What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Mr. DOUGLASS’S concern for the peace of the Theatre prevented him from … confuting those falshoods … propagated against him.”
Something happened at the theater in Southwark on the outskirts of Philadelphia in November 1773, something that one of the actors, John Henry, believed he should address in the public prints. Among the various advertisements in the November 17 edition of the Pennsylvania Journal, Henry inserted “A CARD” in which he “most respectfully assures the Town, that he has too great a deference for their opinion to wish to do any thing contrary to it.” He did not elaborate on what had happened, nor did any of the newspapers published in Philadelphia at the time mention any controversy among the local news they printed that week, but conversation and gossip likely made any such coverage unnecessary. If readers did not already know what happened, they could easily enough ask friends and acquaintances to learn more.
Henry made some references in his “CARD” that likely would have piqued the curiosity of readers and prompted some of them to make inquiries. For instance, he indicated that a play had been canceled, but, if it had been performed as scheduled, he would have “addressed the Audience and submitted himself entirely to their judgment.” However, “Mr. DOUGLASS’S concern for the peace of the Theatre prevented him from having an opportunity of evinceing that respect he has for the Public, and of confuting those falshoods that, he understands, have been propagated against him.” Scandal! What kinds of rumors circulated about Henry? Henry’s “CARD” likely whetted the appetites of some readers to find out more about what kind of trouble the actor’s troubles.
An advertisement in the previous issue of the Pennsylvania Journal announced that the American Company would perform “A COMEDY called THE CLANDESTINE MARRIAGE,” first performed at Drury Lane in London in 1766, at the “Theatre in Southwark” for “POSITIVELY THE LAST WEEK.” Douglass, the manager of the company, played the role of Sir John Melvile, while Henry played Lovewell. Apparently, none of the rumors about Henry had circulated before the advertisement ran on November 10, at least not so widely to merit canceling any performances. Whatever had conspired, Henry wanted a chance to address “those falshoods,” though the actor seemingly preferred to present his defense to an audience rather than in print. He likely reasoned that he could more readily sway the sympathies of an audience who witnessed how he comported himself than readers who could not hear the tone of his voice or observe his demeanor. In addition, he likely did not wish to commit some allegations to print.
That did not prevent him from making an earnest plea in his “CARD.” Henry declared that had he been permitted to make an address that “his intention was to throw himself on the protection of an American Audience,—who, he was conscious, would not condemn him unheard.” He believed this from experience, having been “Brought up to his profession on the American Stage, and having exerted his poor endeavours to please, for these seven years past.” The Irish-born actor had previously performed in Dublin and London before migrating to Jamaica and, eventually, the mainland colonies. He appeared in productions at the John Street Theatre in New York in 1767, later moving to the theater in Southwark. In his “CARD,” he professed that American audiences “have hitherto honoured him with more marks of their indulgence than his small share of merit deserves.” Given a chance, the actor was confident that “an American Audience, … from their known generosity, candour, and impartiality,” would have heard his story and accepted the explanation he gave. Henry concluded by declaring that “it shall be his constant—his grateful study to deserve” the trust and approval of that audience.
Henry’s “CARD” did not tell the whole story, though it revealed more than appeared elsewhere in any of the newspapers published in Philadelphia at the time. The truncated narrative delivered local news in its own way, while also prompting readers to seek out information from other sources to learn more about whatever scandal embroiled one of the actors at the Southwark Theatre.