Royall Tyler

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Following on yesterday’s Q&A with Alex Roe, who directed The Contrast for the Metropolitan Playhouse in 2009, today we’re happy to host a Q&A with Professor Cynthia Kierner of George Mason University, who edited the play with a substantial introductory essay for NYU Press in 2007. Professor Kierner directs GMU’s PhD program in History and Art History and is the author of Scandal At Bizarre: Rumor and Reputation in Jefferson’s America (Virginia, 2004).

PWHNY: When I teach The Contrast in an American Lit survey I discuss it as dealing with post-Revolutionary American culture broadly. In Writing New York it’s a more local affair, a picture of New York staged for New Yorkers by a visiting Bostonian. How do you teach the play?

CK: I first read the play in grad school, but never really thought about teaching it (or editing it) until it was one of the assigned texts for a discussion group (among high school teachers) that I was leading for a National Humanities Center Seminar in North Carolina. Although I thought that the play was really, really funny, I had never really thought that its humor would transfer to a discussion group of modern readers. It did. So, the main reason I decided to edit the play was to create an accessible edition for use in college-level courses. What fun to talk about dating and sex and shopping in a college history class! (The only online edition at that point was a real mess and not especially usable.)

I have used the book as a required text in undergraduate and graduate classes on the Revolutionary era and in an undergraduate course in American women’s/gender history. In both contexts, I tend to play up the gender angles. Among other things, this play is very much about the distinctive roles of women and men — at home, in the marketplace, and in society — and how, if at all, those roles differed in a republic. I also emphasize the extent to which, even after the Revolution, the U.S. was part of an Atlantic culture. The question of how distinctive Americans were within that Atlantic world is arguably the central one in Tyler’s play. And the notion of “American exceptionalism” continues to be hotly debated, even in today’s political discourse.

PWHNY: Cold War readings of the play often took for granted that Manly and Maria and Jonathan were unquestionably virtuous and the play’s heroes. Over time I’ve come to think that Tyler satirizes them as forcefully as anyone else. Does the play have characters we’re meant to embrace and emulate?

I agree completely that Tyler satirizes both Manly and Maria. Despite his admirable qualities — patriotism, loyalty, respect for his parents and for women, etc. — Manly is long-winded and wears bad (and old) clothes. Arguably, his patriotism, however inspiring during the war, was not the kind that would make him an effective role model in the post-revolutionary era. (Note that George Washington, that quintessential role model, was known for his reticence and also for going back to civilian dress after the war was over). I think that Tyler is much gentler toward Maria, but she’s not perfect either.

I can’t think of any single character that Tyler would have wanted his readers to emulate completely. I think that most of his characters have admirable qualities, but they also have flaws. And maybe that’s the point: Americans don’t have to be perfect as individuals to have a republic, but they do have to be sufficiently moderate and open-minded to make their experiment work.

PWHNY: Charlotte’s opening anecdote about her stroll on the Battery seems to set the stage (so to speak) for a long tradition of conflating New York with the theater: the town, that is, seems to be one big performance situation. Do you think Tyler was trying to get at something he saw, as an outsider, as specific to New York, or are we being given insight into the nature of commercial society?

CK: Interesting point (about conflating NY with theater). I think that for anyone whose experiences had been primarily rural — a category that would have included the vast majority of Americans ca. 1787 — any city would have struck them as “one big performance situation.” The thing that might have made New York special in 1787 would have been its new status as the capital of the United States, which made it the stage on which the nation’s leaders (and prominent New Yorkers) enacted official and quasi-official rituals as they constructed the public culture of the republic. Philadelphia occupied this position both before and after New York’s brief stint as the center of government. (Note that NY was not the largest city in the U.S. at that time, nor was it the one with the most significant theater history.)

PWHNY: What do you think The Contrast has to teach us today?

