A Serpent’s Tooth, 1922

A Serpent’s Tooth

A play by Arthur Richman
Produced by John Golden
Staged by Robert Milton

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!”
King Lear; Act I, Scene 4.

Little Theatre, New York, August 24, 1922

Cast of Characters

Morgan Trendell W. Graham Browne
A Caterer John Clements
Bert Boyd Howard Freeman
Jerry Middleton Leslie Howard
Percival Faraday Robert Lowe
Janet Trendell Ann Merrick
Mildred Sherwood Anne Sutherland
Alice Middleton Marie Tempest
Fanny Josephine Williams


A fair-sized audience received the gifted English comedienne with little short of an ovation.The piece, having its initial showing here, is styled a comedy, although all the laughs were the result of lines that fell to the lot of the star. In other hands they might have been mere snickers.In theme and treatment Mr. Richman has made a decided departure from his plays “Ambush” and “Not So Long Ago.” It is a sort of intimate affair, which in a more intimate house will probably make a better impression.[…]The story is that of the sacrificing mother and a scapegrace son. He has a bit of the cad about him, bringing pain and anxiety into his doting parents’ hearts.
Mr. Golden has surrounded Miss Tempest with a small but competent cast with one exception. One set is used, a familiar-looking interior. Miss Tempest also displayed decided ability to evoke a few tears. But the text did not seem in some way to reach across the footlights and find response.
(Variety, 1922-08-04, about the premiere at Asbury Park, N.J., Aug. 2)

It is a moderately interesting comedy, a little old-fashioned in manner, but distinguished by the acting of Miss Tempest, Graham Browne, as a sentimental suitor of other days, and their associates, including particularly Mr. Howard as the bad boy.
(New York Tribune,  August 25, 1922)

Miss Marie Tempest was particularly fortunate to have Arthur Richman on the committee that welcomed her to New York after an absence of 6 years. Other people, distinguished and those who paid for their tickets to see her in “A Serpent’s Tooth,” at the Little Theater last night, rapped their palms together and called her by name and otherwise indicated their pleasure: but Mr. Richman met her with something really worth the giving. He brought her a play which ought to keep her busy for some time.
[…]The whole thing was remarkably warm and intimate. The play showed the proper respect for its worthy protagonist: more respect for her, in fact, than for the probabilities. And Miss Tempest went through it easily, apparently enjoying the occasion as much as the audience, laughing her infectious laugh and making no profound attempt at acting. […]
Miss Tempest plays the mother of a rakish son of 22 or 23; an indulgent mother who has excused her son’s transgression until he no longer fears retribution from them. She is nearly broke, earning $12 a week writing society notes for a weekly paper and selling off the Liberty Bonds to meet young Jerry’s gambling and lady debts. When he, as means of re-establishing the family fortune, becomes engaged to the daughter of the wealthy Mr. Trendell, who, it turns out, was once his mother’s suitor. And she, pressed to the ends of her resources, reluctantly participates in the marriage for money plot. But after meeting her son’s fiancée she becomes conscience-stricken: she learns to love the girl and fears for her happiness. On the night of a dinner to the engaged couple Jerry feels called on to go out with a person named Virginia, a cabaret lass who has followed a manicure and a milliner in his extra-legal affections.
So Jerry’s mother discloses to the Trendell girl her son’s character and asks her to give him up. Which she, as a character in a play should not, does not. And he promised better; life on one of those purifying ranches in the purifying West will make another man of him, just as did of Cyril Keightley in “Errant Fools.” He would meet himself and she, this loving girl, would wait for him.
Miss Tempest has gathered more smoothness and finish than wrinkles during her long stage career. There is in this play an ease, an alert intelligence, a quick appreciation of every phase of its narration. Occasionally she drops a bit from this high plane, injects a hint of flippant and bald comedy action that is out of character, if not out of effect.[…]
It would be unfair to pass over the rest of the cast as subordinate to Miss Tempest’s and Mr. Richman’s contributions to the evening. Leslie Howard as the philandering son presents a performance of much merit, a picturesque and nonchalant playing, W. Graham Browne, as the wealthy Morgan Trrendell; Ann Merrick, as his daughter, and Howard Freeman, as Bert Boyd, are all first rate.
(Nunnally Johnson on the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 25, 1922)

