Although Thomas Godfrey’s The Prince of Parthia (pr. 1767) must be acknowledged as the first American play to be produced on an American stage, Royall Tyler’s The Contrast remains a play whose production on April 16, 1787, marked several firsts. The first American comedy, it also introduced to the American stage the prototype of the Yankee in the character of Jonathan and featured the first stage singing of “Yankee Doodle.” The Contrast was also the first American drama to receive a press review. Finally, Tyler’s play was, before 1916, the most commercially successful play written by an American.
Several of Tyler’s other dramatic works have survived, including one farce, The Island of Barrataria, and three biblical closet dramas. Some of the lyrics of Tyler’s May Day in Town, perhaps America’s first comic opera, have been found; when these lyrics are combined with information Tyler wrote in a letter to James Madison wherein a performance of the play is described, its plot can be almost wholly reconstructed. Three additional plays of which no copies are known to exist have been attributed to Tyler; these include The Medium: Or, The Happy Tea-Party (pr. 1795), The Farm House: Or, The Female Duellists (pr. 1796), and The Georgia Spec. Therefore, Tyler is the author of at least nine plays.
Tyler’s unfinished autobiographical work, The Bay Boy, which remained in manuscript until Péladeau’s publication of it in The Prose of Royall Tyler, provides two brief descriptions of his experiences with dramatic performances attempted within Puritan Boston’s unsympathetic boundaries. One details a homespun attempt to render Joseph Addison’s Cato (pr. 1713) into dramatic representation, and the other records the witnessing of a “forlorn fragment of monkish mysteries.” Addison’s Cato was performed under cover of night in a store emptied of all merchandise “excepting one or two counters and several empty hogsheads, barrels and boxes which served as pit, box and gallery for the spectators”; Tyler’s description suggests a makeshift Globe Theatre. Actors and spectators stealthily assembled after “Mater, Pater or guardian” were all safely asleep. Tyler next describes the exact procedure for securing the “theater” from unsympathetic passersby:The front door of the store was closed and every crack and keyhole carefully stopped with paper or cotton that no glimmering light might alarm the passing watchman. The entrance was through a bye lane into a door in the backyard, and such was the caution observed that but one person was admitted at a time, while two, one at each end of the lane, were on the watch to see if the person to be admitted had been noticed. No knocking was permitted but a slight scratch announced the approach of the initiated.
Tyler then says that the thrill of this sort of performance was never equaled by public performances in New York’s public theaters.
Tyler’s depiction of the “monkish mystery” is a bit less spectacular, but it does express a persistent need for the dramatic despite puritanical restrictions. On a certain Christmas Eve during the Boy’s youth, the house wherein he found himself was visited quite suddenly by a group of traveling players who enacted a brief dueling scene that was most realistic but for the grotesque attire and masks of the players. Tyler calls this representation a “ masque” and at the same time somewhat satirically refers to it as reminiscent of early church mystery plays. Tyler’s early familiarity with mystery plays, as well as with such a contemporary drama as Addison’s Cato, suggests a dramatic background of some sophistication, belying the myth that Tyler wrote The Contrast some two weeks after having been initiated into the English comedy of manners during a brief stay in New York, when he was an adult of almost thirty. In these two instances, Tyler also gives present-day readers a rare glimpse of how drama exerted itself even in a period during which it had been outlawed (stage plays in Boston, the place of Tyler’s birth and youth, were forbidden by a law enacted in March of 1750).
The Island of Barrataria
Of Tyler’s five extant plays, The Island of Barrataria is, next only to The Contrast, the most appealing and the most actable. The three blank-verse closet dramas are based closely on stories from the Old Testament; though too constrained and formal for performance, they contain some of Tyler’s best poetry. By far the most significant of these five plays is The Contrast, and it is this drama which most clearly demands the attention of critics.
Indeed, The Contrast remains so popular that it not only appears in nearly every standard collection of early American literature but also has enjoyed the distinction of being adapted as a musical. On November 27, 1972, The Contrast: A Musical, adapted by Anthony Stimac, premiered at New York City’s Eastside Playhouse. Don Pippin composed the music, and the lyrics were by Steve Brown. Tyler’s play itself can hold the interest of today’s readers and audiences because of its steadfast censure of affectation at all social levels, because of its avowed concern to emphasize the corrective function of Thalia (the Comic Muse), because of its intelligent yet humorous depiction of human behavior in terms of seemingly interminable contrasts, and because of its refusal to fit easily within the bounds of a single comedic genre.
Commentators on The Contrast frequently emphasize the charge of the play’s opening lines: “Exult, each patriot heart!—this night is shown/ A piece, which we may fairly call our own.” To be sure, Tyler is, in many of his works, pointedly moved to encourage the quest for American literary independence. In their attempts to ferret out the play’s “patriotic gore,” however, commentators often obfuscate many other possible themes. Indeed, the prologue asserts other intentions for the play. Investigation of these additional intentions reveals that Tyler endeavored to produce not simply a play by an American or a distinctly American play but rather a play that bears the signature of Royall Tyler.
Throughout Tyler’s prose and poetry runs the forceful strain of a moralist—though it must be observed that he stops just short of adopting the role of a didactic prescriber of conduct. In The Contrast, Tyler most clearly manifests this moral strain in his summary condemnation of...
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