Early American Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The beginnings of American drama date back to April 30, 1598, near El Paso, Texas, when a comedy about soldiers on a march, written by a Captain Marcos Farfan de los Godos, was performed. Spanish-speaking areas, for the most part, were more congenial to theatrical entertainments than were those colonized by the English and Dutch.

Among other “firsts” on the American theater scene was a play by Virginia landowner William Darby. His Ye Bare and Ye Cubb (pr. 1665), “the first record of a play in English,” resulted in a lawsuit against the author brought by an Edward Martin. Darby was found not guilty.

The “first play written by a native American to be performed by a professional company,” reports the historian of drama Arthur Hobson Quinn, was performed “on the stage of the Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia in 1767.” That play was The Prince of Parthia , a heroic tragedy by Thomas Godfrey . The Southwark Theatre, which replaced an earlier one built outside the limits of Philadelphia (like Shakespeare’s on London’s South Bank) and torn down after protests from religious groups, became the first permanent theater in America.

Written in blank verse and depicting historical events in a foreign country, The Prince of Parthia was influenced by many plays, including William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601), Macbeth (pr. c. 1606), Richard III (pr. c. 1592-1593), Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600), and Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596) ; Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy (pr. 1610-1611); John Dryden’s Aureng-Zebe (pr. 1675); and Nicholas Rowe’s Tamerlane (pr. 1701), among others. The traditional tragic passions of love, jealousy, loyalty, and revenge motivate the action, involving two brothers, one of whom returns in triumph to Parthia from a military victory, and Evanthe, the maiden for whose hand the two brothers compete. Personal and political passions eventually lead to Evanthe’s suicide by poison, as well as the suicide of Arsaces (the brother whom she loves). Order is restored to the kingdom by Gotarzes, a younger brother, who, like Fortinbras in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is a figure outside the main action of the play. Although lacking in a native subject, the play is significant, as Quinn observes, as “the only play of American origin that was actually performed on a native stage during this period, before the Revolution.” (Having died at an early age, Godfrey himself did not live to see his play performed or published.)

The history of the Southwark Theatre , at which The Prince of Parthia was produced, involves the beginning of the actor-manager tradition in colonial times. A number of...

(The entire section is 1158 words.)