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A Nation´s Heart - An analysis of 18th century american drama with special regard to Royall Tyler´s 'The Contrast'

Seminararbeit 2008 12 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Eighteenth Century American Drama
2.1. Brief Historical Survey
2.1.1. American Theatre as a Devil´s Den
2.1.2. A Fight for Entertainment and Art
2.2. A Nation´s Heart
2.2.1. Goals and Intension of Early American Plays
2.2.2. The Image of the Imagined Community of a Nation

3. Text Analysis: The Contrast as an Interface of Three Different Tendencies
3.1. The Contrast as a Political Play
3.2. The Contrast as a Work of Art
3.3. The Contrast and its Yankee Jonathan: a Case of Idealisation

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Walter J. Meserve concludes in his work An Outline History of American Drama that many eighteenth century American plays “indicate little dramatic talent and were written more to criticize and to propagandize than to create a work of art, but the passion of some exhibited in these plays often strikes a spark of real life“ (38). Given this, Meserve portrays early American drama as a weapon with the ambition to educate its readers in a specific (American) way. In the same breath, this also means that the play´s form and its dramatic elements are less important than its implicit (political) message, which leads to the conclusion that early American drama is merely a political mouthpiece.

Contrariwise, this paper will show that besides educating its readers, early American plays should also be read as a work of art. This will be illustrated by Royall Tyler´s play The Contrast which is an outstanding example of the eighteenth century literature, combining political issues with formidable art. In summary, the overall question that will be answered in this study is: Which political issues of his time does Tyler portray in his comedy and which other readings of the play are possible? I assume that the political tendency is only one aspect. Above all, the paper will point out that the play is also construction of art and shows a special concept of utopia.

The following part will shed light on the intension of early American drama, defining its desired goals and characteristics. In a first step, a brief overview of the historical situation will be given in order to have a better understanding why
eighteenth-century plays are plays of a change. Additionally, this section also gives answer to the question, which features a text must have in order to be called a nationalistic text.

The third part of this study analyses the comedy The Contrast. The first section points out the political tendencies that can be found in the play. The second section gives answer to the question why The Contrast can be seen as a construction of art. Finally, the role of the Yankee Jonathan will be discussed. In conclusion, the whole chapter will work out an emphasis of the three tendencies.

2. Eighteenth-century American Drama

2.1. Brief Historical Survey

Walther Meserve´s focus on the critical and propagandistic intention of early American plays can be seen both, as a denial of dramatic talent, but also as a statement which alludes to the historical reality and problems early American plays had to face. This section will briefly introduce the commencements of American theatre. It will sum up both problems that theatres had to face and solutions that had been made to improve its reputation. All in all, the desired goal of this survey is to gain a background knowledge which is important in order to understand the drastic changes in eighteenth century American drama.

2.1.1. American Theatre as a Devil´s Den

Jürgen Wolter describes the commencements of eighteenth century American theatre to present day performances as the development “[f]rom the Devil´s Den to the Nation´s Temple“ (The Dawning of American Drama, 9). Behind the image of the 'devil´s den' hides the widespread opinion that drama was being considered dangerous and nonconformist “because it constructed a world of the imagination, which, for many members of the community, was more attractive than the world of God´s creation“ (Ibid, 9). In general, entertainment was being considered “a waste of time that should be much better employed in religious investigations“ (Ibid, 9). To make matter worse, theatres were often placed in the red-light district of a city. Given this, theatre was linked with the representation of sin per se and thus, was regarded as morally depraved. As a result, “[o]n May 6, 1709, the Governor´s Council of New York passed a law forbidding 'play-acting and prize fighting'“ (Meserve, 6). This was only the starting point of several other prohibitions that followed soon.[1]

2.1.2. A Fight for Entertainment and Art

For supporters of stage performances it was rather a religious or moral question, “but [...] a social and political one, because it had direct consequences for the individual´s rights, his life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness“ (Wolter, The Dawning of American Drama, 10). Managers and actors defended their plays in prologues and hid themselves behind the illusion of elusive words, giving theatres aliases like Boston Museum or performing Shakespeare´s Othello[2] as “Series of Moral Dialogues in five parts depicting the evil effects of Jealousy and other Bad Passions and Proving that Happiness can only Spring from the Pursuit of Virtue“(Meserve, 7). All in all, they tried to highlight the theatre´s moral and cultural potential. After the Revolutionary War,

[t]he question was no longer whether playhouses and dramatic troupes should be tolerated, if not supported, but rather what the specific tasks of the drama and theatre in the newly established American society were and how an indigenous American drama should differ from its European models. (Wolter, The Dawning of American Drama, 10)

These specific tasks, Wolter refers to, will be discussed in the next section of this chapter.

2.2. A Nation´s Heart

The following section discusses the aims and intension of early American drama. It will be shown that the desired goals are primarily political. Nevertheless, this paper will emphasise that one should also take the role of art into consideration. In addition, this section will briefly analyse what features a text must have in order to be called a 'national text'.

2.2.1. Goals and Intension of Early American Plays

The Pre-Civil War phase is characterised by the attempt of breaking up with the domination of English plays on American stages. After having gained political independence one wanted to be culturally independent as well. This was, however, a hard challenge for dramatists, who had to convince the audience that American productions were of equal quality compared to English ones. Referring to specific national elements was one successful possibility (cf. Wolter, Die Helden der Nation, 246).

In his essay „Die Helden der Nation: Yankee, Pionier und Indianer als nationale Stereotypen im amerikanischen Drama vor dem Bürgerkrieg“ Jürgen Wolter points out that

[d]er neue Kontinent mit seinen andersartigen natürlichen Voraussetzungen und der neue Staatenbund mit seinen fast revolutionären historischen und sozialen Grundlagen lieferte dem Drama genügend heimische Themen, Stoffe, Figuren und Motive. (Wolter, Die Helden der Nation, 246)

Episodes of the young republican history were very popular and, furthermore, widely liked because they were effective in evoking patriotic emotions. Moreover, these episodes seemed to be appropriate in so far that the young republic could celebrate its own prosperities. (cf. Wolter, Die Helden der Nation, 246)

Even in the development of history, the focus of interest was still on the evidence of a national American character. This national character was defined in contrast to England and their shared history. While searching for an own national identity, American stage figures like the Yankee[3], the frontiersman, the Indian and the Negro received an outstanding meaning because they soon developed into an expression of nationalism (cf. Wolter, Die Helden der Nation, 247). At first glance these stages figures seem to be completely different. But one aspect they have in common is that they all become stereotypes and that they are a projection screen for a specific American language and identity and, finally, are a reflection of the American history.


[1] For detailed information see Meserve, 6-7.

[2] William Shakespeare. Othello. The Arden Shakespeare. Ed. E. A. J. Honigmann. 3rd edition. London: Thomson Learning, 2006.

[3] The role of the Yankee will be discussed in more detail in chapter 3.


ISBN (eBook)
415 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Mannheim
Nation´s Heart Royall Tyler´s Contrast Literatures Early National Period



Titel: A Nation´s Heart - An analysis of 18th century american drama with special regard to Royall Tyler´s 'The Contrast'