J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Secrets of the Federal Street Theatre

Today the Massachusetts Historical Society opens a new exhibit on the first public theater in Boston, a matter of great controversy back in 1794. The society’s Events webpage says:
“The First Seasons of the Federal Street Theatre, 1794-1798” documents the battle over the Federal Street Theatre through playbills from early performances as well as the letters and publications of supporters and opponents of public theater in Boston. The M.H.S. show is a satellite display of an exhibition titled “Forgotten Chapters of Boston’s Literary History” on display at the Boston Public Library.
The Federal Street Theatre exhibit will be on view through 30 July, and is free to people visiting on 10:00 to 4:00 on weekdays.

The first manager of that theater was John Steele Tyler, older brother of the playwright and jurist Royall Tyler. And his history is even slippier than his little brother’s. John Steele Tyler was a major early in the Revolutionary War, then a lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts forces during the Penobscot expedition. In 1780, he sailed to Europe with John Trumbull, another former American officer, who wanted to study painting.

Tyler and Trumbull were sharing rooms in London late that year when Benjamin Thompson, secretary to Secretary of State Lord George Germain (and slipperiest of all), ordered their arrest as suspected spies. Loyalist friends warned Tyler, and he slipped away to France while Trumbull went to jail. The next year, Tyler wrote to Germain saying that the French alliance had turned him against the American cause and that he’d defect to the Crown for £1,000.

That letter didn’t come to light until Lewis Einstein’s book Divided Loyalties in 1933, so Tyler was able to return to America in the 1780s with a solid reputation. Privately John Adams called him “a detestible Specimen” (for unknown reasons), but publicly Tyler was an upstanding veteran and businessman. Family tradition says he’d even undertaken spy missions for Gen. George Washington. And perhaps that’s what Tyler really was up to in London. But that family’s voluminous traditions are sometimes contradictory and self-serving.

In any event, Tyler’s outward respectability made him a good public face for the institution that broke Boston’s long-standing taboo against theater.

(The image of the Federal Street Theatre above comes from the Boston Public Library’s Flickr collection.)


Anonymous said...

Calling little brother Royall Tyler simply a "playwright and jurist", scarcely does justice to his long history as a serial lothario (and even that adjective's probably being overly kind to him!). Like many contemporary figures, he appears to be a man whose public accomplishments were only equalled by his private misdeeds.

J. L. Bell said...

Folks can check this post for all the sexual gossip I got about Royall Tyler.