In "Early American Drama," editor Jeffrey H. Richards has assembled eight important American plays, all written between 1787 and 1859. The plays include "The Contrast," Royall Tyler's satire of financial and sexual politics; "The Indian Princess," James Nelson Barker's musical retelling of the legend of Pocahontas; "The Gladiator," Robert Montgomery Bird's tragedy of slavery in ancient Rome; "Fashion," Anna Cora Mowatt's witty comedy about life in New York; and four other gems.
Richards has not only written an insightful introduction for the entire anthology, but provides informative separate introductions to each play. He shares relevant details about each author's life and about the cultural context in which the play was written and performed. Extensive bibliographic material further adds to this book's value as a scholarly resource.
Richards has also made an excellent selection of plays. These literary works brilliantly illuminate the social, political, and cultural issues which impacted the United States from the late 18th to mid 19th centuries. As the editor says in his introduction to the collection, these texts "will still reward the careful reader." Whether one is interested in images of the Native American, substance abuse, racial anxieties, gender politics, or abolitionist thought, one will find plenty of relevant material in "Early American Drama."
I used this book as a class text when I taught a course in early American literature at the University of Pittsburgh some time ago. Some of our best class sessions were spent with the students assuming roles in scenes from these plays and performing these scenes. It was marvelous to hear these classic texts come to life. These are not just texts to be studied by scholars; these plays are a vibrant part of the cultural heritage of the United States. Read, critique, learn, and enjoy.
on March 16, 2014
This collection, even if it were terrible, would deserve at least three stars for covering a unique subject matter that has been systematically ignored by generations of readers and academics: early American drama. Most people think that ‘early American drama’ would refer to Arthur Miller or Thomas Lanier Williams III (“Tennessee” Williams), but in fact there were nearly two centuries’ worth of American playwrights active prior to the work of these admittedly prominent authors. Sadly, American literature before 1900 of any kind is undervalued in our current society, and as the introduction to this anthology states, labelling a work ‘melodramatic’ is akin to admitting that it has no literary merit of any kind. But our current society has lamentable and uninformed taste, and as such, we may safely disregard the bulk of its collective opinion and forge our own notions of what is worth reading and what is best kept on the shelf by daring to read outside the narrow confines of the twentieth century.
This collection contains eight pieces: The Contrast (1787) by Royall Tyler, André (1798) by William Dunlap, The Indian Princess (1808) by James Nelson Barker, The Gladiator (1831) by Robert Montgomery Bird, The Drunkard (1844) by William Henry Smith, Fashion (1845) by Anna Cora Mowatt, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) as adapted by George L. Aiken from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, and The Octoroon (1859) by Dion Boucicault. [Technically speaking, I would not consider the last one an American play, although it is set in the United States and was written and performed there, as the playwright was born and raised in Ireland and spent most of his adult life in England.] They are, respectively, a comedy of manners in the tradition of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a heroic tragedy featuring a popular British major that General Washington executed amidst protest, a musical comedy/melodrama of the Pocahontas story, an epic-heroic retelling of the Spartacus story, a temperance play with an especially creepy central villain, a social commentary on keeping up appearances, an adaptation of Stowe’s antislavery novel, and a controversial and romantic race tragedy. I award to these works four stars throughout, as I enjoyed the plays, was temporarily moved to laughter or concern in the appropriate places, but did not mentally return to them and marvel as I would at five-star writing.
The eight plays in this volume each come from a different pen, and were written for varying purposes. Yet they all functioned as mass popular entertainment, which is clearly detectable from their style and structure. In my opinion the mass taste of yesteryear is immensely preferable to the mass taste of today; nonetheless, some of the sentiments or conventions may strike the reader as crude or ineffective. However, these plays, while they are obviously of specialist and historical interest, are worthwhile reads in themselves, and I would enjoy seeing productions of them in place of the same stale hits or the regrettable debacle that constitutes most experimental theatre.
I ordinarily admire Penguin Classics editions, but the editing of Jeffrey H. Richards was a constant irritation that marred my enjoyment of the plays. Although knowledgeable and relatively helpful regarding notes and suggestions for further reading, Richards seemed not to enjoy his own subject, which should be instant disqualification; an introduction is not meant to turn the reader against the coming material, but to whip them into a frenzy to read it while also providing useful background and biographical information. Furthermore, Richards writes for an academic audience only, whereas the edition is aimed at intelligent lay readers as well as professional scholars. Finally, Richards never misses a chance to ‘get political’, allowing his obvious appreciation for certain schools of literary criticism to skew the reader’s interpretation of the material in directions that sometimes are merely prejudiced (modern prejudices are not any more “rational” than bygone prejudices; their subscribers are simply more numerous!), but occasionally are actually textually incorrect; for instance, Richard’s reading of Powhatan as a ‘foolish father figure’ does not stand up to examination of Barker’s text.
Despite the inferior quality of the supporting material, I would recommend this edition of the works simply because they are nowhere else in print, and deserve to be read and even performed today. To almost all readers this will be new territory, and many readers will have to get off their politically correct high horses to avoid being offended by some of the racial treatments or getting dismayed by the old fondness for melodrama found in these plays that our hyperrational age no longer fosters, to our considerable detriment. “Try it, you just might like it.”