Robert Montgomery Bird Essay - Critical Essays


Robert Montgomery Bird’s earliest plays were essentially derivative, at times suggestive of the closet drama of the Elizabethan Revival, at times recalling Ben Jonson’s plays or the Restoration drama of William Congreve, with whose work Bird was well acquainted. Most of the plays of this early period are set in such romantic locations as Spain (“The Three Dukes”), Italy (“Giannone”), or other foreign places. They depend heavily on highly intricate plots in which the key characters are amply disguised; mistaken identity is central to the resolution of the plot, and coincidence is a sine qua non of the plays’ rising action and denouement. Like many of the Restoration dramatists, Bird selected names that were either ironic—for example, “Nathan Slaughter” for a Quaker who refused to fight in Nick of the Woods—or descriptive—Sluggardly, the innkeeper; Ha’penny, the debtor; and Agony, the miserly uncle. These plays are no worse than much of the Restoration drama that sometimes served as Bird’s model, but they can hardly be called good.

Although he cannot be classified among the greatest authors the United States has produced, Bird was a highly gifted, ambitious literary figure who had a clear sense of what he hoped to accomplish artistically. His writings brought him considerable celebrity in his own time and have won for him an enduring place in America’s literary history.

’Twas All for the Best

’Twas All for the Best is a complicated comedy of manners set in England. The language is stilted to the point of being painful to the modern reader. The plot revolves around Sir Noel Nozlebody, who steals his brother’s daughter, rears her as his own child, and declares his own daughter to be a foundling. This play contains some scenes that are essentially tragic and that seem to have no place in a play that purports to be a comedy. In ’Twas All for the Best, Bird was not yet in control of his medium.

News of the Night

Similarly complicated in plot is another Bird farce of the same general period, News of the Night, which is set in Philadelphia but follows a classical Roman story line with strong overtones of the comic spirit of Jonson. This play, with its stereotypical props of old chests, rope ladders, and women dressed as men, was first produced by the Columbia University Laboratory Players in New York on November 2, 1929.

The City Looking Glass

The City Looking Glass, first published in an edition by Arthur Hobson Quinn in 1933, was subtitled A Philadelphia Comedy. It is ostensibly about the seamy side of life in Philadelphia, but there seems to be little that is American about it. Again, the plot is reminiscent of Jonson and involves two lowlife creatures, Ravin and Ringfinger, who pursue two commonplace young ladies, only to discover that one of these girls, Emma, is really the daughter of a highly respected and wealthy Virginia gentleman. Act 4 provides small glimpses into Southern life and into the views of the times, but except for that act, the play has little relationship to anything authentically American. This drama was first performed by the Zelosophic Society of the University of Pennsylvania on January 20, 1933.

Unfinished Works

“The Fanatick,” based on Charles Brockden Brown’s gothic novel Wieland (1798), was planned but was never completed. “The Three Dukes” and “Giannone” also exist only in fragments that are a part of the Robert Montgomery Bird Collection at the University of Pennsylvania; “Giannone” is the most promising of these fragmentary plays. It is interesting to note that in these works, members of the nobility speak in blank verse while the other characters speak in prose.

Bird all but completed two tragedies, The Cowled Lover and Caridorf. The Cowled Lover is modeled after William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596). The ardent Raymond disguises himself as a monk in order to be near his beloved, Rosalia. Ultimately, he and Rosalia are killed by the young woman’s father. The play is highly Romantic and shows the strong gothic influence of some of the authors Bird was reading at the time— Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Gordon, Lord Byron, for example. Caridorf suffers from having a quite unconvincing hero, a man who refuses to come to the bedside of his dying father and who first seduces Genevra, then upbraids her for having lost her chastity. The audience is asked to overlook these inhumane acts and see through to Caridorf’s essential goodness, a demand that strains credulity.


With Pelopidas, Bird showed signs of maturing into a significant playwright. Gone are the stereotypical plots of his earlier plays; gone are the heavy-handed props of a play such as News of the Night. Pelopidas has a typical Romantic setting, that of Thebes after the Spartans had conquered and grasped political power in the city. The tale of Pelopidas is told in Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115 c.e.; Parallel Lives, 1579), which is the basic source for Bird’s play. Bird, however, showing excellent critical judgment, distorted the Plutarchan version to suit his own artistic needs.

Pelopidas was a great hero of Thebes, and, with the conquest of the city by Sparta, he was forced into exile. His wife remained behind in the city, which was now controlled by four polemarchs. In Plutarch’s account, these polemarchs were native Thebans who were appointed to their dictatorial positions by the conquerors. Bird, however, made two of the polemarchs, Philip and Archias, Spartan, thereby setting up an interesting contrast between them and the two Theban polemarchs, Leontidas and Philidas. Bird also established...

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