The Empire’s New Talent

French Actor and Actress Dancing
French Theatrical, by Louis, from two old prints

From Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branaugh, to a portrayal of former Prime Minister Margaret “Maggie” Thatcher, you’ll see the British flag waving down the aisle at this year’s academy Awards.  Again.  Yet again.

One starts to wonder if the Americans have a “sense of inferiority” when it comes to the dramatic arts. If so, from whence does this pathetic inferiority complex come?  Let’s start in the month of April, 1812.

200 years ago, America was swooning over another English darling, a Mr. Thomas Morton.    The drama that carried his name was Marmion, an adaptation of the epic poem by Walter Scott.

Marmion was a love story which climaxed with the story of Flodden Field, in 1513, the one where James IV lost his life.  When questioned why he’d make a poem about such a defeat, the poet said that at Flodden “all was lost but our honour.”

When adapted for the stage, the poem was scarcely 4 years old.   But these were the days before international copyright agreements, and it appears that Scott’s permission was never sought.

An American producer named Mr. William B. Wood first had the idea of having a play called Marion written by British playwright Thomas Morton.

An element of invention

Despite sharing the poem’s popularity, the play was in no way a direct adaptation.

“The Chronicles of Hollinshead supplied me with several characters,” the playwright later recalled, while in America,  “and particularly with a good speech for King James, in which a close parallel is run between the conduct of England to Scotland, and (by allusion) to this country.”

Marion first appeared on stage in New York stage in April, 1812.  Cooper presented the play as by English author, “Thomas Morton Esquire”, who also had written lesser known plays such as “Columbus”, and others.  (There was a reason these other plays were lesser known, which we shall return to later.)

This introduction of a hitherto unknown English playwright was well received, and the audience was now in a receptive mood.  They enjoyed the play, apparently.

It a critic in London, writing for “The Opera Glass,” made a quotation from the play, remarking at the “powerful effect” it must had had on the American stage, at a time when hostilities were about to commence between the British Empire and the American Republic.

According to the playwright, the play “ran like wildfire through all” the “theatres” of America.

The play was published by Palmer in Philadelphia, and an abridged version of it was distributed in the publication called “Acting American Theatre.”  The playwright, however, was to preoccupied with The War of 1812 at that time to get a first edition.

In a strange coincidence, the very day the playwright had sent his “Marmion” to the New York stage, another playwright, known as Mrs. Ellis, was about to produce her own “Marmion.”  Mrs Ellis wanted the playwright of the above mentioned “Marmion” to put in a “puff or two” to the newspapers about her drama.  I don’t know how he responded.

In any case, her drama didn’t seem to do as well.  (Perhaps Mrs. Ellis’s “Marmion” might have fared better had an “Englishman” been announced as its playwright.)

The “Marmion” which carried the name of Thomas Morton, however, had critical as well as theatrical success.  The playwright remembered how it was “quoted with applause by a critic in the American Quarterly Review” and others remembered how it packed the house at the cinema.

Something not to be proud of

Despite this success, the playwright “never felt very proud of the circumstance” which brought this play to the public.

Regardless of what the producer said, the playwright wasn’t English at all.  Mr. Thomas Morton didn’t exist.  The writer’s real name was James N. Barker, Esquire.  He had a couple of relatively successful plays to his name, such as the Indian Princess, a play about Pocahontus.

The title Pocahontus was “stolen” by British playwrights, who had butchered the story with their own version.  They tried taking publicity by pretending they had the play which did well in America,  (despite their insistence on keeping the British copyright).

When the British version of Pocahontus failed, the theatre people at  Drury Lane pretended that their “stupid” production had done well in America.  So why not return the favour by pretending one of Barker’s plays was British?

“James N. Barker, who had written several pieces before, and which had no fault but being American productions, at my request, dramatised Marmion —  ”  according to Producer William B Wood “I well knew the then prejudice against any native [or American written] play, and concerted with [James Fenimore] Cooper a very innocent fraud upon the public.”

(Yes, the same Cooper who wrote Last of the Mohikans was in on this hoax.)

In order to get American audience to like a play “we insinuated that the piece was a London one.”  The ruse included having the actual play bound in British style and posted to the theatre, long before the performance.

The text was brought to the stage while the actors were rehearsing for another play.  Then “it was opened with great gravity, and announced without any author alluded to.”

Even the actors were duped, because the producers “knew” that none of them could keep a secret.  Not even the “prompter” who announced the play knew of its true origins.

French actor, close up
Not even the actors knew

So Marmion “played with great success for six or seven nights.”  After the seventh night, the producer “announced the author, and from that moment it ceased to attract.” [1]

The very moment the audience knew that the writer was American, and not British, people stopped watching it.  This has gone down in the history books as evidence of “American sense of inferiority in drama.”[2]

It wasn’t just English playwrights who got the acclaim.  The Italian Father, was thought to be a German play.  When its true American origin was discovered, they stopped enjoying it.  That was in 1803.

James N. Barker had a string of plays that were well received, but the producers decided not to announce the nationality of the author.

Among Barker’s plays were a tragedy by the name of “Attila”;  Indian Princess, as mentioned above;  A five act comedy called “Tears and Smiles“;   “How to try a Lover” ;  “Travellers” ;  “The Armourer’s Escape” ; and “Superstition“.  Barker never seemed to write a story by the name of Columbia, but he did write a “mask” by the name of “America.”

[1] A History of American Theatre from Its Origins to 1832, William Dunlap

[2] the Encyclopaedia of American Facts and Dates, edited by Gorton Carruth and Associates, (Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, New York second edition, 1959.)