CK: My students are really interested to learn that theater was so controversial — that people regarded the stage variously as a source of corruption and a source of education. Does that make theater the “new media” of late eighteenth-century America? On an even more basic level, by including characters from so many different ethnic backgrounds, Tyler’s portrait of New York teaches readers that the city — and, by extension, the United States — was born diverse, and that contemporaries saw diversity as an important aspect of their society. That’s a crucial insight and a useful counterpoint to those who would see the story revolutionary era as a top-down founders-focused sort of history.

PWHNY: Thanks for this conversation!

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Two seasons ago our friends at the Metropolitan Playhouse put on a fantastic staging of Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787). At the time I wrote a couple posts about it. Since we’re spending a week with the play here for #vWNY I thought this might be a good time to go back to the Metropolitan’s artistic director, Alex Roe, with a couple questions about his experience with that production. The Metropolitan Playhouse is located at 220 E. 4th St, between Avenues A and B. Alex describes their current play, Charles A. Taylor’s From Rags to Riches, (1903) as “a fascinating late melodrama that I see as a purposeful send-up of the genre, something like Airplane was to disaster movies, or the Scary Movie series is to horror.” In January the theater will center its annual Living Literature Festival on the nineteenth-century American author Horatio Alger. Submission deadline is September 30.

PWHNY: The Contrast: A) A Sheridan rip-off? B) An early American play? C) A New York play? D) A Boston play about New York? E) All or none of the above?

ALEX: Of these, I’d have to say an early American play — as it captures the spirit of a new country trying to define itself socially, politically, ethically, and philosophically. It parodies Massachusetts AND New York, but without siding with either. Really, it uses these as much as philosophical and cultural signifiers as actual places, and the two poles represented by them neatly stake out extremes of the infant nation’s concerns. As to its debt to Sheridan, to use its inspiration as a critique is trivial at best, to me, for it misestimates what the play is. If anything, Tyler makes a more interesting social satire than, say, The Rivals. One could draw numerous parallels to Tyler’s advantage, I think, and find that a hero like Manly is a combination of Falkland and Absolute — both a leading man and a buffoon; Dimple is malicious and vain, like O’Trigger and Acres; Maria an affected Julia; Charlotte an edgier Lydia. But in the end, what is interesting is these characters articulating American aspirations and foibles. In this, the play more closely resembles the Restoration comedies than the Georgian.

PWHNY: One of your key decisions in staging the play was to drop the period costumes and dress your actors in tanktops and jeans. Can you tell us what prompted this call and what you think its effects were?

ALEX: Well, not jeans, which would have worked against us, I think. We sought a look that would show the bodies of the actors as unadorned as possible, without revealing them as sexual objects (which would have been distracting) or tying them to a particular fashion tradition (so grey slacks and skirts instead of jeans, work pants, tights, or formal wear). Of course, the audience had to draw some fashion connection, and the look to me most evoked either a ballet or gymnastics squad — either of which was suitable, as it suggested an acting “team” presenting the show — or perhaps school children in uniform, which was also apt for a satire that reduces our behaviors to adolescent affectations.

But why? The Contrast is concerned with social affectation and signs of status. To present it in full period regalia would surely have been a treat for the audience, but might have obscured some of the satire. We sought to underscore how insubstantial is the obsession with the right hoop skirt, or for that matter, the right manner of courtship, the right conversation at a reception, the right reverence for the Father of the Country, etc. In our production, every character, whatever the identification, is as vain as Malvolio. That is not to say that there are no virtues, but rather that one must choose values when all are equally ephemeral. In our production, the emperor truly had no clothes, and characters were obliged to identify contrasts based on merit and integrity, not their outward show.

PWHNY: The Metropolitan stages work, for the most part, from the century following Tyler’s play, from the 1780s into the nineteen-teens. What do you think are the key changes over that century in how American theater worked?

ALEX: What may be most remarkable is how durable themes and conventions prove to be, in fact! Consider three plays from our repertoire: The Contrast, of course, Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion (from 1845), and our production now running through this October 16, of Charles A. Taylor’s 1903 play From Rags to Riches. Each play presents characters rather plainly written to embrace opposing or sympathetic current attitudes towards the world and its inhabitants; confront them with one another through a plot in which money, status, and sexual appetite drive their interactions; challenge the Machiavellian pursuits with appeals to honor and generosity; and follow those interactions to their illogical conclusion. Each play functions by presenting these characters in a self-consciously theatrical medium, and allowing us to embrace them even while we preserve our distance. And ultimately, each offers a lightly satirical but loving vision of American culture.

