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The Tavern and Territorial Utah

Melissa Graves (left) as Mrs. Shotwell, Michael A. Harding as Selwyn Shotwell, Eric Schabla as Tom Allen, and Cassandra Bissell as Rosalind

By Allison Borzoni

Melissa Graves (left) as Mrs. Shotwell, Michael A. Harding as Selwyn Shotwell, Eric Schabla as Tom Allen, and Cassandra Bissell as Rosalind

In the late 1800s, the Civil War is still a distinct memory for many, cowboys were driving cattle across great tracts of land in the West, and California gold was still attracting prospectors and dreamers. In Utah, railroad tracks from east and west were joined in Promontory for the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, the first telephone service in the state was established in Ogden in 1879, and the Utah Territory was being administered by a series of territorial governors appointed by the president of the United States.

Such is the background for The Tavern, which opens this week at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, which is set in the late 1800s in southern Utah. The western United States was still young and mainly unsettled, and Cedar City was a fairly new community.

The Tavern takes place on a dark and stormy night; and a wild wind (familiar enough to Cedar City residents) blows all sorts of oddball characters into a remote Utah tavern. One of the characters who takes shelter in the tavern over the course of the play is Governor Shotwell. He doesn’t have a real-life counterpart in history, but if he did, then he would have served between the years of 1851 and 1896. Governor Shotwell also would have been appointed to the position by the United States president. Because the people did not choose their own governor, relationships could be complicated. Brigham Young was appointed as the first territorial governor of Utah under Presidents Fillmore and Pierce, but he was replaced by Governor Alfred Cumming, who came to Utah with military forces to back him up, causing a tense standoff and a few skirmishes with territorial residents. Governor Cumming only served for three years, followed by a series of other appointed officials.

However, not all of the governors were good choices for the territory. For example, Governor John W. Dawson’s term only lasted three weeks. This was probably because he openly opposed the mostly-Mormon population and even made a lewd proposal to a widow. The widow beat him with a shovel for the offense, and a group of men later attacked Dawson as he tried to flee the territory.

Although the golden age of the mountain man was fading away in the late 1800s, theatre was beginning to build a solid reputation. Theatre was becoming popular in the United States, and the character of The Vagabond in The Tavern illustrates that popularity and acting style of the time. The theatres themselves were switching from candlelight to gaslight and limelight to improve and diversify lighting, which shifted theatre’s crowds from rowdy and unruly lower classes to quieter middle- and upper-class audiences.

Theatre in the early 1800s consisted of long affairs with several acts besides the main event, like musical entertainment, dancing, and farces (which The Vagabond has a particular taste for). Post 1850s, the number of these extra acts began to shrink until there was only one main event. Acting styles also drifted from the grandiose and exaggerated to a more naturalistic style throughout the nineteenth century. However, comedic and burlesque actors were still a popular feature in theatre. Actors themselves were gaining a more proper reputation as well. Instead of being ostracized, well-known actors and actresses were invited into social circles and some became popular celebrities. Since most of these actors were originally from England, it’s safe to say that Americans have been big fans of British actors for a long time.

Altogether, the 1800s was a time of change as well as strange occurrences—like widows beating governors. The Tavern certainly delivers those bizarre happenings by bringing together an eclectic group of people caught up in the wild wind (which reminds us of our own Cedar City weather). Don’t miss the world premiere of The Tavern at the Festival this fall–you’ll find yourself caught up in the storm, as well as the farce, while watching this melodramatic show.

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© Utah Shakespeare Festival 2024 www.bard.org Cedar City, Utah