The Dawning of American Drama: American Dramatic Criticism, 1746-1915

By Jürgen C. Wolter | Go to book overview

1
Introduction

Even though the quantity and quality of twentieth-century American drama is now widely recognized, the American drama of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still seems to be reserved for the eccentric specialist.1 With the exception of the plays available in the standard editions,2 the bulk of American drama written and produced prior to O'Neill is virtually unknown. This obscurity is even more true of dramatic criticism, especially that which was written before the movement toward realism at the end of the nineteenth century. Merrill G. Christophersen's statement of 1956 is still valid today: "Most historians of American dramatic criticism seem to have decided that they have no subject matter extending behind a time barrier set up somewhere around 1870."3 And even with regard to the dramatic criticism of the advocates of stage realism, Brenda Murphy argues that scholars have not given it sufficient attention either.4

To a certain extent the neglect seems to be justified by the low standard both of the plays and the criticism. Poe, for example, complained: "How absolute is the necessity now daily growing, of rescuing our stage criticism from the control of illiterate mountebanks and placing it in the hands of gentlemen and scholars!"5 And as late as 1908 Frank Moore Colby stated that "no American dramatic critic has thus far in our history published a volume that was particularly worth reading."6

The lack of intellectual depth in the majority of the critical discussion of early American drama and theatre is, however, more than counterbalanced by the spontaneity of these firsthand accounts. The best of them reflect the heated debates over the direction theatre and drama in America ought to take. The periodicals were mirrors of public taste, as, for example, the name of Stephen Cullen Carpenter's short-lived monthly The Mirror of Taste and Dramatic Censor ( Philadelphia, 1810-11) attempted to indicate, and the standards their critics expounded were extremely influential; their polemics are part of the

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