The specifics of setting change, but rather strikingly, the same interactions take place: duplicitous wealthy characters with European affectations or connections prey on a naive but infatuated maidens and their deceived but willing guardians; stiffly pure righteous characters oppose on grounds of dignity and virtue; successful merchants are in danger of losing their wealth to the follies or machinations of a younger generation; the specter of legal obligations and actions, in the form of wills, contracts, and lawsuits, alternately threaten and abet the heroes’ progress; and everything works out well enough in the end for the naive and selfless … though the evildoers are not punished. The description of American life is much the same from play to play.

Are the mechanics of the plays very different? Each establishes characters in the time honored tradition of actors pretending to be other people, liberally violating that pretense with asides to the audience, but essentially offering a degree of exposition at the start, followed by a foreshadowing of characters and dilemmas to come, and then a portrayal of those dilemmas through climax to denouement. Then each resolves with a scene that brings all the characters onstage for a final reckoning.

An historian might note the more complicated technologies that enhance the staging, so The Contrast plays largely in intimate scenes of a few characters, while Fashion presents a fancy dress ball to dazzle its audience, and From Rags to Riches brings firearms, breakaway furniture, dogs, and a demolishable wall onto the stage. In this case, the entertainment becomes increasingly more sensationalistic, as the public appetite changes over the century, but the central conceits for communicating with that audience are much the same.

One might note the introduction of musical diversion into stage performances, achieving its height in the melodramas of the mid- to late-19th century, but here too is a matter of degree, not kind, for indeed, The Contrast calls directly for two songs sung by its actors.

It is true that for these examples, I choose three satires. But to some degree, representational theater is always satire in that presents an imitation of life for an audience’s examination and reflection. In this light, a play like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, full of comic scenes, but hardly meant as a comedy, follows nonetheless the same rules of presentation.

What does change is the play’s acknowledged relationship to itself, as it were. In the beginning of the 20th century, plays flirt with new levels of self-consciousness. One result is a play that parodies its own form. The latest of the plays above, From Rags to Riches, includes sensational action and audience asides in the melodramatic tradition. But this play goes so over the top in broadly stereotyped characters, absurdly contrived plot coincidences, and frequent allusions in the lines to its own contrivances, that I cannot believe the author was not sending up the genre as he celebrated its popular appeal. By the end of the first half, an entire melodrama has played out, taking poor characters from rags to promised riches, just as the title suggests. In the later half, when the naive heroine falls in love with her tormentor, legal actions prevent any of the heroes from receiving their riches, and the plucky boy hero begins to squander the money he finally receives, one sees the melodrama asking what would really happen if these whimsical tales played out in the ‘real’ world. Here, the self-conscious play asks us to doubt its reality entirely.
The opposite request seems another result of a growing self-consciousness in the theater.

In the later part of the 1800s and particularly in the early 1910s, plays begin to want to abandon their theatricality entirely. After the rise of the sensation scene that flourished in melodramas, plays began to achieve more personal, less incendiary climaxes. Additionally, they do away with prologues and epilogues, and audience asides and soliloquies drop from the text. This change asks for the audience to have a more private interaction with the play, though it is still experienced as a public event. From our repertoire, William Vaughan Moody’s The Faith Healer and The Great Divide, James A. Herne’s Margaret Fleming, and Clyde Fitch’s The Truth and The City, all work on this more intimate level, however much theatrical pathos they may still seek to exploit. Perhaps they seek to reach an audience’s deeper, more complicated emotional life by asking that audience to forget they are in the theater. It certainly seems to be the assumption of an audience today that the older, more theatrical styles are shallower and more naive … though I am not convinced that that verdict is just.

PWHNY: Is The Contrast a play for our times?

