Royall Tyler

views updated May 21 2018

Royall Tyler

Royall Tyler (1757-1826), American playwright and novelist as well as a jurist, wrote the first successful American play.

Royall Tyler was born into a prosperous and enterprising Boston family. His intellectual qualities were early recognized, for when he graduated from Harvard in 1776 he was awarded a bachelor's degree from Yale as well. He interrupted his legal studies to serve as a major during the Revolution, was admitted to the bar in 1780, and joined the law office of John Adams. Tyler fell in love with the future president's daughter; but the engagement was broken off, reportedly because Adams disapproved of Tyler's high-spirited temperament. Tyler once more joined the Army during Shays' Rebellion (1786), and his eloquent speeches contributed to calming the rioters.

While on military business in New York in 1787, Tyler attended the theater and, after seeing a production of The School for Scandal, was inspired to write his own comedy. The result, written in 3 weeks, was The Contrast, America's first successful drama and its first comedy to deal with native characters. A comedy of manners, it contrasted the substantial American virtues with artificial "English" behavior, and it introduced, in the character of Jonathan, what became the stock stage Yankee. The Contrast was popular throughout America for its theatrical and nationalistic aspects. The acclaim given it inspired other native dramatists.

Though Tyler continued to practice law, he wrote at least six other plays. Of the four which survive, three are biblical verse plays and the other a social satire, The Island of Barrataria. Tyler also employed his satirical wit on a number of verse and prose works, most importantly a picaresque adventure novel, The Algerine Captive (1797), which also portrays fraudulence in education and medicine and depicts the horrors of slavery.

After 1800 Tyler's legal career consumed more and more of his time. As a justice of the Supreme Court of Vermont, he handed down a significant antislavery decision in 1802. He served as chief justice of that body from 1807 to 1813 and as professor of jurisprudence at the University of Vermont until 1814. Though all of Tyler's literary endeavors were published anonymously (perhaps because he felt they might have a negative effect upon his judicial position), he attempted all his life to fuse his two occupations. As a member of the legal profession, he sought to correct those ills and follies which he satirized in his writing. He died in Brattleboro, Vt.

Further Reading

There is no full-length study of Tyler's life. The autobiography of his wife, Grandmother Tyler's Book: The Recollections of Mary Palmer Tyler, 1775-1866, edited by Frederick Tupper and Helen Brown (1925), provides personal details. The Tyler Papers are deposited with the Vermont Historical Society. For Tyler's relation to other literary men see Harold M. Ellis, Joseph Dennie and His Circle: A Study in American Literature from 1792-1812 (1915). □

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Royall Tyler

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