John Howard Payne Essay - Critical Essays


John Howard Payne wrote in one of his prefaces that it was “almost hopeless to look to the stage of the present days for a permanent literary distinction.” A broader view of the drama in England and the United States during most of the nineteenth century suggests that Payne’s admission bespoke not only his own limitations but also the relatively undistinguished record of most of the century’s dramatists before the arrival of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. On balance, one could justly claim that Payne’s enormous output in itself provides the scholar with a source sufficient to gauge accurately the dramatic tastes of an age.

Trial Without Jury

Trial Without Jury was one of Payne’s first translations, his first play written or adapted in England, and the work that established his position as “supplier” for Drury Lane and, later, for Covent Garden. An adaptation of the French melodrama La Pie voleuse, by Louis Charles Caigniez and Jean Marie Théodore Baudouin, the play is a source of controversy among scholars. There is some evidence that Payne’s play was never performed, as three other versions of the original exist in English by other adapters, including Thomas Dibdin and Isaac Pocock, both of whom were well-known hacks for Drury Lane. Aside from such scholarly discussion, however, and the interesting fact that the original version was turned into a libretto for a sparkling opera by Gioacchino Rossini, La gazza ladra (pr. 1817), the play is a trivial concoction that relies on a brilliantly theatrical gimmick.

Rosalie is the pretty young heroine, employed as a maid in the household of Mr. Gregory, a rich farmer, and his wife, Nannette. Rosalie is in love with the Gregorys’ handsome son, Henry, who is returning from a career in the army. The army is also the career of Everard, Rosalie’s father. As the play opens, the Gregorys are preparing a feast to celebrate Henry’s return. Rosalie is setting out the silver and plate, assisted by Coody, an honest manservant and country bumpkin. The family’s pet magpie sits in an open cage above the table. While Rosalie and Coody are engaged in friendly banter, the magpie swoops down, steals a spoon, and flies away.

Eventually, the loss of the spoon is noted by Nannette, who suspects Rosalie, since other spoons have disappeared over a period of time. Meanwhile, Rosalie’s father, facing court-martial for insubordination, visits his daughter for the last time, asking her to sell a silver spoon of his own and to give him the money later, in the woods. Rosalie sells the spoon, but the money is afterward found on her and she is accused of the theft of the Gregorys’ silver. A trial ensues; the prosecutor is a villainous magistrate who...

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