Title Reviewed:
An Emerging Entertainment: The Drama of the American People to 1828.

Author Reviewed:
Walter J. Meserve

Thomas J. Schlereth


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 74, Issue 4, pp 371-373

Article Type:
Book Review

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An Emerging Entertainment: The Drama of the American People to 1828. By Walter J. Meserve. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977. Pp. x, 342. Notes, selected bibliography, indexes. $17.50.)

Unfortunately, few scholars have shown much interest in American drama prior to World War I. For all too many students of American culture, the history of this art form does not begin until the work of a playwright such as Eugene O'Neill because, supposedly, he alone had the rare ability to create drama that sprang from truly indigenous roots. Walter J. Meserve, a professor of theater and drama at Indiana University, takes issue with this academic myopia. In An Emerging Entertainment, he argues a convincing case for the significance of American drama in its early centuries, specifically up to 1828—the year that marks the beginning of Edwin Forrest's Prize Play Contests (advertized in the New York Critic), the first time that American playwrights were invited to contribute plays in a competition and promised to be remunerated for their achievements.

In his opening chapter, Meserve outlines his objectives for his study of this long neglected aspect of American history; they are fourfold: a) to provide a chronological study and critical evaluation of the plays written and published in America to 1828; b) to explore the kinds of drama written during particular periods and the relationship of drama to the cultural and historical progress of the country; c) to provide biographical material on important dramatists and historical information on relevant plays; and, d) to determine the development of American drama as a literary genre and its contribution to American theater. In the main, Meserve succeeds in his multi-purpose task, and his book fills a gap in our understanding of the American creative arts.

Carefully distinguishing himself as a historian of the drama as opposed to a historian of the theater, Meserve provides an intellectual history of early America through the prism of Indian treaty ceremonies (dramatic enactments that were often printed), farces, melodramas, and ephemeral plays. He acknowledges the benchmarks of early American drama—Robert Hunter's Androborus (the first play printed in America, in 1714); Thomas Godfrey's The Prince of Parthia (the first drama written by an American and produced by professional actors, in 1767); Royall Tyler's The Contrast (the first native American comedy to be professionally produced, in 1789)—but does not overemphasize or distort their impact. Instead, like the "new" social historians, Meserve explores American dramatic art as a medium through which educational, religious, and cultural history can be written. In his discussion of early American dramatic literary criticism (the first extended analysis that this reviewer has seen in recent scholarship), he moves comfortably among eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century theories of aesthetics and epistemology.

Although this history of American drama ranges over 230 years of the American past, the book concentrates on the brief era of the New Republic. Meserve focuses his interpretation on the five decades between 1787 and 1828. Chapters seven and eight, for example, form the bulk (128 pages) of his evaluation and insightfully trace the rise of nationalism and political ideology as exhibited in various American dramatic genre.

Meserve's book also serves as a major reference work on American drama. It has two excellent indexes, one of names and the other of plays, and an extremely thorough bibliography. Moreover, the book is but the first installment of a complete, scholarly, and authoritative historical assessment of American drama that Meserve now projects in several volumes.

Thomas J. Schlereth, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.