Smith, Richard John (DNB00)

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SMITH, RICHARD JOHN (1786–1855), actor, commonly known as O Smith, the son of an actor named Smith, whom Doran confounds with ‘Gentleman’ Smith [see Smith, William, (1730?–1819)], was born in York in 1786. His mother, whose maiden name was Scrace, played leading parts in Dublin. After being all but killed in Dublin by Reddish, who as Castalio ran him, while playing Polydore, through the body, the father brought his wife in 1779 to Yorkshire. At Hull and York under Tate Wilkinson, Mrs. Smith appeared as Beatrice and speedily became a favourite. She accompanied Tate Wilkinson to Edinburgh, and in 1791 made, as Estifania, her first appearance in Bath.

Young Smith is said to have been first seen in Bath as Ariel in Dr. Hawkesworth's ‘Edgar and Emmeline.’ He played there other juvenile parts. Put into a solicitor's office, he neglected his duties, spending his time in the painting-room of the theatre, and finally ran away and embarked from Bristol as a sailor for the Guinea coast. He had some romantic adventures, assisting upon the river Gaboon in the escape of some slaves, an incident related in ‘A Tough Yarn,’ which he published in Bentley's ‘Miscellany.’ The governor of Sierra Leone, struck by his painting, offered to befriend him, but the captain of the vessel refused to release him. Returning to Bath, he found his parents obdurate, and again ran away, rambling in Wales and Ireland. Seized in Liverpool by a press gang, he was taken on board the receiving ship, but was released on stating that he was an actor, and giving as proof a recitation. Engaged by the elder Macready as painter, prompter, and actor of all work, he was rewarded with twelve shillings weekly, and all but lost his life in a snowstorm while travelling on foot from Sheffield to Rochdale. He then went to Edinburgh and Glasgow theatres, returning to Bath in 1807, and playing in the pantomimes.

His performance as Robert in the pantomime of ‘Raymond and Agnes’ attracted the attention of Robert William Elliston [q. v.], who engaged him in 1810 for the pantomime at the Surrey. Taking in ‘Bombastes Furioso’ the part of Bombastes, vacated through illness by another actor, he gave an exhibition of intensity such as established his position in burlesque. A performance of ‘Obi,’ in the melodrama of ‘Three-fingered Jack,’ got him his sobriquet of ‘O’ (otherwise Obi) Smith. In 1813 Smith accompanied Elliston to the Olympic, where he played Mandeville in the ‘False Friend,’ a rôle in which Edmund Kean [q. v.] was to have appeared. After acting at the Lyceum, he is said to have been engaged in 1823 at Drury Lane, at which house he had previously been seen in pantomime. He also seems to have played at Covent Garden. His performance in the ‘Bottle Imp’ at the Lyceum attracted attention, leading him to complain, but half in jest: ‘For the last five years of my life I have played nothing but demons, devils, monsters, and assassins, and this line of business, however amusing it may be to the public or profitable to managers, has proved totally destructive of my peace of mind, detrimental to my interests, and injurious to my health. I find myself banished from all respectable society; what man will receive the Devil upon friendly terms, or introduce a demon into his family circle? My infernal reputation follows me everywhere.’ A writer in the ‘Monthly Magazine’ declares him eminent in assassins, sorcerers, the moss-trooping heroes in Sir Walter Scott's poems, and other wild, gloomy, and ominous characters in which a bold, or rather a gigantic figure, and deep sepulchral voice could be turned to good account. Smith had, however, some control over tenderness, his performance at the Lyceum, in the ‘Cornish Miners,’ of a maniac who visits the grave of his dead child, being very pathetic. At Drury Lane he was, on 10 Nov. 1824, the first Zamiel in Soane's version of ‘Der Freischütz.’ When, in 1828, Yates and Mathews took the Adelphi, Smith joined the company. With this theatre his subsequent reputation was chiefly connected. In the ‘Black Vulture,’ October 1829, he played the villain so named. In 1831, at the Adelphi, Edinburgh, he superintended the production of the ‘Wreck Ashore.’ In January 1833 he played at the Adelphi, London, a part contrasting strongly with those of which he complained, namely, Don Quixote in the piece so named. He had also a part in Holl's ‘Grace Huntley.’ In 1836 he played in an adaptation of Bulwer's ‘Rienzi.’ He was Newman Noggs in an adaptation of ‘Nicholas Nickleby.’ In 1839 he was Fagin in ‘Oliver Twist,’ and in January 1843 Hugh in ‘Barnaby Rudge.’ Among numerous characters played at the Adelphi were Murtogh in ‘Green Bushes,’ the part of a Mendicant in the ‘Bohemians, or the Rogues of Paris,’ October 1843; the Miser in an adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in February 1844; Laroche in E. Stirling's adaptation ‘Clarisse, or the Merchant's Daughter,’ in September 1845; Mongeraud in Holl's ‘Leoline, or Life's Trials,’ in February 1846; Pierre in Peake's ‘Devil of Marseilles, or the Spirit of Avarice,’ in July 1846; and a cabdriver, a pathetic part, in Peake's ‘Title Deeds,’ in June 1857. In June 1842 he had, at the Lyceum, given a characteristic per- formance in a piece entitled ‘The Dice of Death;’ and on 1 April 1853 he played at the Adelphi in ‘Mr. Webster at Home.’ On 20 April 1854, at the same house, he was Musgrave in Tom Taylor and Charles Reade's ‘Two Loves and a Life,’ and this appears to have been his last original part.

About 1826 Joseph Smith, the bookseller of Holborn, having produced a set of theatrical engravings, applied to ‘O Smith, the famous comedian,’ for an account of the English stage, to accompany the plates. An agreement was accordingly drawn up, but the author eventually deemed his prospect of credit from the work to be unsatisfactory, and withdrew from the undertaking. He nevertheless continued to accumulate materials, such as theatrical prints, newspaper cuttings, magazine articles, playbills, catalogues, &c., relating to stage history, and also to interleave and annotate theatrical memoirs. Before his death his collections filled twenty-five large quarto volumes. Of these, vols. xx–xxiii. comprise a manuscript ‘Dramatic Chronology;’ the remainder consist chiefly of printed matter, scantily annotated, but interspersed with many valuable prints. The twenty-five volumes are now in the British Museum Library, catalogued under Smith's name as ‘A Collection of Material towards a History of the Stage.’

Smith died, after a long illness, on Thursday, 1 Feb. 1855, and was buried on the 8th in Norwood cemetery. A portrait accompanies the memoir in the ‘Theatrical Times.’

[The preceding particulars, some of them of very dubious authority, are extracted from Genest's Account of the Stage. Tallis's Drawing-Room Table-Book of Theatrical Portraits; Theatrical Times, i. 121; Scott and Howard's Life of Blanchard; Dibdin's Edinburgh Stage; Dramatic and Musical Review, various years; Era Almanack, various years; Era Newspaper, 4 and 11 Feb. 1855.]

J. K.