ALEX: So long as we are encouraged to judge our leaders, families, friends, and neighbors by their outward displays of wealth, patriotism, power, and savvy; so long as we are dedicated to seeking admiration, influence, and love through our command of fashion — that is, for the foreseeable future of humankind — The Contrast is undoubtedly a play for our times.

PWHNY: Thanks for this exchange!

From Rags to Riches plays at the Metropolitan Playhouse through October 16.

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Cyrus’s discussion of Irving’s History over the last week or so lays the foundation for one of the big trajectories we trace in Writing New York: the idea of constructed histories — the literariness of the city’s history — and the very real effects those histories have had on the city’s development over time. (Elizabeth Bradley’s Knickerbocker is also instructive in this regard.)

The material I’m taking up over the next few weeks for #vWNY gets at another of our big issues: the way so much writing, especially over the course of the nineteenth century, channels anxieties about the theatricality of everyday urban life. The plays that we teach in this unit share preoccupations with fashion, manners, and the distance between public and private selves. They also fixate on the fluidity of social class. These issues aren’t unique to New York writing, of course, but they do seem to have played into the city’s reputation and self-conception for a very long time.

In lecture I use this bit from Luc Sante’s Low Life as a starting point:

Manhattan was a theater from the first. When, early on, it was a walled city, and further surrounded by a forest of masts, it enclosed in its ring a small universe. This enclosure is the model of cities as it is of theaters, as can be seen when one compares old representations of fortress cities and of Greek amphitheaters and later theaters like the Globe. In Manhattan, social stratification followed a course in which the waterfront and the area environs near it became undesirable, became like the galleries [in theaters], which the dead center, Fifth Avenue, would be the orchestra stalls. What, then, would be the stage? There are two answers. One of them in contained in the image of the city as a theater, consisting of rings, loge, and parquet, in which . . . the audience is the object of its own contemplation. Manhattan has eternally been fascinated by itself. . . . The other answer has to do
with the street that runs diagonally up the island — Broadway — putting itself on display and carrying in its train its dark twin, the Bowery.

Sante’s attention to lower Broadway (and, later, the Bowery) as a space of social performance anticipates the opening scene of Tyler’s play, in which Charlotte recounts for a friend her adventures walking on the Battery for an audience of soldiers and beaux. In our post-Erving Goffman world, the idea that we perform our way through everyday life is practically taken for granted. In Tyler’s day it was one of the reason some social conservatives distrusted theater: because it lent to the theatricalization of ordinary social exchanges. If everyone’s performing, whom can you trust?

The easy answer, on many reading’s of Tyler’s play, is that you need to trust Colonel Manly — a sentimental patriot, dressed in homespun, throwing off the trappings of England and celebrating his country’s native virtues (including Maria, the sentimental heroine). But I’m pretty sure Tyler isn’t letting these characters off the hook so easy. When we talk about the contrasts in The Contrast it usually involves making a list that goes something like this:

country / city
simple virtue / luxury
homespun / import
sentiment / politeness
revolutionary gravity / frivolity
democracy / aristocracy
veteran / beau
age / youth
marriage / seduction
patriarchal authority / filial insubordination
New England / New York
America / Europe
Country (USA) / City (NYC)

But, as I try to make the case in lecture (and in my chapter of the Cambridge Companion), I think one additional contrast undoes some of these others — the contrast between inexperienced theater-goers (especially Jonathan, the Yankee rube, who thinks he’s peeping in on the neighbors when he’s watching a play) and more sophisticated consumers of plays, including, we presume, this play’s target audience. By aligning himself with the theater, Tyler walks a thin line, and in some contemporaries’ minds probably fell over that line and landed flat on his face. It’s hard to take the play’s moralizing at face value when it’s thrown in its lot with a form so inimical to republican virtue. (Others, including George Washington, didn’t share these conservative qualms.)

Tyler’s play seems (inadvertently?) to expose Manly and Maria’s sentimentalism as so much show. Does it expect us to find a way to step outside our everyday performances? Or are we simply supposed to be more honest in recognizing the ways we act, in naming the performances from which the city won’t let us escape?

