The history of the U.S. is a story of immigrants. It only makes sense, then, that the tales that people stage — the dramas and comedies — have been deeply influenced by new arrivals. An exhibition at Houghton Library chronicles the fresh talent and innovation that each successive wave of newcomers brought to American theater.
“Treading the Borders: Immigration and the American Stage,” on display through Dec. 15, makes use of the extensive Harvard Theatre Collection to illustrate the influence of immigrants from this country’s earliest days. With materials ranging from the oldest extant American playbill (from a 1750 performance of “The Orphan”) through souvenirs of contemporary works like “Hamilton,” the exhibit examines the broad influence of ethnic groups and nationalities on theater, dance, opera, and other performing arts, even as immigration ebbed and flowed around prejudice, hardship, and restrictive laws through U.S. history.
“Anywhere there is an immigrant community large enough to sustain it, there’s a flowering of ethnic theater — theater in the language of the immigrant,” said Matthew Wittmann, curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection.
Even before this country was founded, Wittman and the show explain, newcomers were bringing their dramatic traditions into the mainstream. With “too many actors in Britain and not enough stages,” as Wittmann put it, English actors such as Walter Murray and Thomas Kean came to seek their fortunes, staging productions of Shakespeare for their colonial compatriots. Before long, however, that dominant British tradition was being changed and challenged by input from the French (via actor Alexandre Placide, for example, who settled in Charleston, S.C.) and others. By the early 1800s, European Jews, Irish, Italians, and — with the San Francisco Gold Rush of 1849 — Chinese immigrants were infusing their traditions and entertainment.