Playwright, physician, farmer. South Carolina’s first dramatist, William Ioor, was born on January 4, 1780, in St. George’s parish, near old Dorchester, South Carolina, the descendant of French Huguenots who immigrated to Berkeley County from Holland. By his twentieth birthday, Ioor had received a diploma in medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and by 1801 had returned to Dorchester to practice. He married Ann Matthews, a relative of John Matthews (or Mathewes), the third governor of South Carolina, and with her had nine children. Between 1800 and 1803, during the rise of the Democratic-Republican Party in the state, he served as a representative of St. George in the General Assembly and, inspired by his political involvement, wrote the plays on which his reputation rests: Independence and The Battle of Eutaw Springs. Independence; or Which Do You Like Best, the Peer or the Farmer? is the first play written and produced by a native of South Carolina. It premiered at the Charleston Theatre, then on the corner of Broad and New Streets, on March 30, 1805, and was printed the same year by G.M. Bounetheau. Though set in England, adapted from an English novel (The Independent by Andrew McDonald), and indebted to the conventions of English pastorals and comedies, the play illustrates distinctly American themes and, in its protagonist Charles Woodville, a distinctly American character: the independent farmer. A farmer himself, Ioor embodied in Woodville the values of Jeffersonian Democrats: a preference for rural over urban pleasures, a commitment to hard work and financial autonomy, honesty, piety, and a refusal to relinquish his land—in this case, to the rich and scurrilous Lord Fanfare.
In Fanfare and his lawyer, Whittington, Ioor presents other recognizable and decidedly negative types: the peer and the lawyer. As a representative of English nobility, Fanfare is greedy, adulterous, and duplicitous. In the play’s most memorable and bizarre scene, he is brought before Lucifer and his devils—later revealed as Woodville and others—and made to beg forgiveness for “intriguing with a married woman.” Meanwhile, as his agent, Whittington pretends to assist Fanfare in acquiring Woodville’s small farm while all the while scheming to purchase Fanfare House. As critic Charles Watson has pointed out, their attempts to buy out Woodville parallel contemporaneous campaigns by wealthy South Carolina landowners to consume small farms and unite old homesteads in the state’s lowcountry. This scheme comes to no avail: by the play’s end, Fanfare has fled the countryside for London, Whittington has been revealed as the “prince of rogues,” and Woodville not only has won the hand of Fanfare’s daughter Louisa but also has been reunited with his own father and therewith his financial legacy.
Ioor’s second play, The Battle of Eutaw Springs, appeared the same year—1807— as his open declaration of allegiance to the Democratic-Republican Party. Writ- ten during the politically tumultuous period precipitating the War of 1812, the play was dedicated on its cover to “the Republicans of South Carolina in general” and intended, as Ioor wrote in a letter to the Charleston City Gazette, to “exalt the American character, and, possibly, depress that of the British government.” It premiered at the Charleston Theatre on January 10, 1807, was printed “for the author” later that year, and was reprised for one performance the next season. A troupe connected to the Charleston Theatre performed the play in Richmond on September 27, 1811, and again at the Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia on June 9, 1813.
The Battle of Eutaw Springs is the first play to dramatize Revolutionary War combat occurring in the southern colonies. The eponymous 1781 battle was in fact the turning point of the war in the Carolinas: at Eutaw Springs, about fifty miles northwest of Charleston, forces led by American General Nathanael Greene (and aided by those of Generals Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter) engaged British troops and eventually trapped them in an abandoned mansion. Though the American forces suffered more casualties, the skirmish led to British Colonel Alexander Stewart’s retreating to and ultimately surrendering Charleston.
In General Greene, Ioor finds both his protagonist and raisonneur. In his opening soliloquy, Greene prays for the freedom “of these Southern States from foreign domination” and with the other generals swears to “complete the glorious work” of not just “Washington, Adams, Hancock [and] Franklin” but of South Carolina heroes “Laurens, Gates, Rutledge [and] the Pinckneys.” When later he despairs that his reconnaissance parties are lost, his troops starving, and his foe elusive, he is visited by the spectacular “Genius of Liberty,” who descends from the flies “drawn by the American Eagle, the American Flag in her hand” and promises that America will soon become “a great, free, powerful, and, I hope, virtuous nation.” Duly galvanized, Greene leads his troops to victory at Eutaw Springs and then to Charleston, where he proclaims to the citizenry that “we are free!!!”
The actual battle occupies very little of the play; most of the action follows politically emblematic secondary characters. The most significant is Jonathan Slyboots, now considered the prototype of the Southern gentleman. A devout Whig, Slyboots saves young Emily Bloomfield from the wicked “Tory plunderers” who have destroyed her home and killed her family. He is rewarded in the play’s closing moments with the honor of giving Emily away at her marriage to her fiancé, General Greene himself, while the Genius of Liberty presides approvingly from above. Slyboots also harbors a fugitive British sailor, Queerfish, who complains of having been press-ganged into military service. Hearing his story, Slyboots acknowledges that all natives “of the hospitable and charitable state of South Carolina” should treat every such “child of sorrow” as a brother.
Queerfish was played at the premier by popular Charleston comic actor Thom- as Sully—very likely a friend of Ioor’s. The character provides more than comic relief. Indeed, his account of being forcibly conscripted would have immediately called to mind one of the most heated topics of the day: the British impressment of American seamen. While cowardly and foppish, owing to his Britishness, Queerfish would have endeared himself to audiences by observing, “I don’t much admire this fighting against our own dear countrymen”; furthermore, at the end, he announces that he will “go to Gen’ral, get a discharge—become an american citizen.”
Following the productions of his plays, Ioor moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he practiced medicine for fifteen years before retiring to the Greenville District in the upstate of South Carolina, where he and his family had summered. He died on July 30, 1850, at his residence near Pelzer and is buried alongside his wife in the Springwood Cemetery in Greenville.
American Plays Printed 1714–1830: A Bibliographical Record. Ed. Frank Pierce Hill. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1934.
Ennis, Daniel J. “William Ioor.” In Southern Writers: A New Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Joseph M. Flora and Amber Vogel. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.
Watson, Charles S. Antebellum Charleston Dramatists. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1976.
——-. The History of Southern Drama. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.