- The Contrast: Manners, Morals, and Authority in the Early American Republic
The Contrast has long held a place of historical significance as the first professionally produced play penned by a native-born American citizen. In her compact and useful annotated edition, Cynthia Kierner successfully looks beyond this arguably useful designation to focus instead on the numerous relevant contexts that informed the creation and reception of Royall Tyler’s work. Efficiently balancing history and critical analysis with primary source materials, Kierner manages in a brief volume to provide far more than a reprint of the script itself. Her concise introductory essay touches on the major historical and cultural issues of the day, and the reprint of the script itself is extensively footnoted. The final section of the book offers primary source documents that further illuminate the various debates on manners, gender, and nationality addressed in the play. The resulting work far exceeds the background information provided in most anthologies in which The Contrast has been reprinted, providing a complete and thoughtful description of the world of the play. [End Page 127]
Kierner’s thirty-two page introductory essay covers a wealth of topics related to Tyler’s play. This section is both brief and dense, as no single topic occupies more than a few pages. Beginning with a historical overview of the young nation in the late 1780s, Kierner moves briskly from George Washington and Shays’ Rebellion to frame several of the looming questions of identity facing Americans, all of which revolve around the negotiations of politics and culture relative to Europe. Kierner addresses these questions through the lenses of gender, education, art, morality, and national identity formation. Her discussion of conduct books and sentimental novels, both of which are especially relevant to The Contrast, is especially enlightening. The essay then moves to an analysis of the play, connecting characters and plot points to the preceding historical material. Summing up The Contrast as Tyler’s vision of a “republican elite that encompassed men of different regions, interests, and outlooks” (30), Kierner frames the play as fundamentally conservative in its nature, but one that nonetheless “struck a responsive chord among contemporary audiences” (31). The introduction ends with a brief production history, touching on the play’s substantial decrease in popularity over the years, but arguing, based on the largely positive reception of a 2006 New York revival, that the “class and ethnic diversity of Tyler’s characters” renders The Contrast relevant and entertaining even today.
The next section consists of the script itself, complete with a photo of the original title page and Tyler’s introduction. Although The Contrast has often appeared in anthologies during the last few decades, no previous edition has the extensive footnoting provided here by Kierner. This edition lets no historical reference or cultural slang go unexplained, and the result is a useful and thorough continuation of the background information offered in the introduction. The annotations range in length from the simple identification of a biblical verse to a four-sentence background on Ethan Allen, complete with factual overview, specific relevance to contemporary audiences, and a bibliographical reference for further reading. Any dramaturg setting out to prepare for a production of The Contrast would find his or her script glossary ready and waiting in Kierner’s wellexecuted footnotes.
In the third section of the book, Kierner supplements her own analyses of the text with numerous primary source materials that shed further light on the cultural, political, and moral debates that characterized the immediate post-colonial era. Two essays of anonymous authorship excised from Columbian Magazine illustrate divergent views on the role of art and culture. The first argues that “by a wise intermixture of the utile and dulce, we shall acquire a greater perfection in each part, and unite pleasure and improvement in the same happy path” (102), while the second, a satirical letter written in the persona of a snobbish fool, demonstrates that perhaps intellectual rigor is of limited use. Kierner adds a wide variety of...