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

§ 14. Historical and National Plays

Little criticism, indeed, may be levelled at the quantity of the plays based upon native themes, historical or contemporary. Disregarding mere pantomime, theatrical history down to 1860 records performances of nearly two hundred plays with a national background, of which some forty are available for examination. First in point of time come the Indian dramas, of which the most important are Stone’s Metamora, Bird’s Oralloosa, and the series of plays dealing with the Pocahontas theme. The best of these are The Indian Princess by Barker (1808), Pocahontas or The Settlers of Virginia by George Washington Custis, first played in Philadelphia, 16 January, 1830, Pocahontas, by Robert Dale Owen, acted first 8 February, 1838, in New York, with Charlotte Cushman as Rolfe, and The Forest Princess, by Charlotte Barnes Conner, acted in Philadelphia, 16 February, 1848. They all emphasize the love story of Rolfe and Pocahontas and make John Smith a central character. Mrs. Conner alone tasks Pocahontas to England, where she dies. Of the colonial dramas, Barker’s Superstition (1824) and R. P. Smith’s William Penn (1829) seem the most significant.

As was natural, the Revolution was the most appealing theme. Practically every great event from the Boston Tea Party to the Battle of Yorktown was dramatized. The treason of Arnold and Andrès capture was a favourite theme and it is to our credit that Andrè usually is a heroic figure. Marion and Franklin were also favourites, but everyone else runs a bad second to Washington so far as the stage is concerned. One of the most interesting scenes occurs in Blanche of Brandywine (1858) by J. G. Burnett, in which Howe deliberately puts himself in Washington’s power in order, apparently, to offer him a dukedom. After refusing in terms which are refreshingly human, considering the usual vocabulary allotted to the Father of his Country in literature, Washington calmly lets his antagonist depart in peace. Patriotism must have covered a multitude of sins in this class of drama, for it otherwise is difficult to explain the success of John Burk’s Bunker Hill (1797), hard to recognize as the work of the author of Joan D’Arc. Dunlap’s Glory of Columbia is not bad, and such a play as Love in ’76 (1857) by Oliver Bunce must have given a good opportunity for a clever actress.

Leaving the Revolution, we find the troubles with the Barbary States celebrated in eight plays, beginning with Mrs. Rowson’s Slaves in Algiers (1794), which is made a vehicle to express abolition sentiments in general. The War of 1812 was reflected in such popular plays as She Would Be a Soldier of Noah (1819), and R. P. Smith’s The Eighth of January (1829), and The Triumph at Plattsburg (1830). As an illustration of the quick reflection of events upon the stage we find a statement in Durang that on 8 December, 1812, there came news of the capture of the Macedonian by the United States and that on II December a patriotic sketch entitled The Return from a Cruise was performed at the Chestnut Street Theatre, in Philadelphia, including a part for Captain Decatur. Almost as prompt had been the dramatization of the victory of Constitution over the Guerrière. The fight occurred on 31 August, 1812. On 9 September, William Dunlap’s Yankee Chronology was played in New York, while on 28 September, the opening night, a play was on the stage in both Boston and Philadelphia. Clapp tells us that “in the early days of the theatre, every public event of sufficient importance was immediately dramatized, and during the progress of the war, the spirit was kept up by the frequent production of pieces in honour of our naval victories.”

The Mexican War furnished its quota of plays, none, however, of special significance. Nor was the ready appeal to the stage limited to martial themes. We find the Anti-Masonic agitation represented in such a play as Captain Morgan or The Conspiracy Unveiled (1827), while toward the close of our period the adventures of Walker in Nicaragua, the Mormon emigration, and the California gold fever find dramatic expression. Most important, of course, was the great question of abolition, reflected in the run of G. L. Aiken’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. which was first acted at the Museum in Troy, New York, in September, 1852, and after long runs there and elsewhere was performed almost nightly in New York City from 18 July, 1853, to 19 April, 1854. Though it was not the first stage version it distanced all others as to popularity. It follows the book quite closely in its language but is melodramatic in the extreme and is really a succession of scenes rather than a play. The same criticism may be applied to Mrs. Savage’s Osawattomie Brown, which placed on the stage of the Bowery Theatre on 16 December, 1859, a dramatic account of the raid of 1 November.