Master of Fine Arts
Dr. Noreen C. Barnes
Barry L. Bell
Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates
THE FATAL LAMP AND THE NIGHTMARE AFTER CHRISTMAS: THE RICHMOND THEATRE FIRE OF 1811
By Amber Marie Martinez, Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre Performance
A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Pedagogy at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Virginia Commonwealth University, 2015
Director: Dr. Noreen C. Barnes, Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Theatre
“How strange a preface the loud laughter excited by a pantomime, to volumes of smoke and fire” (The American Standard, 27 December 1811). Building fires were not exactly uncommon back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When the church bells began to ring at any time other than Sunday morning, it usually meant a building was on fire. On the night of December 26th 1811, in the midst of a pantomime at the Richmond Theatre, a small flame licked a piece of a backdrop and set it on fire. Fed by the column of air in the hollows and passages of the theatre, and increased by the extremely flammable wood of the boxes, pit, and the canvas ceiling of the lower seats, the fire seemed "like a demon of wrath converging its hundred arms to the center of human life” (Burning of the Richmond Theatre, 1812). I will attempt to examine the night of the Richmond Theatre Fire, an event which shocked a city and soon after the country. 72 persons perished in the flames with more victims dying of their burns within the following days. Every part of the state held someone who lost a friend or relative in the disaster. People were unable to mention the catastrophe without exciting tears of grief. This thesis acts to remind us of one of the most tragic events in our country’s history by exploring the firsthand accounts of people who escaped the fire; a conflagration which fueled the course of religious transformation, aided to regulate laws of theatre buildings, and captivated a nation for a century, before being gradually forgotten over time.
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