American Literature: Drama

American Literature: Drama, literature intended for performance, written by Americans in the English language. American drama begins in the American colonies in the 17th century and continues to the present. "See also "Drama and Dramatic Arts.

Most American plays of the 18th and 19th

Most American plays of the 18th and 19th centuries strongly reflected British influence. In fact, no New York City theater season presented more American plays than British plays until 1910. The reasons behind this phenomenon are complex, but a common language and the ready availability of British plays and British actors offer the most obvious explanation.

Although the British repertory dominated

Although the British repertory dominated the American stage for so long, American drama had begun to diverge from British drama by the time of Andrew Jackson`s presidency, from 1828 to 1836. British plays, which typically reflected the attitudes and manners of the upper classes, were by then in conflict with more egalitarian American values. Despite this growing divergence, British actors, theater managers, and plays continued to cross the Atlantic Ocean with regularity, and most American plays copied British models until the early 20th century. For this reason some critics claim that American drama was not born until the end of World War I (1914-1918).

By the end of the 19th century American

By the end of the 19th century American drama was moving steadily toward realism, illuminating the rough or seamy side of life and creating more believable characters. Realism remained the dominant trend of the 20th century in both comedies and tragedies. American drama achieved international recognition with the psychological realism of plays by Eugene O`Neill and their searing investigation of characters` inner lives. As the century advanced, the number of topics considered suitable for drama broadened to encompass race, gender, sexuality, and death.

Beginnings: 1600s and 1700s

Because settlement was sparse and living

Because settlement was sparse and living conditions were arduous in the American colonies, little theatrical activity took place before the mid-18th century. The first-known English-language play from the colonies, "Ye Bare and Ye Cubb "(1665), is lost. The play`s existence is known as a result of the controversy it aroused in the Virginia Colony, where a lawsuit was filed to prevent the play from opening. Several colonies had passed antitheater laws based on a Puritan belief that the seventh of the Ten Commandments prohibited dancing and stage plays.

The oldest surviving American play is

The oldest surviving American play is "Androborus "by Robert Hunter (1714). Hunter, the New York Colony`s governor, published the cartoonish play as an attack on his political enemies, despite New York`s antitheater law. Intended for a reading public rather than a viewing audience, it established a tradition of political satire that became common fare in American drama of the 1700s.

Before more American plays had appeared

Before more American plays had appeared, a company of British professional actors established a touring circuit in the 1750s with an all-British repertory. By the early 1760s this group was known as The American Company and American writers occasionally submitted plays to the actors, though few were produced. But in 1767 The American Company staged "The Prince of Parthia, "a tragedy by Thomas Godfrey, in Philadelphia. This is usually considered the first professional production of a play written by an American. The play itself is indistinguishable from imitations of the works of English dramatist William Shakespeare that abounded in Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

During the American Revolution (1775-1783)

During the American Revolution (1775-1783), most professional actors moved to Jamaica. Satirical plays were written as propaganda during the war, either supporting British control of the colonies or attacking it. British soldiers presented some of the pro-British plays. Few other plays were performed during the war years, although they were widely read and recited. "The Battle of Brooklyn "(1776), which was pro-British and written anonymously, presented rebel generals, including George Washington, as drunks, lechers, and cowards. "The Blockade "(1775), written by British General John Burgoyne, was performed in British-occupied Boston. The play`s ridicule of American soldiers was subsequently burlesqued in "The Blockheads; or the Affrighted Officers "(1776), written by an anonymous playwright identified only as a patriot. "The Blockheads "depicts " "British soldiers as so terrified of the Americans that they soil themselves rather than go outside to use the latrine. Mercy Otis Warren, who created several biting satires of the British, may have written "The Blockheads "as well. She remained the strongest American dramatic voice of the Revolution and championed the rebel cause in "The Group "(1775), a play that describes Britain, called Blunderland, as a mother who eats her own children. "The Patriots "(1775?), a play by Robert Munford, was unusual in its appeal for a neutral stance and its attacks on both sides for their intolerance.

By the mid-1780s professional actors were

By the mid-1780s professional actors were touring in America again. In 1787, when the Constitution of the United States was being written, Royall Tyler wrote "The Contrast, "the finest American play of the 18th century. This five-act comedy owes much to "The School for Scandal "(1777) by British playwright Richard Sheridan. Like Sheridan`s play, "The Contrast "is a comedy of manners that satirizes the customs of the upper classes. It compares British and American fashions and values and ultimately sides with what it sees as American candor and patriotism over British duplicity and artificiality. A masterful element of the play is the Yankee character Jonathan, whose honest innocence stands in stark contrast to the rumor-mongering and gossiping of the play`s British characters and the American characters who emulate them.

