pause. Surely they would have heard of the Puritan closing of the English theaters in the 17th century, the persecution of actors and the official denunciation of them as rogues and vagabonds. Hartford, even in 1818, had a strong puritanical element.
The city was founded in 1636 by Puritan refugees from Massachusetts, utopians who thought the Massachusetts church too exclusionary. The Connecticut Puritans believed in high thinking and sober living, conformity and deference to authority.
They were more rigid than their counterparts to the north. Though books had been banned in Boston since 1651, Massachusetts legalized theater in the 1790s. Connecticut had no use for early American theater and banned it outright in 1800. That law remained on the books until 1952.
The Room Crowded to Excess
George Bartley agreed to let his wife perform on their return from Boston. On the fixed date, the Bartleys arrived and an eager audience crowded the room at Morgan’s Coffee House, according to James Hammond Trumbull in The memorial history of Hartford County, Connecticut, 1633-1884, Volume 1.
Sarah Bartley read from Milton and Shakespeare, and Clapp tells us “they were highly approved.” The Bartleys agreed to perform again in Hartford after their next Boston engagement.
No sooner was the announcement made, wrote Clapp, “than the rigid and puritanical part of the community set up an outcry against these repeated innovations.”
That would be Ebenezer Huntington, an ex-soldier who served as lieutenant colonel during the Revolutionary War.
Huntington had a reputation as the best disciplinarian of the revolution’s leaders. After the war, Gov. Samuel Huntington appointed him “a general” of Connecticut, and in that capacity he resolved to enforce the law against early American theater.
The Bartleys got a warm reception when they arrived in Hartford a second time. The hour of the performance approached, the audience crowded the room, and the Bartleys prepared to perform. At that moment a letter arrived from Huntington, telling the hotel landlord he would prosecute the Bartleys if they proceeded.
No one told the Bartleys.
Nothing happened during the performance, which went off with “great éclat,” Clapp tells us. The Bartleys took their bows and went to bed. Around midnight, Huntington’s men arrived with a warrant for the Bartleys.
Fortunately for the Bartleys, several theatergoers had stayed in the hotel and saw what was going on. They were indignant that Huntington’s men would attempt to arrest the couple – and that they would be so indelicate to try it when they were in bed. The Hartford gentlemen pledged $500 as bond for the couple.
The next day, the Bartleys couldn’t leave for Boston. A tremendous snowfall left the roads impassable. Asked to repeat their performance, they agreed, still unaware of the charges against them. Meanwhile, several lawyers took the case to court, arguing that Huntington had misinterpreted the law. A judge then decided in their favor.
The Bartleys found out what happened, and they delivered another successful performance.
Early American Theater Then Got Worse
But it went downhill from there. The Bartleys fared badly in Boston. They gave readings at Concert Hall and appeared in the theater, but didn’t succeed. Mrs. Bartley felt Americans didn’t appreciate her talents and told Mrs. Powell the country’s should change its standard to turkeys. Mrs. Powell replied that the British standard shouldn’t be a lion but an ass.
In New York, though, they were a smashing success. Their triumph on the stage allowed them to return to Britain. Sarah Bartley performed in the principal provincial theaters as a star of the first rank. And George lectured on astronomy and poetry, later working as stage manager of Covent Garden.
This story about early American theater was updated in 2023.