The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 13. Romantic Tragedy
Of greatest distinction as literature are the tragedies. About eighty of these were performed, forty of which are extant, and they belong usually to the type known as romantic tragedy. In many cases there is an additional historical interest. Among those dealing with ancient history the most significant are Payne’s Brutus (1818), Bird’s Gladiator (1831), David Paul Brown’s Sertorius, the Roman Patriot, acted by the elder Booth in 1830, and Waldimar by John J. Bailey, produced by Charles Kean in 1831 and based on the massacre at Thessalonica in the fourth century A.D. Dunlap’s Leicester (1794), Barker’s Marmion (1812), and Conrad’s Jack Cade (1835) are the best of the dozen dealing with English history, while the historical interest is also definite in such tragedies as John Burk’s Female Patriotism or The Death of Joan D’Arc (1798), Dunlap’s Virgin of the Sun (1800), Mrs. Ellet’s Teresa Contarini (1835), a venetian tragedy, Epes Sargent’s Velasco, laid in Burgos in 1046, and acted by E. L. Davenport in 1837, and Bianca Visconti, by Nathaniel Parker Willis, based on the career of Francesco Sforza. This play won the prize competition offered by Josephine Clifton, who produced it in 1837 in the principal cities of this country. It held the stage as late as 1852. George H. Mile’s prize play of Mohammed, performed in 1851, and Leonor de Guzman and Francesca da Rimini of Boker belong also to this group. Even in the historical tragedies, however, it is the unhappy lot of the main character and the interest of the unfamiliar that hold the attention rather than the background, and there is no clear line to be drawn between those which are historical and those which are not. To the latter class belong Bird’s Broker of Bogota, and a tragedy of peculiar interest, Octavia Brigaldi, by Mrs. Conner, in which she acted in the title role in 1837. The play was repeated often in this country and was successfully produced in London. It was based on the killing, in 1828, by Colonel Beauchamp of Kentucky, of Colonel Sharpe, who had seduced Beauchamp’s wife before their marriage. Mrs. Conner transfered the scene to Milan at the close of the fifteenth century. This preference for foreign scenes, especially in Spain or Italy, remains one of the significant features of this type of play. There has been a tendency to criticize these playwrights for failing to confine themselves to national themes, which in view of the existence of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Othello seems beside the point. But there is nothing so satisfactory in a review of our early drama as the steady progress in romantic tragedy from The Prince of Parthia in 1767 to Francesca da Rimini in 1855.