Although erroneously thought to be the first play written by an African American, William Wells Brown's closet drama The Escape, or A Leap for Freedom was the first dramatic work by an African American to be published. Issued as an octavo pamphlet of fifty-two pages by Robert F. Wallcut of Boston in 1858, the publication of The Escape attests to its popularity and confirms the play's value as antislavery propaganda. Brown claims in the author's preface to have written the play for his “own amusement and not with the remotest thought that it would ever be seen by the public eye”. However after his friends arranged for him to read it “before a Literary Society”, public readings soon followed with great success. Encomiums published in the 1858 octavo suggest that at least some viewed the work not only as propaganda but also as serious drama. Typical of the praise lavished on the play is the excerpt from the Auburn (N.Y.) Daily Advertiser quoted in the octavo: “MR. BROWN's Drama is, in itself, a masterly refutation of all apologies for slavery, and abounds in wit, satire, philosophy, argument and facts, all ingeniously interwoven into one of the most interesting dramatic compositions of modern times”. In addition to the acclaim provided by the publisher, positive notice of The Escape also appears in William Lloyd Garrison's the Liberator (10 Sept. 1858; 8 Oct. 1858) and the National Anti-Slavery Standard (25 Dec. 1858).
Less than riveting as drama, The Escape has real value as antislavery propaganda and genuine potential to stir an audience when read by an orator of even moderate skill. Its flowery and elevated diction, however, deny the characters speech that approximates dialogue between real people. Although much of the play's soaring rhetoric sounds stilted and false, “the main features in the Drama are true”, Brown affirms, and his audience no doubt concurred.
The Escape dramatizes the struggle of Melinda and her husband to reach freedom in Canada. A comely mulatto woman, Melinda endures the unremitting sexual harassment of her master, Dr. Gaines. Prefiguring Dr. Flint in Harriet A. Jacobs's 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Gaines torments Melinda even as he promises privileges, money, and freedom if she would abandon her husband and enter into a liaison with her master. In addition to the abuse of Dr. Gaines, Melinda suffers the harsh and jealous maltreatment of her mistress, Mrs. Gaines. After predictable trials and tribulations the slave couple finally escape to freedom in Canada.
Readers familiar with Brown's 1853 novel Clotel will recognize themes common to the novel and the play, most notably the sexual abuse of black women in slavery, the development of a class of phenotypically white women to use as sex slaves, the systematic and intentional intellectual degradation and deprivation of slaves, and the accompanying pathologies that deform the personality of the slave and slave holder. Yet, even as it focuses on these themes, The Escape celebrates the love of a couple willing to endure any hardship to remain true to each other.