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Dunlap, William locked

  • Kimberly Greene

(b Perth Amboy, NJ, Feb 19, 1766; d New York, NY, Sep 28, 1839). American playwright, librettist, theater manager, historian, and painter. Despite losing his sight in one eye due to an accident, Dunlap became a professional portrait painter in his youth, and he was noted for his paintings of George Washington. In 1784 he traveled to London and studied painting with Benjamin West. Upon his return to the United States in 1787, he began writing plays and became America’s first professional playwright. Over a period of 40 years he translated, adapted, or wrote more than 70 plays, many of which used music by composers such as Benjamin Carr, Alexander Reinagle, Victor Pelissier, and James Hewitt. He was influenced by the plays of German dramatist August von Kotzebue, whose works he translated and made popular in the United States.

Dunlap’s The Archers, or Mountaineers of Switzerland (1796), a three-act opera based on the legend of William Tell, with music by Carr, has been called the first American opera. It predates Friedrich Schiller’s play on the same subject by eight years, and it coincided with the growing patriotism of a new nation. Although the libretto is extant, only two numbers survive (“Why, Huntress, Why” and a Rondo).

For the 1797–8 season, Dunlap became a partner with John Hodgkinson in the Old American Company at the New York Theatre. According to Dunlap, his melodramatic adaptations of Kotzebue’s plays ensured financial stability from 1798 to 1805. In 1805 Dunlap took over the management of Thomas Apthorpe Cooper’s Park Theater, as well as other theatrical concerns, and subsequently suffered financial losses, causing him to leave theatrical management. However, he continued to write, translate, and adapt plays. He resumed his painting career, joined the American Academy of Fine Arts, and was one of the founders of the National Academy of Design (1826). Dunlap’s books A History of the American Theatre (1832), one of the earliest accounts of the American stage, and History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (1834), a biographical chronicle of early American artists, are essential to understanding the performing and visual arts in the Federal Period.


(selective list)

Darby’s Return (comic sketch, 1789)

The Archers, or Mountaineers of Switzerland (op, 3, 1796), music by B. Carr; The Stranger (translation of drama by A. Kotzebue, 5, 1798), music by A. Reinagle and T. Shaw; Sterne’s Maria, or The Vintage (comic op, 2, 1799), music by V. Pelissier; The Spanish Castle, or the Knight of Guadalquiver (comic op, 1800), music by J. Hewitt; Virgin of the Sun (translation of drama by Kotzebue, 5, 1800), music by Pelissier; The Glory of Columbia, Her Yeomanry (historical play, 5, 1803), music by Pelissier; The Voice of Nature (drama, 3, 1803), music by Pelissier; Yankee Chronology, or Huzza for the Constitution! (musical play, 1, 1812)


  • W. Dunlap: A History of the American Theatre (New York, 1832/R 2005)
  • O.G.T. Sonneck: A Bibliography of Early Secular American Music (Washington, DC, 1905; enlarged by W.T. Upton, 1945/R1964)
  • O.G.T. Sonneck: Early Opera in America (New York, 1915/R1963)
  • J. Mates: The American Musical Stage before 1800 (New Brunswick, NJ, 1962)
  • R.J. Wolfe: Secular Music in America, 1801–1825: a Bibliography (New York, 1964)
  • D. Grimsted: Melodrama Unveiled: American Theater and Culture, 1800–1850 (Chicago, 1968)
  • R.H. Canary: William Dunlap (New York, 1970)
  • J. Zipes: “Dunlap, Kotzebue, and the Shaping of American Theater: a Reevaluation from a Marxist Perspective,” Early American Literature, vol.8 (1974), 272–84
  • K. Kroeger, ed.: Pelissier’s Columbian Melodies: Music for the New York and Philadelphia Theaters, RRAM, xiii–xiv (Madison, WI, 1984)
  • S.L. Porter: With an Air Debonair: Musical Theatre in America, 1785–1815 (Washington, DC, 1991)
  • K. Kroeger, ed.: Early Melodrama in America (New York, 1994)
  • G.A. Richardson: “Nationalizing the American Stage: the Drama of Royall Tyler and William Dunlap as Post-colonial Phenomena,” Making America/Making American Literature: Franklin to Cooper, ed. A.R. Lee and W.M. Verhoeven (Amsterdam, 1996), 221–48
  • D.B. Wilmeth and C. Bigsby, eds.: The Cambridge History of American Theatre, i: Beginnings to 1870 (Cambridge, UK, 1998)
  • M. Lyons: William Dunlap and the Construction of an American Art History (Amherst, MA, 2005)