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.