Previously on PWHNY:

The contrasts in The Contrast.
John Adams, Royall Tyler, and Woody Allen.
More thoughts on the Metropolitan Playhouse’s The Contrast.
Royall Tyler’s The Contrast at Metropolitan Playhouse.
The Battery’s Down: Lost and Found at South Ferry.

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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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The-Contrast.jpgRoyall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787), currently on stage at Metropolitan Playhouse in the East Village, is best known to literary historians and theater buffs as the first play by an American writer to be professionally staged. Written by a young New Englander who was visiting New York City on government business, the comedy of manners sets up several contrasts: between the new nation and the mother country, between country and city, between New England and New York.

Critics commonly treat the play as a brief for Revolutionary republicanism: an attack on British “luxury” as effeminizing and a plea for young Americans to cultivate homespun virtues, fashion, and
entertainment. In making such arguments, the play would seem divided against itself, since the theater itself was taken by some old-guard republicans to be one of the chief European vices that needed to be stamped out.

During the Revolution, the Continental Congress outlawed all “shews, plays, and other expensive diversions.” New York’s major theater troupe, the American Company, most of whom were natives of Great Britain, left for the British West Indies, where they stayed for eight years, waiting out the war. The British, who eventually came to occupy New York City
for the duration of the Revolution, continued to sponsor amateur theatricals (with British soldiers staging plays of their own). When the American Company returned following the evacuation of the British, the New York City council denounced them for performing “while so great a part of this city still lies in ruins, and many of the citizens continue to be pressed with the distresses brought on them in consequence of the late war.”
Tyler, whose native Boston would not legalize the theater until 1794, was treading a thin line in writing for the stage.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that The Contrast is so preoccupied with theater conventions themselves. The play mines the idea of theatrum mundi–“all the world’s a stage,” in Shakespeare’s formulation–to its fullest comic potential in a series of situations in which the play comments on the conventions of the theater itself and draws extended comparisons of society to stage acting. The most exemplary of these moments involves the prototypical “Stage Yankee,” Jonathan, a country bumpkin from Massachusetts in town as an attendant to the Revolutionary War officer Colonel Manly.

Jonathan explores the city in company with two local servants, Jessamy and Jenny, while Manly finds himself caught up in a seduction plot involving his sister, Charlotte, and then falls in love himself with Maria, a novel-reading sentimentalist who’s become dissatisfied with Billy Dimple, the affected fool her father wants her to marry. While the romance plots and subplots unfold among the upper-class characters, the unsophisticated Jonathan — played to full comic effect at the Metropolitan by Brad Frazier — accidentally finds himself in New York’s John Street Theater, the very theater in which The Contrast premiered. Jonathan mistakes the playhouse, though, for a church — unwitting commentary on similarities between stage and pulpit — and when the curtain goes up, he assumes he’s somehow peeping on the family living next door. When Jessamy and Jenny ask him later for details about what he saw, his confusion is apparent: “Why, I vow they were pretty much like other families,” he says of the people he saw on stage. “[T]here was a poor, good-natured, curse of a husband, and a sad rantipole of a wife.” He goes on to offer details that would make it clear to Jonathan’s audiences, on stage and off, that he was describing a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s extraordinarily popular play, The School for Scandal (1777), along with John O’Keefe’s The Poor Soldier (1783), both British imports. The actor who originally played Jonathan even winds up commenting on what would have been his prior performance in the latter, in some stuttered lines about “Darby Wagall,” a conflation of role and actor.

Though audiences today need program notes or footnotes to make sense of some of these references, Tyler’s initial audience would not have, which is precisely the point and the source of Tyler’s humor. The inside joke does depend, however, on the audience’s refusal
to suspend its disbelief, or to differentiate between the theater and real life–on its ability, that is, to see the actor and his character on stage at the same time. (At the Metropolitan, director Alex Roe has his actors interact directly with audience members, making plain that they are implicated in the play’s social satire.) The line between stage and “real life” has been stretched precariously thin; this idea would become a staple in theatrical representations of New York over the coming century.

