American Literature: Drama, literature intended for performance, written by Americans in the English language. American drama begins in the American colonies in the 17th century and continues to the present.
Most American plays of the 18th and 19th centuries strongly reflected British influence. In fact, no New York City theater season presented more American plays than British plays until 1910. The reasons behind this phenomenon are complex, but a common language and the ready availability of British plays and British actors offer the most obvious explanation.
Although the British repertory dominated the American stage for so long, American drama had begun to diverge from British drama by the time of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, from 1828 to 1836. British plays, which typically reflected the attitudes and manners of the upper classes, were by then in conflict with more egalitarian American values. Despite this growing divergence, British actors, theater managers, and plays continued to cross the Atlantic Ocean with regularity, and most American plays copied British models until the early 20th century. For this reason some critics claim that American drama was not born until the end of World War I (1914-1918).
By the end of the 19th century American drama was moving steadily toward realism, illuminating the rough or seamy side of life and creating more believable characters. Realism remained the dominant trend of the 20th century in both comedies and tragedies. American drama achieved international recognition with the psychological realism of plays by Eugene O’Neill and their searing investigation of characters’ inner lives. As the century advanced, the number of topics considered suitable for drama broadened to encompass race, gender, sexuality, and death.
Beginnings: 1600s AND 1700s
Because settlement was sparse and living conditions were arduous in the American colonies, little theatrical activity took place before the mid-18th century. The first-known English-language play from the colonies, Ye Bare and Ye Cubb (1665), is lost. The play’s existence is known as a result of the controversy it aroused in the Virginia Colony, where a lawsuit was filed to prevent the play from opening. Several colonies had passed antitheater laws based on a Puritan belief that the seventh of the Ten Commandments prohibited dancing and stage plays.
The oldest surviving American play is Androborus by Robert Hunter (1714). Hunter, the New York Colony’s governor, published the cartoonish play as an attack on his political enemies, despite New York’s antitheater law. Intended for a reading public rather than a viewing audience, it established a tradition of political satire that became common fare in American drama of the 1700s.
Before more American plays had appeared, a company of British professional actors established a touring circuit in the 1750s with an all-British repertory. By the early 1760s this group was known as The American Company and American writers occasionally submitted plays to the actors, though few were produced. But in 1767 The American Company staged The Prince of Parthia, a tragedy by Thomas Godfrey, in Philadelphia. This is usually considered the first professional production of a play written by an American. The play itself is indistinguishable from imitations of the works of English dramatist William Shakespeare that abounded in Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
During the American Revolution (1775-1783), most professional actors moved to Jamaica. Satirical plays were written as propaganda during the war, either supporting British control of the colonies or attacking it. British soldiers presented some of the pro-British plays. Few other plays were performed during the war years, although they were widely read and recited. The Battle of Brooklyn (1776), which was pro-British and written anonymously, presented rebel generals, including George Washington, as drunks, lechers, and cowards. The Blockade (1775), written by British General John Burgoyne, was performed in British-occupied Boston. The play’s ridicule of American soldiers was subsequently burlesqued in The Blockheads; or the Affrighted Officers (1776), written by an anonymous playwright identified only as a patriot. The Blockheads depicts British soldiers as so terrified of the Americans that they soil themselves rather than go outside to use the latrine. Mercy Otis Warren, who created several biting satires of the British, may have written The Blockheads as well. She remained the strongest American dramatic voice of the Revolution and championed the rebel cause in The Group (1775), a play that describes Britain, called Blunderland, as a mother who eats her own children. The Patriots (1775?), a play by Robert Munford, was unusual in its appeal for a neutral stance and its attacks on both sides for their intolerance.