Friday, May 17, 2013

Richard John Smith, or ‘O. Smith’ – 1776-1855

[1] Three Fingered Jack; The Terror of the Antilles,
1878 advertisement in the Boys’ Standard storypaper.

by John Adcock

RICHARD JOHN SMITH or, as he preferred to designate himself in the British playbills, ‘O. Smith,’ his surname of Obi Smith being taken from the pantomime of Obi; or, Three-fingered Jack, was born at York in the year 1776. His mother, whose maiden name was Serace, was an actress with the Dublin Theatre. His parents moved to Bath and placed him in the hands of a solicitor to train for the profession of law. Smith preferred the painting-rooms of the theatres, and after some unpleasant altercations with his parents he entered on board a merchantman and sailed from Bristol to the coast of Guinea in 1803.

The governor of Sierra Leone proposed to take him under his protection as a draughtsman for the colony but the vessels captain refused to dispense with his services. Young Smith , in an irritated mood, tried deserting the ship in the dark of night but was pursued, overtaken, and confined temporarily. While in the river Gabon, with his vessel Smith helped a father and three sons imprisoned in the hold of the vessel escape from slavery. He was ‘brutally punished’ (probably flogged) but expressed no regrets for his act of humanity.

He returned to England, but still encountering opposition to his plans for a career on the stage he left Bath, rambled through Wales and parts of Ireland, then returned to Liverpool, where he was captured by a press-gang. On board the receiving ship he insisted that he was on his way to a theatrical engagement and gave an impromptu performance that resulted in his release.

[2] Actors by Daylight, London: J. Pattie, 1838-39.
Next a Mr. Macready, of Sheffield, engaged him as a prompter, scene-painter and actor, paying him twelve shillings a week. Once, traveling between Sheffield and Rochedale, he was caught in a snowstorm, but was saved by a sagacious dog. Tempted by a better offer he moved to the Edinburgh and Glasgow theatres under the management of Mr. Rock. He stayed two years and was back in Bath in 1807. His pantomime work attracted the notice of Elliston who engaged Smith at the Surrey Theatre in 1810.

One magazine wrote a few years later that Mr. Obi Smith
now a pantomime actor at Drury-lane, and a very ingenious man, was eminent in assassins, sorcerers, the moss-trooping heroes of Sir Walter Scott’s poems, and other romantic characters in which a bold and rather gigantic figure could be turned to good account.
The leading performer in a burlesque piece of Bombastes Furioso became ill and Smith took over playing the part for ‘forty or fifty nights successively.’ After a period at the Olympic and Lyceum theatres he was again hired by Elliston to play in melodrama. A melodrama of Faustus was played at the Drury Lane in 1825 with the part of Mephistopheles acted by Terry and Smith in conjunction. Terry appeared in speaking scenes, O. Smith took part in ‘dumb show.’ In 1828 he took on a major role as the celebrated Bottle Imp on the stage at Covent-garden and removed to the Adelphi under the management of Yates and Mathews.

[3] O. Smith onstage in the role of Three-fingered Jack.
His most famous role was as Obi; or Three-fingered Jack, attributed to the dramatist Fawcett, which was first produced at the Haymarket in 1800 with Charles Kemble in the title-part. This poor reproduction of a watercolour showing Smith in the role of Obi is from the British Museum collection of West’s theatre prints.

William Archer told the following anecdote in ‘The Drama in Pasteboard’ in The Art Journal:
He was the occasion of one of the most delightful bulls ever perpetrated by that delightfully muddle-headed Irishman, Sheridan Knowles. Smith was walking down the Strand one day, when to his astonishment he was greeted with effusive warmth by Knowles, whom he knew only by sight. “I think there must be some mistake, Mr. Knowles,” he said; “I am O. Smith.” “My dear sir,” cried the dramatist, “I beg ten thousand pardons – I took you for your namesake, T.P. Cooke !
On April 12, 1850 it was reported that Mr. O. Smith was knocked down by a dog-cart, and seriously injured, in the Strand, on leaving the Adelphi Theatre after the performances. The perils of street traffic were a hot topic in all the newspapers of the day.

