The looks of modern movie theaters near Portsmouth, New Hampshire may not indicate the storied history of theater in the region. The first public performance pieces in the area probably originated centuries ago amongst Native American tribes. The strict obedience the European settlers had for their Puritan religion forbade most theatrical performance. To most Puritans, God and the Bible were considered sufficient to wholly occupy one's leisure time and also felt that "disguise is sinful." The popularity of the theater increased in direct relation to the changing political landscape during the American Revolution era, as a dissatisfied public had developed an appetite for performances of open opposition to British rule. The theater remained to most—especially those in authority—a distraction from church and work at best and a catalyst for uprisings at worst. Between the combined authority of religion and government, self-expression was not encouraged and this retarded the growth of the theater in colonies such as New Hampshire.
It was not until the nineteenth century arrived that the theater in New England became more common. In this primordial stage of New England theater, it was not uncommon for violent fights and arson to take place surrounding performances. In 1844, Boston actor W.H. Smith wrote "The Drunkard," which became an immensely successful hit and was performed for decades. The success of productions like "The Drunkard" established New England as a destination for performers and the number of available playhouses increased dramatically as a result. New England boasted its own regional film companies by the dawn of the twentieth century, including Rhode Island's Eastern Film Corporation, the Photoplay Corporation in Massachusetts, and Dirigo Pictures and Pine Tree Pictures in Maine.
The twentieth century brought the cultural movement known as the "American Renaissance." To fulfill the rising demand for American films film companies drew inspiration from such New England authors as Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne alone would have his The Scarlet Letter adapted for the screen four times between 1909 and 1934. Fellow New England author Henry James has had similar success, with adaptations such as The Green Room, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Innocents—based on the novella "The Turn of the Screw." The stories of both have been said to draw on the landscape of New England and its tumultuous past. The rugged land of New England has been praised by filmmakers for "duplicating the twin images of a dark, puritanical inwardness" and pastoral villages, with "its cold, harsh winters, blazing fall colors [and] brilliant but brief summers."
The theater continued to grow during this time and was also markedly influential on early film. Playwright Eugene O'Neill, for instance, has had several of his plays produced on film. The play "Our Town" by New England playwright Thornton Wilder achieved success when it was made into a movie in 1940. Peterborough, New Hampshire was the inspiration for the town in Wilder's play and served as the filming location when it was set to film. These men and many others helped to create an image of New England which has persisted to the present. The two sides of New England lifestyles, repressed, simplistic and traditional small town life and expressive, modern and dangerous urban life were often pitted against one another, beautifully contrasted in 1915's The Old Homestead. The film was produced by Famous Players from Denman Thompson's long-running nineteenth-century play about Joshua Whitcomb, set between New Hampshire and New York City.
The theater continues to portray the life and land of New England and theaters once condemned now tend to be treasured. You may want to remember the long history the next time you take a seat in a New Hampshire movie theater and remark at our progress.