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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

§ 22. The Periods in the Development of the American Drama

The dramatization of American novels calls for a word of comment here. The work of Cooper, W. G. Simms, J. P. Kennedy, C. F. Hoffman, R. M. Bird, T. S. Fay, Mrs. Stowe, and others, was quickly placed on the stage. It will be noticed that it was chiefly in the sphere of the romance that this was the case, Cooper being the prime favourite. Though this work was rarely done by a dramatist of distinction, it was often popular.

What impresses one most in a survey of these types of drama is the evidence of organic growth. It is possible to trace in the development of the drama in this country before the Civil War certain fairly distinct periods. The first ends with the closing of the theatres in 1774 and has as its principal event the production of The Prince of Parthia in 1767. The second, from 1774 to 1787, includes the Revolutionary satirists and is a transition period. The third begins with the production of The Contrast in 1787 and closes with the termination of Dunlap’s first period of managership in 1805. It was a period of tentative effort, partly under the influence of German and French models. The fourth period from 1805 to 1825 is one of development, with considerable native effort, but still largely under foreign influence, both English and Continental. The fifth was a significant and creative period, from 1825 to the Civil War, with its climax in Francesca da Rimini in 1855.

This development was interrupted naturally by the Civil War. What would have been its course had the war not occurred it is perhaps fruitless to speculate. There were signs of a quickening of dramatic interest in the late fifties under the encouragement of such managers as Lester Wallack and Laura Keene, but the domination of the stage by Dion Boucicault and John Brougham, while it resulted in some significant plays, especially in a later period, was not an unmixed blessing from the point of view of the production of American drama. The dramatization of English and French novels with resultant long runs, indeed the very success of Boucicault’s original dramas, made for conditions in which the work of new playwrights became less in demand. The old days in which a manager was willing to put on a play for a few nights were going fast, and with them went our early drama. That its significance in the history of our literature has never been appreciated is due largely perhaps to the fact that some of its most important monuments are still unprinted. But of its significance both in itself and for the later drama there is no shadow of doubt.