Smith was a part of the fixtures of the Adelphi theatre for about thirty years. He appeared in Fitzball’s popular drama of The Wreck Ashore on July 4, 1852, Genevieve; or, the Reign of Terror, on June 26, 1853, appearing with Paul ‘Blueskin’ Bedford. One of O. Smith’s last major appearances was in the drama of Masks and Faces; or, Before and Behind the Curtain performed on June 25, 1854. He stayed with the Adelphi until his death on February 1, 1855, after a long and lingering illness.

The Era said:
In his peculiar line, Mr. O. Smith had no equal on the stage. Characters in which the wild, the terrific, and the impressive were the prominent features he made exclusively his own. His towering form, deep and sepulchral voice, dark features, and expressive eye, were  peculiarly fitted to infuse into them that mysterious colouring so necessary to their due effect upon the mind, and oppressed the auditor with an indefinable feeling, an unearthly chilliness, and a thrilling sensation of the marvellous which no other actor could produce so effectively. The strict accuracy and picturesque style of his costumes, which were always correct even to the slightest minutiae, formed another of his characteristics, which will not easily be forgotten. For some years past the deceased had been collecting some valuable materials for the history of the modern stage, especially with reference to its decorative appliances. These, we believe, are intended to be disposed of forthwith by public auction. There are few actors that will be missed by playgoers of any years standing more than their old favourite, O. SMITH.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the following horribly funny tale. “Demon” Smith may or may not have been a real person; if real he must have been a contemporary of O. Smith. Dick Thuddichum may have been a cloak covering a real person‘s identity as well. A true story? Perhaps.

“Demon” Smith

by J. Wilton Jones

The Era Almanac, 1885

“The beggar simply haunted me,” said Dick Thuddichum, as he daubed away industriously at a picture of the Regent’s Canal at midnight. “He was the oldest strolling player in England — eighty years old, if he was a day. He had never acted in a regular theatre in his life : but had been, at one time or another, connected with all the booths and portable theatres for the last three-quarters of a century. I don’t know why he was called ‘Demon’ Smith. It may have been that his regular line of business was to play the demoniacal villains in such plays as The Wood Demon and The Bottle Imp at the time that his celebrated namesake, Mr. O. Smith, was causing the blood to curdle and the flesh to creep at the Adelphi. But let the name arise how it might, it was not misapplied, for he haunted me for five years with all the persistency of ten demons rolled into one.

“Friend of the family? Well, yes, he was in the remote past. He was a friend of my great-grandfather’s. My worthy ancestor has been dead fifty years, but on the strength of what, after all, may have been a very slight acquaintanceship “Demon” Smith has attached himself to the family ever since. There was literally no shaking him off. He asked for such very small favors that you could not refuse to grant them ; but unconsciously the small favors grew into big ones; the snowball rolled along, growing imperceptibly all the while, and by the time you realized the fact that its size was increasing, it had assumed the proportions of the dome of St. Paul’s.

‘I’m a poor old friend of your great-grandfather’s sir,’ he said to me one day. ‘I’ve been a booth actor all my life, and I knew him in the days when I was a dab hand at the juvenile business. There’s a small favour I want to ask ye, sir; and maybe ye’ll not refuse it to one who knew your father, and your father’s father before him, and your father’s father’s father before him. I’m always traveling from place to place, and maybe ye’ve a spare room where ye keep the frames for all the beautiful pictures ye paint’- the old reprobate was a splendid hand at subtle flattery- ‘and where ye could stow me a little bit of luggage in some odd corner?’ The request was such a trifling one that I couldn’t easily refuse. In a weak moment I told him to send his things, and I would find them house room. That was the thin edge of the wedge.

