(1766 - 1839)

The first historian of the American stage, William Dunlap was a passionate lover of the arts, a gifted painter, a tireless chronicler of his day and a writer of considerable charm. He wrote or adapted more than sixty plays. While subsequent scholarship has found a considerable number of innacuracies in his historical work, his first hand account of the tragedian in Memoirs of George Frederick Cooke (1813), his three volume History of the American Theatre (1832), and his posthumously published diaries are invaluable primary sources for any serious student of American Theatre.

Born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, February 19, 1766, Dunlap was the son of an army office who had been wounded in Quebec. While he had little formal education, he developed a love of Shakespeare and Pope as well as a passion for history. When he was eleven, his family moved to New York City where he attended the plays that were so popular with the British Officers. The following year (1778), he lost the sight in his right eye when it was injured by a piece of firewood. While the accident put a stop to his formal schooling, such as it was, it didn't prevent him from pursuing his interest in painting. In 1783 he had an opportunity to paint a portrait of George Washington. The following year, he traveled to London to study with Benjamin West .While there, he saw Sheridan's The School for Scandal (one of Dunlap's more famous paintings is of the screen scene) and The Rivals at Drury Lane, the company at the Haymarket, the extraordinary acting of John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons at Covent Garden and "all Shakespeare's acting plays."

When he returned to America in late 1787, he wrote a comedy to which he gave the "mawkish title" (his own term) The Modest Soldier or Love in New York. with "a Yankee servant, a travelled American, an officer in the late revolutionary army, a fop, such as fops then were in New-York, and old gentleman and his two daughters, one of course lively, the other serious." It had been inspired by the success of The Contrast which had created such a sensation at its premiere in April. He offered his new play to Lewis Hallam and John Henry for their old American Company, but while they saw the merits of the play and praised him for them, it had no part for Hallam or his wife and so the play was never produced.

His next effort, The Father, or American Shandyism corrected that grievous fault, was produced at the John Street Theatre (right) September 7, 1789 and was a resounding success, playing seven nights, no small feat at the time. In the prologue of this maiden effort, Dunlap spelled out his purpose and the aesthetic that was to guide most of his best work: Dunlap sought to reform the stage so as to make it respectable by pursuing the goals that would have pleased the French Neoclassicists: "to teach and to please." His moral instruction is set apart by it's strong patriotic bent:

The comick muse, pleas'd with her new abode,

Steps forth in sportive, tho in moral mode:

Proud of her dwelling in our new made nation

She's set about a serious reformation

For, faith, she'd almost lost her reputation

The eminent comedian Thomas Wignell (1753-1893) spoke this Prologue and played Quiescent (or Tattle), the doctor, to great effect. This character embodied the "moral mode" for it offered instruction in the form of satire of the medical profession. Wignell must have had faith in the young playwright's abilities because he asked him to write a play for his benefit.

Dunlap provided him Darby's Return (left) in which Wignell's character (taken from John O'Keefe's very popular comic opera The Poor Soldier) returns to his native sod of Ireland and comments on his peregrinations in America in good rustic fashion. The performance on November 24, 1789 was attended by General Washington himself. Dunlap tells us that when the general heard himself described as

A man who'd fought to free the land from woe,

Like me had left his farm a-soldiering to go;

But having gain'd his point, he had, like me,

Return'd his own potatoe ground to see.

But there he coun't rest; with one accord

He's called to be a kind of--not a lord;

I don't know what; he'd not a great man, sure,

For poor men love him, just as he was poor!

They love him like a father or a brother.

Darby appeared quite serious, but then, when Mrs. Morris in the character of Katherine asked, "How look'd he, Darby? Was he short or tall?" and Darby answered:

Why sure I didn't see him. To be sure,

As I was looking hard from out the door,

I saw a man in regimentals fine

All lace and glitter, botherum and shine;

And so I look'd at him till all was gone,

And then I found that he was not the one,

Washington "indulged in that which was with him extremely rare, a hearty laugh."

Despite this success (or perhaps even because of it), in 1791 Thomas Wignell split off from the American Company to form his own company in Philadelphia. In 1792, he left for England to assemble his new company. John Henry (right) of the American Company had gone to England for reinforcements. He returned with a number of able players including John Hodgkinson who was to become more popular than either Henry or Hallam.

