The Lost Colony (play)

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The Lost Colony is a play based on accounts of Sir Walter Raleigh's attempts to establish a permanent settlement on Roanoke Island, in what was then part of the Colony of Virginia.[1] The play has been performed since 1937 in an outdoor amphitheater located on the site of the original Roanoke Colony in the Outer Banks, near present-day Manteo, North Carolina. More than four million people have seen it since that year. It received a special Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre award in 2013.[2][3][4]

Historical background[edit]

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green, The Lost Colony marks a shift in Green's work from more traditional forms of drama to focus on the creation of large-scale outdoor musical spectacles he termed "Symphonic Dramas." As of 2012, it is the United States' second longest running historical outdoor drama, behind The Ramona Pageant produced in California.

Before Jamestown and Plymouth, a group of about 120 men, women and children established one of the first English settlements in the New World on Roanoke Island in 1587. Shortly after arriving in this New World, colonist Eleanor Dare, daughter of Governor John White, gave birth to Virginia Dare. The Governor's granddaughter was the first English child born in North America.

Life on the island was difficult for the colonists. Low on supplies and facing retaliation from the Native Americans they had displaced, the colonists sent Governor White to England in the summer of 1587 for supplies. Because of the impending war with Spain, White was unable to return to Roanoke Island until 1590. When he arrived, the colony had vanished. People believe the word "CROATOAN" was carved on a post. The fate of those first colonists remains a mystery to this day. Mainline historians believe that the colonists died at the site.[5]

The principal characters of The Lost Colony outdoor drama from the 2008 production

1937 production[edit]

On July 4, 1937, The Lost Colony first opened. Annual celebrations of Virginia Dare's birthday, August 18, had been celebrated by the Roanoke Colony Memorial Association since its founding in 1894. The early events were primarily picnic meetings, featuring hymn singing and commemorative speeches. In 1923, the festivities were expanded to include dramatic sketches. By 1925 local residents performed a full-scale pageant of the story, using pantomime, music, and narration.[6] W. O. Sounders, editor of the Elizabeth City Independent, was a passionate supporter of the pageant and supported expanding the celebration.

Mabel Evans Jones, Roanoke Island native and Dare County School Superintendent, wrote and produced a 1921 silent film of the historic events and starred in it. The finished film toured across North Carolina. It was the first silent film produced in the state.[7]

The 1926 pageant attracted the largest crowd to that point,[8] and organizers sought to build on their achievement in their preparations for the 350th anniversary of Virginia Dare’s birth. They approached North Carolina playwright Paul Green about developing a new pageant script.

"CRO" tree prop

Having visited the island on several occasions, Green had already considered writing a piece about "those tragic first settlers."[9] He joined with Saunders and Bradford Fearing, president of the Roanoke Historical Society, to develop a vehicle to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Virginia Dare's birth. Initially, the team thought that the plot would follow the legend of Virginia Dare falling in love with Chief Manteo's son and giving birth to a new race that has since vanished. They planned to conduct a nationwide beauty contest to find a young woman to play Virginia Dare.[9] However, Green envisioned a spectacle with a combination of music, dialogue, and dance, which he called “symphonic drama”. He expressed a drama sympathetic to common ideals of freedom, struggle and perseverance—guiding themes for a nation in the grips of the Great Depression.

The original production had difficulty finding funding; early pledges of support evaporated as the depression deepened. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) of President Franklin D. Roosevelt helped provide funding and labor for the production through its various agencies in it's effort to combat the Great Depression.[10] North Carolina Congressman Lindsay Warren secured the production of 25,000 memorial half dollars to be sold to raise funds.[11]

English-born architect Albert Quentin “Skipper” Bell began construction of the large-scale set with assistance from workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Previously, Bell had designed a log-structured village on the grounds of Fort Raleigh.

Through the Federal Theatre Project, WPA funds were also used for salaries as part of a Theatre Works initiative to assist out-of-work Broadway actors from New York City. English-born actress Katherine Cale originated the role of Eleanor Dare, Virginia's mother, while Lillian Ashton portrayed Queen Elizabeth I, Earl Mayo played the comic Old Tom, and Jack Lee narrated the production as The Historian.[12] Other talented performers were hired to fill the major roles with the Carolina Playmakers, Roanoke Islanders, and the CCC members rounding out the smaller roles.

The production was directed by Samuel Selden, one of Green's associates in the UNC Playmakers of Chapel Hill, under the supervision of Frederick H. Koch.

