William 'Gentleman' Smith
|This article needs additional citations for verification. (January 2013)|
|Died||13 September 1819
Bury St Edmunds
|Other names||William "Gentleman" Smith|
William Smith (1730 – 13 September 1819), known as "Gentleman Smith", was a celebrated English actor of the 18th century who worked with David Garrick, and was the original creator of the role of Charles Surface in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal.
William Smith was born in London in 1730. His father, intending that he should enter the church, sent him to Eton College in 1737 and then to St John's College, Cambridge in 1748. The vivacious spirit for which he was well known at Eton led him into problems at Cambridge. One evening he drank too freely with some friends and, being pursued by a proctor, he unwisely snapped an unloaded pistol at him. He refused the punishment that was imposed, and quit the University to avoid expulsion.
Covent Garden 1753–1774
Smith was inclined towards the stage: upon arrival in London, he applied to John Rich at the original Covent Garden Theatre, where he first appeared in January 1753 in the role of Theodosius, a performance attended by many of his college friends in a spirit of solidarity. He next appeared as Polydore in Thomas Otway's The Orphan, Southampton in The Earl of Essex, and Dolabella in John Dryden's All for Love. He took various subordinate roles until the retirement of Spranger Barry, when he took on many of that actor's principal parts. If he had defects, they were generally overlooked by his audiences, who admired his upright and independent private life. The poet Charles Churchill, in his "Rosciad" satire of 1761, called him "Smith the genteel, the airy, and the smart."
Drury Lane 1774–1788
After 22 years at Covent Garden, Garrick engaged him in winter 1774 for Drury Lane, where he remained until retirement in 1788. Though for a long time he played lead roles in tragedy, for which he had a suitably tall and well-proportioned figure, his facial features lacked the flexibility and expressiveness, and his vocal delivery was somewhat too harsh and monotonous, to be considered ideal. However, he won popularity as Richard III, Hotspur, and Hastings, and was also admired in the roles of Kitely, Archer, and Oakly.
Smith's masterpiece was his impersonation of Charles Surface in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal, which won the highest praise for originality, boldness of conception, truth, freedom, ease, and gracefulness of action and manner. He is mentioned favourably in Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia, in the "Essay upon Old Actors". On 9 March 1788, after a performance of Hamlet, Smith announced his intention to retire and "resign the sprightly Charles to abler hands and younger heads". After a performance of the role on 9 June 1788, he gave his farewell speech, though he did appear once more in 1798 in a benefit performance for a friend.
Family life and retirement
Smith first married the sister of the Earl of Sandwich, Mrs Kelland Courtnay (a widow), who died in 1762, and secondly Miss Newson of Leiston in Suffolk. (Through the second marriage in the Newson family is traced a relationship to Hamlet Watling, whose brother Edwin also married a daughter of Smith's). Smith died at Bury St Edmunds on 13 September 1819 in his 89th year. There his elegant figure was remembered as always wearing a white hat edged with green, a blue coat, figured waistcoat, fustian coloured breeches, and gaiters to match, and carrying a gold-headed cane. He was loved by the youngsters of Bury whom he often obliged with sweets from the candy-shop.
- "Smith, William (SMT747W2)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- William Hone, The Every-Day Book (London, 1830), Volume I, 1287–1291.
- Hamlet Watling, 'Suffolk Heraldry & Genealogy in 12 Vols' (MS, Ipswich Museum, Christchurch Mansion) Vol 8.
- Christian Deelman, 'The original cast of The School for Scandal', The Review of English Studies 1962 XIII(51), pp. 257–266.
- Encyclopædia Britannica 1911.
- Knight, John Joseph (1898). "Smith, William (1730?-1819)". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography 53. London: Smith, Elder & Co.