Nowadays when a boxer makes it big he is lucky if he gets to take a bow on The Ed Sullivan Show. Around the turn of the century, however, top fighters gathered in money by the fistful appearing on the stage as performers in plays. Perhaps the best of the lot was the handsome, mannered James J. Corbett. Gentleman Jim liked acting and was intellectually ambitious about it, playing—for instance—the title role in Cashel Byron's Profession, adapted by George Bernard Shaw himself from one of his own early novels.
The first of the bruiser-emoters was John L. Sullivan who, in such epics as Honest Hearts and Willing Hands, used a method of acting a lot simpler than Stanislavski's and a lot louder than that of the Actor's Studio. John L. would stand up to audiences and yell the lines like a saloon fighter bawling that he could whip anybody in the house who was man enough to step outside with him for a minute.
Sullivan's roaring style was plausible because the vehicles written for him required little subtlety of characterization. In his biggest hit, The Man from Boston, he played Captain Harcourt, a "bluff but golden-hearted sea dog." What Sullivan sacrificed in depth of character, the author more than made up for with an adventurous and wandering plot. The playbill of The Man from Boston furnishes this information about the scattered action:
Act I. Seaside Villa. The Yachting Party.
Act. II. The Football Team's Conspiracy. "My God! I'm Poisoned!" Timely Appearance of Harcourt. "I Will Be Your Captain."
Act III. The Forged Note Brought to Bay. Harcourt Just in Time. "Now Take It If You Dare."
Act IV. The Glove Contest. The Champion of Twelve Years. Victory for the Man from Boston.
In addition to the works tailored for him, Sullivan once played Simon Legree in Uncle Tom's Cabin. John L. renamed the melodrama Me and the Bloodhounds. Chasing Eliza possibly involved his first encounter with ice, for he normally preferred everything straight.
Other fighters followed Sullivan on the boards. Bob Fitzsimmons toured in something titled A Fight for His Life, before settling down with his fourth wife and becoming an evangelist. Jim Jeffries had a go in a semihistorical tour de force named Davy Crockett. But it was Corbett, Sullivan's conqueror, who scored the greatest triumphs on the stage. Cashel Byron's Profession brought together two obsessive drives: Corbett's determination to be known as a leading actor rather than a fighter and Shaw's appetite for royalties.
From the very beginning, Corbett considered boxing mere advertising for his acting. He once said, "I want to reach the point where people will turn around and say, 'There goes Jim Corbett, the actor,' not, 'There goes Jim Corbett, the prizefighter.' " The social theme of Cashel Byron appealed to Corbett, for in it a despised fighter rises above his station by wooing a society lady. Corbett often compared his stage talent with that of such greats as John Drew and Richard Mansfield.
Shortly after Corbett won the heavyweight championship from Sullivan in 1892, he appeared in Gentleman Jack, written by his manager and a collaborator. Corbett portrayed a college youth, saddled with a convict father and falsely accused of a crime himself, who wins a championship fight against one of his detractors. Other plays manufactured for Corbett were A Naval Cadet, Pals and After Dark, the last subtitled obscurely, Neither Maid, Wife or Widow. Boxing became a poor second to acting in Corbett's life. He gave up the championship to Fitzsimmons in 1897, and was beaten by Fitz's successor, Jeffries, in 1900 and 1903. By 1906, Corbett had completely lost his taste for the ring and found George Bernard Shaw.
G.B.S. discovered prizefighting in England in 1882 when it was still illegal. After attending his first clandestine fight, he said cynically of the buffs, "Anyone with a sense of comedy must find the arts of self-defence delightful (for a time) through their pedantry, their quackery, and their action and reaction between amateur romantic illusion and professional eye to business." He scoffed at the professed admiration for boxing techniques and went on, "The spectators did not want to see skill defeating violence: they wanted to see violence drawing blood and pounding its way to a savage and exciting victory in the shortest possible time."
