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New-York            Maryland

Col. MANLY,         Mr Henry.    Mr Hallam.
DIMPLE,             Mr Hallam.   Mr Harper.
VANROUGH,           Mr Morris.   Mr Morris.
JESSAMY,            Mr Harper.   Mr Biddle.
JONATHAN,           Mr Wignell.  Mr Wignell.

CHARLOTTE, Mrs Morris. Mrs Morris. MARIA, Mrs Harper. Mrs Harper. LETITIA, Mrs Kenna. Mrs Williamson. JENNY, Miss Tuke. Miss W. Tuke. SERVANTS SCENE, NEW-YORK.

THE 'Contrast' was the first American play ever performed in public by a company of professional actors. Several plays by native authors had been previously published, the more noteworthy being the 'Prince of Parthia,' a tragedy by Thomas Godfrey of Philadelphia, which was probably written, and was offered to Hallam's company in 1759 (but not pro- duced), and was printed in 1765, two years after the author's death.<1>

A comedy called the 'Mercenary Match,' by one Barnabas Bidwell, is said to have been performed by the students at Yale College, under the auspices of the Rev. Dr. Ezra Styles, President of the College. Dun- lap speaks of having heard it read, but does not men- tion whether it was from a manuscript or printed copy. It was printed at New Haven in 1785. The 'Contrast,' however, was the first to meet successfully the critical judgment and approval of a professional manager. This fact alone should redeem it from the neglect and inattention it has heretofore met with. Besides, it possesses considerable intrinsic merit, and as an acting play will compare favorably with many of the English comedies of the period; and though, perhaps, meager in plot and incident, it is bright, humorous, and natural; the dialogue is sparkling with genuine wit; and its satire aimed at the evils and follies of the time is keen and incisive. The contrast between the plain and simple honesty of purpose and breeding of our American home life and the tinseled though polished hypocrisy and knavery of foreign fashionable society is finely delineated, and no doubt suggested the name of the play. Thoroughly natural in its plan and characters, it was a bold venture of a young writer in a new literary domain.

The character of Jonathan is a thoroughly original conception; nothing of the typical Yankee, since so familiar and popular, had as yet appeared, either on the stage or in print.

The 'Contrast' was first performed<2> at the John Street Theater, New-York City, on the 16th of April, 1787, and undoubtedly met with the approval of the public, as it was repeated on the 18th of April, the 2d and 12th of May the same season, and was reproduced with success later at Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston. It was, as far as can be learned, the first literary effort of its author, a most remarkable genius, and one of the pioneers in several branches of our literature, who, up to within a few weeks of its production, had never attended a theatrical performance.

Royall Tyler, the author of the 'Contrast,' was born at Boston, Mass., July 18, 1758, and belonged to one of the wealthiest and most influential families of New England. He received his early education at the Latin School, in his native city, graduated at Harvard, and during the Revolutionary War, and afterward in Shay's Rebellion, acted as aid-de-camp with the rank of Major on the staff of General Benjamin Lincoln. It was owing to the latter event that he came to New-York, being sent here by Governor Bowdoin on a diplomatic mission with reference to the capture of Shay, who had crossed the border line from Massachusetts into this State. This was the first time that Tyler had left his native New England, and the first time he could have seen the inside of a regular theater, thus confirming the statements made in the preface of the play as to the author's inexperience in the rules of the drama, and as to the short time within which it was written, as his arrival in New-York was within but a few weeks of its first performance.

Tyler was apparently immediately attracted to the theater, for he became a constant visitor before and behind the curtain, and rapidly gained the friendship of all the performers, particularly that of Wignell, the low comedian of the company. He gave Wignell the manuscript of the 'Contrast,' and on the 19th of May, the same year, produced for that actor's benefit his second play, 'May-day in Town, or New-York in an Uproar,' a comic opera in two acts. He shortly after- ward returned to his home at Boston, where, several years later (1797) another play from his pen, called 'A Good Spec, or Land in the Moon,' was produced. I have been unable to ascertain whether either 'May- day' or 'A Good Spec' was ever printed or not.

Tyler's modesty or indifference as to his literary rep- utation, as evidenced in his treatment of his plays, characterized his conduct throughout life with respect to his other works; so that, of the many productions of his pen that have been printed, the only one that bears his name upon the title-page is a set of Vermont Law Reports. And though early in life he acquired among literary circles a reputation as a witty and graceful writer of poetry and prose, it is doubtful whether he benefited much by his writings, either pecuniary or in popularity, as an author. They were undoubtedly the recreation of his leisure moments, and though they were thrown off from time to time without apparent effort, they bear internal evidence of being the result of deep reflection and much reading.<3>

Tyler adopted the legal profession, married, settled in Vermont, became celebrated as a successful advo- cate, was elected a Judge, and later, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Vermont, and died at Brattleboro, in that State, August 16, 1826.

The success of the 'Contrast' was one of the pow- erful influences which aided in bringing about in this country a complete revolution of sentiment with respect to the drama and theatrical amusements. Up to the time it first appeared, the drama here had met with few friends, and but little favor.

A single company of English players, the so-called first "American Company," after a long and bitter struggle with the intolerance and prejudices of the Puritan and Quakers, had attained some slight favor in New- York, Philadelphia, and some of the Southern cities; but in New England the prohibitory laws against all theatrical amusements were still in force and were rigidly executed. The Continental Congress, while not absolutely suppressing,<4> had set its seal of condemnation against the theater, so that the most reputable and law- abiding of our people were kept away from all theatrical amusements, if not from inclination, at least by the fear of deviating from the plain path of their duty. But immediately after the production of the 'Contrast,' a radical change of opinion in respect to the drama is apparent.

Plays by American authors followed in rapid succession, the stigma against the theater gradually and completely faded away; and when the first citizen of the United States, the immortal Washington, attended in state as President to witness a first-night performance of an American play, the revolution was complete. At Boston a number of the most prominent, intelligent, and influential citizens assembled in town meetings, and passed resolutions instructing their representatives to demand of the Legislature an immediate repeal of the laws against theatrical amusements, and upon such repeal being refused, they subscribed the necessary funds to erect a theater and invited the American Com- pany to visit Boston to give a series of performances there, which invitation was accepted. There was some interference on the part of the authorities, but the new theater was erected and performances publicly given there, while the prohibitory law became a dead letter.

It will be noticed that the frontispiece is from a drawing by Dunlap, which must have been done by him shortly after his return from England, where he had been studying art as a pupil under Benjamin West. It was evidently intended to represent the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Morris, Mr. Henry, Mr. Wignell, and Mr. Harper, in their respective characters in this play, with the scenery as given in the last act at the John Street Theater, the first season, but the inferior work of the engraver had made it of little value as likenesses.

The illustration to the song of Alknomook is from music published contemporaneously with the play. This song had long the popularity of a national air and was familiar in every drawing-room in the early part of the century. Its authorship has been accredited both to Philip Freneau and to Mrs. Hunter, the wife of the celebrated English physician, John Hunter. It was published as by Freneau in the American Museum, where it appears (with slight changes from the version in the 'Contrast') in vol. I., page 77. But Freneau never claimed to have written it, and never placed it among his own collections of his poems, several editions of which he made long after the 'Contrast' was published. Mrs. Hunter's poems were not printed till 1806, and the version of the song there printed is an exact copy as given in the play. This song also ap- peared in a play, entitled, 'New Spain, or Love in Mexico,' published at Dublin in 1740. After considerable research, I have become convinced that Alknomook is the offspring of Tyler's genius.


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Etext Prepared by Judith Boss