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.