Publication details

The Virtuous Spy : From Major John André (1798) to Captain Thorne in Secret Service (1895)



Year of publication 2019
Type Conference abstract
MU Faculty or unit

Faculty of Arts

Description André, the first U.S. tragedy in verse, is one of the earliest American plays. Written by William Dunlap in 1798, it focuses on a crucial episode of the Revolutionary War, that of a capture, conviction, and execution of Major John André, a British military spy. But André was also a distinguished soldier respected by both sides of the conflict and a popular figure among American civilians. The play raises various moral issues and asks: what to do when a spy is one of us? Despite being a British soldier, Major André was seen as a representative of American (republican) values such as honesty, faithfulness, and the love of freedom in the context of the American Revolution. The tragedy André is an early spy drama that introduces a character of a spy the audience may identify with, and through whose personage they may, in effect, reassess their political and moral positions. A similar mechanism is introduced in Secret Service by William Gillette (1895), a sensational melodrama and a spy thriller from the Civil War. Is the gallant Southerner, Captain Thorne, really a Northern spy? His nationalist fervor and an unwavering moral stance force the postbellum audience to question their loyalties again as with André a hundred years earlier. The conference presentation will compare the two plays in their respective contexts and show how the personage of the virtuous spy contributed to a reassessment of values of respective postwar American identities.
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