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André   By: (1766-1839)

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[Illustration: WILLIAM DUNLAP]



(1766 1839)

The life of William Dunlap is full of colour and variety. Upon his shoulders very largely rests the responsibility for whatever knowledge we have of the atmosphere of the early theatre in America, and of the personalities of the players. For, as a boy, his father being a Loyalist, there is no doubt that young William used to frequent the play house of the Red Coats, and we would like to believe actually saw some of the performances with which Major André was connected.

He was born at Perth Amboy, then the seat of government for the Province of New Jersey, on February 19, 1766 (where he died September 28, 1839), and, therefore, as an historian of the theatre, he was able to glean his information from first hand sources. Yet, his monumental work on the "History of the American Theatre" was written in late years, when memory was beginning to be overclouded, and, in recent times, it has been shown that Dunlap was not always careful in his dates or in his statements. George Seilhamer, whose three volumes, dealing with the American Theatre before the year 1800, are invaluable, is particularly acrimonious in his strictures against Dunlap. Nevertheless, he has to confess his indebtedness to the Father of the American Theatre.

Dunlap was many sided in his tastes and activities. There is small reason to doubt that from his earliest years the theatre proved his most attractive pleasure. But, when he was scarcely in the flush of youth, he went to Europe, and studied art under Benjamin West. Throughout his life he was ever producing canvases, and designing, and his interest in the art activity of the country, which connects his name with the establishment of the New York Academy of Design, together with his writing on the subject, make him an important figure in that line of work.

On his return from Europe, as we have already noted, he was fired to write plays through the success of Royall Tyler, and he began his long career as dramatist, which threw him upon his own inventive resourcefulness, and so closely identified him with the name of the German, Kotzebue, whose plays he used to translate and adapt by the wholesale, as did also Charles Smith.

The pictures of William Dunlap are very careful to indicate in realistic fashion the fact that he had but one eye. When a boy, one of his playmates at school threw a stone, which hit his right eye. But though he was thus early made single visioned, he saw more than his contemporaries; for he was a man who mingled much in the social life of the time, and he had a variety of friends, among them Charles Brockden Brown, the novelist, and George Frederick Cooke, the tragedian. He was the biographer for both of them, and these volumes are filled with anecdote, which throws light, not only on the subjects, but upon the observational taste of the writer. There are those who claim that he was unjust to Cooke, making him more of a drunkard than he really was. And the effect the book had on some of its readers may excellently well be seen by Lord Byron's exclamation, after having finished it. As quoted by Miss Crawford, in her "Romance of the American Theatre," he said: "Such a book! I believe, since 'Drunken Barnaby's Journal,' nothing like it has drenched the press. All green room and tap room, drams and the drama. Brandy, whiskey punch, and, latterly, toddy, overflow every page. Two things are rather marvelous; first, that a man should live so long drunk, and next that he should have found a sober biographer."

Dunlap's first play was called "The Modest Soldier; or, Love in New York" (1787). We shall let him be his own chronicler:

As a medium of communication between the playwriter and the manager, a man was pointed out, who had for a time been of some consequence on the London boards, and now resided under another name in New York... Continue reading book >>

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