The 1700s also saw the first American play

The 1700s also saw the first American play written by a woman reach the professional stage. The melodramatic comedy "Slaves in Algiers "(1794) by Susanna Rowson reflects troubles at that time with pirates along North Africa`s Barbary Coast who interfered with shipping and ran a white slave trade that involved selling girls and women into prostitution. Although the villain was treated comically, the conflict and resolution in this play indicated a move toward melodrama, a form of drama that became extremely popular in the 19th century.

Nationhood: The 1800s

American plays

American plays, while still a minority, began to appear in the theater repertory in the 19th century. Although American plays were still styled after British models, their subject matter came to be based on specifically American incidents or themes. In the United States as in Britain, many plays reflected the influence of "romanticism", a European literary and artistic movement. Melodrama, with its outpourings of emotion, was the most prevalent dramatic form in the 19th century. Gothic melodramas, which emphasized horror, mystery, and the supernatural, and melodramas with tragic endings appeared regularly in American theaters from the 1790s onin many cases adapted or translated from German, French, and British plays.

American Themes

The first prolific writer of melodramas

The first prolific writer of melodramas was William Dunlap, who also translated several German plays for production in the United States. Dunlap adapted Revolutionary War history in "Andre "(1798), a fictionalized account of the final days of British spy Major John Andre. In 1803 Dunlap reshaped the play as a musical, "Glory of Columbia," in which George Washington is elevated to divine status. It was an early example of spectacle dominating dramatic content. Dunlap took spectacle even further in "A Trip to Niagara "(1828) by making the play`s purpose the duplication of scenic wonders that the audience would recognize, such as Niagara Falls.

Replication of local color

Replication of local color, as in "A Trip to Niagara," became the norm in 19th-century American melodrama and encompassed details of scenery, dialects, and gestures representative of specific locations; contemporary slang; and historical incidents. An early example is "She Would Be a Soldier "(1819) by Mordecai Noah. The play depicts the military spectacle of the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain and features a heroine who disguises herself as a soldier to help the American cause and join the man she loves.

Although American drama of the 19th century

Although American drama of the 19th century usually followed European models, its subject matter often came from specifically American situations. "Superstition "(1824), a romantic tragedy by James Nelson Barker, for example, was set in New England of 1675. It discussed conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers, British interference in local affairs, Puritan "xenophobia "(fear and dislike of foreigners), and the idea of witchcraft. "Superstition," in which the hero is tried and executed for witchcraft, " "was the first of many American plays to explore themes of isolationism, bigotry, and intolerance.

Barker`s "The Indian Princess "(1808)

Barker`s "The Indian Princess "(1808) was the first professionally produced play to explore Native American characters and themes. It told the story of Pocahontas, a Native American who married an English colonist. A vogue for so-called Indian plays began in the 1820s and continued through the 1840s. While the Pocahontas story was popular in these plays, the most famous such drama was "Metamora, or The Last of the Wampanoags "(1829) by John Augustus Stone. It was written as a vehicle for American actor Edwin Forrest, who began in 1828 to offer annual awards for new plays on American themes and gave "Metamora "first prize. This melodrama was typical of most Indian plays in its setting in an earlier period of frontier history (the 1670s) and its characterization of the Native American hero. Metamora was viewed as natural but uncivilizedthat is, living in harmony with nature but unfamiliar with what European settlers saw as civilized ways. The play put forth sentiments in harmony with white values and ended with Metamora`s inevitable death as the representative of a displaced race that cannot survive with the white man. By midcentury the waning importance of Indian plays was signaled by works that lampooned them. Irish-born playwright John Brougham, for example, wrote "Metamora, or the Last of the Pollywogs "(1847), a musical burlesque that made fun of the idealized and earnest original.

Also in the 1820s an African American acting

Also in the 1820s an African American acting troupe called the African Theatre was organized in New York City by dramatist William Henry Brown. The troupe produced plays by Shakespeare as well as African American plays, including "The Drama of King Shotaway "(1823) written by Brown. Although Indian plays of the 1820s and 1830s written by whites preached tolerance and understanding for Native Americans, white toughs chased Brown`s company off the stage, and no copies survive of the African American plays it produced.

American romantic plays took various forms.

American romantic plays took various forms. But without the American slant in subject matter, it would be difficult to distinguish these plays from British melodrama and romantic tragedy. What may be the best American play of the time, "Francesca da Rimini "(1855), is a romantic verse tragedy by George Henry Boker about an Italian noblewoman of the 14th century. It presents a villainous fool, a forbidden love affair, and a grotesque, semi-villainous hunchback in the role of the protagonist. However, nothing in the play`s characters and setting or its imitation of Shakespearean style marks the play as American.

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