The achievement of John Howard Payne is difficult to gauge. His work is admittedly derivative; much of it consists of close translations and adaptations of other dramas, mostly French. At his best, however, he was a supreme adapter. He worked with astonishing speed, producing more than sixty plays in a career of little more than twenty years. His career, in fact, provides fascinating insight into the lifestyle of the dramaturgical hack of the early nineteenth century.
Theatrical houses of the day hungrily devoured any material, original or adapted, that would fill seats. Plagiarism was a minor concern in an age of uncertain and ill-defined copyright laws, and Payne thus provided a welcome service to theater managers and actors. Though not a creator, he was a literary carpenter, a superlative transmitter of popular drama. His knowledge of the contemporary stage and of what was dramatically effective often resulted not in slavish imitation but in the molding of a truly superior product from existing material, although that material was always suited to the popular taste rather than to the discriminating temper.
Payne’s position in the history of the drama can best be understood by comparing him to a scriptwriter; he produced quick-moving melodramatic plays for a general audience that used the theater at that time as general audiences of today use television. Much of his work was entertainment that never had any pretensions to art.
Ailes, Milton E. “John Howard Payne: A Strange, Eventful History.” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, December, 1899, 115-130. This short biography of Payne is particularly interesting for its account of the exhumation of Payne’s remains from Tunis and their return to the United States, where they were laid to rest at ceremonies attended by then President Chester A. Arthur and his cabinet. Bandmaster John Philip Sousa and the U.S. Marine Band played Payne’s “Home Sweet Home.” The article clearly shows the esteem in which Payne was held even as late as 1900.
Hanson, Willis T., Jr. The Early Life of John Howard Payne: With Contemporary Letters Heretofore Unpublished. 1913. Reprint. New York: B. Blom, 1971. This standard biography of Payne is particularly interesting for the letters that it contains. Bibliography included.
Harrison, Gabriel. John Howard Payne: Dramatist, Poet, Actor, and Author of “Home Sweet Home”; His Life and Writing. Rev. ed. New York: B. Blom, 1969. A reprint of the definitive biography published in 1885, detailing Payne’s early career as child actor, his life abroad as dramatist, and his final years as editor and consul at Tunis. The study is valuable as a source of original material, such as Payne’s letters and excerpts from his voluminous journals. The book also includes Payne’s unpublished juvenilia and his critical reviews, and it provides estimates of Payne’s character from friends.
Overmeyer, Grace. America’s First Hamlet. 1957. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975. Overmeyer re-creates Payne’s career largely through views of him presented by his friends, particularly Washington Irving and Charles Lamb. The study also draws on Payne’s diaries, letters, and critical reviews, and it reveals Payne’s brilliant, if erratic, personality and his pioneering work in the early American theater.