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The Arts

Literary power couple Royall and Mary Tyler featured in new play, ‘True as Steel’

BRATTLEBORO—A staged reading of True as Steel, a play in the words of early Brattleboro literary couple Royall and Mary Tyler, will be performed one time only on Thursday, Oct. 11, at 7:30 p.m., at 118 Elliot Street as the first event of this year’s Brattleboro Literary Festival.

The play and an exhibition at Brooks Memorial Library are part of this year’s Lit Fest offerings highlighting the area’s rich literary history as a partner in the Brattleboro Words Project. Last year’s Lit Fest/‘Words’ event was a pop-up exhibit on Main Street on the life of Lucy Terry Prince, considered the nation’s first African American poet.

According to a news release, Royall Tyler (1757-1826), the most important author of Vermont’s first century and his wife, Mary Palmer Tyler (1775-1866), who wrote the first child-rearing book published in the U.S., lived in Guilford in the 1790s and Brattleboro from 1810 on.

True as Steel, written by Christina Gibbons of Brattleboro and Don McLean of Guilford, uses only the Tylers’ own words drawn from their writings to depict their humorous, poignant, and somewhat controversial relationship.

“Royall and Mary Palmer Tyler are of interest to us as Brattleboro’s most important literary couple, both historically and today,” McLean said. “Royall Tyler’s writings about the evils of slavery came decades before the abolitionist movement, and his concern with religious intolerance and his enlightened writing on Muslims are certainly relevant to our current situation.

“Mary Palmer Tyler interests us as a woman author in an era where it was assumed only men were writers. Her book on the subject of child rearing was pioneering in a culture where a woman wouldn’t ‘go public’ on such a ‘delicate’ topic!”

Gibbons and McLean wrote the play for the Vermont Bicentennial in 1991; the Oct. 11 performance is the play’s first revival and features actors Richard Epstein as Royall Tyler, and Jenny Holan as Mary Palmer Tyler. It is directed by Geoffry Brown, longtime Marlboro College theater program head and author of more than 100 plays.

The narratives of Mary Tyler are taken from her memoirs, which were published by her descendants as Grandmother Tyler’s Book in 1925.

Royall Tyler was author of The Contrast, a comedy he wrote and had staged in New York City during a visit there in 1787 — notable as the first comedy by an American author to be professionally staged in this country.

It became a hit and was repeated in many cities and again during the first Presidential Inauguration in New York in 1789 with George Washington, who was a fan of the play and contributed to its publication, in attendance.

Mary Palmer Tyler’s 1811 book, The Maternal Physician, was based upon her having given birth to and bringing up a half-dozen children by the time she wrote the manual. Groundbreaking at the time, the book is forward-looking in its common-sense, personal approach to child-rearing.

Contrary to the typical practice of the day, where babies were handed off to a “wet nurse” and kept out of the family circle until several years of age, Mary Tyler advocated for the mother to breast-feed her baby, to engage the child intellectually, and to include her as part of the family’s daily life.

Royall Tyler was also an accomplished lawyer who went on to become chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. He was a founding trustee of the University of Vermont, which in the 1970s named its Royall Tyler Theatre after him.

“Tyler was a strong proponent of religious tolerance and a champion of human rights,” McLean said. “His The Algerine Captive (1797) depicted the inhumane treatment of African-American slaves and cleverly held a mirror up to slavery when the narrator is treated kindly by Muslim pirate captors.”

McLean said Tyler became a political progressive, abandoning the Federalist Party for the emerging Jeffersonian liberals and died in poverty, partly because he often defended clients who couldn’t afford to pay him.

The Tylers are buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery in Brattleboro. A historical marker about Royall Tyler sits outside the Guilford Historical Society on Guilford Center Road.

The focus on the Tylers also includes an exhibit at Brooks Memorial Library, where a roundtable discussion of the Tylers with scholar Marius Peladeau took place in September.

Books and documents, including original, handwritten letters, early newspapers, limited-edition pamphlets and books, and other materials from private and regional collections will be on display there during the Literary Festival, Oct. 12 to 14, and some will be shown at 118 Elliot the evening of the play.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #480 (Wednesday, October 10, 2018). This story appeared on page B3.

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