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Early American Theatre

Revolutionary Dramatists

While the American stage darkened during the Revolution, the work of patriotic dramatists flourished. Plays espousing the revolutionary cause appeared as pamphlets and circulated throughout the colonies. Most, however, were never performed. They survive as political commentary on the struggle for American freedom.

 

Mercy Otis Warren

Mercy Otis Warren found her voice as a prolific political satirist during the Revolutionary War. As the sister of Massachusetts patriot James Otis and the wife of James Warren, the president of the Provisional Congress of Massachusetts, she came in constant contact with the leaders of the struggle for independence. She counted John and Abigail Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock among her friends. From this vantage point, Warren directed her satirical blank-verse plays at the Tories, attacking those who represented the king and opposed the Massachusetts Assembly.

 

Warren, M[ercy Otis]. Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous. Boston: Printed by I. Thomas and E. T. Andrews, 1790.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Contents include The Sack of Rome and The Ladies of Castille.

 

Hugh Henry Brackenridge

Though best known for his novel Modern Chivalry, Hugh Henry Brackenridge wrote two plays during the period of the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Bunkers-Hill (1776) and The Death of General Montgomery in Storming the City of Quebec (1777), both written in blank verse, espoused the American colonial cause, drawing on famous incidents of the war.

 

[Brackenridge, H. H.] The Battle of Bunkers-Hill. Philadelphia: Printed by Robert Bell, 1776.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

John Leacock

John Leacock, a Philadelphia silversmith, wrote a sprawling five-act political play entitled The Fall of British Tyranny: or, American Liberty Triumphant (1776). This published, though never performed, play was the first to include a portrayal of George Washington. A sweeping saga spanning England and the American colonies, it chronicled the early war years and the events leading up to the break with the British.

From the first page to the last, Leacock constructed his political diatribe to rally the American colonists to the cause, calling for decisive action:

Hail! Patriots, hail! By me inspired be!
Speak boldly, think and act for Liberty,
United sons, America's choice band,
Ye Patriots firm, ye favours of the land.
Hail! Patriots, hail! Rise with the rising sun,
Nor quit your labour, till the work is done

 

Dick Rifle [John Leacock]. The Fall of British Tyranny: or, American Liberty Triumphant. Philadelphia: Printed by Styner and Cist, 1776.
Gift of John Fleming for the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Robert Munford

A major in the Revolutionary War and a Virginia planter, Robert Munford wrote two comedies that satirized colonial social mores and politics. The plays were neither performed nor published during Munford's lifetime but reached the public posthumously in 1798 when issued by his son. The Candidates; or, The Humours of a Virginia Election (c. 1771) lampooned the election procedures of the Virginia House of Burgesses. A minor character, Ralpho, is commonly noted as being the first portrayal of an African American in American drama. Munford's second play, The Patriots (c. 1776), condemns overzealous patriotic fervor, offering an argument in favor of quiet, determined action.

 

Munford, Robert. A Collection of Plays and Poems. Petersburg, VA: Printed by William Prentis, 1798.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

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