Thanks to the porous state of the British lines around Philadelphia and the industry of General Washington’s secret agents, there is little doubt that American officers at Valley Forge were aware of the dramas that a British Army theater company known as Howe’s Strolling Players presented at the Southwark Theater during 1777-78. The Americans considered themselves officers and gentlemen on a par with their redcoat counterpart. Ignoring the fact that the Continental Congress had banned plays as corrupt influences early in the war, they too decided to stage some plays.
During the winter, these theatricals were performed for understandably small audiences, since there was little room in any of the structures at Valley Forge for a crowd. From mentions in a few letters and journals, Washington’s Strolling Players seem to have performed in the Bakehouse, where the army’s bread was made. The plays were so popular Ensign George Ewing ruefully noted in his journal that one night he and others with tickets could not find a seat.
The balmy spring weather and the ebullience created by the French alliance combined to produce an interest in staging plays for a larger audience. General Washington, who loved the theater and regularly attended plays in Williamsburg, Virginia, before the war, was more than amenable. In fact, he may well have suggested the first production, Cato, the 1713 drama by Joseph Addison, which was his favorite play.
Even if he had not been commander in chief, there would have been no argument from his strolling players. Cato was the most popular play in 18th-century America. It had been presented at playhouses and on college campuses, from Harvard to the College of William and Mary, since 1732. The drama had played a crucial role in establishing the commercial theater in America.
Cato was also a shrewd choice at Valley Forge from a political point of view. The plot dealt with the fate of Marcus Portius Cato the Younger, a Roman aristocrat who opposed the rise of Julius Caesar and tried to rally Rome to its traditional republican virtues. As the play opens, Cato has retreated to Utica, an outpost in North Africa near Carthage, with a forlorn remnant of his army. Caesar’s legions are only a few miles away, ready to annihilate the fugitive and his followers.
Cato remains grimly defiant. When the body of his son, Marcus, killed in a fight with traitors who want to surrender, is laid before him, Cato says:
“Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.”
Captain Nathan Hale remembered those lines when he faced a British hangman in New York in 1776. Hale had probably performed and certainly read Cato at Yale. Other lines inspired Patrick Henry early in the Revolutionary ferment:
“It is not now time to talk of aught
But chains or conquest, liberty or death.”
In the end, Cato chose suicide rather than surrender to Caesar. For a general who had just defeated a conspiracy to replace him because, among other things, he was hoping to become a demigod like Caesar, General Washington’s choice of Cato was a perfect refutation of this slander. There were obvious comparisons between his ordeal at Valley Forge and Cato’s in isolated Utica. The commander in chief did not have to waste time in wordy attacks on his enemies in and out of Congress. All he had to do was attend the play.
Washington didn’t just attend plays; he must have learned a great deal from his love of drama. He was a master showman/actor on the battlefield and in camp. He probably had his own costume designer and dresser. His choice of a white horse and his occasional demonstrations before dejected, retreating soldiers or militia who were prepared to adhere to their service limit show him to be someone who could ‘steal a scene,’ not to mention his sheer courage and forceful personality, two qualities that any fine actor must have. Washington had a great sense of the dramatic. My favorite dramatic moment was the undoing of a potential mutiny at New Windsor. By the slow removal of his spectacles, he quietly said “I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”[Wait for applause]. Wow, a Tony AWard nominee, for sure.
George was certainly a great actor and his leadership role often depended upon it. His interest in drama probably also helped him shape successfully his many disinformation programs, some of which were quite complicated to orchestrate, during the war.
Washington’s sense for the dramatic also lent itself to his “staging” of the hangings for the mutineers. By making the regiments watch as the audience, the soldiers found guilty of mutiny entered the carefully decorated “stage” showing the [real] props of their ropes and coffins, Washington pardoned all but one. Great drama that he learned from “Cato”.
My two favorite pieces of stage work from Washington come from opposite ends of the Revolutionary War. The first comes from before the war when he attended Congress in full military uniform. Very clearly this must have sent a signal to Congress letting them know that here was a man with experience who was willing to serve–yet he would still write a letter protesting his reluctance to serve.
Then at the end of the war when breaking up the officer’s rebellion and speaking to the men. Pulling out his prepared remarks he attempts to read them and finds that he cannot, so he pauses them to fumble in his pockets for his reading glasses, then apologizes to the gathered men “Gentlemen” he says “I must apologize for the delay, as I have gone blind in the service of my country.”
If that’s not pure theater, then I don’t know what is.