March 2, 1789 — Pennsylvania ended its ban on theatrical performances today, along with other forms of expensive entertainment. The prohibition began in 1774 when the Continental Congress passed it, fearing that the distraction of theater would lead to mischievous effects on the citizens of Pennsylvania.
Here’s the back story according to explorepahistory.com: “Applause was hard to come by in colonial Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania’s Quaker founders were no friends of the theater, or of bearbaiting and bullbaiting, cock fighting, equestrian performances and horse racing, tight-rope dancing, or the other amusements, whose ‘very mischievous effects’ as the Common Council had warned after the first recorded theatrical performance took place in Philadelphia in 1749, encouraged idleness and drew ‘great sums of money from weak and inconsiderate persons.’
“When Lewis Hallam’s Company arrived from London in 1754, distressed local citizens forced them to move outside Philadelphia on the other side of South Street, where they constructed Pennsylvania’s first theater. By 1760 Hallam’s troupe had won sufficient local favor to open the larger Southwark Theater at 4th and South Streets — again outside the city’s borders. The next year, the Privy Council in England struck down the Pennsylvania legislature’s attempt to ban all theater in the colony. No friend of distractions or extravagances, the first Continental Congress in 1774 banned all theatrical performances ‘and other expensive diversions and entertainments.'”
The prohibition remained in place until today.
Words of Wisdom
Too oft, we own, the stage with dangerous art
In wanton scenes, has play'd a Syren's part,
Yet if the Muse, unfaithful to her trust,
Has sometimes stray'd from what was pure and just;
Has she not oft, with awful virtue's rage.
Struck home at vice, and nobly trod the stage?
Then as you'd treat a favourite fair's mistake,
Pray spare her foibles for her virtues stake:
And whilst her chastest scenes are made appear,
(For none but such will find admittance here)
The muse's friends, we hope, will join the cause,
And crown our best endeavours with applause.
Image by Charles Willson Peale, courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: In 1771, Charles Willson Peale painted this portrait of actress Nancy Hallam, dressed in her costume as the boy Fidele in Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Hallam was a cousin of Lewis Hallam the younger, who in 1752 had brought the first theater company from England to the colonies. Based in New York, Hallam's company also performed in Philadelphia in the 1750s and 1760s.