Home  »  Volume XV: English COLONIAL AND REVOLUTIONARY LITERATURE EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 11. The Philadelphia Group: R. M. Bird, R. P. Smith, Conrad, Boker

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

§ 11. The Philadelphia Group: R. M. Bird, R. P. Smith, Conrad, Boker

Forrest also inspired Robert Montgomery Bird of Philadelphia to write The Gladiator in 1831. It was played by Forrest in all parts of the Union and at Drury Lane in 1836. In this play Dr. Bird combined the principal sources of dramatic interest—self-preservation, love of wife, child, and brother, desire for freedom, and personal loyalty—in one central character, expressed this combination of qualities and sentiments in a vigorous personality, especially suited for Forrest, and clothed the sentiments expressed in a dignified and flexible blank verse, varied at times by prose. Bird’s tragedy of Peru, Oralloosa (1832), but more especially his Broker of Bogota (1834), both produced by Forrest, are among the most significant of American dramas. The character of Febro in The Broker of Bogota, energetic, with a middle-class mind but courageous and with a passion for his children, is admirably conceived. Bird was also known as a novelist, and one of his romances, Nick of the Woods, dramatized by Louisa Medina in 1838, proved to be one of the most successful melodramas of the time. His Infidel was dramatized by Benjamin H. Brewster and played in Philadelphia in 1835, and The Hawks of Hawk Hollow was put on the stage in 1841.

Bird’s fellow-citizen, Richard Penn Smith, while not so great a dramatist, is significant on account of his laudable attempts to treat native material. At least fifteen of his plays were performed, eleven of which have been preserved in print or in manuscript. Of his tragedy Caius Marius, in which Forrest starred, we have only tradition and one scene. His national plays, The Eighth of January, celebrating Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, William Penn, his drama of colonial and Indian life, both played in 1829, and The Triumph at Plattsburg (1830), concerned with McDonough’s victory on Lake Champlain, are vigorous plays and were well received.

Although Robert T. Conrad’s historical play of Jack Cade, first acted in Philadelphia in 1835, was not written originally for Forrest, it was through his acting that it received its best interpretation. This play was a worthy rival of Bird’s dramas for facour here and abroad. It has deeper significance than appears at first glance, for it was made a vehicle for the expression of democratic ideals, and this strengthened its hold on the American people.

The most significant of this group of Philadelphia dramatists was George Henry Boker. His first play, Calaynos, is a tragedy based on the hatred of the Spaniards for the Moors. Previous to its performance in Philadelphia in 1851, it had a long run at the Sadlers Wells Theatre in London in 1849, where Samuel Phelps played Calaynos and G.K. Dickenson, Oliver. His second tragedy, Leonor de Guzman, produced in 1853, was also laid in Spain and is concerned with the revenge of the injured Queen, Maria of Portugal. His comedy The Betrothal, produced successfully in Philadelphia and New York in 1850, and played in England in 1853, is laid in Italy. With the exception of Under a Mask, a prose comedy, performed in Philadelphia in 1851, all of Boker’s acted plays are of a distinguished quality. His masterpiece, however, was his tragedy Francesca da Rimini, first acted by E. L. Davenport in 1855 in New York and Philadelphia, and revived by Lawrence Barrett in 1882 and by Mr. Otis Skinner in 1901. The art with which the medieval Italian life is depicted, the music of the verse and the noble conception of Lanciotto, the wronged husband and brother, lift this tragedy to its deserved place in the first rank of verse dramas written in the English language during the nineteenth century.