Music for the production was directed by Eric Stapleton, director of North Carolina's WPA Federal Music Project. It was drawn primarily from old English hymns, ballads, and folk songs which the settlers likely carried with them.[13] Acclaimed American composer and conductor Lamar Stringfield has been credited with composing the original music for the play;[14] however, his contribution is not noted in the original program. The new Hammond electric organ was used to provide musical accompaniment. (By the late 1960s, this particular instrument had been transferred to a local Catholic church.)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the production on August 18 of that year. He said, "We do not know the fate of Virginia Dare or the First Colony. We do know, however, that the story of America is largely a record of that spirit of adventure."[15]

Longest-running symphonic outdoor drama[edit]

The drama attracted enough tourists to stimulate the economy of Roanoke Island and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Their hotels, motels and restaurants thrived despite the bleak depression economy. The village of Manteo renamed its streets after historic figures in the drama. Originally intended for one season, the drama was produced again the following year and has become a North Carolina tradition. Since 1937, more than four million visitors have seen it.

Many local Roanoke Islanders and North Carolinians have performed in the drama. Marjalene Thomas first performed with the show in 1938 and throughout the years played every female role — with the exception of one. Robert Midgette (The Lost Colony’s current fight director) has been with the show 38 years. Actor Andy Griffith, who performed at the production's Waterside Theatre on Roanoke Island from 1947 to 1953, liked Manteo so much he decided to live there permanently. North Carolina State Senator Marc Basnight from North Carolina was born in Manteo and had performed as a colonist child in the play.

Actors Leon Rippy, Chris Elliott, Eileen Fulton[citation needed], Terrence Mann, Ira David Wood III and R.G. Armstrong got their stage legs at the Waterside Theatre. Academy Award-Winner Ted Tally spent a summer in the production long before winning top honors for his screenplay of Silence of the Lambs[citation needed]. His niece appeared in the 2008 production.

The current artistic team has members who started their careers with The Lost Colony. This includes Production Designer William Ivey Long, winner of six Tony Awards for Best Costume Design.

The drama is performed nightly May–August at 7:45 pm Monday-Saturday.

The waterside theatre on Roanoke Island where the play is performed.

Costume shop fire[edit]

On September 11, 2007 a resident of Nags Head, North Carolina spotted a fire across the sound on Roanoke Island and called 911. All fire departments north of Oregon Inlet responded to find part of The Lost Colony’s Waterside Theatre in flames. The fire crews worked to control the blaze, and to save the men’s dressing room structure nearby. In spite of their efforts the maintenance shed, Irene Smart Rains Costume Shop, and a small storage building were completely destroyed. No cause has been determined.

Except for a few costumes stored at the dry cleaners and others on display at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, the production's costumes suffered a total loss. The destroyed costumes include vintage costumes created by Irene Rains in the 1940s and 1950s; all of Fred Voelpel’s costumes made in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, and the costumes designed by Tony award-winner William Ivey Long.

Recovery from the 2007 event relied on assistance from federal, state, and local sources in additions to donations from individuals and foundations. The costumes were replaced and the building was rebuilt for opening night on May 30, 2008.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Green, Paul and Laurence G. Avery (2001). The Lost Colony: A Symphonic Drama of American History. Chapel Hill: University Press of North Carolina. ISBN 978-0-8078-4970-5. 
  2. ^ "Tony Awards winners list". The Lost Colony. USA Today. June 10, 2013. Retrieved 22 May 2015. 
  3. ^ McElroy, Steven (May 16, 2013). "Theater". The Lost Colony. New York Times. Retrieved 22 May 2015. 
  4. ^ Anker, Erica. "Tony Honor: The Lost Colony". Retrieved 22 May 2015. 
  5. ^ Powell, William S. (1985). Paradise Preserved: A History of the Roanoke Island Historical Association. Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press. ISBN 978-0-8078-0975-4. 
  6. ^ Downing, Sarah (2013). Hidden History of the Outer Banks. Charleston, SC: The History Press. pp. 41–43. ISBN 978-1-60949-914-3. 
  7. ^ Towler, Teuta Shabani. "Silent Film Started a Long Tradition". The Outer Banks Voice. Retrieved 26 February 2014. 
  8. ^ Downing, Sarah (2013). Hidden History of the Outer Banks. Charleston, SC: The History Press. pp. 41–43. ISBN 978-1-60949-914-3. 
  9. ^ a b Green, Paul (1994). A Southern Life: Letters of Paul Green 1916-1981. University of North Carolina Press. p. 302. ISBN 0-8078-2105-5. 
  10. ^ Thibodeau, Ryan. "The Lost Colony". Carolina Designs. Carolina Designs Realty, Inc. Retrieved 25 July 2017. 
  11. ^ Green, Paul (1946). "Preface" 'The Lost Colony'. Chapel Hill, NC. p. xiii. 
  12. ^ 'The Lost Colony' Souvenir Program. Chapel Hill, NC. 1937. 
  13. ^ "Early Music in the Play" 'The Lost Colony' Souvenir Program. Chapel Hill, NC. 1937. 
  14. ^ "Marker H-94: Lamar Stringfield 1917-1959", North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
  15. ^ Brickhouse, Anna (2015). The Unsettlement of America: translation, interpretation, and the Story of Don Luis de Velasco, 1560-1945. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 245. ISBN 9780199875597. 

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