JAMES NELSON BARKER (1784-1858)
In a letter written to William Dunlap, from Philadelphia, on June 10, 1832, James Nelson Barker very naïvely and very fully outlined his career, inasmuch as he had been informed by Manager Wood that Mr. Dunlap wished such an account for his "History of the American Stage."
From this account, we learn that whatever dramatic ability Mr. Barker possessed came from the enthusiasm created within him as a reader of wide range. For example, in 1804, he became the author of a one-act piece, entitled "Spanish Rover," furnished in plot by Cervantes. In 1805, he wrote what he describes as a Masque, entitled "America," in which poetic dialogue afforded America, Science and Liberty the opportunity of singing in unison. He confesses that this Masque was "to close a drama I had projected on the adventures of Smith in Virginia, in the olden time." Then followed a tragedy suggested by Gibbon, entitled "Attila," but Mr. Barker had advanced only two acts when news came to him that John Augustus Stone was at work on a play of the same kind.
In his letter to Dunlap, Mr. Barker deplored this coincidence, which put a stop to "Attila." "But have you never yourself been the victim of these odd coincidences, and, just as you had fixed upon a subject or a title, found yourself superseded—a thing next in atrocity to the ancients' stealing all one's fine thoughts. My comedy of 'Tears and Smiles' was to be called 'Name it Yourself,' when out comes a 'Name it Yourself,' in England, and out comes too a 'Smiles and Tears,' with a widow, an Irishman, and almost all my dramat. pers. I wrote the 'Indian Princess,' and an 'Indian Princess' appears in England. Looking over the old English dramatists, I am struck with the 'Damon and Pythias' of Edwards as a subject, but am scarcely set down to it, when lo, the modern play in London; and what is worse, with the fine part of Pythias absolutely transformed into a snivelling fellow, who bellows like a calf at the prospect of dying for his friend. 'Wallace' was purloined from me in like manner, and several other heroes: at length I fix upon 'Epaminondas', as a 'learned Theban' of so philosophical a cast of character, that even the French had not thought of him for the boards. I form my plot, and begin con amore, when I am told that Dr. Bird has written a 'Pelopidas' and an 'Epaminondas,' comprehending the whole life of the latter."
Then, having finished with his diatribe against coincidence—a diatribe which excellently well shows the channels in which Barker's literary mind ran, and likewise the closeness with which he followed the literary activity of the period among his associates, he continued in his narrative to Dunlap:
"'Tears and Smiles' was written between May 1 and June 12, of 1806, with the character of a Yankee intended for Jefferson. By the way, such a Yankee as I drew!" he writes. "I wonder what Hackett would say to it! The truth is, I had never even seen a Yankee at the time."
Then, in view of Barker's political tastes which, in consideration of the dramatists of those days, one must always take into account, he wrote a piece called "The Embargo; or, What News?" borrowed from Murphy's "Upholsterer," and produced on March 16, 1808.
Between this play and 1809, "The Indian Princess" was written, and what Barker has to say about it will be quoted in its proper place.
Right now, we are letting him enumerate his own literary activities, which were many and continuous.
In 1809, he Americanized Cherry's "Travellers," a dramatic method which has long been in vogue between America and England, and has, in many respects, spoiled many American comedies for English consumption.
In 1812, at the request of Manager Wood, Mr. Barker made a dramatization of Scott's "Marmion," and, strange to say, it was announced as being written by Thomas Morton, Esq.
"This was audacious enough in all conscience," says Mr. Barker, "but the finesse was successful, and a play most probably otherwise destined to neglect, ran like wild fire through all our theatres." On March 24, 1817, there was acted in Philadelphia, Barker's "The Armourer's Escape; or, Three Years at Nootka Sound," described by Mr. Barker as a melodramatic sketch, founded on the adventures of John Jewett, the armourer of the ship Boston, in which Jewett himself assumed the hero's rôle. This same year he likewise wrote "How to Try a Lover," suggested by Le Brun's novel. Finally, in 1824, on March 12, there was performed "Superstition," a five-act drama. This closed the account that Barker sent to Dunlap.
We see from it a number of things relative to placing Barker as a literary personage. First, his interest in literature made him draw from all sources, combining Scott with Holinshed, and turning, as was the wont of the cultivated American of that day, to the romantic literatures of the past. Secondly, Barker's interest in Colonial History was manifest by his return, time and time again, to Colonial records for dramatic material....