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Mercy Otis Warren: Drama of the Revolitionary Period

Written by: Mercy Warren

Most of the literature—orations as well as broadsides—created in America under the heat of the Revolution, was of a strictly satirical character. Most of the Revolutionary ballads sung at the time were bitter with hatred against the Loyalist. When the conflict actually was in progress, the theatres that regaled the Colonists were closed, and an order from the Continental Congress declared that theatre-going was an amusement from which all patriotic people should abstain. These orders or resolutions were dated October 12, 1778, and October 16. (Seilhamer, ii, 51.) The playhouses were no sooner closed, however—much to the regret of Washington—than their doors were thrown wide open by the British troops stationed in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. A complete history of the American stage has to deal with Howe's players, Clinton's players, and Burgoyne's players.

Of all these Red-Coat Thespians, two demand our attention—one, Major André, a gay, talented actor; the other, General Burgoyne, whose pride was as much concerned with playwriting as with generalship. The latter dipped his pen in the satirical inkpot, and wrote a farce, "The Blockade of Boston." It was this play that drew forth from a woman, an American playwright, the retort stinging. This lady was Mrs. Mercy Warren who, although distinguished for being a sister of James Otis, and the wife of General James Warren, was in her own name a most important and distinct literary figure during the Revolution.

So few women appear in the early history of American Drama that it is well here to mention Mrs. Charlotte Ramsay Lennox (1720-1804) and Mrs. Susanna Rowson (1762-1824). The former has the reputation of being the first woman, born in America, to have written a play, "The Sister" (1769). The author [Pg 212]moved to London when she was fifteen, and there it was her piece was produced, with an epilogue by Oliver Goldsmith. She is referred to in Boswell's Life of Johnson.

Of Susanna Rowson, whose Memoir has been issued by Rev. Elias Nason, we know that, as a singer and actress, she created sufficient reputation in London to attract the attention of Wignell, the comedian. (Clapp. Boston Stage. 1853, p. 41.)

With her husband, she came to this country in 1793, and, apart from her professional duties on the stage, wrote a farce, "Volunteers" (1795), dealing with the Whiskey Insurrection in Pennsylvania, "The Female Patriot" (1794), "Slaves in Algiers; or, A Struggle for Freedom" (1794), and "Americans in England" (1796). All of these were produced. Her literary attainments were wide, her most popular novel being "Charlotte Temple, a Tale of Truth" (1790). She likewise compiled many educational works. (See Wegelin.)

The picture conjured up in our mind of Mrs. Warren is farthest away from satire. To judge by the costume she wore when she sat to Copley for her portrait, she must have been graced with all the feminine wiles of the period. Behold Mrs. Mercy Warren, satirist, as the records describe her:

Her head-dress is of white lace, trimmed with white satin ribbons. Her robe is of dark-green satin, with a pompadour waist, trimmed with point lace. There is a full plait at the back, hanging from the shoulders, and her sleeves are also of point lace. White illusion, trimmed with point lace, and fastened with a white satin bow, covers her neck. The front of the skirt and of the sleeves are elaborately trimmed with puffings of satin.

But however agreeable this picture may be, Mrs. Warren, on reading Burgoyne's farce, immediately sharpened her pen, and replied by writing a counter-farce, which she called "The Blockheads; or, the Affrighted Officers." It was in the prologue to this play that the poet-dramatist wrote:

Your pardon first I crave for this intrusion. The topic's such it looks like a delusion; And next your candour, for I swear and vow, Such an attempt I never made till now. But constant laughing at the Desp'rate fate, The bastard sons of Mars endur'd of late, Induc'd me thus to minute down the notion,[Pg 213] Which put my risibles in such commotion. By yankees frighted too! oh, dire to say! Why yankees sure at red-coats faint away! Oh, yes—They thought so too—for lack-a-day, Their gen'ral turned the blockade to a play: Poor vain poltroons—with justice we'll retort, And call them blockheads for their idle sport.

