John Howard Payne (1791-1852) was America's first international actor-dramatist. Though he was a prolific playwright, he is best remembered for his song "Home, Sweet Home."
John Howard Payne was born in New York City on June 9, 1791. Against his family's wishes he early took to the theater. He edited his own newspaper, the Thespian Mirror, "to promote the interests of American drama," when he was 14. The following year his first play was produced. He made his debut as an actor in 1809 as young Norvall in Douglas by John Home and was an immediate sensation. By 1813, however, Payne's popularity had waned and he left for England.
This sensitive, unstable, charming man spent the next 20 years in Europe. Though Payne first acted and later wrote prolifically for the theater, he was constantly chased by creditors and became famous without becoming prosperous. His plays were sold outright to managers so that he gained no sustained income, and the lack of a copyright law at this time permitted them to be pirated.
All of Payne's important works are adaptations or translations. Brutus (1818), his most popular production, was adapted from five other dramas. Yet his work was dramatically superior to his sources and became a vehicle for numerous tragedians over the next 70 years. He was deeply influenced by the French drama. The best of his adaptations from the French, Thérèse (1821), a melodrama, earned enough to release him from debtors' prison, to which he had been sent after an unsuccessful attempt at managing Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1820.
Clari (1823) was popular in its own right, and one of its songs, "Home, Sweet Home," with Payne's lyrics and a Sicilian melody, outlasted the play. Payne received no financial reward from its subsequent popularity, for he had sold the play. With his friend Washington Irving, whose collaboration remained anonymous, he wrote Charles the Second (1824), a bright and clever comedy.
In 1832 Payne returned, discouraged, to his own country. He had written or adapted over 60 plays, yet he was still in debt and had no permanent place in London's theater, where, he insisted, "much prejudice had been excited against me … for having so strongly asserted my American principles." But he found himself a celebrity at home and was feted in various cities. Benefit performances of his plays raised nearly $10,000—most of it taken immediately by creditors.
Payne wrote no more plays. In 1842 he was appointed American consul at Tunis. He died there on April 9, 1852.
The standard biography of Payne is Gabriel Harrison, John Howard Payne: His Life and Writings (rev. ed. 1885). It is complete and sound in its evaluation. Rosa P. Chiles, John Howard Payne (1930), is a good modern appreciation. Arthur H. Quinn, A History of the American Drama: From the Beginning to the Civil War (1923), contains an excellent chapter, "John Howard Payne and the Foreign Plays." □