Playbill for Gen. John Burgoyne's The Heiress
John Burgoyne (1722–1792) was a 62-year-old retired general of the British Army seven years removed from his defeat at Saratoga when he began writing The Heiress
on a Lancashire retreat in 1784. The play debuted as an anonymous work on 14 January 1786 at the Drury Lane Theatre, though as Abigail Adams 2d suggested a week later, the London press was already reporting that it was “said to be written by Genl Burgoine” (to John Quincy Adams, 22 Jan. 1786
, below). After the drama made an impressive debut, Burgoyne revealed his authorship despite the risk that—as he told a friend—“the change of my design will be imputed to vanity” (quoted in James Lunt, John Burgoyne of Saratoga
, N.Y., 1975, p. 323–324).
While two earlier dramas by Burgoyne had enjoyed modest success, The Heiress played an outstanding initial run of 31 nights and returned to the stage the following season. Based in part on Denis Diderot's Le Père de Famille, Burgoyne's comedy of manners contrasts the conceited and wealthy Miss Alscrip with the graceful and poor Miss Alton. Miss Alscrip is set to inherit a fortune, but through a series of comedic turns Miss Alton is revealed as the true heiress. The revelation allows the refined Lord Gayville to marry his true love, Miss Alton, rather than the coarse Miss Alscrip to whom he was formerly engaged. An element of the play's initial success was the presence of popular actors Thomas King and Elizabeth Farren in leading roles. At his death in 1792, Burgoyne's obituary gave equal billing to his career as a playwright and his military accomplishments, noting especially his “much celebrated comedy,” The Heiress (Lunt, Burgoyne of Saratoga, p. 324–325, 327; Gerald Howson, Burgoyne of Saratoga: A Biography, N.Y., 1979, p. 282–284; E. Cobham Brewer, The Reader's Handbook, rev. edn., London, 1902, p. 409).
Courtesy of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, England.