J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, April 01, 2017

“General Washington was represented”?

I was preparing something else for today, but then the André Resource tweeted about William Dunlap’s 1798 tragedy André. The introduction for a modern edition says it’s the only play to depict George Washington on stage during his lifetime (and even then the character wasn’t named in the original text).

In reply, I noted that in January 1776 the British army staged Gen. John Burgoyne’s short play The Blockade of Boston in Faneuil Hall. I wrote about its interrupted debut here, here, and here. The play finally came off on 22 January.

Burgoyne may have portrayed Washington in his play. It was, after all, a satire on the Continental army besieging Boston at the time. But we can’t be sure because no text has survived.

We know the play depicted at least one general since Lt. William Feilding described its sole performance this way:
The Characters of the Yankee General and Figure of his Soldiers is inimatable, the Genl: a man who can’t Read but can Speachifie, and tell his Soldiers they are to obey the Voice of the People in the streets, the Joy the Rebells are in, in reading the Resolves of the Mayor and City of London in favor of the Con-ti-nen-tal Congress in Phi-li-del-phi-a pa-per is truly Characteristick.
Of course, at the time New England had the highest rate of literacy in the British Empire. But for Burgoyne and Feilding, a “Yankee General” couldn’t have had the education of a British aristocrat.

One source says that in The Blockade of Boston “General Washington was represented as an uncouth countryman, dressed shabbily, with large wig and long rusty sword.” That description has been quoted or paraphrased in many histories, as recently as this decade. However, its source was the “Diary of Dorothy Dudley,” a historical fiction written for the Centennial by Mary Williams Greeley.

That passage of the “Dudley diary” was thus a hoax inspired by a Continental escapade aimed at upsetting a British satire—and it’s fooled many authors. Which all adds up to an appropriate topic for this date.

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