Ancient Theatre 
Medieval Theatre
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century

Email Us

JOHN PALMER (d. 1798)

JOHN PALMER, "Plausible Jack," as Sheridan called him, was as famous for his audacity and mendacity as he was for his acting. His father was a theatrical bill-sticker, and in his younger days John carried the paste-can. One night he was flashing his diamonds in Drury Lane green-room. "Are they real?" inquired one of the actors. "I never wear anything else," answered Jack, sharply. "Indeed! Well, I remember the time you had nothing but paste," retorted the other. "Why don't you stick him against the wall, Jack?" cried Bannister, who was present. Jack became stage-struck in his youth, and prevailed upon Garrick to hear him give portions of George Barnwell and Mercutio; but the great manager was not struck by the performance. He was more fortunate with Foote, who cast him Harry Scamper in "The Orators." In 1766, when he was only nineteen, Garrick changed his opinion of his abilities, and gave him a four years' engagement. Two years afterwards Robert Palmer, his namesake--the Palmer of the "Rosciad"--died, and John succeeded to many of his parts. He became an admirable actor. He was especially fine in the more insinuating villains of tragedy; his Stukely was as great a performance in its way as Mrs. Siddons' Mrs. Beverley; as his villainy was gradually unfolded the audience hissed and howled at him; the more excitable people would rise in their seats and shake their fists. "His villainy in Villeroy," says Boaden, "had a delicate and hopeless ardor of affection that made it an impossibility for Isabella to resist him. He seemed a being expressly favored by fate to wind about that lovely victim the web of inextricable misery." In Joseph Surface he has probably never had a successor; he was the man himself. Lamb, who has discoursed most pleasantly upon his acting in this part, says that, when he played it, Joseph Surface was the hero of the play. After Henderson he was the best Falstaff, and an inimitable Sir Toby Belch; as My Lord Duke in "High Life Below Stairs," he was exquisitely diverting. No part came amiss to him; he could play Jacques, or Touchstone, or Hamlet, or Macbeth, Gratiano, or Shylock. In the leading characters of tragedy, however, he did not rise above mediocrity. In such parts as Captain Absolute, Young Wilding, Dick Amlet, characters of cool impudence, he was inimitable. Geneste enumerates three hundred parts performed by him, and gives those only as a selection.

He built the Royalty Theater in Wellclose Square, which he opened in June, 1787, with a strong company. On that night Braham, then only fourteen years of age, made his first appearance upon the stage, as Master Abraham, and sang between the pieces. The patentees of Drury Lane and Covent Garden commenced proceedings against Palmer, and the magistrates summoned him to appear before them at a tavern in the neighborhood, to show under what license he was acting. Jack bowed and scraped to them with the most excessive humility; he had the document at home, he said, would they so far indulge him as to wait while he went and fetched it--he lived close by, he would not be two minutes. Permission was granted, and with his hand upon his heart, and invoking Heaven to bless them, he took his departure. After waiting some time for his return, the gentlemen rang the bell for the waiter, who, upon trying to open the door, found it locked, the key gone, and the magistrate prisoners. Jack had no license, and fearing they would commit him to prison, had turned the key upon the quorum and put it into his pocket. He was not seen again until the storm had blown over. When he returned to Drury Lane, he met Sheridan with an air of the most penitent humility, his head lowered, the whites of his eyes turned up, one hand upon his heart, the other holding a white pocket-handkerchief--a complete picture of Joseph Surface. "My dear Mr. Sheridan," he began, "if you could but know at this moment what I feel here." "Why, Jack, you forget I wrote it," interrupted Sheridan. And Jack was not only reinstated in his former position, but his salary was raised three pounds a week. Sometimes a letter would arrive at six o'clock to say he was too ill to act. One night Sheridan, suspecting a trick, went off to his house. A friend of Jack's contrived to get there before him, and give him warning of the visit. He found the hypocrite convivially dining; but by the time the manager arrived his face was swathed in flannel, while the most agonizing groans issued from his lips. He assured him, with tears, that his mental sufferings were far worse from the knowledge that they were injuring the establishment. Sheridan, completely deceived by the consummate actor, went away quite grieved at having suspected him. A favorite excuse for breaking his appointments was his wife's accouchement. Michael Kelly once congratulated him on having a wife who made him a father at least once in two months. He confessed to having once persuaded a bailiff, who had arrested him for debt, to become his bail. As might be expected from such a man, he was reckless and extravagant, and his affairs were always in sad confusion. There were always writs out against him, and he had frequently to be conveyed to the theater in boxes and other stage properties.

"His noble figure and graceful manners," says Boaden, "threw him into a variety of temptation difficult to be resisted, and sworn foes to professional diligence and severe study." His end was remarkable. He was playing the "Stranger" at Liverpool in August, 1798, he had been much depressed in mind of late through the death of his wife, and in the scene with Baron Steinfort, while speaking of his children, as he came to the line, "I left them at a town hard by," he stopped suddenly, then endeavored to proceed, but in the effort fell upon his back, heaved a convulsive sigh, and expired immediately.

This article was originally published in English Actors: From Shakespeare to Macready. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1879.


© 2002 TheatreDatabase.com