Bronson Howard Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bronson Howard is remembered primarily as a dramatist. Given his place as the first American to make a profession of writing plays, his comments on playwriting and the theater in America are important for the student of American dramatic literature. In 1906, for example, he surveyed, in New York’s Sunday Magazine, the accomplishments of American playwrights and their critics after 1890 in an essay entitled “The American Drama.” He commented on the art of acting in “Our Schools for the Stage,” which appeared in Century Magazine in 1900. In one of the most revealing contemporary articles on late nineteenth century American dramatists—“American Playwrights on the American Drama,” appearing in Harper’s Weekly on February 2, 1889—Howard described his own approach to drama. Howard was a man of very definite opinions, and his most significant explanation of his theory of the “laws of dramatic composition” was first given as a lecture before the Shakespeare Club at Harvard College in March, 1886. This speech, in which he discussed at some length the origin and development of his play The Banker’s Daughter, was repeated for the Nineteenth Century Club in New York in December, 1889, and was printed by the American Dramatists Club in New York and published as The Autobiography of a Play in 1914. This volume also included “Trash on the Stage and the Lost Dramatists of America,” in which Howard outlined his approach to the theater and expressed his optimism regarding the future of American drama.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bronson Howard’s most significant achievement was his ability to earn a living by writing plays. Before Howard, many Americans—including William Dunlap, John Howard Payne, Robert Montgomery Bird, Nathaniel Bannister, Cornelius Mathews, George H. Boker, Epes Sargent, and Nathaniel Parker Willis—had written plays, some of which were better than Howard’s. Although these earlier writers were professionals in the sense that they made money by writing plays, they were unable to sustain themselves with the income from their plays alone.

There is neither an extensive nor an impressive body of dramatic theory from pre-twentieth century American dramatists. Before Howard’s lecture “The Laws of Dramatic Composition,” commentary on dramatic theory was often scattered, slight, and haphazard. Basing his observations on one of his own plays, The Banker’s Daughter, Howard outlined certain laws of dramatic construction that are significant in the history of dramatic theory in the United States, in particular illuminating those practices that made the melodramas of late nineteenth century America among the best that have been written. For Howard, the laws of dramatic composition were derived from an understanding of the sympathies of the audience as well as from the expected actions and motives of characters. To follow these laws, he believed, the dramatist had only to use common sense—to remain in touch with human nature. An audience will accept...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Frerer, Lloyd Anton. Bronson Howard, Dean of American Dramatists. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. A biography of Howard that examines his life and the times in which he lived in addition to his dramatic works. Bibliography and index.

Mason, Jeffrey D. Melodrama and the Myth of America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. Mason examines five nineteenth century melodramas, including Howard’s Shenandoah, to demonstrate how dramatists interpreted history for their audiences. He argues that the melodramas presented reassuring myths about the past.

Meserve, Walter J. “Comedy and Social Drama: Caricature, Comedy, and Thesis Plays.” In The Revels History of Drama in English, 1865-1920. Vol. 8. London: Methuen, 1977. A brief introduction to Howard as the first professional American playwright. Meserve focuses on Howard’s depiction of businessmen and describes his “Laws of Dramatic Composition.” Howard pioneered the awareness of the new social, middle class in the United States.

Vaughn, Jack A. Early American Dramatists. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. A brief biography and introduction to the major plays. Contrasts Howard’s early comedies with his later social dramas, focusing on The Henrietta and Shenandoah.