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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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A Continental Attack Brings the Curtain Down

After several days of having nothing to report in his diary, Boston selectman Timothy Newell recorded an unusual skirmish on 8 Jan 1776:

Monday at half past 8 P.M. being dark weather the Provincials attacked Charlestown, burnt the houses, remaining at Neck of land, carried off a serjent and a number of Men. . . Just as the farce began at the Playhouse of the Blockade of Boston—which with much fainting, fright, and confusion, prevented the scene.
When I first read about Continental troops timing an attack on British lines to disrupt the performance of a play in Boston, I feared the story was too good to be true. It seemed to feed right into America’s stereotypical, crowd-pleasing picture of the Revolutionary War: clever Yankees, decadent and flat-footed British. And even if an American attack did disrupt a play, was that any more than coincidence? We humans like to believe that our actions have desirable effects and that events don’t just occur by happenstance.

But when I looked into the story, I discovered that not only is it well documented, but its details really do fit that crowd-pleasing scenario. British officers under the lead of Gen. John Burgoyne (pictured above), who was already established as a playwright, took over Fanueil Hall and turned that site of defiant town meetings into a theater. Since Boston outlawed all theatricals down the Punch and Judy shows, the new “playhouse” was clearly a dig at local sensibilities. Furthermore, Burgoyne wrote a farce he titled The Blockade of Boston to lampoon the American rebels, and an item in the 21 Dec 1775 New-England Chronicle confirms that word of that play had gotten out to the American lines.

As for the night of 8 January, Lt. William Feilding described it in a letter to the sixth Earl of Denbeigh dated 19 Jan 1776:
Some Ladies and Officers for diversion, and for the Benefit of the sick and mamed Soldiers in this Army, have Acted Plays; and Faneuil Hall (a famous place where the sons of sedition used to meet) is fitted up very Elegantly for a Theatre.

And on Monday the Eighth Instant was perform’d The Busy Body [a 1709 farce by Susanna Centlivre]: A new farce call’d The Blockade of Boston (written by Genl. Burgoyne) was to have been introduc’d, but unfortunately as the Curtain drew up to begin the Entertainment, an Orderly Sergeant came on the Stage, and said the Alarm Guns were fired which Immediately put every body to the Rout, particularly the Officers, who made the best of their way to their Respective Corps and Alarm Posts, leaving the Ladies in the House in a most Terible Dilema.

This Alarm was as follows, between 8 & 9 oClock at night, and Very dark about thirty Rebels Cross’d the Mill bridge near Charles Town Neck and set fire to some Empty House and took a Sargeant and three men which lay in one of them not as a Guard but as a Convenience as they belong’d to the Deputy Quar Master General. Upon which the Troops in the Redoubts on the Heights fired very Briskly for a few minutes some small Arms & Cannon at the fire; but as Enemy’s number was so small and Retreated immediately as soon as they had set fire to the Houses, they escap’d without the loss of a man. This Alarm was so trifling that it displeased the General much, but on the other hand he was much pleased to see the Elertness of the men.
Burgoyne sailed away from Boston before the delayed premiere of his farce; according to Lt. John Barker, he had already postponed his departure once in hopes of seeing the play go up. Feilding reported the eventual performances in a letter on 28 January:
The Blockade of Boston has been perform’d twice, and Receivd (tho Short) with great Applause. The Characters of the Yankee General and Figure of his Soldiers is inimatable, the Genl: a man who can’t Read but can Speachifie, and tell his Soldiers they are to obey the Voice of the People in the streets, the Joy the Rebells are in, in reading the Resolves of the Mayor and City of London in favor of the Con-ti-nen-tal Congress in Phi-li-del-phi-a pa-per is truly Characteristick.
Lt. Feilding’s letters appear in The Lost War: Letters from British Officers during the American Revolution, edited by Marion Balderston and David Syrett.

The Boston News-Letter, the only newspaper still published in town and strongly supporting the military government, tried to minimize the event in its 11 January issue:
On Monday was presented at the Theatre at Faneuil Hall, the Comedy of the Busy Body, which was received with great applause. . . .

A new Farce called the Blockade of Boston was to have been presented the same evening, but was interrupted by a Sergeant’s representing, or rather misrepresenting, the burning of two or three old houses at Charlestown as a general attack on the town of Boston. But it is very evident, the Rebels possess a sufficiency of what Falstaff terms the better part of valor, to prevent their making an attempt that must inevitably end in their own destruction.

As soon as these parts in the Boston Blockade which are vacant by some Gentlemen being ordered to Charles Town can be filled up, that Farce will be performed with the Tragedy of Tamerlane [probably the 1702 play by Nicholas Rowe].
Peter Force’s American Archives reprinted a letter “from a Gentleman at Boston to his Friend in Edinburgh” dated 29 January that offers another look at the alarm:
The rebels have been very quiet ever since I arrived. They gave a small alarm about a fortnight ago, which occasioned a little confusion, but was soon over. The officers have fitted up a play-house, and some of them had wrote a farce, called the Blockade of Boston. The first night it was to be acted the house was very full. The play being over, the curtain was hauled up for the entertainment to begin, when a sergeant came in and told the officers the alarm-guns were fired at Charlestown, which made no small stir in the house, every one endeavouring to get out as fast as possible; and immediately we heard a pretty smart firing of small arms.
TOMORROW: Reports on the Charlestown raid from two teenagers on the siege lines.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

A thorough study of this incident and its context is available online: Catherine Ann Peckinpaugh Vrtis’s master’s thesis at Virginia Commonwealth University, titled “Gentleman Johnny Plays War: John Burgoyne and The Blockade of Boston. Although Burgoyne’s play is lost, Vrtis draws on a preview of its text that was published as a broadside.