The American Legacy
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"Theatrical archaeologist extraordinaire" - - Back Stage
by Royall Tyler
In 1787, The Contrast became the first play by an American to ever receive a professional production. But it is because the play is a sophisticated, subversive, and dead funny piece of theater that it truly merits the title of First American Play, and that it is very worthy of a new look today.
Culture Warrior In the aftermath of revolution, a new country faces new challenges of self-definition. Four years after the Treaty of Paris, Americans actively debated what moral behavior, sartorial expression, economic liberties, and standards of education were appropriate to citizens of the new “United States.” Into these troubled waters dove soldier and scholar Royall Tyler with a play to engage the cultural debate, The Contrast.
Part call to virtue, part cautionary tale, the play is all comic satire: sentimental Maria Van Rough—a young woman becoming dangerously well-read—was betrothed as a child to Billy Dimple, who has recently returned from Europe a foppish lothario. Loathing Billy’s affectations but bound by her duty, Maria complicates her dilemma by falling in love with an earnest soldier: Henry Manly. Tangling and untangling the quandary on the way to a (mostly) happy ending are two calculating belles, one scheming servant, a naïve bumpkin, and the boorish old Van Rough himself.
The Contrast is not, perhaps, over-burdened with plot. But if the essence of drama is conflict, it is full of drama. The original situation comedy, its action is in its contrasts, and each playful comparison brings to life a spirited conflict: Old/Young; Integrity/Pretense; Merchant/Inheritor; Soldier/Socialite; Europe/America; Parent/Child; Duty/Desire; City/Country; Tradition/Innovation; New York/Boston; Man/Woman. Each character’s story illustrates something of an American crisis, and its heroine, Maria, articulates the American dilemma herself: drawn by her personal inclinations to the pursuit of happiness, but bound by old world conventions, which give her joy and protection themselves, in the very real form of her father.
Choice Weapon What gives the play its delightful edge is doubtless a knowing irony, one informed by its very creation. A legacy of the colonies’ puritanical foundation: professional theaters were banned in New England and embattled even in New York. (Detractors saw them as a leisure activity of European aristocrats on the one hand and as an immoral practice of false presentiment on the other.) Tyler fought for American self-definition, then, with a weapon whose very use was a subject of controversy! Cannily, his play comments on the contemporary theater and its own theatricality, and therefore on the play-acting of society. Not only does this self-awareness turn up the humor—servant Jonathan’s mistaking a play for real life is a veritable stand-up routine—but The Contrast’s laughing duplicity paints a far more affecting portrait of American culture than any political speech, sermon, or civic decree.
Styled after English Restoration Comedy, the play is subversively American. Long credited with inventing the quintessentially American figure of the droll Yankee in down east servant Jonathan, it challenges both Old World and New World pretenses with every character, from bumpkin to fop. Its new American variations on theater types are written to skewer pretense and posturing with satiric wit. The generous are as misled as the selfish; the lascivious as innocent as the pure. As in all great theater, here is a rounded and complicated picture of virtue and vice, allowing for human frailty and strength in folks both plain and fancy. It is no mere patriotic polemic, but a subtle critique of social duplicity on all sides.
Meanwhile, Jonathan must be seen as the singular and influential founding father he is. Taken as an American version of the yokel—naïve, selfish, and unlettered, but virtuous and clever in his own way—his long line of literary and cultural descendents make up a large family, including Rip Van Winkle; Mark Twain’s Connecicut Yankee Hank Morgan, Mr. Deeds; Bugs Bunny; Die Hard hero John McLain; President G. W. Bush.
Ongoing Maneuvers Our staging emphasizes the play’s mockery of the ephemeral pretense of high and low society. In a nod to “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” costume and set are pared down to essentials, and the richly embellished world of the play is created by the actors literally out of air. With an infusion of theater magic, the new production points up the play’s satires of the excesses of the wealthy, the folly of grandstanding righteousness, and dangers of speculation without substance.
The Contrast was a salvo in a cultural battle fired with force and panache, and it still echoes today. Metropolitan proudly presents it as the first in our 18th season, one devoted to departures from the past, with the theme: Starting Over.
Royall Tyler (1757 – 1826) arrived in New York from his native Massachusetts in March of 1787 never having attended a play before, but he saw his Contrast staged that April.
The secret to his play’s success may owe to his familiarity with each character he describes—from profligate heir to plain soldier, successful merchant to society outcast. Born to an influential and wealthy family and educated at Yale and Harvard, he squandered his inheritance in what he acknowledged was generally dissolute youth. With entrée to Boston society, he courted the daughter of John and Abigail Adams, only to be rejected for his spotty reputation. During a brief stint in the Continental Army, he attained the rank of Major, while his civilian career was in law. His writing seems largely to have been an avocational diversion: he printed several plays, poems, and essays, yet most were published anonymously.
Married in 1794, he fathered eleven legitimate children, and an uncertain number of illegitimate ones as well. Settling with his family in Vermont, he was a successful advocate, and ultimately attained the position of Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. He died in poverty, however, having suffered the debilitating effects of a decade long battle with facial cancer.
New York City in 1787
On 25 November 1783 General George Washington and his troops
entered New York City and the British flag was taken down at the
last of the British troops left for their ships. It was a carefully
orchestrated procedure. Washington was concerned that a temporary
authority would lead to thievery and riots. None occurred, but the
at the foot of the island of Manhattan was a wreck of its former self.
fire in 1776 had destroyed many of the buildings on either side of
(St. Paul’s Chapel remained as it does today). During the long
September 1776 to the late November day in 1783, most of the houses in
had been used to garrison the British troops. The patriot owners had
city and their houses and warehouses were fair game. When it became
clear that Tories
had no apparent promise in the newly independent confederation of
came to the city to be embarked on ships to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia,
England itself. Some 29,000 Tories were evacuated in the months before