Marie Tempest has been to the end of the world and come back again–come back as adroit, as gleaming, as delightful as ever. She comes back with all her old, unconquerable humor, with all her old, unflagging zest–undiscouraged even by the rather foolish and weakly violent little play to impart some life to which she was summoned from incredibly afar.
This piece is called “The Serpent’s Tooth” and it was offered last night to the suffrages of an audience that would have welcomed her had she come for a special and elaborate revival of “A Little Bit of Fluff.” It is all about mother love and it was written, curiously enough, by the same man who wrote “Not So Long Ago” and “Ambush.”
[…]There is the substance of a good play in “The Serpent’s Tooth,” but this is forfeited by the artlessness of the play-making–of which the peculiar weakness lies in the proneness of the characters to take the longest and hardest way out of every difficulty they fall into. They are like fat burglars who squeeze themselves painfully through the transom when the door stands wide open.
It has been said that Miss Tempest was called to America to impart some life to “The Serpent’s Tooth.” The amazing thing is that she can and does–tucking in bits of gayety, salting it with sardonic humor, lending it a warmth and a vivacity of which its original script must have been totally innocent. […] She does things now and again which one of our latter-day players would rather be shot than do. But these are largely matters of shifting style and in all that constitutes the essence of good acting, Marie Tempest is an artist through and through and there is no young upstart on our stage today who could not sit at her feet and learn and learn and learn.
There is, by the way, a young upstart on the same stage with her in this present enterprise who is not to be sneezed at as an actor. That is the engaging Leslie Howard, who plays the son admirably, quite sharing the honors with her until the final scene, when he remains inert, hollow and unconvincing. One is inclined to suspect that this was because the playwright had not succeeded in convincing him.
(Alexander Woollcott, The New York Times, August 25, 1922)

“A Serpent’s Tooth,” with a theme that has potentiality of greatness, is merely amusing–and no so very amusing at that. The danger of trying to give the public what the managers want were rarely better illustrated than by the feeble last act of this disappointing play.
[…] The great scene is that in which the mother, to save Janet’s life from ruin, tells her the truth about her son, only to have the girl turn against her. Miss Tempest has a poignant moment here, but generally she is at her best in the comedy scenes, with her easy, crisp, competent, perfectly obvious method. At times, indeed, she almost seems to wink at or to nudge her audience, figuratively speaking. But she always reads her lines beautifully, without obscuring a ray of Mr. Richman’s amusing dialogue.
Leslie Howard in the difficult role of the graceless son succeeds in being attractive, although he is true to the character always. Miss Ann Merrick is charming to look at, with a touch of engaging gaucherie, as Janet, and Howard Freeman is particularly amusing as an ill-mannered young cub.
(Maida Castellun, New York Evening Call, August 26, 1922)

It is a very economical little comedy with which Mary Tempest returns to the American stage after a considerable absence. The cast is small. There is only one stage setting. We were out of the theater at 10:40 from a performance which started at 8:50 or thereabouts. Time and money are thus looked after, and that in a dubious season is something. But the comedy itself is too sparse. What there is of it is theatrical to the nth power. The laughs, which are very, very few, are as carefully compounded as the most expert amusement chemist could manufacture. That they register is due to Miss Tempest’s skill as a comedienne.
[…] Most of the honors of the piece, however, go to Leslie Howard, as the serpent’s molar. He was the perfect mucker and permitted no personal feeling to interfere with a complete exposition of the character. But then we expect that kind of playing from Mr. Howard, who is, to my mind, just about the most engaging young comedian of the natural school we have.
(Patterson James, The Billboard, September 22, 1922)

Leslie Howard, 1922

Leslie Howard, 1922

Leslie Howard in The Serpent's Tooth, 1922

Marie Tempest and Leslie Howard in The Serpent’s Tooth, 1922

The Serpent's Tooth

Ann Merrick and Marie Tempest in The Serpent’s Tooth