Upon the time honored rock bottom of caste distinctions and the pride of the landed aristocracy Mr. Galsworthy has reared a solid superstructure of melodrama in the "Eldest Son", well constructed, as might be expected from the authorship, and free to a large degree from the usual Galsworthy flair.
The playwright makes liberal use of the materials at his hand. The under-keeper Dunning and his Rose Taylor in the village are brought in conveniently in the first act and the third to furnish ironical contrast to the affair of Sir William's eldest son with Lady Cheshire's maid, Freda. Miss Lanfarne and her ingratiating Irish ways are conspicuous in the picture to show young Bill what he might have done for the family. Dot, second daughter of the house, is ready on every occasion to bring to the fore doubtful matters which the others prefer not to discuss. There is ample opportunity for Sir William himself to storm and stamp and trace the genealogy of the Cheshires to the thirteenth century. Studdenham, father of the unfortunate Freda, stands up to the Baronet's fire as man to man and, always remembering his position, returns pride for pride. Even the guilty Bill, as he reiterates to a somewhat doubting audience, is not wholly a blackguard in spite of his painful attempts to assure the family that he loves the girl,--who is always referred to as "her" from act II on,--his over-wrought nerves, and his all pervading boorishness.
As melodrama pure and simple the "Eldest Son" could be changed with slight difficulty to a startling success. Already at hand are Bill's "tense" scenes with his parents,--difficult ones for all concerned, including the audience,--his impassioned outcry, "Why anything? I didn't make myself!" There is the conventional arrival of the baronet off stage to the thrilling accompaniment of hoof-beats. There are those eternal broken sentences which may mean anything. "If I could--", "Perhaps it would be better--", "Then you mean--".
But the melodrama is broken up by interlarded discussions of each move from angle before it is made until one is tempted to agree heartily with Studdenham that if someone doesn't say something we're going to get nowhere. The difficulty with the "Eldest Son" from the average American view-point perhaps explains why the presentation at the Copley is the "first performance in this country". It is difficult to convince an American audience of the reality of a problem in which deep-rooted and time-rotted caste distinctions loom to such large proportions. This consideration weakens materially whatever of the dramatic is left in Bill's thick voiced, "Good God!", as well as lessening the effect of Lady Cheshire's pronouncement that having different manners is worse than having different souls. Even Studdenham's five and twenty years in the service of the Cheshires has a hollow sound.
Mr. Wingfield as Sir William did his best with an apoplectic part. In the earlier scenes, before his son's iniquities were brought to light he was excellent. In the last scene the strength of his passion so completely overmastered him that he lost in dignity what he gained in force. Mr. Tearle as Bill was a thoroughly objectionable character unpleasant to meet anywhere, whether drawing room or Drury Lane. Miss Willard's Freda was restrained and well done. In contrast to the overworked sense of tragedy under which Miss Belmore as Lady Cheshire and her daughters Christine (Miss New-combe) and Joan (Miss Edlss) labored. Miss Cleveland's Dot was refreshing if pugnacious Mr. Clive as Studdenham was excellent, playing the part with the finished skill which have made him the drawing card of the Jewett company.