William Dunlap

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William Dunlap (1766-1839)


Playwright, artist, historian

Pioneer Dramatist. Often considered the father of American theater, William Dunlap was a theater manager and the first American professional playwright, dominating the American stage at the end of the eighteenth century with patriotic plays on American subjects. He was also a talented painter and historian, and he dabbled in novel writing.

Early Life. Dunlap was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the son of a retired British officer. His father remained loyal to Britain during the American Revolution, and in 1777, as a Loyalist refugee, he moved the family to British-occupied New York. In 1784 Dunlap traveled to England planning to study under painter Benjamin West. Once there, however, Dunlap never enrolled at Wests academy and dissipated much of his time on frivolous amusements. As a result, his father demanded that his son return to the United States in 1787. When he reached home Dunlap devoted his attention to theater and wrote his first play, The Modest Soldier, by the end of the year. This effort did not reach the stage, but two years later two of his plays, The Father and Darbys Return, were successfully produced in New York City.

André. During the 1790s Dunlap developed a growing belief in the nations cultural potential. Through his plays he sought to foster and contribute to Americas artistic and literary advancement. Dunlap also believed that drama had an important social function: What engine is more powerful than the theatre? No arts can be made more effectual for the promotion of good than the dramatic and the histrionic. They unite music, poetry, painting, and eloquence. The engine is powerful for good or illit is for society to choose. Dunlaps best-known play is André (1798), based on the capture and execution of Major John André as a British spy during the Revolutionary War. Rather than simplistically glorifying the Revolution, André depicts the moral complexities of this event. While depicting André sympathetically, however, Dunlap also justified his execution as a necessary exigency of wardeploring the tragic costs of the Revolution without questioning its overall legitimacy.

The Old American Company. Dunlap contributed to the development of American drama not only by writing plays but also by producing them. In 1796 he invested in the Old American Company, a New York theater company owned by Lewis Hallam and John Hodgkinson, and became part owner and manager. Internal conflicts and financial difficulties plagued the company from the start, and the theater failed to draw enough customers to make a profit. By 1798, as the company went further and further into debt, Dunlap had become the sole director and manager. When it went bankrupt in 1805, he was liable for all its debts and had to forfeit all of his own property to pay them. Although the failure of this enterprise tempered his optimism about American cultural development, he continued to hope that American culture would eventually live up to its promise.

Later Life. While Dunlap did not abandon theater altogether, he increasingly turned his attention to other pursuits. In 1805 he returned to painting, becoming an itinerant portrait artist and developing an interest in chronicling the development of the arts in America. After publishing a biography of novelist Charles Brockden Brown in 1815, he wrote A History of the American Theatre (1832) and A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (1834). These works reflected his growing interest in American history in general, and his last books were A History of New York for Schools (1837) and History of New Netherlands (1839, 1840). He also wrote a temperance novel, Thirty Years Ago; or, The Memoirs of a Water Drinker (1836).


Robert Canary, William Dunlap (New York: Twayne, 1970);

Emory Elliott, ed., American Writers of the Early Republic, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 37 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1985);

Joseph J. Ellis, After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture (New York: Norton, 1979).

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William Dunlap (dŭn´lăp), 1766–1839, American dramatist and theatrical manager, b. Perth Amboy, N.J. Inspired by the success of The Contrast by Royall Tyler, he began to write plays for the American Company (see Hallam, Lewis). His second comedy, The Father; or, American Shandyism, produced in 1789, was his first success. Later plays of his are excellent examples of the Gothic romance school. André (1798), a tragedy based on an actual occurrence in the Revolution, was the first native play on American material. He was a partner in the American Company (1796–97) and he later was manager of the Park Theatre, New York City (1798–1805). Dunlap was a founder and secretary of the National Academy of Design. His History of the American Theatre (1832) and History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (1834) are invaluable source books and contain important autobiographical material. Dunlap's diary was edited by D. C. Barck in 1930.

See biographies by O. S. Coad (1917, repr. 1962) and R. H. Canary (1970).