Jonathan’s experience at the theater helps us see one of the many “contrasts” the play stages: between a sophisticated theater audience (represented on stage by Dimple, Jessamy, and Jenny) and a bumbling rube, Jonathan, the intellectual and cultural victim of the theater’s ignorant opponents. What does it mean, then, that the play aligns its own knowing audience–the people who understand the jokes–with derided characters like Dimple and Jessamy, who go to the theater only to turn their backs on the
performers and watch elite women in the boxes “play the fine woman to perfection”?

LetCharweb.jpgTo the extent that Jonathan represents audience members he is a rather poor and unsophisticated one here and elsewhere. Jonathan continually misreads the city, assuming that Jessamy is a member of congress, that a theater and a brothel are both churches, that the theater’s stage is a neighbor’s house, and that a prostitute is a deacon’s daughter.
But Jonathan does get something fundamentally right about the theater’s relationship to life: that the theater is like life in some ways. If his peep into the “neighbor’s household” convinces him that Sheridan’s characters are essentially like any other family, the observation implies that most members of society are caught up in various kinds of performance themselves. The Contrast‘s opening scene makes much the same point, in Charlotte Manly’s account of a walk on the Battery, at the bottom of Broadway, before an audience of admiring soldiers and beaux. Broadway, which ran close to the sites of both the John Street and the Park Theatres, from very early on was the site of fashionable promenades, becoming a contested territory in the nineteenth century as multiple social groups wanted to display their taste.
Tyler, poking fun at such pretension, makes visible something that would remain
a part of New York’s characterization as a city all the way to the present: the
popular conflation of the city with the theater itself.

Tyler’s play shows how manners or politeness help institutionalize divisions based on
class, sex, and race. For Tyler, social theatricality poses a problem, to be sure, but most particularly when members of the servant class seek to climb above their stations. We are to understand it as dangerous, for instance, when Jessamy recites Lord Chesterfield’s advice (from his oft-reprinted if controversial Letters to His Son) on how to behave in polite society. Even Jonathan, whose rural simplicity is sometimes understood as “native worth,” is marked as an outsider to metropolitan manners and, in the process, kept in a lower-class position. Two virtues, as it were, for the price of one. At the same time, Manly’s ability to perform his role as a natural aristocrat and to
appear artless and sincere while doing so offers just one example of the cultural work such a play could perform in the name of patriotism. The Contrast‘s conclusion–the promise of a wedding between New England and New York landed gentry, all done by Federal authority and isolationist rhetoric–leaves those who can’t comprehend theatrical and social cues (or who can’t afford to pay to learn them) out in the cold.

DimpleManly1web.jpgMuch of what I’ve just written seems positively sterile in the face of the vibrant, humorous staging of the play at the Metropolitan. This production keeps its emphasis on the satire of urban social mores in ways that make the play seem incredibly contemporary rather than a period piece. (In fact, I couldn’t stop comparing it to the TV teen drama Gossip Girl in its relentless satirization of New York’s moneyed classes, whether they be openly vacuous or self-righteously unmaterialistic and moral.) The decision to have the cast appear in tanktops and rather plain skirts and pants (with the exception of the clownish Jonathan, who appears in pajama pants) calls attention to the play’s critique of fashion in ways that quaint period clothing simply could not have done. But the biggest surprise for me, having read and taught the play a dozen times, was how thoroughly unprepared I was for the play’s rich and constant humor. 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. They’ve changed the way I will read and teach it in the future. This is a rare opportunity to see a piece of American and New York City theater history brought to new life in a way that doesn’t feel stuffy and dated. I can’t recommend enough that you get out and see it before it ends November 1.

More on The Contrast and New York history at Inside the Apple.

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JonDanceweb.jpgOur good friends at the Metropolitan Playhouse have mounted a brilliantly directed production of Royall Tyler’s 1787 play The Contrast — the first play by an American playwright to be staged by a professional company. It debuted at the John Street Theater downtown, the city’s principal theater prior to the opening of the Park in 1798.

