Actor James

(A Ballad)

  [Sir CHARLES WYNDHAM stated that , as regards a West-End theatre, once an actor was engaged for a piece, the engagement was for the run of the piece.

  The Judge. It is perfectly clear that the only way to get rid of an actor if you do not like him is to shoot him. – Extract from Theatrical Case.]

The deeds of Histrion PYM

  (James was his Christian name)

The bard proceeds to hymn.

  Draw profit from the same.

JAMES did as well as an actor can

In the arduous rôle of a "first young man."

His form was graceful, his step was light,

His hair was auburn, his eye was bright,

His voice expressive, his laughter free:

He played in musical comedy.

He persevered with his song and jest,

Year after year without a rest,

Now with a fond or facetious glance,

Or an epigram or a lively dance,

Till he happened to set the town awhirl

With his Captain Smythe in The Chorus Girl.

Years rolled by: he was thirty-one

On the opening night of the piece's run;

Older every year he grew

(As, alas! we mortals so often do);

Stout and gouty, he lost his charm.

The Manager marked it with much alarm.

"’Tis long," quoth he, "since the run began;

We must look for another 'first young man.'

Captain Smythe should be tall and slim,

Tender and slender – well, look at him!

Months have flitted and years have flown:

He's two-and-sixty – and eighteen stone!"

"Nay, good Sir," replied Actor JAMES,

"These be illegal little games.

Engaged at the start of the piece's run,

I must play the part till the piece is done:

That (I quote my lawyer's advice) is

The rule that guides in this pattern of crisis."

Dark as night grew the Manager's brow:

"Foiled!" he hissed. "You may triumph now,

But mark me, minion, a time will come,

And then-" he departed, looking glum,

Till a great idea through his mind there flames:

"Happy thought! I'll assassinate JAMES."

He called to him ruffians, black of soul,

Fit to be cast for so dark a rôle:

"Murder the Actor JAMES," said he,

"And a thumping tip shall your guerdon be:

Drop me a line when his course is run."

And the black-souled ruffians muttered, "Done!"

"Prompt despatch is our aim and boast:

We'll send him poison by every post:

We'll speedily fill him with well-aimed lead,

And daily with sand-bags ply his head.

And if by chance we should fail with these,

We'll drive at his ribs with our snickersnees."

"Good," said the Manager. "Ah, but stay,

There may, perhaps, be another way:

I'm loth except as a last resource

To use (if only by proxy) force.

Kindly postpone your fell design.

Till I've sought advice from a friend of mine."

Off he hurried without delay,

Called on his friend that very day.

"Well," said the friend, "from what I see,

The case is simple, it seems to me.

At the end of the run his claim will cease;

What I suggest is – withdraw the piece."

"Withdraw the piece!" he cried (in tears);

"Why, it's only been running some thirty years.

And the life of a musical comedee

(At least of those produced by me)

Is half a century, if a day."

"Withdraw," said the friend; "it's the only way."

So another and fresher piece began,

With another and fresher "first young man".

And JAMES retired to private life,

Safe from the sand-bag, gun, and knife,

And lives with his spouse (perhaps you've met 'em?)

At Sandringham, Frogmore Crescent, Streatham.

First published in Punch, July 29, 1903


Many of Wodehouse's early contributions to Punch seem to have been inspired by "quirky" news reports. This one was written in response to news reports of a law suit, Dodson v Forbes-Robertson, that was heard before Mr Justice Lawrance. The case was fully reported in The Times for 16 July 1903 (PGW's poem appeared on 29 July), and included remarks made by Sir Charles Wyndham, who gave evidence.

The relevant exchange (as reported by The Times) was:

  Sir Charles Wyndham, examined by Mr Bower [counsel for the plaintiff], said that he knew of no custom whereby an actor could be dismissed who had been engaged to play a particular part. If no time was mentioned in the contract, there was no custom.

   Mr Justice Lawrance – The only way to get rid of an actor if you do not like him is to shoot him. (Laughter)

   Sir Charles Wyndham – You might shoot yourself for having engaged him. (Renewed laughter)

The basis of the case was that Alfred Dodson, an actor, was seeking damages from Johnston Forbes-Robertson, the lessee of the Lyric Theatre, for breach of an agreement. Dodson claimed that he had been hired to play a part in a play called "Mice and Men".  In view of the reference in the poem to "Captain Smythe", it may not be entirely coincidental that the role Dodson was to play was "Captain Lovell".

Forbes-Robertson as Hamlet