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The Contrast

The Contrast was a very popular play in the early republic. What are some of the things that you think audiences would have liked most about it? How might they have responded to one or two particular passages, such as accounts of going to the theater or the habits of flirtatious women or men?

One Response to “The Contrast”

  1. Toby Aicher says:

    The Contrast succeeded because it managed to be both comically irreverent and inspiringly patriotic. Royall Tyler poked fun at many aspects of America: bumpkin New Englanders, pontificating patriots, the theater, prudishness, British novels, controlling fathers, religion, and most of all the manners of high society. His mordant quips and teasing jabs spare no one, and the audience would have enjoyed the light-hearted satire of their culture and country.
    Jonathan is the archetypical simple-minded farmer lost in the city and is one of the plays main comedic elements. He unwittingly attends a play, but believes he witnessed a scene from someone actual life. He says. “they lifted up a great green cloth, and let us look right into the next neighbor’s house. Have you a good many houses in New York made so in that ‘ere way?” Another layer of jest is added when he demands his money back, complaining, “I paid my money to see sights, and the dogs a bit of a sight have I seen, unless you call listening to people’s private business a sight.” Tyler jumps from making fun of country bumpkins to his play.
    The deportment and values of high society are satirized largely through the character of Charlotte. Charlotte embodies Oscar Wilde’s quote “we should treat all the serious things of life trivially, and all the trivial things of like with sincere and studied triviality.” She has an incisive wit and is mostly preoccupied with gossip and fashion. She’s always half-joking, and intentionally or unintentionally exposes fatuousness of her social circle. Of her brothers uniform she says, “why, your coat looks as if it were calculated for the vulgar purpose of keeping yourself comfortable.” The effect is to both reveal the sometimes ridiculous values of the wealthy, ie wear uncomfortable, trendy clothing, and to show it’s unconcern for veterans and the defenders of freedom. She says of her brother ,“His conversation made me as melancholy as if I had been at church; and heaven knows, though I never prayed to go there but on one occasion, yet I would have changed his conversation for a psalm and a sermon. Church is rather melancholy to be sure.” Charlotte dismisses both religion and America’s veterans, but critically it’s in such a lighthearted way that the audience is able to laugh without feeling immoral.
    But the play isn’t just a comedy. Ultimately, despite the ridicule of his sister and others, Manly is the admired hero. The audience would feel an upwelling of patriotic sentiment when Dimple challenges Manly to a duel and is denied because “I have drawn it in the service of my country… I have fought too many battles in the service of my contry to dread the imputation of cowardice… the reputation of my life does not depend upon the breath of a Mr. Dimple.” This is a great moment, and cuts through the frivolousness, excess, and superficiality of many of the play’s characters. Tyler gains the good graces of his audience, and counterbalances his irreverence with patriotism.

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