February 5, 2010

Birth of Robert Montgomery Bird

Robert Montgomery Bird was born on February 5, 1806 in New Castle, Delaware. He went on to have a varied career, experimenting as a physician, farmer, photographer, inventor, politician, teacher, novelist, and playwright.

Though he started down the path of a medical doctor (he earned his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1827), Bird turned to literary interests as early as 1824, when he had minor poems published in a newspaper. He soon turned to novels, including his most endearing, Sheppard Lee, in 1836. The odd, Gothic-styled novel lends itself to frequent comparison with the slightly earlier Philadelphia novelist Charles Brockden Brown.

Sheppard Lee features a title character who has the power to project his spirit into people who are on the verge of death, thereby taking over. Inhabiting other bodies, Lee has some interesting adventures, including taking part in a slave revolt as "Nigger Tom"; he is hanged for his involvement. The scene is a cautionary one about the danger of putting the idea of freedom into the minds of "savage" Africans.

Bird soon became interested in drama and tried his hand at writing a play or two. Many of Bird's plays were started but never finished; he mapped out over 50 plays in his lifetime. Few were produced. His biggest supporter and, perhaps, his biggest obstacle as a playwright was the celebrity actor Edwin Forrest.

Beginning in 1828, Forrest offered monetary prizes for plays by American authors which he judged up to his (very high) standards. In the fall of 1830, Forrest accepted a manuscript from Bird, a play set in Thebes in 378 B.C. titled Pelopidas, or the Fall of the Polemarchs. Forrest immediately called for multiple editorial changes. He never produced it.

Forrest had certain expectations for any play written for him. He demanded to be the absolute center of attention, and required a character strong enough for him. Soon, Forrest convinced Bird to write an entirely new play, which opened in May of 1836.

*The image above is a self-portrait of Bird circa 1828. From an exhibit at UPenn libraries, Robert Montgomery Bird: Writer and Artist.

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