Movie theaters near Portsmouth, New Hampshire may be the new face of theater but as with most things in New England, theater has a long and eventful history. Several regional Native American tribes are known to have performed ritualistic dances, acting out their mythological tradition, dating back centuries. The strict obedience the European settlers had for their Puritan religion forbade most theatrical performance. Most Puritans considered their Bible enough in itself to meet not only their spiritual needs, but provide all of the leisure time entertainment they would ever need. Regional playwrights such as Mercy Otis Warren helped to widen the acceptance of the theater through staging political satire in the years leading up to the American Revolution. The subversive element did no favors for the theater in the eyes of the authorities and public productions were often censored or banned outright. As a result of these strong suppressing forces, theaters did not expand in New England as quickly as in some of the other colonies, such as Virginia.
The nineteenth century brought change, however, and growing interest in theater matched the growth in new American cultural institutions. Theaters still faced a good amount of opposition and accusations of fuming discontent occasionally spilled over into violent incidents of fighting and vandalism. Things began to change by 1844, when playwright W.H. Smith wrote "The Drunkard," which became a huge success. The works of Smith and other regional writers increased the desire for playhouses and soon after the region began to attract touring performers. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as the modern cinema began to develop, regional film companies like Photoplay, Eastern Film and Pine Tree Pictures started up in the region.
The cultural movement that had been building in the area for decades culminated in the "American Renaissance," sometimes called the "New England Renaissance." The movement built upon the wealth of the region's literature, celebrating and expanding upon the works of 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. Henry James, a later author, would echo Hawthorne's success on the big screen with over fourteen films made from his works, including The Innocents—based on his 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 landscape is attractive to film companies with its mountains, shorelines and dense forest and the area's climate is conducive for shooting on location.
New England theater itself, of course, had a strong influence on early eras of film. One of the most well represented playwrights on film is Eugene O'Neill who has frequently had his work developed for film and television. The year 1940 saw the work of another theater luminary, playwright Thornton Wilder, move from the stage to the cinema with his "Our Town." 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. New England's way of life are especially presented at the forefront of the works by these two men. The often quaint life in fishing villages and broad, rolling farms tended to be contrasted with the hazards of urban centers, perhaps most notably 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.
The theater continues to portray the life and land of New England and theaters once condemned now tend to be treasured. This brief history hopefully has given you something to think about while you sit in a New Hampshire movie theater waiting for the show to start.