Home  »  Volume XV: English COLONIAL AND REVOLUTIONARY LITERATURE EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 2. Influence of the Early Companies; Godfrey’s Prince of Parthia, the first American Play

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

§ 2. Influence of the Early Companies; Godfrey’s Prince of Parthia, the first American Play

Of more direct influence, however, on early dramatic writing, were the performances of plays by the company under David Douglass. There seem to have been theatrical performances in this country since 1703, but the permanent establishment of professional acting dates from the arrival of Lewis Hallam and his company from England in 1752. This company acted in Philadelphia in 1754, where Godfrey doubtless saw them, and it was to this company after its reorganization under Douglass in 1758 that he offered his play, The Prince of Parthia, which he had finished before the end of 1759. It was not performed at this time, but was acted on 24 April, 1767, at the Southwark Theatre, in Philadelphia, according to an advertisement in The Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser of 23 April, which contains a list of the players who were to take part. Godfrey did not live to see his play, but died in 1763, two years before it was published. This play, the first written by an American to be produced by a professional company, is a romantic tragedy, laid in Parthia about 200 B.C., and is written in blank verse of a flexible and dignified character. It is no unworthy beginning for American dramatic poetry, but it led at the time to no school of writing. It is interesting, however, to note that at a later period the most significant literary drama in this country was produced in the field of tragedy to which The Prince of Parthia belongs.

The Pre-Revolutionary period was purely a tentative one. The work of Charlotte Lenox, who was born here but whose plays were written and played in England, hardly concerns us, while such plays as Ponteach, by Major Robert Rogers (1766), or The Disappointment of Col. Thomas Forrest (1767), since they were not acted, fail to be significant, however tragic the recital of Indian wrongs in the former or however comic the hoax described in the latter may be. The Conquest of Canada, performed at the Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia, 17 February, 1773, has been sometimes referred to as “the second American play,” but its author, George Cockings, was an Englishman, who wrote the play while in Boston, and it is in any case of little value either in matter or form.