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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Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Tragedy of André

Speaking of William Dunlap’s tragedy André, my friend John W. Kennedy has created an online text of that play by transcribing the 1798 edition and annotating it. You can find it all here.

Kennedy writes:
William Dunlap (1766–1839) dominated American theatre in his day as no one else ever did but David Belasco. He was born in Perth Amboy, and the family later moved to New York City. There is a pretty, but questionable, legend to the effect that he may have seen some of the theatrical productions in occupied New York in which John André had a hand.

He traveled to England in 1784 to study with Benjamin West, as was practically de rigueur for aspiring young American painters, but seems to have chiefly fallen in love with the theatre there. Upon his return to America in 1787, his first thought was to write an imitation of Royall Tyler’s hit, The Contrast, and Dunlap’s The Modest Soldier or Love in New York was accepted, though never produced.

But he continued to write, and was soon successful enough to be asked in 1796 to become managing partner in the Old American Company, so called because it was the return of the American Company, founded in 1752, which had retreated to the West Indies in 1778 after Congress had outlawed theatrical performances as incompatible with the war effort. André is one of the plays of this portion of his career.
The result was a tragedy with a “curiously Greek construction—it is written in scenes for two or three, places all the physical activity offstage, takes place in only a few hours’ time, and really wants only a chorus to be perfectly Athenian.”

Dunlap’s blank-verse text is accompanied by several supplemental texts:
Here’s a sample from the play, as the character identified only as “the General” laments in Act 5 that he must let Maj. André’s execution proceed:
O what keen struggles must I undergo!
Unbless’d estate! to have the power to pardon;
The court’s stern sentence to remit;—give life;—
Feel the strong wish to use such blessed power;
Yet know that circumstances strong as fate
Forbid to obey the impulse. O, I feel
That man should never shed the blood of man.
And here’s a discussion by Elfin Vogel and Michael Bettencourt of the challenges of staging André.

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