Old American Company

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The Hallam Company, which later became the American Company and then the Old American Company,[citation needed] was the first fully professional theatre company to perform in North America.[1]

The company was organised by William Hallam, former proprietor of the New Wells Theatre in London, and was led by his brother Lewis Hallam. Their company consisted of 12 adults and 3 children, drawn from English actors of "modest accomplishment". They arrived by the vessel Charming Sally at Yorktown, Virginia, on 2 June 1752, and made their early performances in nearby Williamsburg. Their first performance, The Merchant of Venice, is generally considered to be the first professional staging of Shakespeare in America.[2]

In 1753 the Hallam company moved to New York, and in 1754 they played in Philadelphia and in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1755 the company moved to the West Indies, and merged with the company of David Douglass. On Lewis' death, Douglass married his widow. Three years later, the company returned to tour the mainland, as the "American Company".[3]

Lewis' son, Lewis Hallam, Jr., eighteen at the time of the American Company's first tour, took leading roles alongside Douglass. Lewis Jr.'s style was described as declaratory rather than realistic, but he was much admired and became known as America's leading Shakespearean interpreter.[3] Douglass had his limitations: one Alexander Graydon described him as "rather a decent than shining actor". However, he was a capable manager and he gave North America its first Falstaff and King John. Within the repertoire was Cymbeline, which proved a popular vehicle for two of the company's actresses, Margaret Cheer and Nancy Hallam.[4]

In Quaker and Puritan areas, the company encountered religious opposition to theatre in general. At Rhode Island in 1761 they were obliged to perform Othello disguised as "a series of moral dialogues".[5] In 1774, the Continental Congress banned theatre entirely, and the company resettled in Jamaica. By that time, Hugh F. Ranking calculates that the company had performed at least 180 times, their repertoire having included fourteen of Shakespeare's plays. After the peace of 1783, the company returned to New York, with Lewis Hallam Jr. as the leading actor, and John Henry as his co-manager.[5]

Lewis Jr. is believed to be the first actor in America to perform in blackface in 1769.[6]


In November 1766, when the Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia opened, the American Company had the following members:

  • Adam Allyn
  • Margaret Cheer
  • David Douglass
  • Mrs. Douglass
  • Miss Dowthwaite
  • James Godwin
  • Lewis Hallam
  • Mrs. Harmon
  • Mr. Mathews
  • Owen Morris
  • Mary Morris
  • Mr. Tomlinson
  • Anna Tomlinson
  • Miss Wainwright
  • Thomas Wall
  • Stephen Woolls

By October 1767, new members were:

  • Patrick Malone
  • Mr. Roberts
  • John Henry
  • Ms. Storers (more than one)

In 1792, John Hodgkinson joined.

Other members included Thomas Wignell and Joseph Harper.


  1. ^ Morrison, Michael A. Shakespeare in North America in Wells, Stanley and Stanton, Sarah The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage (Cambridge University Press, 2002) pp.230-232
  2. ^ Morrison, p.230
  3. ^ a b Morrison, p.231
  4. ^ Morrison, pp.231-2
  5. ^ a b Morrison, p.232
  6. ^ Tosches, Nick (2002). Where Dead Voices Gather. Back Bay. p. 10. ISBN 0-316-89537-7.