George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Wignell, 22 May 1790

From Thomas Wignell

Philadelphia May 22nd 1790.

Mr Wignell, with the utmost respect and deference, has the Honor of transmitting to the President of the United States, two copies of the Contrast.1

AL, DLC:GW.

Thomas Wignell (d. 1803), an English actor, was a cousin of actor and theatrical manager Lewis Hallam. After performing in David Garrick’s Drury Lane Company, Wignell came to America in 1774. He performed with Hallam’s American Company in Jamaica during the war and returned to the United States in 1785, where he became the principal comic actor in the company as well as its treasurer and financial manager. In 1790 he left Hallam and later formed his own company (Seilhamer, American Theatre, description begins George O. Seilhamer. History of the American Theatre. 3 vols. 1888–91. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends 2:136, 177, 335–38).

1The enclosures were copies of Royall Tyler’s play, The Contrast, a Comedy; in Five Acts: Written by a Citizen of the United States; Performed with Applause at the Theatres in New-York, Philadelphia, and Maryland; and Published (under an Assignment of the Copy-Right) by Thomas Wignell (Philadelphia, 1790). One copy is now among GW’s books in the Boston Athenaeum (Griffin, Boston Athenæum Collection, description begins Appleton P. C. Griffin, comp. A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum. Cambridge, Mass., 1897. description ends 489–90). The Contrast is generally regarded as the first American comedy; although modeled on Sheridan and Goldsmith, the play was set in New York, and its characters and situations were distinctly American. Celebrating republican ideals, the play focuses on the contrast between the virtues of the simple, sturdy American and the absurd pretensions of polished society. One of its heroes, Manly, invokes the example of GW when he says, “I have humbly imitated our illustrious Washington, in having exposed my health and life in the service of my country, without reaping any other reward than the glory of conquering in so arduous a contest” (Taubman, Making of the American Theatre, description begins Howard Taubman. The Making of the American Theatre. New York, 1965. description ends 46–50). The play was first performed at the John Street Theater in New York by Hallam’s Old American Company on 16 April 1787 and was performed four more times before the close of the New York season on 8 June. It was later performed in Baltimore in 1787 and 1788 and in Philadelphia in 1790. Tyler assigned the copyright to Wignell shortly after the play was first performed; Wignell’s proposal for printing the play by subscription was published in several newspapers in 1787 (Seilhamer, American Theatre, description begins George O. Seilhamer. History of the American Theatre. 3 vols. 1888–91. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends 2:225–39). GW subscribed to the work, and his name headed the list of 375 subscribers in the published edition when it appeared in 1790. Lear wrote to Wignell on 30 May 1790 acknowledging receipt of two copies of The Contrast along with Wignell’s note (Lear to Wignell, 30 May 1790, DLC:GW); Lear’s letter was delivered to Wignell by Clement Biddle (Biddle to Lear, 16 June 1790, PHi: Washington-Biddle Correspondence). Although GW probably never saw the play, he saw Wignell perform in Philadelphia in July 1787 (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 5:175, 176) and in New York in 1789 and was later acquainted with him in Philadelphia (Ford, Theatre description begins Paul Leicester Ford. Washington and The Theatre. New York, 1899. description ends , 39–45; see also Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:229). According to John Durang, an actor and contemporary of Wignell, “When Gen’l Washington visited the theatre, the east stage box was decorated with the United States coat of arms over the box. Mr. Wignell, dress’d in black and powdered, with two silver candlesticks would wait at the box door to receive him and light him to his seat” (Downer, Memoir of John Durang, description begins Alan S. Downer, ed. The Memoir of John Durang: American Actor, 1785–1816. Pittsburgh, 1966. description ends 27).

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