Sunday, August 13, 2017

People: The Patriot Playwright

An American First

On 16 April 1787 "the first American play" opened at the John Street Theater in New York City. Entitled, The Contrast, it was written by 29-year-old Royall Tyler. It is considered the first American play ever performed in public by a company of professional actors. An American play in the sense it was written by an American, with an American theme, for American audiences.

John Street Theater - Birthplace of American Theater would close in 1798

A Playwright Patriot

Royall Tyler was born in Boston on 18 July, 1758.  He had a great pedigree, coming from one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in Massachusetts. Tyler received his early education at
the Latin School, in Boston. He then went on to Harvard where he read the law. Along the way he joined the Continental Army where he received a commission and eventually rose to the rank of major. Tyler was admitted to the bar in 1780, and joined the law office of John Adams. Tyler fell in love with the future president's daughter; but the engagement was broken off, reportedly because Adams disapproved of Tyler's "high-spirited temperament." With John's attitude that might have ruled out a whole generation of potential beaus.

General Benjamin Lincoln

Back to the Bar. back to the Army and on to the Theater

The end of the war and the birth of the republic in 1783 did not go long before America had its first crisis. In 1786, Shay's Rebellion broke out in New England. Many veterans felt (rightfully) that the new republic did not pay enough attention to their economic woes and that years of service were held in little regard. A former Massachusetts soldier and down and out farmer, Daniel Shays led a band of disgruntled veterans seeking redress of their grievances. The reaction came quickly as a panicked government put together forces to quell the rebels. In 1787 Tyler once more answered his nation's call. He left the practice of law to take an appointment as the aide de camp to General Benjamin Lincoln, charged with suppressing Daniel Shays and his rebellious ex-soldiers. After Shays left Massachusetts (the heart of the rebellion) for New York, Tyler was sent to New York City to negotiate his capture and return to Massachusetts. And while there, as millions have done over the years,Tyler did something that he had never done - he went to see a play!

Shays Rebellion would set events leading to
the birth of the American stage

That's Entertainment

Theater was slow to take off in America as a popular form of entertainment. There are known performances of Shakespeare in Williamsburg in the early 1700s, and in general the Southern colonies — which were more open to all British customs — were happier to embrace the theater. In the North, it was looked on as a sinful form of entertainment. Massachusetts actually passed a law in 1750 that outlawed theater performances, and by 1760 there were similar laws in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, although performances occasionally snuck through the laws with the special permission of authorities.

Reprint with comment by  modern historian Cynthia Kierner
 illustrates the enduring value of The Contrast as a vehicle
for understanding mores of post Revolutionary America.

A Playwright is Born

In any case, Royall Tyler had never been to the theater before. So on March 12, 1787, he went to see a production of Richard Sheridan's School for Scandal (1777). He was so inspired that in just three weeks he wrote his own play, The Contrast. Barely a month later, The Contrast became the first play by an American writer to be professionally produced.   The Contrast was a comedy of manners, poking fun at Americans with European pretensions, and the main character, Jonathan, was the first "Yankee" stock character, a backwoods man who spoke in a distinctive American voice and mannerisms. Mixing such a character with sophisticates is a technique writers use to this day - the traditional "fish out of water." Tyler did not pioneer this. But he did master it. And the results were compelling to late 18th century audiences. The Contrast was a success. It was performed four times that month in New York, which was very unusual. Then it moved on to Baltimore and Philadelphia, where George Washington went to see it. The first citizen's approbation added to the buzz both for the play and the stage in general.

Man of Letters

Tyler went on to be one of the most accomplished men of letters in early America. While he continued to practice law, he wrote six other plays. Only four exist today, three are biblical plays and the fourth  another social satire, The Island of Barrataria. Also also produced a number of verse and prose works, including a colorful adventure novel, The Algerine Captive (1797).  The plot is the memoir of a young man who has a series of misadventures eventually leading to enslavement by barbary pirates. In addition to being a bit of Americana it ends with a serious call for Americans to unite. The book had more than one printing and is only the second American work to be printed in Britain.

Royall Tyler: jurist and author in late life

Author & Attorney

Tyler's literary works were published anonymously. After all, the arts were still considered something beneath the mainstream and he was a serious jurist with a reputation to maintain. His works brought little income. He clearly produced them out of a labor of love. Many modern authors, including this one, can relate to the situation! As a member of the legal profession, he sought to correct those ills and follies which he satirized in his writing. He died in Brattleboro, Vt.

The Seed of Modern Theater Long Forgotten

The success of The Contrast brought contemporary drama and theatrical productions into high favor among all classes. Over a short period of time they went from mild disdain to high regard and sometimes wild popularity. In that sense the "arts" owe him a great deal. Certainly modern stage does. Yet I am sure few in the business know of Royall Tyler the patriot and playwright who birthed their art form. Methinks a new rebellion need take place. A Royall rebellion in fact. Perhaps the "Tony" should be renamed the "Tyler?"

So should Tony become Tyler?

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