From music halls near Boston, Massachusetts to movie theaters near Portsmouth, New Hampshire, public performance in New England has a long history. The first public performance pieces in the area probably originated centuries ago amongst Native American tribes. The first Europeans to arrive in the area frowned on such displays, being Puritans. Despite the rich stories contained in the Bible which have since inspired a multitude of theatrical presentations, most of the Puritans rejected theater as a sinful display based on a lie. It was not until the dawn of the American Revolution that political satirists such as playwright Mercy Otis Warren began to find acceptance of their productions. Complaints from authorities continued, of course, because of the art form's fertile environment for the spread of dissent. The remnants of Puritan life echoed in the New England for decades and, even though diminishing, still stamped out a good deal of personal expression.
The theater finally started to gain footing at the dawn of the nineteenth century. In this primordial stage of New England theater, it was not uncommon for violent fights and arson to take place surrounding performances. W.H. Smith wrote "The Drunkard" in 1844 to great acclaim, which would carry on performances of the play for decades. The success of productions like "The Drunkard" established New England as a destination for performers and the number of available playhouses increased dramatically as a result. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as the modern cinema began to develop, regional film companies like Photoplay, Eastern Film and Pine Tree Pictures started up in the region.
New England in the first half of the twentieth century was where the cultural movement known as the "American Renaissance," called the "New England Renaissance" by some, took place. The expanding film market utilized New England's wealth of literature to build a catalog of American productions, basing films on the works of regional authors such as Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, was first produced on film by Kalem Pictures in 1909 and was remade in 1917, 1926, 1934 and most recently in 1995. Henry James, a later author, would echo Hawthorne's success on the big screen with over fourteen films made from his works, including The Innocents—based on his novella "The Turn of the Screw." Historians have observed in the work of both men a representation of the New England landscape. The look of New England has continued to be used by directors into the present, taking advantage of the contrasting landforms and seasonal weather.
New England motion pictures were also heavily influenced by the work of regional playwrights. The playwright from Connecticut Eugene O'Neill may be the most important name in the history of New England theater. The year 1940 saw the work of another theater luminary, playwright Thornton Wilder, move from the stage to the cinema with his "Our Town." The film used the town of Peterborough, New Hampshire as a shooting location which made perfect sense as it was the town that had inspired Wilder's play. Between these two men, the region was well represented on the big screen and the isolated small town life found there was clearly defined for posterity. Many plays and films featured the contrast between hazardous urban life with the simplistic life in small fishing villages, including 1915's The Old Homestead. The film was produced by Famous Players from Denman Thompson's long-running nineteenth-century play about Joshua Whitcomb, set between New Hampshire and New York City.
Theater continues to play an important role to this day because in many areas of rural New England the nearest movie theater may be the local opera house or museum and not a multiplex cinema. You may want to remember the long history the next time you take a seat in a New Hampshire movie theater and remark at our progress.