Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
actors graphicCreating America's Theatre
actors graphic
Introduction to the Exhibit
Early American Theatre
A Novel Idea
Setting the Modern Stage
A Voice of Their Own
Picks and Pans
Playbills and Programs
Regional Theatre in Virginia

Early American Theatre

New Playwrights for New Stages

With the Revolutionary War over, the new republic struggled to achieve a sense of order. The years immediately following the conflict brought great economic turmoil and uncertainty. Subsequently, the American theatre continued to lie dormant and creativity suffered. Although the American Company returned from the Caribbean, reinvented as the Old American Company, the group performed tried-and-true classic plays that guaranteed an audience, overlooking newer contributions.

Nonetheless, by the end of the eighteenth century, original works by American playwrights started to appear to answer the needs of a new nation, and theatres sprouted up in every major metropolitan area. The nineteenth century saw the continued growth of theatre in America with new plays, the creation of the star system for actors, and the theatrical phenomenon known as the “long run.” Despite the new writing talent pushing the theatre forward, theatre managers held the financial and artistic reins, contracting plays to be written as vehicles for specific actors and undercompensating an unacknowledged playwriting profession.


Royall Tyler

A lawyer from a prominent Boston family, Royall Tyler visited New York City in 1787 and saw a performance by the American Company of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. Within a month of seeing the production, Tyler wrote his first play, The Contrast. The American Company produced this five-act comedy of manners on April 16, 1787, thereby making The Contrast the first American comedy by an American-born playwright to be professionally produced by an American theatre troupe. Tyler modeled the play on Sheridan’s School but created the first truly “Yankee” character for the American stage, that of the country-bumpkin manservant, Jonathan. Set in New York’s social world, the characters illustrate the “contrast” between unpretentious sturdy Americans and ostentatious anglophiles. The prologue creates the tone for what follows:

Exult each patriot heart! – this night is shewn
A piece, which we may fairly call our own;
Where the proud titles of ‘My Lord! Your Grace!’
To humble Mr and plain Sir give place.
Our Author pictures not from foreign climes
The fashions, or the follies of the times;
But has confin’d the subject of his work

To the gay scenes – the circles of New-York.

Tyler wrote several other plays, but none rivaled the popularity of The Contrast.


[Tyler, Royall]. The Contrast: A Comedy in Five Acts: Written by a Citizen of the United States. Philadelphia: Thomas Wignell, 1790.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Peter Markoe

Immigrating to Philadelphia from the West Indies in 1783, Peter Markoe wrote two plays, The Patriot Chief (1784) and Reconciliation (1790), neither of which were produced in his lifetime. Reconciliation, a comic opera, set to music the German play Erasmus and by adding songs represented an early musical.


Markoe, Peter. The Reconcilliation; or, The Triumph of Nature: A Comic Opera. Philadelphia: Printed and sold by Prichard and Hall, 1790.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

William Dunlap

William Dunlap is considered the first professional American playwright. Born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Dunlap wrote, adapted, and translated nearly sixty plays during his career in the theatre. As well as being a playwright, he also was a partner in the management of the Old American Company and opened the Park Theatre in New York with John Hodgkinson in 1798. The Father; or, American Shandyism appeared in 1789, at the John Street Theatre in New York and marked Dunlap’s first professionally produced work. It was a popular success, and he immediately followed it with another, Darby’s Return. As his reputation in the theatre grew, he continued with a steady output of plays for the next forty years. His most well-known play is the tragedy André (1798), based on the celebrated British spy case of Major John André during the Revolutionary War. Dunlap’s successes facilitated the acceptance of other plays by American playwrights in the professional theatre. With his History of the American Theatre (1832), a comprehensive chronicle of the first eighty years of theatre in America, Dunlap had earned the title of “the father of American drama.”


Dunlap, William. André; A Tragedy, in Five Acts: As Performed by the Old American Company, New-York, March 30, 1798. New York: Printed by T. and J. Swords, 1798.
From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

John Hodgkinson

A British-born actor, John Hodgkinson immigrated to America in 1792 to join the Old American Company under the management of Lewis Hallam, Jr., and John Henry. Hodgkinson became a principal actor on the American stage, distinguishing himself particularly in the title role of William Dunlap’s André. With Hallam and later Dunlap, he became involved in the management of both the John Street Theatre and the Park Theatre in New York. His professional relationship with Lewis Hallam and Hallam’s wife, however, created a great deal of conflict, prompting Hodgkinson to pen a pamphlet defending his position in the company.

Hodgkinson was said to have been ruthless in his dealings in the theatre, commandeering choice leading roles and driving from management first John Henry and then Lewis Hallam, Jr. He became one of the first stars of the star system in the American theatre.