After the failure of his next offering The Miser's Wedding (Said Dunlap in characteristic candor, "The piece was murdered (it deserved death) and never heard of more."), he penned what Professor Quinn describes as "a well-conceived if unrelieved tragedy." Originally called The Fatal Deception or the Progress of Guilt, it was published as Leicester in 1806. At its premiere in 1794, a benefit for John Hodgkinson, Henry was played by Hodgkinson and Matilda by Mrs. Melmoth, whom Dunlap describes as "the best tragic actress the inhabitants of New York, then living, had ever seen..." The play owes a great deal to Macbeth and even prompted a denial of plagiarism from the author. But the play, replete with mad scenes and murders, shows Dunlap's early command of easy, speakable dialogue and a pragmatic sensitivity to giving actors plenty to do. There followed in 1795 another tragedy (so-called by the author, though Prof. Quinn labels it a "gothic romance") for Mr. Hodgkinson and Mrs. Melmoth called Fountainville Abbey, adapted from Mrs. Radcliffe's novel Romance of the Forest. Though praised by his contemporaries "in good set terms" and published by Longworth a few years after, it held the stage for only a few performances.

The following year, Dunlap wrote an "opera in three acts" with the "very bad title," The Archers, or Mountaineers of Switzerland with music by Mr. Carr, the principle singer. The play dealt with the legend of William Tell and starred Mr. Hodgkinson as Tell.

Before his next play, Hodgkinson asked him to buy half his share in the old American Company at The Park Theatre(left), which was to become the most successful house in the city for many years to come. Hallam and Hodgkinson lured him with the promise that he would have the final say as to which plays would be presented. Hallam would retain a half-share with Hodgkinson and Dunlap splitting the remaining half. The articles of agreement were signed in June. The first production under the new arrangement on October 31, 1796, was another gothic romanceThe Mysterious Monk, again starring Mr. Hodgkinson as Ribbemont and Mrs. Melmoth as the Countess. It was published in 1803 as Ribbemont, or The Feudal Baron. January 1797 saw the first on many of Dunlap's adaptations of foreign plays, A. L. B. Robineau's Jérôme Pointu which he called Tell Truth and Shame the Devil.

But the new management was to prove a stormy one. Almost at once, there were bitter disagreements between Hallam and Hodgkinson over casting; Mrs. Hallam, who had been "withdrawn" from the stage was actively seeking her return; performances were disrupted; factions were forming within the company. The dramatist, as he always refers to himself in his History, was frequently caught in the middle. Hallam was to withdraw from active participation in the company in May, 1797. Soon after, Dunlap and Hodgkinson took over the lease of The Park but, the new building was not ready until January 29, 1798, so they leased the Haymarket in Boston (right) for what proved to be a financially unsuccessful run. Says Dunlap, "Mr. Hodgkinson's partner sent on money and advice: the one was taken, the other rejected."

His best known adaptation was clearly The Stranger based on Kotzebue's Misanthropy and Repentance.


·           The Modest Soldier, or Love in New York, a comedy

·           The Father of an Only Child, 1788, acted in New York

·           The Miser's Wedding

·           Darby's Return, an interlude

·           Lord Leicester, a tragedy

·           William Tell, or The Archers, a comic opera; score by Benjamin Carr

·           Fountainville Abbey, a tragedy

·           Ribbemont, or The Feudal Baron, a tragedy

·           André, a tragedy

·           Tell Truth and Shame the Devil, a farce

·           The Natural Daughter, a comedy

·           The Stranger, a comedy based on Kotzebue's Misanthropy and Repentance

·           Lovers' Vows, a comedy

·           Sterne's Maria, or the Vintage, an opera

·           Count Benyowsky, a tragi-c0medy

·           Italian Father, a comedy

·           False Shame, a comedy

·           Force of Calumny, a comedy

·           Wild Goose Chase, an opera

·           The Robbery, a drama

·           Fraternal Discord, a comedy

·           Abælino, Where is He?, a farce

·           The Voice of Nature, a drama

·           The Glory of Columbia, her Yeomanry, a play in five acts

·           Bonaparte in England, a farce

·           The Proverb, or Conceit can kill, Conceit can cure, a comedy

·           Lewis of Monte Blanco, a play in five acts

·           The Wife of Two Husbands

·           Peter the Great

·           The Blind Boy

·           Yankee Chronology, an interlude

·           The Soldier of '76

·           La Perouse

·           The Stranger's Birth Day

·           The Good Neighbour

·           Indians in England

·           The Merry Gardener, an opera

·           Battle of New Orleans

·           Forty and Twenty, a comedy

·           School for Soldiers

·           Rinaldo Rinaldini

·           The Flying Dutchman

·           Thirty Years, or the Life of a Gambler

·           A Trip to Niagara

·           The Knight of the Guadalquiver, an opera

·           Nina

·           The Knight's Adventure

·           Robespierre

·           The Africans

·           "and other pieces unpublished..."

Source: Wayne S. Turney
Contributed by Anonymous
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