William Dunlap Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Many of William Dunlap’s nondramatic works have earned for him solid status among students of literature and visual art. His biography of his contemporary Charles Brockden Brown, America’s first major gothic novelist, remains a standard reference tool. Dunlap’s other biographical works—a shorter piece on Brown, sketches of Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Abthorpe Cooper, and a book on George Frederick Cooke—are valuable portraits by one who was on the scene for many of the events presented. Because of his career as a painter, Dunlap’s A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (1834) also remains a work worth consulting for this aspect of the early cultural history of the United States.

Still more important is A History of American Theatre (1832). Dunlap’s account of the American theater from the 1790’s through the first third of the nineteenth century is at times blurred by faulty memory. Nevertheless, before the work of George O. Seilhamer, George C. D. Odell, Arthur Hornblow, and Arthur Hobson Quinn, Dunlap offered a rich history of American drama. His firsthand account also furnishes an autobiography of its author, and altogether, it remains a classic in the annals of the American stage.

Dunlap also wrote verse, and several of his short stories, published in periodicals during the final decade of his life, merit critical attention. Many of his periodical pieces were unsigned, making definite attribution difficult. Dunlap intended to bring out a collected edition of his plays, in ten volumes. Only three volumes of The Dramatic Works of William Dunlap appeared, however, the first in 1806, the following two in 1816.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Customarily designated the “Father of American Drama,” William Dunlap lived a long life through a period of extraordinary historical change in American culture. He was the first American playwright who turned to writing plays and managing theaters for a livelihood. His output of original plays and adaptations or translations from foreign dramas adds up to more than fifty titles. He gained considerable fame, as well as the love of many who were connected with early American theater, during his management of playhouses in Philadelphia and New York. Dunlap also deserves praise for his interest in and knowledge of German language and literature, as a result of which he was able to bring plays by August von Kotzebue, Friedrich Schiller, and J. H. D. Zschokke to the American stage at the turn of the nineteenth century. Such fare continued to be popular for many years. Dunlap also adapted from French theater, particularly from the then fairly new melodrama. His own pleasure in melodramatic and sensational scenes informs many of his original productions; he adapted many sentimental-sensational plays for his theaters because he well comprehended the desires of his audiences. His striving in his writing and in his theaters for high standards of morality, however, countered common tendencies to cater mainly to less admirable impulses of audiences eager for thrills and sexually suggestive titillation. At times, too, Dunlap’s intense patriotism, centered on his admiration for George Washington, saved his own plays from running overmuch into sleazy melodramatics. On the other hand, that overt...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Argetsinger, Gerald S. “Dunlap’s André: The Beginning of American Tragedy.” Players 49 (Spring, 1974): 62-64. Argetsinger demonstrates how André established Dunlap as the first major American dramatist and how it stands alone as the representative eighteenth century American tragedy.

Canary, Robert H. William Dunlap. New York: Twayne, 1970. Canary’s biography of Dunlap charts his emergence as representative of the artists who made a place for the arts in the new nation. Dunlap’s most important works are described together with the personal and critical principles that governed his work. Notes, references, and annotated bibliography.

Richards, Jeffrey H. Early American Drama. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. Richards presents selected early American plays, including Dunlap’s André, along with an introduction and bibliography for each.

Rinehart, Lucy. “Manly Exercises.” Early American Literature 36, no.2 (2001): 263-293. Johnson examines the intergenerational conflicts experienced by Dunlap and his contemporaries, children of the revolution. Includes analysis of several plays.