On Saturday next Will be Perform'd, by a Society of Ladies and Gentlemen, at Faneuil-Hall, The Tragedy of Zara ...
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On Saturday 2 December 1775, during the Siege of Boston, British soldiers sought to entertain themselves with a production of The Tragedy of Zara. The play was performed at Faneuil Hall, and the proceeds were "apply'd to the Benefit of the Widows and Children of the Soldiers." This broadside advertisement for the play is of interest not only for the unusual circumstances under which it was performed--by the officers of the besieged British army during the opening phase of the American Revolution--but also because only the British occupation allowed a theatrical performance to take place; plays had long been banned in Puritan Boston.
Written by Aaron Hill in 1735, Zara is an adaptation of Voltaire's Zaïre. In Zaïre, the Sultan of Turkey, Osman, holds two Christian slaves, Zara and her brother Nerestan. Zara and the Sultan fall in love, but in a fit of jealous rage and misunderstanding, he kills her. Once he realizes his mistake, the Sultan orders the release of all Christian slaves, and then kills himself. In addition to the broadside, the Massachusetts Historical Society also holds a manuscript prologue to Zara, written by General John Burgoyne. The manuscript "Prologue for Opening the Theatre at Boston when it was garrisoned by the British Troops under Command of Sir Wm. Howe" may be in the hand of Francis Rawdon-Hastings, a young British officer serving in Boston, who is said to have read the prologue. The stage directions read "Curtain Rises & discovers Zara & Selima," and indicate that this version may have been read at the Boston performance.
After the start of the Revolution at Concord and Lexington in April 1775, the British held Boston under siege until March of the following year. In May of 1775 John Burgoyne arrived with British reinforcements under General William Howe. Burgoyne witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill, but complained about his lack of activity. See the online presentation of Burgoyne's account of the battle.
Better known as an author and gambler than as a soldier, Burgoyne later would command an invasion force from Canada, but he was forced to surrender to General Horatio Gates at Saratoga in October 1777. His military career was ruined, but Burgoyne enjoyed much success as a playwright and author.
Francis Rawdon-Hastings, later Lord Moira and the Marquess Hastings, was only twenty-one years old at the time of the performance, but six years of active campaigning all along the Eastern seaboard during the American Revolution prepared him for a brilliant career during the Napoleonic Wars and then in India thirty years later.
Theater in Boston
Puritan Boston looked with disapproval on theatrical productions, which had started trickling into New England in the late 17th century. Such productions were long prohibited or restricted, and in 1750, the Massachusetts General Court passed An Act to Prevent Stage-Plays, and other theatrical Entertainments. This law (which stayed in effect until June 1790) banned plays, in order to avoid "the many and great mischiefs which arise from public stage-plays...[and] tend to increase immorality, impiety, and a contempt of religion." The peculiar circumstances of the siege of Boston allowed Zara to be performed, but it is one of only a very small number of public stage performances in Boston during the colonial and early national period.
Amateur Theater Playbills at the MHS
The large collection of broadsides at the Massachusetts Historical Society includes over 200 playbills for amateur theatricals. Broadsides are sheets of paper printed on one side to be read aloud or posted (see Broadsides under the Library Collections section of this website). The playbills in the MHS collection cover 150 years of amateur theater performed in New England, primarily in the Boston area. Because of the early ban and lingering disapproval of public performances, amateur theater in New England was immensely popular and continued on through the 19th and into the 20th century-long after public theater had taken hold in Boston.
Suggestions for Further Reading
John Burgoyne. The Dramatic and Poetical Works of the Late Lieut. Gen. J. Burgoyne. London: C. Whittingham, 1808.
William W. Clapp, Jr. A Record of the Boston Stage. Boston: James Munroe & Co., 1853.
Katherine M. Doherty. "Playbills in the Massachusetts Historical Society of Amateur Theatricals, 1775-1921: A Preliminary Checklist." Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 91 (1979): 101-211.
Elliot Norton. Broadway Down East: An Informal Account of the Plays, Players and Playhouses of Boston from Puritan Times to the Present. Boston: Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston, 1978.
"Prologue to Zara, 1776." Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 56 (1923): 260-263.