The contrasts in The Contrast

We’ve written here before about Royall Tyler’s 1787 play The Contrast, which was the first American play to be professionally staged. Set in Manhattan following the Revolution, the play takes Sheridan’s comedies of manners as a model for its send-up of New York society. I have a brief treatment of the play in my essay “The City on Stage” in our Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, in which I write about comparisons the play sets up between the theater and urban life, particularly in moments we would recognize as metatheatrical. (For another take on metatheatrical commentary in the play, see John Evelev’s 1996 essay in Early American Literature; institutional subscription required for that link.)

The most exemplary of the play’s many metatheatrical moments involves a visit to the theater by Jonathan, a “waiter” (not a servant, he explains!) to the play’s ostensible hero, the grave Revolutionary War veteran Colonel Manly. Jonathan is the prototypical “Stage Yankee,” a bumpkin character that appeared in American drama and folklore through the nineteenth century. Jonathan and his successors are bewildered by the city but often enjoy some form of moral triumph in the end, either by virtue of native simplicity or what we might call farm-smarts. Think Forrest Gump but from Western Mass; another descendant, the “Stage West Texan,” is the character George W. Bush created for The American Presidency. (Oh, wait … that was real life?)

In Tyler’s play, Jonathan visits the John Street Theater but thinks he’s attending church. (His minister had warned him against the theater and he never would have gone in had he known where he really was.) When the curtain goes up, he assumes he’s somehow peeping on the family next door.  He describes his visit later to two New York servants, Jenny and Jessamy, who have a lot of fun at his expense: “Did you see the family?” Jenny asks, in on the joke.

JONATHAN: Yes, swamp it; I see’d the family.
JENNY: Well, and how did you like them?
JONATHAN: Why, I vow they were pretty much like other families—there was a poor, good-natured curse of a husband, and a sad rantipole of a wife.
JENNY: But did you see no other folks?

To this point Jonathan has inadvertently been responding to opponents of the theater who believed that the stage was not like life. Now, again without realizing it, he begins to describe Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, the play he mistook for the family next door. Sheridan’s play had been performed at the John Street Theatre only weeks before Tyler’s:

JONATHAN: Yes. There was one youngster; they called him Mr. Joseph; he talked as sober and pious as a minister; but, like some ministers that I know, he was a sly tike in his heart for all that. He was going to ask a young woman to spark it with him, and—the Lord have mercy on my soul!—she was another man’s wife.
JESSAMY: The Wabash!
JENNY: And did you see any more folks?
JONATHAN: Why, they came on as thick as mustard. For my part, I thought the house was haunted. There was a soldier fellow, who talked about his row de dow, dow, and courted a young woman [HERE HE’S TRANSITIONED INTO AN ACCOUNT OF THE SECOND PLAY, THE POOR SOLDIER, ALSO ON THE BILL AT JOHN STREET ONLY WEEKS EARLIER]; but of all the cute folk I saw, I liked one little fellow–
JENNY: Aye! Who was he?
JONATHAN: Why, he had red hair, and a little round plump face like mine, only not altogether so handsome. His name was—Darby;–that was his baptizing name; his other name I forgot. Oh! It was Wig—Wag—Wag-all, Darby Wag-all; . . .

Okay. Let’s pause here for a moment. The layers of inside joking here are multiple: not only is the audience at the John Street theater listening to a character’s description of the audiences and performers in the John Street theater, but also to a discussion of plays staged only a few weeks prior to The Contrast’s debut, and starring the same company of actors. These jokes culminate in Jonathan’s description of “Darby Wag-all”: both characters—Jonathan in The Contrast and Darby in The Poor Soldier—were played by the actor Thomas Wignall; when Jonathan proclaims that Darby “is a cute fellow,” in other words, the actor is talking about his own appearance in a previous role.

Jonathan’s theater escapade helps us catalog the play’s many “contrasts”: country vs. city, republican virtue vs. urban or European luxury, sentiment vs. politeness, revolutionary gravity vs. frivolity, democracy vs. aristocracy, veteran vs. beau, age vs. youth, New England vs. New York, marriage vs. seduction, patriarchal authority vs. filial insubordination, American homespun vs. imported European fashions.

All these things, as you’d expect, boil down to the most obvious contrast in the play: between American patriotism and the unhealthy residue of British manners and fashion—between Manly, Maria, Jonathan, and country homespun on one side and Dimple, Charlotte, Jessamy, and imported British tastes and behaviors on the other.

But we’re offered yet another contrast here that seems to undermine the ones I’ve already identified: the contrast between a sophisticated theater audience (represented by Jessamy and Jenny in the scene quoted above) and a bumbling rube, which is to say the contrast between theater-goers and the theater’s ignorant opponents. To the extent that Jonathan functions as an audience member he is a rather naive one, the object of multiple audiences’ scorn. Jonathan continually misreads the city: he assumes Jessamy is a member of congress, a brothel is a church, a prostitute is a deacon’s daughter, and the stage is a neighbor’s house. He’s been trained, also, to think of the theater as “the devil’s drawing-room” and actors as “wicked,” attitudes that place him at odds with the very form Tyler has taken up, and dangerously so, considering the theater was still illegal in his native Boston.

Recognizing the ways in which the play’s alignment with its own sophisticated audiences undermines some of its republican fervor, it’s easier to see ways in which the play savages its ostensible hero and heroine, Manly and Maria, as well as Jonathan, who has often been understood as an emblem of “native worth.” There’s something a little more rebellious at play in The Contrast than has sometimes been noticed. It comes out in the humor, which was much more evident when I saw the play performed at the Metropolitan Playhouse a while back than it ever had been when I’d read and taught it from the page. Here’s part of what I wrote here after seeing the performance:

Cold War critics, this production suggests, were completely snookered by Colonel Manly’s patriotic platitudes. He seemed boring or priggish, sure, but no one really talked about him as the object of Tyler’s satire in the same way Tyler was clearly sending up the Anglophile fops and coquettes, Dimple and Charlotte, or the class-climbing servants, Jessamy and Jenny. But in this production — and I suspect in the original as well — Manly and his sentimental counterpart Maria are shown to be as much the objects of Tyler’s satire as anyone else in the play. Manly’s declamations (as delivered by Rob Skolits) are meant to ring hollow and self-serving — to the point of hilarity, given his inability to see his own blind devotion to republican cliche. Maria Silverman’s performance as Maria leaves no doubt (from her first entrance singing a popular tune about a stoic Indian chief — her model of manly behavior) that Tyler was lampooning her rather than making her a virtuous alternative to the foolish, fashion-obsessed Charlotte, played pitch-perfect by Metropolitan veteran Amanda Jones. The Metropolitan’s cast and director have unlocked a hilarious streak in this play too long overlooked by literary scholars.

It’s a subtle humor that has more sympathies with New York’s precariously polite urban society than scholars have previously tended to notice.

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