Featured Drone: Richard Smithies, AB ’57, LLB ‘60
While trying to make myself like the law, I worked for a Wall Street firm, and in my spare time at the office (of which there was lots!) I began to write my first mystery story, which was followed by six other books, and a lot of plays. However, I never made any money out of them, so, to survive, I had to rely on a hereditary aptitude for languages, which caused me to be employed as a translator for the annual reports of some of the most prestigious European companies. My adventures with languages started with a major in Classics and Literature at Harvard. For my sophomore tutorial, I was supposed to read a book of the Odyssey every week, but I cheated and used Lang, Leaf and Myers, for which I’ve always felt guilty, so I’ve tried to make up for it by reading a lot of Homer and other authors in Greek.
I was fortunate enough to find a translation agency which gave me time to do theatre whenever I wanted. I’ve directed three summer stock companies, and appeared as Big Daddy, Andrew Wyke in Sleuth and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? As a vehicle for Danny Venezia, the most talented actor I’ve ever met, I adapted Brendan Behan’s Confessions of an Irish Rebel and presented it at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We were invited to do it in London, at the Irish Arts Theatre in Hammersmith. The audience included four members of the Behan family, including his brother Brian in the last month of his life!
Music was supposed to be something the gods had decided to deny me, but I was determined to defy them, so I took endless singing lessons. For quite a while, it seemed that the gods had a point, but now I perform regularly at senior centers in New York.
The picture shows me singing my latest challenge, L’Air du Tambour Major by Ambroise Thomas.
My sister Juliet was teaching school in Oregon and she wanted to put on a production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for her students. She asked me to write songs for it, which I daringly did, never having put two notes together before. Though I was careful to write all nine of the songs in kiddy keys, they were apparently too sophisticated for her kindergartners. So they gathered dust for a decade or two, until I had the nerve -- and ability -- to perform them myself. I’ve since written about seventy-five more, most recently a cycle of settings to poems by William Blake.
My wife, Maura Cavanagh, and I have been responsible for restoring two landmark Victorian buildings – a dwelling with its carriage house, and a theater – on the main streets of two towns in Northwest Connecticut, Norfolk and West Cornwall.
My other sister Pamela once told me a Sufi tale about a woman who was constantly being abducted, getting lost, sold into slavery and having other trying experiences, but in the course of each one, she learned skills which, put together, enabled her to solve the magical problem she was ultimately confronted with. Pamela told me this was the story of my life.
I’m currently working on a project that calls on me to employ, like the woman in the Sufi story all the skills -- theatrical, literary, musical and linguistic – that I’ve acquired in seventy-odd years –. It’s a definitive anti-war play called The Ransom of Hector.
This past spring, I made the play an excuse to go to Troy. (It’s all still there: the fortress, the plain, the Aegean and not one but two Trojan horses, and though the view may have changed since Homer’s day, it’s undisturbed by any signs of modern technology.)
I’ve written three pieces of music for it: Hector’s Funeral March, a Trojan Marche Militaire and a love song for Achilles, which I translated from a poem in the Greek Anthology. The Trojans in the play are highly cultivated agnostics, and regard the Greeks as superstitious barbarians. Hector and Achilles never appear simultaneously – their final duel is described by Cassandra from the battlements -- so my idea is to have them played by the same actor.
And perhaps I’ll live long enough to appear as Priam myself!