March 17-26, Pontine Theatre celebrates Portsmouth’s 400th Anniversary with performances of its original production, Dearly Earned. Performances at Pontine’s 1845 Plains Schoolhouse theatre (1 Plains Avenue, Portsmouth NH) are scheduled Fridays at 7pm, Saturdays at 3pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets ($29) are available online at — www.pontine.org. This production, based on Portsmouth 19th century industrial history and the lives of the workers who labored there, caps off Pontine’s 45th Performance Season in Portsmouth. Underwriting for Dearly Earned is provided by Cambridge Trust. Pontine’s 2022-23 is supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts.
“I shall send you five dollars and Leland says he shall send five the first that he earns. So you must get some good comfortable clothes and buy a little stove for the front room and hire someone to chop the woodpile,” writes a young mill worker to her mother and father in 1853 from the factory boarding house where she lives.
New England Mill workers came from a variety of backgrounds. In Dearly Earned, Pontine Theatre examines the lives of these “operatives,” and the conditions they worked under. The text is drawn entirely from historical sources: letters, diaries, and newspaper articles of the period. The piece includes the correspondence of a young Yankee mill worker to her family, as well as a collection of letters written by immigrant brothers to their uncle in England. The letters express the hopes and fears of the writers and reveal the difficulties of their working lives in the mills of New England.
Over the past five decades, Pontine Theatre has developed four different performance spaces in Portsmouth, each located along Islington Street, the main industrial corridor of the city. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the company resided at 16 Market Square where it operated The Market Square Studio above what was then Teddy’s Lunch. When rents rose, the company relocated to The McDonough Street Studio, in a building on the site of the former Sagamore Mill. In 2003, Pontine continued its migration through Portsmouth’s West End by opening the West End Studio Theatre in a former storage building that once house Phoenix Press. In 2017 the company moved to its current home, The 1845 Plains Schoolhouse, located at the junction of Islington and Middle Road.
This migration familiarized Pontine’s Co-Artistic Directors, Marguerite Mathews and Greg Gathers, with Portsmouth’s industrial past. The West End neighborhood is filled with mill and factory buildings along with tenements erected as boarding houses for the operatives employed by the mills. Behind the sites of the mills is the North Mill Pond, whose transformation is described in a newspaper article of the period:
“Many years ago, on any warm summer day a mob of children would gather at the willows on the bank of the North Mill Pond, and in a moment they would all be splashing about and swimming in droves to the other side. The waters of the pond were then pure and sweet. Now the willows are replaced by the railroad roundhouse and Rock Pasture and Hale’s Field, then bare of buildings, are now closely built over; and the waters of the once limpid pond are transformed into a sort of odorous gravy in which no child of good taste would want to swim, even if they had the chance.”
Pontine’s research for Dearly Earned centered on the newspapers of the day. Ms. Mathews and Mr Gathers spent several months at the Portsmouth Public Library poring over microfilms of The Daily Morning Chronicle and The Portsmouth Journal to garner the stories of the city’s cotton steam mill industry and the lives of the operatives who worked there.