I’ll have more to write about the play and its significance — and about this staging — later. For now I’ll just say that the folks at Metropolitan have found much more humor in the play than I’ve ever read there, having taught it a dozen times and written about it in my contribution to our forthcoming Companion. Lines I never noticed before are side-splitting. The main performances are outstanding. So mind the main chance: get out an see it. It’s a rare treat to have the opportunity.

If you’re inclined to listen to me ramble about it, I’ll be talking with the audience following the matinee this Sunday. Info on tickets here.

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Lots of folks have ably blogged the death of the old South Ferry station, which will close sometime in late January. (My favorites were from Forgotten NY and Second Avenue Sagas.) It’s on my list of things to do with the kids over the break to go see the old station before it’s gone.

Among the best things people can say about the new terminal are that a) it’s clean — though some say “sterile,” like an Apple store; b) it will shave approximately six minutes off the full 7th Avenue commute (for those Staten Islanders who work at 242nd Street); and c) it’s ADA-compliant. The last is certainly something to appreciate.

Among the old treasures that will be lost to the public, though, are the fifteen ornate Heins and LaFarge ceramic plaques depicting a sloop in the harbor:

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The old station will apparently be used to store extra trains to dispatch during rush hour. I imagine it will become a destination for those who scheme for peeks at the forbidden NYC underground — the way the old City Hall station is now.

What’s been less discussed in the hubbub over the new terminal are the things uncovered during excavation. The MTA’s own site has a useful overview, and the rhetoric, at least, is friendly to archaeology and history, unusual for NYC construction projects.

The most major find during the dig, back in the fall of 2005, was a major chunk of the old Battery Wall, a colonial era bulwark that ringed the lower tip of the Island. From the MTA site:

[T]he battery would have had cannon mounted along it to fire at enemy
ships. Four different sections of the battery wall have been found,
spanning a distance of almost 600 feet. It ranges from about 8 to 10
feet wide. The largest section is about 75 feet long and up to four
feet high, although it would have been much higher when it was built.

The version of the Battery Wall unearthed during construction probably dates to the middle of the eighteenth century and would have been built before the Revolutionary War and was partially demolished and buried when the area was filled in the early nineteenth century to create Battery Park.

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The Battery was, at least during the post-Revolutionary years, a popular promenade. After the war, barracks that had housed British troops during the occupation were pulled down, elm trees were planted, and the walk from the Bowling Green to the Battery was transformed into “one of the most delightful walks, perhaps in the world,” according to one city newspaper.

Anyone who’s read Royall Tyler’s 1787 play The Contrast, celebrated as the first play by an American playwright to be staged by professional actors, will recall that it opens with one of the leads, the coquettish Charlotte, recounting for a friend the previous night’s walk on the Battery:

It would have delighted you to have seen me
the last evening, my charming girl! I was dangling
o’er the battery with Billy Dimple; a knot of young
fellows were upon the platform; as I passed them I
faultered with one of the most bewitching false steps
you ever saw, and then recovered myself with such a
pretty confusion, flirting my hoop to discover a jet
black shoe and brilliant buckle. Gad! how my little
heart thrilled to hear the confused raptures of–
“Demme, Jack, what a delicate foot!”  “Ha! Gen-
eral, what a well-turned–“

Her friend stops her, scandalized: “Fie, fie, Charlotte! I protest you are quite a libertine!”

01Battery_Wall.jpgPortions of the newly-discovered Battery have been preserved in the mezzanine wall of the new station.

Thumbnail image for medallion1.jpgWhat else has turned up at the old Battery? Pottery shards, bones, over-sized oyster shells, and yellow bricks used in Dutch construction. One fun find is a “counter,” or non-negotiable coin, commemorating the 1758 British capture of the French Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia.

But it’s hard not to think about what will be lost, especially when you compare the old signage with the new:

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Could they at least photograph the old station lettering, the way they’re apparently doing at some stops in Brooklyn?

Photos from MTA, Forgotten NY, and NY1

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