Robert Montgomery Bird Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Robert Montgomery Bird is better known as a novelist than as a dramatist. In his dramas, Bird was clearly moving toward the subject matter that would form the basis for his two earliest novels, Calavar: Or, The Knight of the Conquest (1834) and The Infidel: Or, The Fall of Mexico (1835)—romances dealing with Mexican Indians. Yet Bird is better remembered for his novels set in indigenous North American settings—The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow: A Tradition of Pennsylvania (1835) and Nick of the Woods: Or, The Jibbenainosay, a Tale of Kentucky (1837)—than he is for his Mexican romances. In addition, Bird published a volume of short fiction, Peter Pilgrim: Or, A Rambler’s Recollections (1838), and several works of nonfiction, including Sketch of the Life, Public Services, and Character of Major Thomas Stockton of New-Castle, the Candidate for the Whig Party for the Office of Governor of Delaware (1844) and A Brief Review of the Career, Character, and Campaigns of Zachary Taylor (1848).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

How one ranks the achievement of Robert Montgomery Bird depends on the backdrop against which he is viewed. Compared with American dramatists since Eugene O’Neill, Bird must be viewed as a less than successful artist whose plays were somewhat contrived and stereotyped. Viewed against a different backdrop, that of the dramatists of the first half of the nineteenth century, Bird figures as one of the two or three most promising figures in the American drama of his time. It must be remembered that American theater audiences were unsophisticated and, at times, uncouth during this period. Bird himself called them “foolish and vulgar,” and he was probably not much off the mark. Refined and cultivated Americans did not go to the theater. British audiences were not much better than those in the United States, and audiences in both countries preferred to attend performances of Shakespeare’s plays rather than performances of contemporary drama. Bird knew his audiences, and if he ever forgot their salient characteristics, Edwin Forrest, the great actor of the day, was always nearby to remind him, as Forrest’s notations in surviving manuscripts of Bird’s dramas attest.

Certainly, Bird’s earliest plays are dramatically substandard. Some of them have never been performed, and a few had their first performances only after Arthur Hobson Quinn drew scholarly attention to Bird, in his 1916 article in The Nation, “Dramatic Works of Robert Montgomery Bird,” and in his compendious A History of American Drama from the Beginning to the Civil War (1923). It must be borne in mind, however, that Bird was only twenty-one or twenty-two years old when he wrote his earliest plays and that he was then a student in medical school, which surely distracted him substantially from his literary pursuits.

Bird began to come into his own as an American dramatist in 1830 when Forrest awarded Pelopidas, a work surging with Romantic spirit, the prize in the annual dramatic contest sponsored by the actor. Although Pelopidas was never produced during Bird’s lifetime, Forrest continued to hold ownership of the play. The next year, Forrest awarded the dramatic prize to Bird’s The Gladiator, which turned out to be Bird’s most popular play with audiences and which certainly vies with The Broker of Bogotá as his best drama. Forrest took The Gladiator to London in 1836, where it was received less enthusiastically than was Forrest himself as Spartacus. Nevertheless, it is significant that this was the first...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bird, Mary Mayer. Life of Robert Montgomery Bird. Edited by C. Seymour Thompson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Library, 1945. An incomplete biography by Bird’s wife that ends two years before his death. The fragments of her manuscript have been pieced together and augmented by letters and documents. A straightforward, modest account.

Dahl, Curtis. Robert Montgomery Bird. New York: Twayne, 1963. Places Bird’s work in context. Dahl concludes that although Bird was successful in writing for the theater, he never produced any drama of lasting literary value. Includes a chronology, an annotated bibliography, and an index.

Foust, Clement E. The Life and Dramatic Works of Robert Montgomery Bird. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1919. The standard biography. The majority of the book discusses Bird’s life and works after the dispute with Edwin Forrest that drove him from the theater. Includes a genealogy, a bibliography, and the complete texts of four major plays.

Hoppenstand, Gary. “Justified Bloodshed: Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods and the Origins of the Vigilante Hero in American Literature and Culture.” Journal of American Culture 15, no. 2 (1992). A provocative reading of Bird’s most enduring literary achievement.

Richards, Jeffrey H. Early American Drama. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. Richards presents and discusses eight pre-Civil War plays, including Bird’s The Gladiator.

Samuels, Shirley. Romances of the Republic: Women, the Family, and Violence in the Literature of the Early American Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. An examination of early American literature that examines Bird’s works as well as those of many others.

Stewart, Margaret E. “Nick of the Woods and Gone with the Wind: Racism, Literature, and the American Chivalric Myth.” Markham Review 12 (Fall, 1982). Another provocative reading.

Wert, Justin R. “Robert Montgomery Bird.” In Nineteenth Century American Fiction Writers, edited by Kent P. Ljungquist. Vol. 202 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, Mich.: The Gale Group, 1999.

Wilson, Garff B. Three Hundred Years of American Drama. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. Briefly recounts Bird’s life and the association of his plays with Edwin Forrest. Describes Bird’s five major plays, with primary consideration given to The Broker of Bogotá. Contains a photograph of Forrest portraying Febro.

Winston, Robert P. “Bird’s Bloody Romance: Nick of the Woods.” Southern Studies 23, no. 1 (1984). Provides another provocative reading.