[Players] love dissipation and despise religion and morality…Is New England to be infested with Theatres because some of our Tontine gentry have been Southward and have heard some very pretty plays? Do some of our rich men threaten to leave Boston if we will not have a Theatre? Let them go by all means. They will leave their houses to men who know how to prize New England manners.
Abraham Bishop (Editor), [Boston]
Argus, November 8, 1791
Happily, there are some advantages resulting from the entertainments of a Theatre, which its warmest opponents have never denied…that it creates and preserves a purity of style, and an accuracy and uniformity in articulation, has, I think, been confessed by all. That it ameliorates the heart, and refines the feelings, thereby promoting urbanity of manners, and banishing that savage ferocity, which pointedly marks the first stages of civilization, is no less obvious.
Philo Dramaticus, The Rights of Drama,
Boston: Printed for the Author, 1792
It wasn’t easy to bring professional theater to Boston. Puritan Boston’s 106-year opposition to the theater began in 1687 when an attempt to stage amateur performances in John Wing’s (1637/8–1702) tavern met with anger from Increase Mather (1639–1723), who saw this as a “danger to the souls of men.” The Massachusetts General Court passed an official ban on theater in 1750 when Bostonians attempted to put on a play. The Puritan moral stance against theater was augmented by British productions during the Revolutionary War, when pro-theater sentiments came to be seen by some as a form of British cultural domination.
After the Revolutionary War, Boston’s merchant elite demanded the establishment of a theater in the city. This brought them into conflict with cultural traditionalists such as Governor John Hancock (1737–93) and Samuel Adams (1722–1803). At the forefront of the push was the Tontine Association, a life insurance company established in 1791 that funded public and private ventures. In addition to petitioning to repeal the theater ban, in 1792 the Tontines illegally established Boston’s first theater in Board Alley. When Governor Hancock sent Sheriff Jeremiah Allen (1755–1828) to close it down on December 5, 1792, a riot broke out among audience members.
In 1793, the Tontines again pushed forward. Despite the fact that the 1750 law was still on the books, they built a 1,000-seat theater at the intersection of Federal and Franklin streets. Part of their larger project called the Tontine Crescent, the Federal Street [or Boston] Theatre was designed by Charles Bulfinch (1763–1844) in high European style. Decorations, fixtures, and curtains were imported from England, all leading up to the opening performance on February 3, 1794.