The fourth son of John Barker, one of Philadelphia’s foremost citizens, James Nelson Barker was educated in public schools and became, in his early teens, a wide reader. Though he did not go to college, he was familiar enough with some of the world’s great authors to begin, at the age of twenty, his first play, based on a story by Miguel de Cervantes. This play, The Spanish Rover, was left unfinished and has not survived. By 1805, Barker had completed two acts of a proposed tragedy entitled Attila, suggested by his reading of Edward Gibbon’s five-volume work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776, 1781, 1788); this play has also been lost. The only knowledge of these early efforts comes from Barker’s autobiographical account of his dramatic career, written for William Dunlap’s History of the American Theatre (1832).
Though these fledgling works attest Barker’s early interest in drama and indicate the scope of his reading, they also make a point about his creative imagination. The subject matter, the setting, and even the characters of both works were foreign. Attila’s Rome and Cervantes’ seventeenth century Spain were far removed from the bumptious America of the early Republic; the results were therefore simple false starts. In contrast, when the occasion arose for the writing of a play with an American milieu as its setting, Barker’s imagination took fire.
That occasion was a hunting trip in 1806. One of Barker’s companions, a theater manager, knowing of the young man’s dramatic interests, asked Barker to write an American play, and a prominent actor of the day, Joseph Jefferson, who specialized in Yankee characterizations, asked that Barker include a Yankee type. Barker set to work, and in forty-three days, he completed his first play, Tears and Smiles, produced the following year. In his preface to the published work, Barker derides the popular opinion among critics that a successful drama had to be European in plot, setting, and character. As if poking fun at himself and his two earlier, abortive efforts, he quotes a fictitious friend who suggests that he, Barker, abandon his scheme of delineating American manners and instead “write a melodrame [sic] and lay [your] scene in the moon.”
Having written one play, Barker, only in his early twenties, turned his youthful exuberance into more worldly pursuits. At this time, the city of Philadelphia had fallen under the spell of a sort of soldier of fortune, General Don Francisco de Miranda. Miranda wanted to liberate Venezuela and in time secure independence for all South America. In pursuit of this goal, he was seeking enlistments, promising wealth and glory to all who volunteered for the cause of freedom. Whether Barker was moved by the democratic fervor of the times or had merely surrendered to the swashbuckling Byronism of the scheme, he nevertheless left for the port of New York in August, 1806, with the idea of joining the expedition in Trinidad, West Indies. News of Miranda’s defeat, however, and a series of letters from his father urging him to come home resulted in Barker’s return to Philadelphia early in 1807.
This frustrated adventure can be seen as a catalyst in Barker’s creative process, for his next play, first acted in March, 1808, was a political satire, The Embargo. Borrowing extensively from a British play by Arthur Murphy, The Upholsterer (1757), Barker’s comedy was to be the most topical of his works. Never printed and since lost, the play was probably heavily allusive to President Thomas Jefferson’s embargo of British shipping in commercial retaliation for British seizures of American vessels during this period when Britain was engaged in a war with France, led by the Emperor Napoleon I. Little else is known about what was probably Barker’s least important work.
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