Hodgkinson, John. The Man of Fortitude; or, The Knight’s Adventure. New York: David Longworth, 1807.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


John Daly Burk

Radical Irish immigrant John Daly Burk fled to the United States after being expelled from Dublin’s Trinity College because of his outspoken political and religious views. After an initial failure as the editor of an extremist newspaper in Boston, Burk turned his writing talent to the stage. His Bunker-Hill; or, The Death of General Warren first opened in Boston’s Haymarket Theatre in February 1797. Though denounced by critics, the play became a favorite with audiences particularly during Fourth of July celebrations. This patriotic five-act tragedy included a climactic battle scene replete with armies, cannon fire, and a military band. Burk wrote several other plays and briefly returned to newspaper editing in New York only to be arrested for sedition in 1798. He then fled to Virginia, where he lived until his death in a duel in 1808.


Burk, John. Bunker-Hill; or, the Death of General Warren. New York: Printed by T. Greenleaf, 1797.
From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

James Nelson Barker

Born into a prominent Philadelphia family, James Nelson Barker contributed ten plays to the American theatre repertoire of the early nineteenth century before devoting the remainder of his life to serving his country in the office of Controller of the United States Treasury. Barker shaped most of his plays around American themes and historical incidents. The Indian Princess; or, La Belle Sauvage (1808) portrayed the legend of Pocahontas for the first time on the American stage. His last and most successful play, Superstition (1824), dramatized the constraints of Puritan society in seventeenth-century New England.


Barker, J[ames] N[elson]. The Indian Princess; or, La Belle Sauvage. Philadelphia: Printed by T. and G. Palmer, for G. E. Blake, 1808
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

George Henry Boker

George Henry Boker, born in Philadelphia and educated at Princeton, initially trained to be an attorney but instead chose to pursue a career as a poet and playwright. His first play, entitled Calaynos: A Tragedy (1848), drew on the conflict between the Spaniards and the Moors. Not particularly successful at writing comedies, Boker concentrated his playwriting on historical tragedy written in blank verse. He is best remembered for his five-act drama Francesca da Rimini (1855), which is based on a portion of Dante’s Inferno. Following an initially mediocre reception, Francesca was revived in 1882 and again in 1901 to greater success. While Boker continued his writing, the later years of his life were spent as a diplomat, serving as a United States envoy to both Turkey and Russia.


Boker, George H. Calaynos: A Tragedy. Philadelphia: E. H. Butler, 1848.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Autograph letter, signed, from George H. Boker to Stoddard. 28 March 1853.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Boker discusses theatrical business and the play Francesca da Rimini


Engraving of George H. Boker, signed, by John Sartain. Philadelphia, no date.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


John Howard Payne

Actor, critic, and playwright, John Howard Payne was drawn to the theatre at an early age. He wrote his first play when he was fifteen, a year after having published one of the initial American theatrical periodicals, The Thespian Mirror (see “The Critics”). Shortly thereafter, Payne made his stage debut in New York. William Dunlap wrote in A History of the American Theatre that:

Master Payne made his first appearance in character on any stage. This young gentleman was now 16 years of age, and small for that age, looking still younger. His face was remarkably handsome, his countenance full of intelligence, and his manners fascinating… He performed Young Norval with credit, and his succeeding characters with an increased display of talent… The applause bestowed on his Norval was very great – boy actors were then a novelty, and we have seen none since that equaled Master Payne.

Lasting success on the American stage, particularly in New York, became increasingly difficult for Payne, and in 1813, he left America for England to pursue his acting career. However, fame eluded him on the British stage as well, and Payne turned to playwriting as a means of extricating himself from debt. During the course of his career, he wrote over fifty plays, the most well known being Brutus (1819), Therese (1821), and Charles the Second (1824), on which he collaborated with Washington Irving. Another moderately successful joint effort between these two friends found its way to stage as Richelieu (1826). Although a prolific playwright, John Howard Payne is best remembered for the song “Home, Sweet Home,” the lyrics for which he penned for his operetta Clari; or, The Maid of Milan (1823).


Engraving of John Howard Payne by H. B. Hall. New York, no date. In bound letterbook, containing autograph letters to and from John Howard Payne and others.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Payne, John Howard. Richelieu: A Domestic Tragedy. New York: E. M. Murden, 1826.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Autograph letter, signed, from Washington Irving to John Howard Payne. 25 February 1826.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Albert H. and Shirley Small Special Collections Library
University of Virginia
PO Box 400110
Charlottesville, VA 22903-4110
ph: 434.924.3025  |  fax: 434.924.3143
Credits | Comments |  Special Collections
Library Home | Search the Library Web
Maintained by: mssbks@virginia. edu
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 27, 2010
© The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia