Tribute today to a great American actor, playwright, critic, poet, songwriter, translator, journalist and diplomat, John Howard Payne (1791-1852). He’s an important man in American cultural history, especially the history of the theatre, though he’s been largely forgotten by the public for 150 years.
Payne began publishing theatre criticism, attracting the notice of the New York Evening Post, when he was only fourteen years old. At around the same time, his first play Julia, or the Wanderer was produced. At 18 he made his stage debut as an actor in the play Young Norval at New York’s Park Theatre and made a success of it. Whereupon he became the first American actor to play Hamlet, and was Romeo to the Juliet of Eliza Poe (Edgar Allan Poe’s mother) shortly thereafter. He went on to write numerous hit plays, many of them (such as Charles the Second) in collaboration with Washington Irving. Brutus, Payne’s best known play, was written in 1818. Many of his plays were adaptations of contemporary French hits.
One reason he may not be as well remembered in the U.S. is that he spent nearly two decades (1813-1832) in England, where he acted at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and managed Sadler’s Wells for a time. His best known work dates from this time however. In 1823 he wrote the libretto for an operetta called Clari the Maid of Milan, with music by Sir Henry Bishop. The hit song from the show was “Home Sweet Home” which went on to become one of the best known songs in the world, long outliving the fame of its author. During this time he also courted Mary Shelley, who’d been widowed since 1822.
Back in the States in the 1830s, Payne traveled extensively with John James Audubon, and became a strong advocate for the Cherokee Indians, opposing President Andrew Jackson’s removal policies. In 1842 he was named American Consul to Tunis. He spent his remaining decade in North Africa, where he died. Three decades later his remains were returned to the U.S. and interred with honors in Washington D.C. There was a memorial to him too in Prospect Park, Brooklyn from 1873 to 1973, when vandals knocked it over. The bust that was at its center now resides at the Home Sweet Home Museum in East Hampton, Long Island.