Friday, July 4, 2014

Becoming The Drunkard

I promised I'd write today about an American play, and I chose one very fitting for Independence Day revelers, at least some of the one's I saw on the subway tonight. It's W.H. Smith's The Drunkard.

When Smith published The Drunkard, he referred to it as an adaptation. The original was allegedly written by a "gentleman and scholar" with a "want of theatrical experience." According to the Author's Preface, Smith then "introduced the entire subplot, together with the last scene of the second act, and the entire of the third, fourth and fifth parts." In other words, the vast majority of the five-act drama was written by Smith, who also directed the play and performed the title role for its 1844 premiere.

And what a success it was! Opening in Boston in February of that year, The Drunkard was the first American play to exceed a hundred performances, eventually being acted more than 140 times in a single season. In 1850, a group of producers that included P.T. Barnum staged the show in New York with C.W. Clarke in the title role. Audiences loved it.

Though the play's alternative title, The Fallen Saved, would seem to hint at a psychological complexity, much of the fun of the piece comes from the broadly drawn characters who fall so neatly into categories of good and evil. When the hero meets his future wife, he immediately senses her innate goodness, claiming:

There are plenty of pretty girls in this section of the country, but I have since discovered what I had before heard, something more than the ordinary beauty.... The charm of mental excellence, noble sentiment, filial piety. These are the beauties that render you conspicuous above all the maidens I have seen.

Unfortunately, he does not have the same insight into the villain of the piece, a man who heartlessly encourages him to drink for the purpose of establishing power over him and advance his own vile aims. Who is that villain, you ask?

Well, of course, he's the lawyer.