Despite this ridicule, Shaw saw in the sport a platform for controversy, and he wrote the novel that was to become Corbett's vehicle. In it Shaw wanted to know why the law permitted vivisection and other bloodletting and banned prizefighting. In an afterpiece to his dramatization of the novel he deplored the knockout but remarked: "It is only fair to add that it has not been proved that any permanent injury to the brain results from it. In any case the brain, as English society is at present constituted, can hardly be considered a vital organ."
As a clothesline on which to hang his social dissertations, he concocted a plot in which a professional fighter (Cashel), training near the mansion of a regal lady (Lydia Carew), wins her affections in competition with a Member of Parliament and her enamored butler.
Some years after writing the novel, G.B.S. got wind of a plan to dramatize it in the U.S. In order to protect his copyright Shaw hastily wrote a blank verse adaptation, by his own admission borrowing freely from Shakespeare and Marlowe.
When another American version, to be fashioned for Corbett, was proposed, Shaw consented to the deal, for his rights were now secure. Corbett and Shaw soon comprised an international mutual admiration society. Corbett thought that some of the things G.B.S. wrote were "bright" and added that he had got a laugh out of Man and Superman. Shaw, who had never seen Corbett either as fighter or actor, was all for him because he paid his royalties in advance. During rehearsal Corbett began to construct an analogy between his own life and that of Cashel—a man looked down upon because he was a fighter. Corbett told an interviewer, "I sacrificed what little social standing I had—everything, in fact. My father wouldn't speak to me for three months afterward." His father ran a livery stable.
The play had its premiere at Daly's, New York's most fashionable theater, on January 8, 1906. Asked in his dressing room if the highbred audience would frighten him, Corbett said, "If a fellow can keep his head in the ring, with a lot of madmen yelling at him, he ought to be able to keep it at Daly's."
The first act went well. There were some gasps when Corbett appeared nude from the waist up, daring for Daly's. Lydia, the society lady, seemed to like what she saw. She also admired the manly way in which Corbett got at the core of their romance: "If I can't have the satisfaction of marrying you, I may as well have the satisfaction of saying I'd like to." The final curtain came down to spirited applause. Most of the critics were kind to Corbett.
However, there was only one really knowledgeable critic on hand, the "gentleman on the aisle" for the New York American. This was Philadelphia Jack O'Brien, who later that year disputed the claim to Jeffries' vacated heavyweight title with rival Tommy Burns.
Philadelphia Jack had a knack for dramatic fiction himself. He originally made his name by knocking out a bunch of stumblebums in England and cabling back glowing reports to the U.S. He built himself up into such an attraction that, when he returned, he dictated terms to promoters and selected his own opponents. These he even rehearsed to make their fights exciting—an anticipation of the imaginative ways of modern professional wrestling.
O'Brien wrote of the Corbett play, "Nothing since my recent victory over lanky Bob Fitzsimmons gave me greater pleasure than to witness the plunge of my old friend, Jim Corbett, into the legitimate. My greatest ambition in life is to knock out Jim Corbett, but I want to do that knocking in the ringside. If I attempted to knock his histrionic abilities, I would be unfit for the task. Jim is a natural born actor.... The story of the play is one that interested me perhaps more than any person in the house. It portrays the humiliation that a pugilist is confronted with when he attempts to lead a quiet social life." The critic had just been thrown out of the Waldorf and Netherland hotels for creating disturbances. "The plot hinges on his [Cashel's] accidental acquaintance with a rich society girl while he is training for a fight. If the lady had been at all wise she could have tumbled to the fact that he was a prizefighter right away. He shifted his feet and clinched his fists which, by the way, was a time when he should have been trying not to show the fact.... Having been obliged to leave at the end of the second act to cover an engagement, I don't know how he made out with the rich society girl but it's dollars to doughnuts from the way he was progressing with the love affair that he captured her."
Philadelphia Jack did have another "engagement." As were most of his colleagues, he was an actor, too. He had to hurry off to fulfill a booking at a nearby burlesque house.