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Class Year

2003

Abstract

In Royall Tyler’s 1787 play The Contrast, the innocent and simple Yankee Jonathan unknowingly attends a playhouse, mistaking it for a hocus pocus show. The historian and eighteenth-century theatre manager, William Dunlap, later criticized Tyler’s play because his hero was a clown who misrepresented the new nation that the Revolutionary War created. Tyler’s satirical portrait of his hero, however, is not an attack on the Yankee, but rather a symbol of the ideological conflicts within America. Jonathan repeats the religious charges against theatre, but he also joins in the fun at the playhouse. He is simple and honest, but he does not have a mind of his own. Thus, Tyler both supported and critiqued the arguments against theatre from the 1780s and 90s. The Contrast is not only a play about theatre, but it is about the new American. Jonathan represents the common man, but his ignorance reveals that the common man could be dangerous. The debate over theatre at the end of the eighteenth century exemplified this paradox. Republicanism meant freemen should have the right to choose their own entertainment, yet it also meant freemen had the right to be protected from dangerous elements of society.

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