Movie theaters near Portsmouth, New Hampshire continue the long history of the performing arts in New England. The first public performance pieces in the area probably originated centuries ago amongst Native American tribes. The first Europeans to arrive in the area frowned on such displays, being Puritans. 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 subversive element did no favors for the theater in the eyes of the authorities and public productions were often censored or banned outright. In New Hampshire and the other New England states, the puritanical church and government maintained a strong grip on self-expression and so the theater there developed more slowly than in other locations, like Virginia.
At the start of the nineteenth century, the number of theaters in New England began to increase. This wasn't the end of trouble, however, as theaters were often burned down—accidentally or otherwise—or shut down because of fights and protests. A number of hit plays were written in the mid-1800s, foremost among them being "The Drunkard," by Boston actor and playwright W.H. Smith. It wouldn't be long, based on the success of Smith and others, before playhouses were being built everywhere, from cities to small fishing villages. As the national film industry began to flourish, regional film companies like Pine Tree Pictures in Maine and Eastern Film in Rhode Island began to spring up.
The twentieth century brought the cultural movement known as the "American Renaissance." This cultural development drew heavily on the literature of treasured New England authors such as Longfellow, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe and, notably, 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." Both Hawthorne and James were known for stark, haunted stories and the genres of mystery, suspense and horror are somewhat a specialty of numerous New England authors, which has been speculated to be a result of both the region's past and its landscape. The look of New England has continued to be used by directors into the present, taking advantage of the contrasting landforms and seasonal weather.
The theater would also assist in fostering New England's cinematic contributions. The playwright from Connecticut Eugene O'Neill may be the most important name in the history of New England theater. The play "Our Town" by New England playwright Thornton Wilder achieved success when it was made into a movie in 1940. The film used the town of Peterborough, New Hampshire as a shooting location which made perfect sense as it was the town that had inspired Wilder's play. These men and many others helped to create an image of New England which has persisted to the present. New England life was often depicted in contrast, between quaint fishing villages and bustling cities, repression and expression on display in 1915's The Old Homestead. Famous Players made the picture based on playwright and actor Denman Thompson's long-running play about small townboy Joshua Whitcomb's adventures in the city.
The theater continues to portray the life and land of New England and theaters once condemned now tend to be treasured. A New Hampshire movie theater may not show it outwardly, but there runs a great deal of history, both tragic and triumphant, just below the surface.