Royall 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”?
To 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.
Much 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.