In Nevada's nineteenth-century towns and mining camps, the demand for entertainment was almost entirely filled by traveling theatrical troupes. Thinly settled and distant from major population centers, the state took well over a century to develop the sort of sophisticated stage culture necessary to incubate its own professional playwrights and theater companies. During this period, few theatrical backers would risk a production by any American playwright, let alone an unknown local one, when audiences were likely to prefer a more fashionable foreign play. Furthermore, until Congress passed the 1891 Chace Act to enforce international copyright law, plays by non-American authors could be performed free of royalty charges.
Most early Nevada towns of any size had theaters, music halls, and "opera houses" to accommodate visiting acting companies from the East Coast, Europe, and occasionally San Francisco, offering matinees and evening performances as often as seven days a week. The mining camp circuit was extremely lucrative, the miners' thirst for theater was strong, and they were willing to pay well to have it satisfied.
By 1861, Nevada Territory boasted seven theaters seating between 200 and 1000 customers each. The earliest known Nevada imprint (1862) is a pink silk poster for Topliffe's Theatre in Virginia City. In 1863, San Francisco theater impresario Thomas Maguire opened a grand opera house in Virginia City, operating it for four years. In 1867, John Piper, a local merchant, purchased it and operated the institution for three decades, rebuilding his opera house twice and elevating it into the largest legitimate theater east of San Francisco and west of Chicago. Destroyed by fires in 1875 and 1883, the surviving Piper's Opera House dates to 1885 and is now a museum hosting performances.
The plays that were shown in Virginia City and on other Nevada stages at the time tended to be either classics by Shakespeare and other European dramatists, or popular farces and social comedies fresh from the New York or London stages such as Timothy Toodles, The Swiss Swain, and the dramatization of Ellen Wood's 1858 novel East Lynne, a performance of which Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) reviewed in 1863 as "that sickest of all sentimental dramas." Traveling blackface minstrel shows also drew enthusiastic crowds and often took up residence in Virginia City for extended periods.
Nineteenth-century directors freely adapted texts, including Shakespeare's, to match the tastes of their audiences, and contemporary accounts remark on the rowdiness and frequent inebriation of actors and spectators alike. This was the market for the sort of theatrical humbug that Twain mocked with the performances of the Duke and Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn (1884), as testified by Virginia City Territorial Enterprise editor Joseph Thompson Goodman's satirical play, Hamlet's Brother (1883).
Almost no serious American plays were to be seen, in part because few were being written. Insecure in their national culture and eager to follow European literary fashions, American theatergoers tended to prefer the latest hits from London, and Nevadans were no different. They might pay to see "period pieces," undistinguished works of melodrama with sensational special effects and a heavy dependence on coincidence. Plays of American origin were often dramatizations of popular novels, such as Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle (1819), James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans (1826), and Harriet Beecher Stowe's best-selling Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). In 1875, Mark Twain sued to stop the staging of an unauthorized adaptation of The Gilded Age (1873), while the authorized version—based on the novel he co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner—was his first great financial success and made his name known in New York City.
Many of the luminaries of the American and British stages had substantial connections to the then-thriving and prosperous Comstock. The Irish actor and playwright Dion Boucicault (1820-1890) practiced his stage Irish shaughraun character there, and the San Francisco-born director David Belasco (1853-1931) worked at Piper's Opera House on his way to Broadway. The town was repeatedly visited for extended periods by such other eminent actors as Edwin Booth, Frank Mayo, Ada Cavendish, Madame Modjeska, Lawrence Barrett, Willie Gill, and John McCullough.
More popular in nineteenth-century Nevada than the legitimate playhouses were so-called "bawdy theaters," featuring sexually charged musical productions such as The Last Chance in Virginia City (1861), with risque lyrics, skimpy costumes, and skimpier plots. The offstage lives of actresses such as Adah Isaacs Mencken, Sue Robinson Getzler, and the occasional out-of-town celebrity such as Lola Montez, were at least as notorious as the ones they portrayed onstage in these establishments. In the 1870s, the largest and most ornate of the bawdy theaters was the Alhambra Melodeon on C Street in Virginia City. The Alhambra was known to function as a way station where visiting actresses, if they lived up to their Victorian-era reputation, could be enticed into the more lucrative trade of prostitution.
While most locally-written plays pandered to such popular tastes, there were some exceptions, especially from Virginia City's "Sagebrush School." The Psychoscope: A Sensational Drama (1871), by Joe Goodman and his fellow Territorial Enterprise editor, Rollin Mallory Daggett, was set in New York City, not Nevada, and contained elements of melodrama typical to period pieces. On the other hand, it also utilized innovative detective and science-fiction motifs, and several scenes were daringly set in a brothel. This level of realism was far ahead of its time.
When The Psychoscope ran for five performances in four days at the end of the theatrical season in 1872, it stirred up a spirited controversy among Virginia City's newspapers, some of whom considered it indecent. Even the actors sabotaged their performances lest they be tagged as disreputable. Daggett and Goodman, however, turned the full force of the Enterprise on the company, which belatedly improved its performances. The play was never seen again on the commercial stage, though in 1949 it was put on by the Department of Theatre at the University of Nevada, Reno.
If The Psychoscope bookmarks the beginning of Sagebrush School drama, Sam Davis's The Prince of Timbuctoo (1905) does the same for the end of the era. This play, with similarities to both John Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728) and the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, survives only in several manuscripts and it is not clear that it was ever performed. A musical satire on Rooseveltian imperialism, it is set in Africa during the Boer War and depicts several Americans descending on the native king of Timbuctoo with different agendas: steel company representatives who want to build bridges for the British army; an adventuress from San Francisco; and a group of hypocritical "Puritan maidens" from Boston. Editions of both this play and The Psychoscope were published in 2006.