The American Legacy
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The Contrast
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.

-Alex Roe

New York City in 1787
Historical Notes by Peter Judd

On 25 November 1783 General George Washington and his troops entered New York City and the British flag was taken down at the Battery; the last of the British troops left for their ships. It was a carefully orchestrated procedure. Washington was concerned that a temporary vacuum of authority would lead to thievery and riots. None occurred, but the small city at the foot of the island of Manhattan was a wreck of its former self. A great fire in 1776 had destroyed many of the buildings on either side of Broadway (St. Paul’s Chapel remained as it does today). During the long occupation from September 1776 to the late November day in 1783, most of the houses in the city had been used to garrison the British troops. The patriot owners had fled the 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 states, thousands came to the city to be embarked on ships to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, or England itself. Some 29,000 Tories were evacuated in the months before that November day.

Men who had been among the Sons of Liberty who demonstrated in the streets of the city against British rule in 1775 and 1776 returned, several of them to places on a newly constituted City Council which met in January 1784. The Governor of the State was George Clinton who had led resistance in New York throughout the Revolution. These men were radicals, to an extent living on their records, protectionist in trade, opposed to reconciliation with England or with Tories. However, one of them, the once fire-eating James MacDougall, started a continental bank in 1784 to which Alexander Hamilton, veteran of Continental Army service, joined, an unlikely but successful combination that created the Bank of New York. Credit thus became available to rebuild the city. Trade resumed quickly, across the Atlantic of course, but even as far as China to which the first ship departed in 1784. With the revived economy there came to be moneyed traders and merchants. Their dress and style were inevitably English.

The ex-Sons of Liberty held numerous city offices, but several of them greatly overplayed their hand in a matter that bears directly on an important statement of Colonel Manly in the play. A group of them combined to buy up the promissory notes given to Continental soldiers in lieu of immediate payment. They bought them at heavily discounted rates—thus exploiting the veterans-- and expected to make a killing when the notes were paid. The public rejected them at the next polls, rewarding conservatives. Hamilton, sophisticated and economically aware, was the most prominent of those urging reconciliation with the Tories. The benefits of this were seen by others, and those who had remained on the fence during the war were allowed to keep their property; by 1787 all but “named” Tories were allowed to return. (The named Tories such as the DeLancey family) had their lands appropriated and distributed to patriots.)  By 1787 when The Contrast had its premier the city was doing quite well. A look at the advertisements in the New York Packet of the day of the premier will show the number and type of goods available that a Charlotte could choose from.

The new elite returned to the American version of the Anglican religion in the newly organized American Protestant Episcopal Church, of which Trinity on Broadway in the same location as the present house was the crown jewel.

While the economy of New York was recovering, there was distress in other parts of the young country. The refusal to accept taxation of farmers in western Massachusetts led to armed intervention under ex-Continentals in what has come to be known as Shays’ Rebllion, in which conflict Royall Tyler himself took part as a major.

The “battery” where young women might meet young men, as Charlotte did Mr. Dimple in the play, was of course, the site of the present-day Battery. The Mall probably refers to fashionable Broadway, the center of wealth and elegance.

Colonel Manly and Jonathan come from Massachusetts; they are Puritan Yankees brought up in Congregationalism with its spare services and strict codes of morality. Jonathan becomes the first “Stage American,” speaking for common sense: he is open, trusting, naïve, honest, sturdy in his values. Col. Manly likewise praises the homespun, the prudent and modest, the person who steers his own independent way, quite indifferent to imported fashion and manners. Jonathan’s “Shin-Shin” refers to the Society of Cincinnati, formed by Continental officers, including Washington, that some considered the beginning of an aristocracy of inheritance. We meet later versions of these Americans in Emerson, Mark Twain, and Henry James, to Gary Cooper and on and on.

We learn that Colonel Manly had served in New York at “Harlem Heights,” meaning the fierce engagement there in mid-September 1776 between a scouting party of the British and Americans under Washington. The Commander in Chief early in the year had issued the call for support which resulted in several thousand men from all over the colonies assembling in and around Manhattan to repel the British armed force that was known to be preparing to invade. The Royal Navy and the British army regiments arrived in July, 30,000 strong. In late August they drove the Americans from what is now Brooklyn, and a few days later landed a force at Kips Bay, north of the city. Washington and his force retreated to the high ground in the north of the island where the campus of CCNY is today. The British scouting party headed north to feel out the rebels’ positions. A firefight ensued in which the British were driven back to about what is now the corner of West End Avenue and 106th Street. Then engagement involved few men, but it was the first time in the actions around New York that the Americans had seen the backs of redcoats. It lifted morale during the most harrowing weeks and months of the Revolution. We can assume that Col. Manly continued with the army on the retreat through New Jersey, at the victory at Trenton, and on to Yorktown and to the last encampment at New Windsor where surely he urged patience to those officers concerned about being paid, and there he would have accepted the promissory note that he will not cash in until the new country is on a firm financial basis.

Tyler knew a good play when he read one as he probably had Sheridan’s School for Scandal which was fresh on the stage. Some of his language and plot remind of this entertaining satire on pretension, but he incorporated the specific American theme of the worth of direct speaking, unpretentiousness, and aversion to aristocracy and privilege.  

See Barnet Schecter, The Battle for New York (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), pp. 382 ff.