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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Spirit of Nationalism Royall Tyler (1757-1826)

[4423] Anonymous, The First Step [Godey’s Lady’s Book] (1858), courtesy of Hope Greenberg, University of Vermont.

Born into a wealthy Boston family, Royall Tyler would grow up to become the author of the first successful and widely performed American play. He entered Harvard at the age of fifteen and proved such a brilliant student that he earned baccalaureate degrees from both Harvard and Yale. After graduation, Tyler enlisted with the Boston Independent Company and fought intermittently in the American Revolution, eventually rising to the rank of major. When the focus of the war shifted to the South, Tyler’s military duties abated and he turned his attention from the army to the law. He passed the Massachusetts bar in 1780 and soon established himself in a successful legal practice. He became engaged to Abigail Adams, the daughter of John Adams, but failed to impress the future president as a suitable match for his daughter. Adams apparently feared that Tyler’s taste for literature and conversation indicated that the young man was “not devoted entirely to Study and to Business–to honour & virtue.” Acquiescing to her father’s wishes, Abigail Adams broke her engagement to Tyler and married her father’s secretary instead.

In 1787, Tyler was recalled into military service, this time to help quell Shays’s Rebellion, an insurrection of back-country farmers in Massachusetts who were resisting the government’s economic policies, prosecution of debtors, and high taxes. After suppressing the rebellion Tyler was sent to New York City on official business. There he attended the theater for the first time and developed what would become a consuming passion for plays. Inspired by the New York production of English playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, Tyler decided to write his own play, and, just over a month later, The Contrast was staged at the John Street Theater. Tyler’s effort met with a warm response; the play received generally favorable reviews and was soon performed in other American cities. The Contrast is an important milestone in American literature because it was the first widely performed play that featured American characters and self-consciously promoted republican values and American patriotism. In early America, plays were often perceived as a morally questionable genre: Congress had banned theater during the Revolutionary War because it was “extravagant and dissipating,” and in postwar society the stage continued to be dogged by its associations with dubious morality and hated British culture. Tyler met these criticisms head-on in his play, making his subject the “contrast” between virtuous, homespun American values (represented by the characters of Manly, Maria, and Jonathan) and foppish, insincere, European pretensions (represented by Dimple, Charlotte, and Jessamy).

Over the course of his long life, Tyler composed several more plays, as well as a number of essays and a novel. Literature was not a lucrative profession in the early nation, however, and he continued to support himself and his family by practicing law. He settled in Vermont in 1791, married in 1794, and rose to prominence as a professor of law at the University of Vermont and eventually as the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

Teaching Tips

  • Have students read the review of The Contrast that appeared in The New York Daily Advertiser in 1787 (the text of the review is featured in archive). The review, with its commentary on the acting and staging of the first New York production of Tyler’s play, should help students recognize that eighteenth-century audiences experienced The Contrast as a performed spectacle rather than as a written text. Ask students to think about what the reviewer praised and what he criticized. Why does he critique Maria and Manly’s soliloquies? What values inform his claim that soliloquies “wound probability”?
  • Ask your students to assume parts and act out a scene from the play (the end of Act II, Scene 1 with Charlotte, Letitia, and Manly would work well, as would the concluding scene, Act V, Scene 2, which involves all of the main characters). Be sure that students have read through the play and the accompanying footnotes on their own before acting it out–the language and allusions can be obscure so you want to be certain that they understand the action and characters before performing the script. Ask students to think about which characters are the most enjoyable to play and which lines are the easiest to deliver. Is the play still funny? Why or why not? What are its most comedic aspects?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is being “contrasted” in The Contrast? What values and characteristics mark some characters as more authentically “American” than others? What is “Americanness” being contrasted with in the play?
  2. Comprehension: What does Maria’s father Van Rough mean when he talks about “minding the main chance”? What does he seem to value in a son-in-law? How does his attitude toward marriage compare to Maria’s and Manly’s? Whose values win out in the conclusion of the play?
  3. Context: The first reviewer of The Contrast declared that Tyler’s characters “are drawn with spirit, particularly Charlotte’s,” but was disturbed by the “suddenness” of Maria’s affections and by her “misplaced” song and soliloquy. What ideals of womanhood and femininity do Maria and Charlotte represent? Which of these women do you think best occupies the position of “heroine” in this play? Why do you think the reviewer found Charlotte such an appealing character? What are her faults? What are her virtues? How does she change over the course of the play? How do Charlotte and Maria relate to women portrayed in sentimental novels, such as the suffering Charlotte Temple or the evil Madame LaRue in Susanna Rowson’s novel?
  4. Context: Many literary critics have claimed that Colonel Manly is meant to be understood as a kind of George Washington figure. What characteristics relate him to George Washington? What kind of relationship to the military and to the Revolution does he have? What kind of relationship does he have with his sister? Why does Charlotte tease and make fun of Manly? What do you make of the fact that some of the humor of the play comes at Manly’s expense? Why do you think Tyler named this character “Manly”?
  5. Exploration: The character of the rustic, dialect-speaking Jonathan started a vogue in American literature for homespun “Yankee” types. Plays and novels from the early nineteenth century often feature naíve rural characters indebted to Tyler’s portrait of the simple, sincere country bumpkin. Can you think of characters in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, art, or film that bear a relationship to Jonathan? How have portraits of rural Americans changed over time?

Selected Archive Items

[3147James Brown Marston, The Old State House [Boston] (1801),
courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
In this rare painting by the otherwise relatively unknown Marston, we see commerce at work in Boston’s traditional center, only a few years after the seat of government had moved to the New State House on Beacon Hill. Royall Tyler hailed from the Boston of this era.

[4423Anonymous, The First Step [Godey’s Lady’s Book] (1858),
courtesy of Hope Greenberg, University of Vermont.
These homespun Americans are similar to the characters in Royall Tyler’s The Contrast, the first American comedy played in public by professional actors.

[5046Gilbert Stuart, George Washington [Photograph of a painting] (1900),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-D416-29910].
The figure of Washington quickly became central to the new nation’s understanding of itself. Colonel Manly in Royall Tyler’s The Contrast may have been modeled after Washington.

[8565] Bruce Michelson, Interview: “Old World Ties” (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Bruce Michelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, discusses the relationship of the Old World to America, a theme that underlies Royall Tyler’s The Contrast.

[9053Candour, Review of The Contrast, from the New York Daily Advertiser (1787).
This contemporary review of Royall Tyler’s The Contrast was published in the New York Daily Advertiser in 1787.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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