The Artificial Swan, the Elephant, and the One Hundred Educated Canaries: Public Performance in Cumberland County 1800-1870

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, it was no simple matter for professional performers to get to the Cumberland Valley, and local newspaper coverage of entertainment is so sketchy that we can only guess at how often theatrical companies, musical groups, or other entertainers included Carlisle, Shippensburg, Chambersburg, and other towns on their itineraries. The first to advertise in the newspapers was a group of actors from Virginia and Maryland who came to Carlisle in October of 1791 and again in 1798. Both times, they stayed about a week and presented a series of currently popular plays, the most ambitious of which was Sheridan's The School for Scandal. On both occasions Carlisle was part of a circuit that took the company all the way from Yorktown, Virginia, to York, Pennsylvania.

Their performances were probably given in a makeshift theater that they erected in the large assembly or ball room of one of Carlisle's many taverns. This was also the case in 1802 when a Mr. Rannie announced that in "Mr. Hiegel's Large Ball-Room" he would perform "Philosophical and Magical Arts mingled with delusions by Magnetical Attractions," followed by "Ventriloquism," as well as "his various and much admired Imitations of all kinds of Birds and Beasts almost unknown." The performance would conclude with a dialogue involving a Scotsman. Rannie, too, drew sufficient crowds to perform in Carlisle for a week. He returned the next summer, offering the same act with the addition of what were apparently large mechanical toys. They were described in the advertisement as "10 or 12 artificial Comedians." The mechanical star of the show was "the artificial Swan," which would "go about and inform the company how many days, months, weeks, there are in a year." Later in the century, ventriloquists, magicians, and dialect comedians would follow the path Mr. Rannie blazed into Cumberland County, but only one of them did animal imitations, and none of them had an artificial swan.

A month after Rannie's first visit to Carlisle, a Philadelphia actor, dancer, acrobat, and onetime circus performer named John Durang arrived with a theatrical company. They too performed for a week in Hiegel's tavern. Their first evening's entertainment contained an abbreviated version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, a "pastoral dance" by Durang's pupils, a "ballad dance" that featured all the popular steps of the day, a one-act "musical piece," and a pantomime.

We are singularly fortunate that Durang wrote a memoir of his experiences, from which we can learn more about the life of the traveling entertainer in our region in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Durang performed in Philadelphia in the winter, and in a number of summers performed on what he called the "Dutch circuit" of southern Pennsylvania (a reference to the Germans) that sometimes included Carlisle. In 1802 he performed in Harrisburg before coming to Carlisle, and from Carlisle he went to Hanover by way of York Springs. When he returned in 1809, it was on a tour that included Hagerstown, Frederick, Chambersburg, Lancaster, and again Hanover. This time Durang was in Carlisle for two weeks, playing every night, he said, before a full house. Ever the careful businessman , he also noted that his total receipts for the two weeks-at 25 cents a ticket-were $400, less expenses of $127.57. It was hardly a princely income, but in that era performers faced little prospect of employment in the cities during the summer.

Although it is not mentioned in his memoirs, Durang made a third visit to Carlisle in 1810. Billing himself as "professor of dancing and member of the New Theatre of Philadelphia & Baltimore," he announced that he was bringing an expanded company of performers from "the Philadelphia Theatre." In reality, they were probably mostly members of his own family, since his 1812 company (when he did not visit Carlisle) consisted of "F. Durang and wife, Blissett and wife, C. Durang, Jones, Morgan, myself and daughters." They had a carriage for "bagage and scenery" in addition to carriages and horses for the company. In 1810 Durang advertised that his performances in Carlisle would include "theatrical and dramatic performances, historical comedies, operas, pan tomimical and ballet dances, accompanied by scenery, machinery, painting in transparencies, music and brilliant dresses." They also featured a band, consisting of clarinet, violin, string bass, and percussion. We know from Durang's memoirs that he brought his company to Carlisle once more in 1815, but the fact that there is no mention of it in the local newspapers raises the possibility that other actors were visiting the Cumberland Valley as well. 

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