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.