“He brought his property himself in a clothes basket, which he carried with surprising ease for a man of his great age. The basket contained no fewer than three thousand manuscript ‘parts,’ all of which ‘Demon’ Smith had played during his long stage career. He was a striking realization of the axiom that ‘one man in his time plays many parts.’ A dozen stage waistcoats completed his stock of property. In the old theatrical days the general costume of a character didn’t matter much, provided that the waistcoat was typical of the part to be represented. Any coat, trousers, or wig might have been worn provided that virtue or villainy was boldly depicted by the waistcoat. Old Smith’s stock contained the white satin waistcoat, in which he had personated the stern fathers ; the light-flowered silk used for the virtuous heroes; the black moiré-antique which stamped the wearer as the villain of the piece : the gaudy chintz of the prosperous good-hearted farmer; and; and the still more pronounced bed-quilt pattern, inseparable from the virtuous peasants. Of course, when playing the ‘Gravedigger’ in Hamlet, he wore them all, and took them off one by one, to the intense delight of the audience — a bit of ‘business’ which seems to have come down almost from Shakespeare’s own days, and has hardly died out even yet.

“He had now ‘got his foot in.’ What do you think was his next request ?” asked Dick, as he smudged away at a black barge in the middle distance of his picture. “ ‘I’m an old man,’ he says, ‘and all my friends are underground long ago. I have no home to go to. Promise me that you will let me die here. I shan’t trouble you till my end is very near.’ Well this request was something of a startler : but, almost before I knew what I was doing, I gave the promise and the old friend departed with a jaunty step and an airy, light-comedy wave of the hand.

“It may have been six months after, when I was sitting up late one night finishing a ‘Destruction of Pompeii’ for the Royal Academy. No : you didn’t see it, old man. It was too tremendous. The R.A.’ s were jealous of it; it would have killed everything else in the gallery. I was laying on the vermilion with a liberal hand when there came a furious ring at the front door-bell. I rushed to the door and found a cabman standing there. He had the appearance of a half-drowned rat, and the rain was coming down heaven’s hard. Through the darkness I could dimly see the outline of a cab in the road.

“ ‘What’s the matter?’ I gasped.

“ ‘There’s an old gent in my keb, sir,’ replied the cabman, ‘and he’s in an awful bad way. He was picked up in a fit down at Mile End. In his pocket they found a bit o’ paper, which said, “Take me to Mr. Richard Thuddichum’s, Grove Cottage, Putney.” So I drove him in my keb all the way down here, and it’s raining cats and dogs.’

‘I went through the rain to the cab door, and found a lifeless, melancholy looking-bundle huddled up in one corner of the vehicle. Of course it was ‘Demon” Smith; he had come to demand the fulfillment of my promise. Between us we carried the poor lifeless wretch indoors, and the cabman, after I had paid him handsomely, promised to knock up the first doctor along the road. I stirred up the fire into a glorious blaze, and roused the slumbering members of my household. Between us we propped the old actor in a great arm-chair, and commenced to pour stimulants down his aged throat. He presented a truly shocking spectacle. His threadbare and ragged clothes were soaked through and through : his face was ashen grey; his poor, wasted hands were almost transparent, and a thin stream of blood was issuing from his blue lips.

Under the influence of the fire, and the hot brandy-and-water, he revived a little, and, after a preliminary rattle in his throat, he presently gasped out, ‘I’ve — come — here — to — die !’

“It seemed as if the doctor would never come. We redoubled our efforts, and eventually had the satisfaction of seeing the old man sitting up in his chair drinking a tumbler of hot grog with much gusto. A cold joint of beef, with bread and pickles, then came under his notice, and he made a meal which would have been a hearty one for a young farm labourer. When the doctor did come at last, he found ’Demon’ Smith playing a much brisker knife and fork than the proprietor of a table-d’hôte with a fixed tariff would have cared to see. The doctor smiled and went away, and ‘Demon’ Smith grew quite affable and chatty. I then realized the fact that he hadn’t come here to die ; he had come here to live.

