John Howard Payne’s career in the theater began when he submitted some critical reviews to newspapers at the age of twelve. His precocious interest was so intense that he founded his own theatrical newspaper, Thespian Mirror, when he was fourteen. Though short-lived—issued only from December 28, 1805, to March 22, 1806—the paper gave Payne a great deal of self-confidence and a few literary contacts. At fifteen he wrote his first play, Julia. Though a completely conventional melodrama, the play was a modest success and so impressed his friends that they arranged to send the young playwright to Union College in Schenectady, New York. He was there only two years, however, when his family’s bankruptcy forced him to return to New York City and to the pursuit of his overwhelming ambition, acting.
A genial, good-humored, handsome young man, Payne made his debut in 1809, at the age of eighteen. He played a number of roles, from Young Norval (a famous male lead in John Home’s popular tragedy, Douglas, pr. 1756) to Hamlet. Payne, in fact, was among the first Americans to play Hamlet, and the theatrical season of 1809 was to be the time of his greatest triumph as an actor. His fame as “the American Roscius,” a great Roman actor, followed him wherever he played—from Boston, Massachusetts, to Charleston, South Carolina. Whether because the novelty of his boyish good looks soon wore off or because his talent was too undisciplined or because established actors were jealous of his early success, Payne found his career stalling badly. For the rest of his life, in fact, his acting roles were irregular, and he was continually in debt.
It was during the time of his success as an actor that Payne wrote his second play, Lovers’ Vows, an adaptation of August von Kotzebue’s Das Kind der Liebe (pr. 1790). Payne used an English translation for his own adaptation, and though this work is not particularly noteworthy, it clearly shows Payne’s early disposition toward adaptation as a quick and easy way to make money.
Meanwhile, the American theater began to fall on hard times. The public taste, never very sophisticated, was being distracted by the War of 1812 and the resulting instability of the American economy. Still in debt and harboring his great ambition to succeed on the British stage, Payne left New York for Liverpool in January, 1813. His voyage signaled a turning point in his career; he was to remain a part of the European theatrical scene for the next twenty years.
By June, 1813, Payne had played at Drury Lane, one of the two legitimate theatrical companies in England, but there, too, audiences tired of the young actor, so that by the summer of 1814, Payne was penniless and facing an uncertain future. At this point, abreast of the latest dramas of England and France, Payne turned his talent as a speedy adapter of other plays toward earning money between acting engagements, which were becoming less frequent. As he had done in the United States, so he could do in Europe; hence, in August, 1815, he translated a popular French melodrama, La Pie voleuse (pr. 1815), and quickly wrote an adaptation, Trial Without Jury. He eventually sold it to Covent Garden, the rival house of Drury Lane. There is some doubt as to whether the play was ever performed, but there is no doubt about its effect on Payne’s career. The manager of Drury Lane, Douglas Kinnaird, was so impressed with both the speed and the theatrical “rightness” of Payne’s adaptation that he offered the twenty-four-year-old American the opportunity to supply Drury Lane with as many adaptations of successful plays as he could turn out. Kinnaird sent Payne to Paris, where, for a brief period, Payne worked as both a translator and an adapter, a virtual literary secret agent, in the service not of the government but of Drury Lane...
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