What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Will be READ, THE BEGGARS OPERA.”
The itinerant performer who staged a one-man rendition of The Beggar’s Opera in Providence on the evening of September 18, 1769, did not linger long in that city to offer encore performances. Instead, he quickly moved on to new audiences in Boston, according to advertisements that ran in the Boston Chronicle and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter on September 28. Perhaps attendance at the Providence performance did not merit remaining for additional shows; alternately, the performer may have planned in advance to move from one city to the next fairly quickly, making arrangements for the venues ahead of his arrival. Whatever the explanation, he attempted to attract as large an audience as possible by inserting an advertisement in both newspapers published in Boston on Thursdays, a day before the performance “At a Large ROOM in BRATTLE STREET, formerly GREEN and WALKER’S Store.”
The performer was consistent in his messaging. Aside from the details about the location of performance and where to purchase tickets, the copy in the Boston newspapers replicated what ran in the Providence Gazette less than two weeks earlier (though the typography varied from newspaper to newspaper according to the discretion of the compositor). “Will be READ,” the notice proclaimed, “THE BEGGARS OPERA, By a Person who has READ & SUNG, IN MOST OF THE GREAT TOWNS IN AMERICA, All the SONGS will be SUNG.” The advertisement further described the performer’s delivery for the prospective audience: “He personates all the CHARACTERS, and enters into the different HUMOURS or PASSIONS, as they change from one to another throughout the OPERA.” When it came to the copy of the advertisements in the Boston newspapers, there was only one small variation. The version in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter advised, “No Person to be admitted without a Ticket.” The notice in the Providence Gazette included the same warning, a means of suggesting that the event would be so popular that readers risked missing out if they did not secure their tickets quickly. The version in the Boston Chronicle did not express the same urgency. Was the omission the fault of the performer or the compositor? The latter seems more likely considering how carefully the actor attended to marketing his performances.
These advertisements in the Providence Gazette and, later, newspapers published in Boston demonstrate some of the opportunities for colonists to participate in early American popular culture. They also suggest that even though some aspects of popular culture may have been local that others were shared throughout the colonies and beyond. The performer underscored that he had “READ & SUNG, IN MOST OF THE GREAT TOWNS IN AMERICA.” On his current tour, he presented a show already exceptionally popular in England, connecting colonists culturally to Britain even as they experienced political ruptures due to the Townshend Acts and other perceived abuses by Parliament. While the press offered one means of creating an imagined community among colonists, itinerant performers provided another way of cultivating a sense of community. This advertisement encouraged residents of Boston to participate in popular culture shared with colonists in other “GREAT TOWNS.”