Unfortunately, we cannot test the comparative value of satire as used by Burgoyne and Mrs. Warren, because the Burgoyne play is not in existence. But, undoubtedly, our Revolutionary enthusiast knew how to wield her pen in anger, and she reflects all of the bitter spirit of the time. Not only is this apparent in "The Blockheads," but likewise in "The Group," a piece which holds up to ridicule a number of people well known to the Boston of that day.

Mrs. Warren was the writer of many plays, as well as being noted for her "History of the American Revolution" (1805), and for her slim volume of poems (1790), which follow the conventional sentiments of the conventionally sentimental English poetry of that time.

In "The Group" we obtain her interesting impressions, in dramatic form, of North and Gage and, from the standpoint of the library, we regard with reverence the little copy of the play printed on the day before the battle of Lexington—a slim brochure, aimed effectively at Tory politicians.

In fact, mention the name Tory to Mrs. Warren, and her wit was ever ready to sharpen its shafts against British life in America. That is probably why so many believe she wrote "The Motley Assembly," a farce, though some there be who claim that its authorship belongs to J. M. Sewall. Dr. F. W. Atkinson asserts that this was the first American play to have in it only American characters.

The satirical farce was a popular dramatic form of the time. Mrs. Warren was particularly effective in wielding such a polemic note, for instance, when she deals with the Boston Massacre in her Tragedy, "The Adulateur" (Boston: Printed[Pg 214] and sold at the New Printing-Office, /Near Concert-Hall./ M,DCC,LXXIII./). On the King's side, however, the writers were just as effective. Such an example is seen in "The Battle of Brooklyn, A farce of Two Acts: as it was performed at Long-Island, on Tuesday, the 27th of August, 1776, By the Representatives of the Tyrants of America, Assembled at Philadelphia" (Edinburgh: Printed in the Year M.DCC. LXXVII.), in which the British ridicule all that is Continental, even Washington. This farce was reprinted in Brooklyn, 1873.

Jonathan Mitchell Sewall's (1748-1808) "A Cure for the Spleen; or, Amusement for a Winter's Evening" (1775) was another Tory protest, which carried the following pretentious subtitle: "Being the substance of a conversation on the Times, over a friendly tankard and pipe, between Sharp, a country Parson; Bumper, a country Justice; Fillpot, an inn-keeper; Graveairs, a Deacon; Trim, a Barber; Brim, a Quaker; Puff, a late Representative. Taken in short-hand by Roger de Coverly."

Mrs. Warren was the intimate friend of many interesting people. It concerns us, however, that her most significant correspondence of a literary nature was carried on with John Adams, afterwards President of the United States. This friendship remained unbroken until such time as Mrs. Warren found it necessary to picture Adams in her History of the Revolution; when he objected to the portraiture.

The student of history is beholden to Mr. Adams for many of those intimate little sketches of Revolutionary and early national life in America, without which our impressions would be much the poorer. His admiration for Mrs. Warren was great, and even in his correspondence with her husband, James Warren, he never allowed an opportunity to slip for alluding to her work as a literary force in the life of the time. I note, for example, a letter he wrote on December 22, 1773, suggesting a theme which would "become" Mrs. Warren's pen, "which has no equal that I know of in this country."

In 1775, after "The Group" was written, and, according to custom, submitted by Warren to John Adams for criticism and approval, we find him praising Mrs. Warren, and quoting from her play. So poignantly incisive was Mrs. Warren's satire that many people would not credit her with the pieces she actually wrote, and there were those who thought it incredible that a[Pg 215] woman should use satire so openly and so flagrantly as she. The consequence is, many of her contemporaries attributed the writing of "The Group" to masculine hands, and this attitude drew from Mrs. Warren the following letter written to Mr. Adams:

My next question, sir, you may deem impertinent. Do you remember who was the author of a little pamphlet entitled, The Group? To your hand it was committed by the writer. You brought it forward to the public eye. I will therefore give you my reason for naming it now. A friend of mine, who lately visited the Athenæum [a Boston Library], saw it among a bundle of pamphlets, with a high encomium of the author, who, he asserted, was Mr. Samuel Barrett. You can, if you please, give a written testimony contradictory of the false assertion.

