Home  »  Volume XV: English COLONIAL AND REVOLUTIONARY LITERATURE EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 1. The Origins of the Drama in College Exercises

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

II. The Early Drama, 1756–1860

§ 1. The Origins of the Drama in College Exercises

OUR native drama, even though it antedated the novel and the short story, has practically no history until the latter half of the eighteenth century. The first drama written in this country which is now in existence, the satirical farce, Androborus, was printed, it is true, in 1714. It was by Governor Richard Hunter of New york, but as he was an Englishman, the interest in his work is limited to its representation of local conditions. Androborus was not acted, and had no influence in the development of an acting drama. The two forces which seem to have led to the production of a native play upon the stage were the indirect influence of the early performances of masques and of dramatic odes and dialogues at the colleges, and more directly, the acting of the regular company of professional players.

The earliest college exercise, including original composition, that has survived, is Francis Hopkinson’s revision of The Masque of Alfred, originally written by Thomson and revised by Mallet in 1751, which deals with the invasion of England by the Danes. It was performed, according to Hopkinson’s statement, serveral times during the Christmas holidays of 1756–7 in the College of Philadelphia. Hopkinson’s original lines number more than two hundred, besides a new prologue and epilogue, and new scenes are introduced so that the masque may be considered as in large measure original. What makes it of special interest is the fact that Thomas Godfrey, our first dramatist, who grew up under the tutelage of William Smith, Provost of the College, and who was a close friend of Hopkinson, was in all probability prompted to write by witnessing this and similar early attempts at dramatic composition.

Among these college exercises others that have survived are An Exercise Containing a Dialogue and Ode Sacred to the Memory of his late Gracious Majesty, George II, performed at the public commencement in the College of Philadelphia, 23 May, 1761, the dialogue being by the Rev. Dr. William Smith, the first Provost, and the ode by Francis Hopkinson. A similar exercise on the accession of George III was performed at the public commencement on 18 May, 1762. The epilogue on this occasion was by the Rev. Jacob Duche, Hopkinson’s classmate and afterwards chaplain of Congress. A similar entertainment, The Military Glory of Great Britain, was performed at the commencement in the College of New Jersey, 29 September, 1762, while there is evidence of dramatic interest at Harvard College if not dramatic authorship as early as 1758.