(A Legend of the Theatre.)

Vanity Fair (UK), March 26, 1903


James Cuthbert Smithson was a man
 Whose aims were histrionic—wholly.
The Stage, which many people ban,
 Was his ambition’s only goal. He
Had long resolved to make a hit,
If only he could compass it.

With calm, but speculative, eyes,
 While in long clothes he yet was swaddled,
He’d watch with interest the flies,
 And needed “props” before he toddled.
And even then, so people say,
His chief amusement was to play.

Time sped. When twenty-five or so,
 To realise his fond ambition
He sought an impresario
 Of high theatrical position.
And, bowing with a courtly grace,
Without delay set forth his case.

“Sir,” he observed, “in me behold
 A natural histrionic wonder,
Born to receive what I am told
 Is technically known as ‘thunder.’
(In other words, spontaneous roars
Of hearty, unrestrained applause).

“I give a force to every line,
 Not reel my part off like a parrot;
In every kind of rôle I shine,
 Exempli gratiâ—Wilson Barrett.
Please give me your attention while
I reproduce that actor’s style.”

Which done, “Away with gloom,” he cried,
 “For well I know how much a sob hurts;
I’ll show you now my comic side,
 Behold me, say, as Arthur Roberts.
I’ve made—although I scorn to brag—
A speciality of ‘gag.’

“And—for I’m certain you’ll applaud
 A touch of comedy that’s higher—
I’m quite at home as Cyril Maude,
 Or Knightly Wyndham (as a ‘Liar.’)
And Arthur Bourchier, you’ll agree,
Might learn a deal of things from me.”

He paused, and mopped a heated brow.
 “You will,” he said, “be loth to part with
So versatile a genius. Now,
 What salary shall we say to start with?
Seeing I have not played before,
I’ll ask but fifty pounds—no more.”

With unenthusiastic glance
 Coldly the impresario eyed him.
As one who comes from out a trance
 He touched the bell that stood beside him.
And, while our hero stared in doubt,
A liveried menial threw him out.

He brushed his clothes, and, undismayed,
 Though sorely shocked by this disaster,
Searched for an opening in the trade
 Of which he knew himself a master.
He tackled managers in hordes,
But failed to get upon the boards.

Some would not see him: those who would
 (At first that offer would delight him)
Pronounced his acting very good,
 And promised (vaguely) that “they’d write him.”
In both the cases that I name
The net results were just the same.

At last this treatment soured his soul.
 To Conscience small attention paid he,
Straight he essayed another rôle,
 A crime particularly shady.
For half a season, more or less,
His case refreshed the gutter press.

And then the theatres ope’d their doors,
 Lucrative offers poured in daily,
Excited managers in scores
 Waited upon him at Old Bailey.
He was a man, there seemed no doubt,
The Drama could not do without.

The moral of this tale applies
 To ev’ry struggling Tree or Irving.
Those who in theatre circles rise
 Are not always the most deserving.
Let him who’d bear the palm away
Become notorious. It will pay.



Published unsigned in Vanity Fair as part of the ‘Theatrical Things’ column; title and subtitle entered by Wodehouse in Money Received for Literary Work.



Wilson Barrett was an actor and producer known for his roles in melodrama; Arthur Roberts was a music hall entertainer famous for his portrayal of pantomime dames and other comic characters; Cyril Maude, actor and manager of the Haymarket Theatre, was featured in the play The Liars; Charles Wyndham, melodramatic and Shakespearean actor, was knighted in 1902; Arthur Bourchier was noted for his classical roles and was a long-time theater manager.

Exempli gratiâ is the full version of the abbreviation e.g., for example.


John Dawson