America's First Hamlet

America's First Hamlet

America's First Hamlet

America's First Hamlet

Excerpt

John Howard Payne was an able and many-sided man, a very unusual and engaging personality, a famous figure of his time. Outstandingly he was a pioneer in the theater, probably a more active and important one than any other American of his period. Yet today he is remembered solely for the authorship of "Home, Sweet Home," and the man is little more than a legend -- one which begins and ends with the familiar hearsay that the home song's author "never had a home."

This is a legend that has lent itself to much elaboration. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the generation of Payne's contemporaries was no longer alive, the sentimentalists got to work picturing him as they felt the author of "Home, Sweet Home" must have been. They made him a solitary wanderer gazing longingly into cheerfully lighted windows; they made him a street beggar standing humbly, hat in hand, while a gay throng passed him by; or they placed him in bucolic surroundings with a vine-clad cottage in the background. Whatever the setting, they managed to convert him into a saint, complete in everything but halo, and they often decorated their printed effusions with borders of flowers and birds and other innocent and lovely things.

Actually, Payne was a man of broad experience and of diverse undertakings and achievements. He was an actor, a playwright, a minor poet, an original if unstable editor, a champion of the rights of the American Indian, and a United States consular official.

As a precocious boy actor he was the earliest American to become a stage idol in his own country and the first native player to enact the role of Hamlet. Subsequently the first American performer to appear on a European stage, he was also the earliest American playwright to have works produced abroad. He lived for years in London . . .

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