This letter was written long after the Revolution, when she was not loath to let it be known that she was the creator of this little play, and is clearly indicative of the general attitude the public had toward Mrs. Warren as an author. Her appeal instantly called forth a courteous rejoinder from Mr. Adams, who wrote:

What brain could ever have conceived or suspected Samuel Barrett, Esquire, to have been the author of "The Group"? The bishop has neither the natural genius nor the acquired talents, the knowledge of characters, nor the political principles, sentiments, or feelings, that could have dictated that pungent drama. His worthy brother, the Major, might have been as rationally suspected.

I could take my Bible oath to two propositions, 1st. That Bishop Barrett, in my opinion, was one of the last literary characters in the world who ought to have been suspected to have written "The Group." 2d. That there was but one person in the world, male or female, who could at that time, in my opinion, have written it; and that person was Madam Mercy Warren, the historical, philosophical, poetical, and satirical consort of the then Colonel, since General, James Warren of Plymouth, sister of the great, but forgotten, James Otis.

According to Adams, he immediately went to the Boston Athenæum, where his nephew, W. S. Shaw, was Librarian. He drew from the shelves a copy of "The Group", which had been bought from the collection of Governor Adams of Massachusetts, and forthwith, on looking it over, wrote down the original[Pg 216] names of the people satirized therein. This copy is still a valuable possession of the library.

While Mrs. Warren was writing "The Group," she sent it piecemeal to her husband, who was on the field of battle. He, being proud of the literary attainments of his wife, sent it around to his friends, under seal of secrecy. And his appeal to these friends was very significant of the pride he felt in the manuscript. Here is what he wrote to Adams, on January 15, 1775:

Inclosed are for your amusement two Acts of a dramatic performance composed at my particular desire. They go to you as they came out of the hand of the Copier, without pointing or marking. If you think it worth while to make any other use of them than a reading, you will prepare them in that way & give them such other Corrections & Amendments as your good Judgment shall suggest.

It gradually became known among Warren's friends who the real writer of the satire was, much to the consternation of Mrs. Mercy Warren. She was modest to the extreme, usually being thrust into writing on particular subjects by the enthusiasm of her friends. For example, she wrote a poem on the Boston Tea Party, and, in sending it to her husband, she confessed that it was a task

done in consequence of the request of a much respected friend. It was wrote off with little attention.... I do not think it has sufficient merit for the public eye.

By the same post, she sent him another scene from "The Group."

Whatever you do with either of them [meaning the manuscripts], you will doubtless be careful that the author is not exposed, and hope your particular friends will be convinced of the propriety of not naming her at present.

Mrs. Warren was the author of several other plays, among them "The Adulateur" and "The Retreat," which preceded[Pg 217] "The Group" in date of composition, and "The Sack of Rome." The latter was contained in a volume of poems issued in 1790, in which "The Ladies of Castile" was dedicated to President Washington, who wrote the author a courteous note in acknowledgment.

In the preface to this volume, Mrs. Warren gives her impressions of the stage, which are excellent measure of the regard Americans of this period had for the moral influence of the playhouse. Thus, she writes:

Theatrical amusements may, sometimes, have been prostituted to the purposes of vice; yet, in an age of taste and refinement, lessons of morality, and the consequences of deviation, may, perhaps, be as successfully enforced from the stage, as by modes of instruction, less censured by the severe; while, at the same time, the exhibition of great historical events, opens a field of contemplation to the reflecting and philosophic mind.

But Mrs. Warren was not entirely given over to the serious occupations of literary work. We find her on intimate terms with Mrs. Adams, the two of them in their daily association calling each other Portia and Marcia.

Who actually played in "The Group" when it was given a performance is not recorded. We know, however, from records, that it was given for the delectation of the audiences assembled "nigh head quarters, at Amboyne." This evidence is on the strength of Mrs. Warren's own statement. Sanction for the statement appears on the title-pages of the New York, John Anderson, issue of 1775, and the Jamaica-Philadelphia, James Humphreys, Jr., edition of the same year.

I have selected this play, "The Group," as being an excellent example of the partisan writing done at the time of our American Revolution, and no one can afford to overlook it, although its actable qualities, according to our present-day judgment, are doubtful.

: this play, "The Group," Otis




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