James Forbes

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Sun/January 24, 1911

“The Traveling Salesman,” presented at our theatre last night is a problem play concerning the advisability of marrying if one must be a drummer for a livelihood, and it is a strong play with a moral. The acting was fine, except that the leading man needed a shave. The scenery was adequate, especially in the second act, where in a poker game, realism was carried out to the extent of having real poker chips in the game. The play has a nice ending which, despite some sapient critics, is always more agreeable and happier than a sad ending. American dramatists have at last seemingly come to see the point and truth of this. Charles Klein always has pleasant endings to his plays, when English playwrights like Henry Arthur Jones sometimes do not. “The Traveling Salesman” is the greatest drama of the age and will probably rival “The Two Orphans” in popularity and general appeal.

Kind Words For James

So said a bucolic Sarcey of the Kansas steppes, in a recent notice of James Forbes’ comedy, which is once more on view in Baltimore this week. Forbes has had lucky adventures among the critics, high and low, learned and unlearned. He has wrung kind words from them in New York and he has wrung kind words from them in Ipsilanti. With but three plays to his credit, he has probably achieved a stouter scrapbook of favorable notices than any other living American dramatist, not even excepting Augustus Thomas. It is, in brief, the fashion to say nice things about him.

With that fashion let no one quarrel, for it has justice and good sense in it. Forbes’ plays, in truth, are full of merit—so full that we can well afford to overlook their defects. They show humor, acute observation, a keen eye for character, a hand for natural dialogue and a deft management of the old machinery. Above all, they are thoroughly American—not in the sense that George M. Cohan’s cacophonous musical pieces are American, but in the sense that “Huckleberry Finn” is American. That is to say, they deal shrewdly and lovingly with persons who are racy of the soil—American drummers, chorus girls, commuters. It is impossible to imagine their scenes shifted to any other land. They are as national in color and texture, in body and spirit, as the crayon portrait, the 5-cent cigar or crimson, medicated lingerie.

He Was Born in Canada

Forbes, strangely enough , is not a native American, but a Britisher, for he was born at Salem, Ontario, in 1871, and educated over the border. But while still in his nonage he proceeded to Chicago and there, following the beaten path for great Americans, became clerk in a grocery. Soon the serpent of literary yearning began to gnaw his vitals, and he essayed to write pieces for the paper. The first paper to receive these pieces was the old Chicago Times, of which Harry Fulton, today a theatrical manager, was then city editor. Fulton, pleased with young James’ manner of composition, sent for him and made a reporter of him. One day he was ordered to attend a performance by Mme. Duse and write a humorous account of her doings. Protesting against the sacrilege, he was discharged on the spot, as a warning to all other Times reporters that the place of their souls was in cold storage.

A pass took Forbes to Pittsburg, where he set up shop as dramatic critic of the Dispatch, a daily paper esteemed in those parts. Just how long he remained there does not appear, but after a while we find him in New York, working intermittently on the World and writing short stories for the more hospitable magazines. It was during this dark period, no doubt, that he made his one attempt as an actor. The company was touring New Jersey, and Forbes, who is short of stature, was cast for a minor part. One day the leading man fell ill of measles and the neophyte was thrown into the hero’s role. He made such a mess of it that he was chased out of town with bloodhounds.

The Origin Of “The Chorus Lady”

The leading woman of that humble troupe was Rose Stahl, and in after years she and Forbes met again. She was looking at the time for a one acter suitable for vaudeville, and her old acquaintance volunteered to make one for her. The idea for it came from a short story that had been printed in the Smart Set. The result was the sketch called “The Chorus Lady,” in which Miss Stahl appeared with vast success for three full seasons. Then “The Chorus Lady” was expanded into a three acter and scored once more. Miss Stahl, I believe, is still playing the part of Patricia O’Brien. The play has earned Forbes $100,000.

Just before his first plunge as a dramatist he abandoned literature for theatrical management and became business manager for Amelia Bingham, then at the height of her popularity. Leaving Miss Bingham, he joined Henry B. Harris a newcomer among producing managers, and has been Harris’ right-hand man ever since. Harris has produced all three of the Forbes comedies—“The Chorus Lady,” “The Traveling Salesman” and “The Commuters”—and has got rich doing it. Forbes himself has also amassed a competence. He is said indeed to be the most opulent of all the younger American dramatists, though his plays number no more than three.

“The Chorus Lady” in its present form, was launched at the Savoy Theater, in New York, on September 1, 1906, and in consequence is approaching its fifth birthday. Neither Forbes nor Harris had much faith in the play. They had arranged, in fact, for but five weeks’ time for it. It made, however, a great success, and at the end of the five weeks it was transferred to the Garrick Theater and later to the Hackett. Altogether it was nearly a year in New York, and then enjoyed six months in Chicago and four in Boston.

“The Traveling Salesman” was first presented on August 10, 1908, at the Liberty Theater, in New York, with Frank J. McIntyre in the role of Bob Blake, the philandering drummer. That same week also saw the first nights of “The Devil” and “The Man from Home.” “The Traveling Salesman” has already outlived the first of these and seems likely to outlive the other. It has played almost continuously by two companies—one headed by McIntyre and the other by Thomas W. Ross.

The Latest Forbes Play

“The Commuters” began its career on August 15, 1910 at the Criterion Theater, New York, with a company including Orrin Johnson, May de Sousa, Georgia Laurence and E.Y. Backus. It received an enthusiastic welcome, but drew smaller houses than its two predecessors, and so took to the road after a few months. On the road it is still faring, but as yet it has not reached Baltimore. Later in the season, however it will be see here, probably at Ford’s.

(Source: University of North Texas Microfilm Collection)

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