William Dunlap Essay - Critical Essays


Possibly more than any other playwright of his age, William Dunlap has come down through chronicles of American drama, such as those of Arthur Hobson Quinn, Montrose J. Moses, and Oral Sumner Coad, as the author of a single play, André, although Quinn’s account in his history of early American drama does reveal other facets of Dunlap’s work. However, a number of Dunlap’s other works merit discussion.

The Father

The Father was Dunlap’s first play to be performed; it was also the second comedy by an American playwright to enjoy public notice. As such, it deserves examination as a follow-up to Tyler’s The Contrast. The Father still can entertain readers; its comic misunderstandings and mishaps, its portraiture of the typical Yankee character, and its lively dialogue retain their power to amuse.

The marriage of the Rackets has entered the doldrums; Mr. Racket believes that solace will come in the arms of country-bred Susannah, a pert household maid, while Mrs. Racket hopes to intensify her husband’s love by inciting him to jealousy of their friend, Ranter. Ranter, however, has designs on her sister, Caroline. At an inopportune moment, Colonel Duncan, guardian to the sisters, enters and discovers Mrs. Racket fainting into Ranter’s arms—and suspects the worst. The colonel and his servant, Cartridge, function, as Cartridge observes, like Laurence Sterne’s Mr. Toby Shandy and Corporal Trim from the novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767), a tale abounding in comic high jinks such as Dunlap tries to approximate with American characters. Ultimately, a solid reunion of the Rackets is effected by means of the exposure of Ranter’s rascalities, the revelation that Caroline’s lover, the long-lost son of Colonel Duncan, is alive, and the proper disposition of Susannah to Dr. Quiescent, a comic figure who has provided relief to tempestuous or grave incidents.

The Father of an Only Child

Dunlap deftly revised this play into The Father of an Only Child, which was possibly never performed, although it certainly reads well and could be a lively performance piece. A more distinctly American tinge is emphasized by means of comic reference to the American Monthly Magazine, in the vernacular speech of some of the characters, principally the maid Susannah, and in diminishing the Latinate names (Dr. Quiescent becomes Dr. Tattle). The Rackets are still the bibulous Irishman who has an eye for the ladies, and the long-suffering, determined wife who wrongheadedly tries to use jealousy to regain her husband’s affections. The Colonel, renamed Campbell (his aide is renamed Platoon), with his concern for the only son he left to others long ago, gives the new title to the play. The background (the recent adoption of the United States Constitution) provides plausibility for the drunken revelry at the opening of the play. The menial, Jacob, adds to the cast a comic “Dutch” character, soon to become a stereotype in American plays. The outcome of this play is similar to that of The Father, except that Susannah is destined for Platoon.

Susannah’s speeches in particular are noteworthy for their colloquial flavor, as when she repulses Racket’s advances: “I’m a poor Yankee girl, and you are a rich town gentleman, and I’m sartin sich are no more fit to go together than a pumpkin and a pine-apple. New mister Platoon don’t go for higher than a good ripe ear of Indian corn, and a pumpkin needn’t be ashamed of coming upon the same table any day.” She remarks at this same juncture that “a body ought to keep company with a body’s likes. Some folk’s place is the keeping-room, and some folk’s place is the stirring-room.” Along with Platoon’s praise for Colonel Campbell freeing his slaves (Dunlap’s own action on his father’s death), such speeches serve to add homey, American touches to The Father of an Only Child. The exposure of the villainous servant’s machinations against his master—the long-lost lover of Mrs. Racket’s sister—in both versions suggests that European villainy is more vicious than the rather tame misdoings of Americans (the Rackets are new Americans). Ranter-Marsh-Rushport has his disguise stripped from him, and the revelation that he is the ne’er-do-well son whose misdeeds killed his clergyman father and whose ring is that of Caroline’s betrothed recalls the confusions of identity, duplicitous and otherwise, characteristic of the gothic romance so much in vogue at that time.

A Trip to Niagara

Similar comedies wherein misapprehension of motives furnishes the dramatic...

(The entire section is 1932 words.)