The Lost Colony (1937)
by Paul Green
The first English attempt at settlement in the New World happened in the 1580s on Roanoke Island on the North Carolina coast. It was the dream of Sir Walter Raleigh, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, to establish this colony to discover the presumably untapped wealth of the New World and to glorify the English crown. The expeditions never did include Raleigh. The first two, in 1584 and 1585, were investigations with the second leaving a small group of settlers.
The play focuses on the 1587 expedition carrying a large group of settlers. They arrived to find that all the previous settlers were lost after antagonizing the Native American community they had formerly been at peace with. This 1587 expedition was headed by Governor John White and his son-in-law, Ananias Dare. There was also chief Manteo who had gone to England in 1584 and now returned, along with a host of other characters both English and Native. The Native American side is not the focus, but it is dealt with in a rather fair-minded way given the time it was written. There is a love triangle between Ananias Dare and Governor White's daughter, Eleanor, and John Borden, an independent-minded man of lower social standing. Green makes ready use of this love triangle as well as other characters and relationships to advance his main theme: in the New World, the dream of a democratic society was coming into reality. When Dare dies, it is John Borden who is destined to wed Eleanor. Comic relief character Old Tom is a lowly drunk in England, but his heroism erupts in the land of possibility.
The history is quite intriguing and continues to this day to be researched. Paul Green had to imagine what happened to the 1587 settlers after Governor White returned to England. The intervening war with the Spanish kept White from returning for several years, and when they did return all they found was the word “Croatoan” carved in a tree—an apparent reference to Hatteras Island.
Reading this play is not enough. You have to go watch it at Roanoke Island, where it is still performed every summer near the very spot where the English settled. This was the first of Paul Green's outdoor "symphonic dramas"—sprawling, episodic pieces written for specific places based on their history. These performances bring the history to life for crowds of tourists year after year. To be able to watch where the history took place, to use the outdoors and oftentimes the exact surroundings to reconnect to the history is a precious thing. One of the most memorable moments in “The Lost Colony” is watching a scale model of the original ship coming onto the shore. It beautifully re-creates in our mind the image of that event of over 400 years ago.
The script is not perfect, and the politics and historical accuracy have some points to be debated. Still the legacy of historic reenactment is a treasure left to our generation by Paul Green, the Father of Outdoor Drama, and his traveling companions. If you live in North Carolina, you owe it to yourself to go to the coast for "The Lost Colony" and then to mountains for “Unto These Hills,” an outdoor drama of the story of the Cherokee people.