From music halls near Boston, Massachusetts to movie theaters near Portsmouth, New Hampshire, public performance in New England has a long history. Theatrical performances started centuries before the arrival of Europeans in the rituals and folklore of the Native Americans. The first European settlers, on the other hand, had a strict religious opposition to any theatrical display. Their Bible was the primary focus of their life and although passion plays were somewhat common in Europe, these Puritans considered acting to be a form of lying and inherently 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. Under a cultural suppression from both religious and political forces—well beyond the Declaration of Independence was drafted, the theater's development in states like New Hampshire was progressed more slowly than in other areas.
The theater finally started to gain footing at the dawn of the nineteenth century. Problems persisted in the form of fighting both inside and outside the theaters as well as theaters being burned to the ground. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the theater started to score major successes with plays like W.H. Smith's "The Drunkard." Such success stories developed the arts in New England culture and New England began building playhouses and filling them with well-known performers. By the end of the century numerous national and regional film companies were in business in New England, such as 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." The literature of regional authors such as Alcott, Hawthorne and Longfellow inspired other artists, particularly in the booming film market. For example, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter inspired productions first in the year 1909 and would be remade three more times before 1935. Another well-respected New England author, Henry James, perhaps has had the most films based on his work, totaling roughly fifteen in the last century. 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 landscape is attractive to film companies with its mountains, shorelines and dense forest and the area's climate is conducive for shooting on location.
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. Thornton Wilder, another well established New England playwright, had his classic play "Our Town" move to the big screen in 1940. The filming of Our Town took place in Peterborough, New Hampshire, the place of inspiration for the play. These men did much to impress the land and its people into the minds of multitudes of moviegoers. 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. Playwright Denman Thompson wrote the play about Joshua Whitcomb, a "hayseed" from rural New England as he experiences city life.
In modern life in New England the theatrical spark exists in many forms and still persists. Just below the surface of that new New Hampshire movie theater rests centuries of history.