Plays and Librettos

Arthur Hobson Quinn in the preface to his A History of American Drama bemoans the rarity of early plays, "which were usually issued in perishable form and whose very popularity proved to be their doom." The American Antiquarian Society's collections include over 850 plays represented in our online catalog and approximately 600 additional plays not yet cataloged. The plays and librettos in the AAS collection provide a window into America's ambivalent relationship towards the theater, and document the development of a native dramatic voice. During the colonial period there were strong prejudices against the theater in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. The earliest references to plays being enacted in America refer to the South and often seem to reflect amateur or mixed rather than "purely" professional productions. By the 1730s occasional plays were being performed in New York and Philadelphia, but these appear to be sporadic efforts eliciting strong local protest. Perhaps the earliest play in the AAS collections is a collegiate production: The Military Glory of Great-Britain, an Entertainment, Given by the Late Candidates for Bachelor's Degree, at the Close of the Anniversary Commencement, Held in Nassau-Hall New-Jersey September 29th, 1762 (Philadelphia: William Bradford, 1762).

The years 1752-1754 saw the first tour of an indisputably professional theatrical company, that of Lewis Hallam from England. Hallam's widow returned to this country in 1758 as part of what would come to be known as The American Company. On April 24, 1767, this company presented The Prince of Parthia, by Thomas Godfrey. This was the first play by an American author to be performed by a professional theatrical company in America. The Antiquarian Society holds a copy of the first edition of this work, published as part of the author's Juvenile Poems on Various Subjects (Philadelphia: Henry Miller, 1765).

In 1774 the Continental Congress passed a resolution discouraging all forms of public entertainment. Plays were still published, notably such patriotic efforts as Mercy Otis Warren's The Group; as Lately Acted, and to be Re-acted to the Wonder of All Superior Intelligences, nigh Head-quarters at Amboyne (Boston: Edes and Gill, 1775) and John Leacock's The Fall of British Tyranny, or, American Liberty Triumphant, of which the Society holds copies printed in Philadelphia, Boston and Providence in 1776.

Following the Revolution the theater began to gain wide popularity and acceptance, in spite of a lingering reputation for impropriety, with the final anti-theatrical statute in Boston being allowed to expire in 1792. The earliest dramatic works for children held by the Society date from this period: two works translated from the French of the Countess de Genlis and printed by Isaiah Thomas in Worcester in 1785. The librettos at AAS include the first musical theatrical work written in the colonies: The Disappointment: or, The Force of Credulity. A New American Comic-Opera, of Two Acts. (New-York [i.e. Philadelphia], 1767). This work was advertised for performance in Philadelphia in 1767, but the performance was cancelled, the reason given being that the work contained unsuitable "personal reflections." Several other examples of comic opera librettos published in the period following the Revolutionary War are represented in the collection. By contrast, a search of the catalog uncovers only one libretto for an oratorio published prior to the formation of the Boston Handel and Haydn Society in 1815; and that work, "Solomon's Temple," is only published as part of Wellins Calcott's A Candid Disquisition of the Principles and Practices of the Most Antient and Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons (Boston: William M'Alpine, 1772).

The Plays collection proper consists of individual plays and librettos published in America from 1821-1876, and of plays and librettos published outside North America. The Plays collection is physically divided into two sections, the cataloged portion arranged by call number and the uncataloged portion shelved alphabetically by title. The cataloged portion, which includes all North American publications through 1840, is accessible through the online catalog. There are author and title checklists for the whole collection in the "Uncataloged Collections" card files in the Reading Room.

Plays are also selectively annotated in Frank Pierce Hill's American Plays Printed 1714-1830 (New York, 1970) and Oscar Wegelin's Early American Plays 1714-1830 (New York, 1905).

Plays and librettos are also found in other portions of the collection. Works published in America prior to 1821 are located in the Dated Books and Dated Pamphlets collection. Collections of plays postdating 1820 are classed in the American History and Culture collection at G331. Dramatic works for children are included in the Children's Literature collection. All the preceding segments of the collection are accessible as described in their sections of this guide. The best strategy for searching across these collections in the online catalog is by subject. Plays are assigned the genre term "plays," subdivided by date.

- Kathleen M. Haley, Cataloger, North American Imprints Program

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