Royall Tyler (1757-1826)
Contributing Editor: Carla Mulford
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students have trouble reading dramatic works, whether they are written by Shakespeare or O'Neill. But they especially have trouble with Tyler's "The Contrast," which they think wooden, stilted, and clumsy. They sometimes even take the central character--and the hero--as a stiff Steve Martin-like buffoon. There's much to do here.
I spend half a class talking about the values of the culture in which this play was produced and saw overnight success. I tell them especially about the belief, held by the elite culture, that morality could be reified, that is, could find actual material manifestation in language and action. This conception that high culture, if demonstrated fully and well, would produce in the masses a liking for high culture and a desire to emulate high culture fascinates them because it seems to them unbelievably naive. Then I have pointed out to them that this attitude seems to have dominated the Reagan White House. They don't always agree--and we use the play as a kind of test case.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Tyler picked up on the key high culture themes--frugality, industry, sobriety--spoken most fully by Crèvecoeur and Franklin but by other writers of the revolutionary era as well. These themes are in the play, and the students can readily identify them in the contrasts Tyler sets up for dramatic effect. Students also find the discussions about dress and behavior very intriguing, and they sometimes like to discuss the culture's attitudes about "manly" behavior. In this aspect of "manliness," the play compares well with Thomas Paine's implications about "manliness" in Common Sense.
For students who like to do biographical reading, the fact that Tyler was himself involved in quelling the Shays's disturbance has proved interesting. For those who prefer source study, it's useful to note Tyler's reliance upon Sheridan's School for Scandal. Feminist students sometimes like to explore Tyler's marriage situation.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
As its title suggests, contrast is the defining principle behind the play. The central contrast is one between Europeanized foppishness, a result of luxury, and American forthrightness, a result of sobriety and industry, "manly" virtues. Manly and Maria, the two characters who wed at the end of the play, represent the new American virtues, while Dimple, Charlotte, and Laetitia represent the degrading decadence of European values.
Students like to note the other contrasts within the play, from discussions about hooped dresses to types of reading material to behavior of servants. Jonathan is considered the "type" of primitive American goodness, an unknowing bumpkin who has lived outside citified life.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Given the Puritans' proscription of dramatic presentation, what might have been the cultural changes that allowed finally for the flourishing of drama in America?
2. Students who like biographical inquiry might find it useful to pursue the Shays's Rebellion issue.
Students who enjoy source study like to write on the comparisons and contrasts between Richard Brinsley Sheridan's School for Scandal and Tyler's play. Interesting analyses of the contrasts in the play have arisen from their papers.
Some students may want to consider the extent to which the prologue and epilogue reflect the play's content. In this vein, see Judith Sargent Murray's writing on the play in the anthology entry for Murray.
For biographical matters, see:
Tanselle, G. Thomas. Royall Tyler. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1967.
For matters of interpretation, see three excellent articles:
Pressman, Richard S. "Class Positioning and Shays's Rebellion: Resolving Contradictions in The Contrast." Early American Literature 21 (1986): 87-102.
Siebert, Donald T. "Royall Tyler's `Bold Example': The Contrast and the English Comedy of Manners." Early American Literature 13 (1980): 3-11.
Stein, Roger B. "Royall Tyler and the Question of Our Speech." New England Quarterly 38 (1965): 454-74.