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FOOTLIGHT NOTES
no. 382

updated
Saturday, 8 January 2005

Smith,
a comedy in four acts by W. Somerset Maugham,
Empire Theatre, New York, 5 September 1910

Smith, Empire, New York, 1910

Smith announces the death of Mrs. Rosenberg's baby.

a scene from Smith, Empire, New York, 5 September 1910,
with, left to right, John Drew as Thomas Freeman, Sibyl Thorndike as Emily Chapman, Jane Laurel as Mrs Otto Rosenberg,
Mary Boland as Smith, Hassard Short as Algernon Peppercorn,
Morton Selton as Herbert Dallas-Baker, K.C. and Isabel Irving as Mrs. Dallas-Baker

(photo: White, New York, 1910)

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Smith, a comedy in four acts by W. Somerset Maugham, was produced by Charles Frohman at the Empire Theatre, New York, on 5 September 1910. The play originally had been produced by Frohman at the Comedy Theatre, London, on 30 September 1909, where it ran for 169 performances. The cast on that occasion was as follows: Robert Loraine as Thomas Freeman, Edyth Latimer as Emily Chapman, Lydia Bilbrooke as Mrs Otto Rosenberg, Marie Löhr (succeeded during the run by Irene Vanbrugh) as Smith, A.E. Matthews as Algernon Peppercorn, Frederick Volpé as Herbert Dallas-Baker, K.C. and Kate Cutler as Mrs. Dallas-Baker. In 1917 Smith was adapted for the cinema in a British film directed by Maurice Elvey. The only member of the original London cast included in the production was Lydia Bilbrooke as Mrs Otto Rosenberg; the title role was played by Elisabeth Risdon.

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'John Drew is the hardy perennial in the American garden. Year after year he blooms in the centre of a neat circular flower bed, surrounded by other carefully chosen plants, and year after year the same audiences stand around on the lawn, admiring each blossom, praising the total effect, and commenting on the taste of the gardener. As for picking flaws in this season's horticultural exhibit at the Empire, it simply can't be done.
'If the English smart set, K.C.'s et altera, believed what the dramatists say of them, they would hang their heads in the shame. [Alfred] Sutro said it in The Walls of Jericho, and now W. Somerset Maugham says it again in Smith. In each play the agent of accusation is a returned colonial; this time he comes from his farm in Rhodesia to find for himself a suitable wife in England. Of course he finds a wife - though not with absolute facility - but incidentally he deals out consternation to his sister and her two bridge friends. In Emily Chapman Thomas Freeman arouses a desire to live honestly and usefully; to this end she goes into service in Australia. Mrs. Otto Rosenberg, sobered by the death of her baby, deserts her old cronies. Algernon Peppercorn, a complacent poodle dog, ends his devotion to Mrs. Dallas-Baker by announcing his engagement to an American heiress. Abandoned by her companions in idleness, Mrs. Dallas-Baker drags her weak-kneed husband away to lunch at a public restaurant and leaves her primitive brother from Rhodesia to renew his suit to the parlor maid, Mary Smith.
'Although billed as a comedy, the striking scenes all are tragic, or at least serious. The climatic moment, when Smith announces the death of Mrs. Otto Rosenberg's baby to the mother at the bridge table, is pure tragedy, and Mrs. Dallas-Baker's frantic search for gaiety is pitiable beyond words. No one can laugh during the valedictory speeches of Mrs. Rosenberg and Emily Chapman, and the humor of Algie's farewell even is spiked with grimness. In the role of Thomas Freeman, John Drew points all the morals in the play, in a fashion new to John Drew; when he stands with megaphone in hand, the tourists on his wagon can hardly escape noting the platitudinous aspect of the landscape. There is plenty of comedy, however, especially through the first two acts. Some of it is highly improbable. Tom and Algy keep up a continuous verbal sparring match so personal that it does little credit to either of them. A real bout with fists would have cleared the sultry atmosphere of their acquaintance. Emily Chapman's successful matrimonial angling in the second act tingles too sharply for humor; it is satirical. Algy lavishly strews pearls of cynical wit and caddish wisdom along his path, and Mrs. Dallas-Baker and Emily match him through most of the game. The romance, only a fragment of the affair, receives such commonplace treatment from the cool participants that the audience almost forgets that the plot is romantic.
'The acting is charming. Not one of the eight ever gets out of perspective enough to be anything but fascinating. John Drew himself is quite as unconvincing as any one else; his Rhodesian is never crude or rough even in his clashes with Algy. Isabel Irving as Rose Dallas-Baker carried the second role unimpeachably; such refinement, such delicacy, can be no assumption; it is genuine. Sibyl Thorndyke had a difficult task to persuade audiences into believing that such a woman as Emily Chapman would voluntarily emigrate to Australia. If she had any weak spot, it was there. Jane Laurel fully occupied the stage through the climax of the action; the tempo of that scene was in her care, and she regulated it correctly. An actress is known as much by what she omits are by what she commits. Mary Boland, by absolutely eliminating the coquette, portrayed the real, sensible Smith that Thomas Freeman wanted, as much as she depicted her by little grammatical inaccuracies. Hassard Short vivified a conventional role not only by his tones, but by his bearing; even his swinging short-gaited walk expressed assurance. Morton Selton's domestically incompetent husband and Lewis Casson's cockney servant [Fletcher] were scarcely less admirable in a smaller way.
'The first night audience approved of the play and the players. Continuous applause finally called John Drew before the curtain to say thank you for himself and all others concerned. The applause, however, after Jane Laurel's pathetic exit in the third act well nigh annihilated the effect of the acting; certain well meaning persons did not realize that in such a moment silence speaks more eloquently than much smiting of hands.
'Smith, although not a new or an original discussion of social vices, is destined to a long run, because it is faultlessly played.'
(The New York Dramatic Mirror, New York, Saturday, 14 September 1910, p.11a)

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