Apparently expanding before the war, his idealized middle settlements of agricultural society shrank dramatically during the revolution, as selfish barbarism raged throughout the land. “Why has the Master of the world permitted so much indiscriminate evil throughout every part of this poor planet, at all times, and among all kinds of people?” No longer did he see America as potentially an Edenic oasis beyond the brutality and exploitation of human life. Instead he depicted all human societies as perched precariously atop volcanoes of selfish passions. Ultimately, he indulged in a most un-American fatalism about individual action: “Our lot is to be the victims, the sport of fortune throughout all the winding mazes of the wheel.... We are but the herrings of a large shoal, driven here and there and devoured by the great porpoises of the sea.” Gripped by existential despair, he adopted, at least rhetorically, the deepest pessimism: “Life appears to be a mere accident, and of the worst kind; we are born to be victims of diseases and passions, of mischances and death; better not to be than to be miserable.” What is an American? Not better than the European, Crèvecoeur later answered: both were victims of powerful men and pawns of cruel fate. During the Revolution, his America became Charles Town instead of Nantucket.
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The venerable American (who wins the girl in the end) is Col. Henry Manly, a Revolutionary War veteran and an officer in the Massachusetts militia during Shays’s Rebellion of 1787-1788 (as was the playwright). When he comes to New York City to appeal to the Continental Congress for pensions for his wounded fellow veterans, he visits his young sister Charlotte and is engulfed in New York wannabe society. A horrified Charlotte insists that she cannot introduce him to society wearing his regimental coat, and a servant dismisses him as an "unpolished animal." But Manly knows what he stands for and why it matters. His monologue against luxury that opens Act III, Scene II, mirrors the alarm raised by many Americans in the 1780s that consumer excess would sap the energy of the young nation and threaten its very survival (see Noah Webster and David Ramsay in this Theme). He ardently defends American patriotism, civic commitment, and simple virtue from the disparaging barbs of (the villain) Billy Dimple. In the end, Dimple is exposed as a deceitful fraud, Charlotte disavows her frivolous aspirations, and Col. Manly affirms to the audience that the "probity, virtue [and] honor" of the "unpolished" American will triumph. The first play written by Royall Tyler, a wealthy Harvard- and Yale-educated Bostonian, The Contrast merits study along with Crèvecoeur’s well-known Letters . We recommend that you read the Act-Scene summaries and study the character chart before beginning the play. Do note the poem prologue, worth a study in itself. (38 pp.)