“Yes, dear boy, he’d got me fast. We fixed him up in the spare bed-room, and sent him up his meals there. He had an appetite like an ostrich, and he was eighty years of age, remember, — every day of it, I’ll swear. The first facer I got from him was a complaint about the quality of his dinners. ‘I should get rid of that butcher,’ he said, ‘Lamb, sir! Don’t talk to me! It’s inferior mutton. I haven’t lived eighty years in the world without being able to tell mutton from lamb ! By the way,’ he added, looking hard at my cigar-box, ‘I do smoke after dinner.’ I told him to help himself, and he took me literally at my word. By George ! he made a hole in my Partagas. Moreover, he regarded it as a standing invitation, and I suffered accordingly. I forebear to speak of the small change he ‘borrowed ;’ but I can’t help condemning the use he put it to. Having been supplied with the needful in the morning, he would saunter airily forth to ‘take the air,’ as he called it. He didn’t confine himself to air. He’d come back about two in the afternoon, very glassy of eye, unsteady of gait, and thick of speech. Sometimes there’d be a mob of small boys following him and pelting him; and occasionally there’d be a big row at the garden gate. The neighbours were horrified. Some of them complained at the police-station ; others started the report — which rapidly gained currency, and appeared to carry conviction with it everywhere — that this was my disreputable old father. After driving off the small boys, he would stagger up the garden walk with as much dignity as he could command, and would try to sneak past the open door of my studio. But generally I managed to fix him with my reproachful eye, and then he would stare vacantly towards the picture I was painting — say a cottage interior — and endeavour to mollify me by compliments. ‘Fine lan’scape !’ he would say. ‘Shplendid trees — see ‘em waving ! Magnif’shent !’

“Once, when I caught the gay old octogenarian kissing the housemaid on the stairs, I remonstrated mildly but firmly. ’Oh, he do go on so, sir,’ Mary Jane explained. ‘I don’t take no notice of his nonsense now.’ I told the old gentleman there and then that for the future he must behave himself like a respectable member of society, and Mary Jane went downstairs giggling. Three days afterwards I received a great shock. ‘Demon’ Smith had gone out early in the morning, and when I rang for breakfast I found there was no Mary Jane in the house. ’Gone to see her aunt in Camberwell, which was took very ill,’ was the explanation offered by the cook. I suspected nothing : but about noon I was disturbed from my smudging by a terrific row down the street. I rushed to the door, and, lo and behold ! there was ‘Demon’ Smith, gorgeously attired in the flowered silk waistcoat, coming up with Mary Jane on his arm, all the old women and small boys of the neighbourhood bringing up the rear, and sending up ironical cheers. As the pair came up the path, I noticed that Mary Jane was wearing a white bonnet, and that her attire was more gorgeous and festive than even her Sunday-out get-up. I gasped and staggered back when old Smith, with an air of jaunty ceremony, said, ‘Allow me to introduce my wife, sir,’ adding, as if to soften my surprise, ‘It was the Romeo waistcoat that did it ; none of them could ever withstand it.’

“Well, I stormed, and indignantly ordered them both off the premises ; but ‘twas no good. Old Smith got in the back way, and took possession of his old room. At last, in sheer despair, I bundled his things out into the street, and the old man, as he gathered up his manuscript ‘parts’ and his theatrical waistcoats, turned upon me a look of the most bitter reproach I have ever seen on the face of mortal man. He went away, taking his bride with him ; but, bless you, he was back in two days’ time. ‘You promised that I should die here,’ he said, ‘you have not kept your word.’

This sort of thing continued for nearly twelve months. He simply haunted me ; and I began to shrink and tremble before that reproachful look, and to feel somehow as if I had really done the old rascal a deep injury. One day, however, he turned up in great distress. ‘She’s gone !’ he said, in a broken voice, ‘Cut clean away ! You’ll let me die here now? I swear I shan’t have long to wait.’ What could I say ? I was forced to renew our old dread compact. But it was only a short one this time. Before going to bed I went up to his room to see how he was, and I was horrified to find him lying on the floor, dead ! By his side was a bottle labelled ‘Poison.’ As he haunted me in life, so the horrible sight of that old man’s livid and contorted dead face will remain fixed in my memory as long as I live.’

[The author, John Wilton Jones, was a dramatic author of Christmas pantomimes, comediettas and burlesques.]


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