Smoke Without Fire

GILES PLAYFAIR is a former London barrister now living in New Canaan, Connecticut. He is the author of a biography of Edmund Kean and of Singapore Goes Off the Air, an account of his war experiences as Productions Director of the Malaya Broadcasting Corporation.


REMARKABLE progress has been made in recent years in simplifying the job of acting. Once upon a time, there could be no acting without the ability to convey dramatic meanings by voice, by gesture, by facial expression — and this required talent and considerable training.

But today the stage (or screen) aspirant whose vocal powers are negligible, whose movements are naturally awkward, whose face is a fixed blank, whose zest to learn how to act (in the old-fashioned way) is slight and whose capacity to be taught is equally so, may take heart. Provided he knows how to smoke, he should do well enough; indeed, stardom should not be beyond his reach. For today, if one may judge from the exquisitely natural performances that are the fashion, there is hardly an emotion that cannot be portrayed on stage or screen by an appropriate use of tobacco.

I have recently compiled a guide; it might be called “TheHistrionic Smoker’s Companion.” Here are a few extracts from it: —

Caution and deliberation (particularly in the presence of an antagonist): Light a cigarette — or pipe or cigar — elaborately. Make as much as possible of extinguishing match by holding it up before one’s eyes and regarding flame with interest before blowing it out.

Irritation: Flick the ash off a cigarette at frequent intervals, while lapping foot or drumming fingers.

Anxiety: Take quick and frequent puffs at cigarette, while moving briskly round stage or set. Discard a half-finished cigarette and straightway light another.

Concentration (especially after moment of creative inspiration): Put aside a lighted pipe absentmindedly.

Indecision (especially when in tight corner): Take a long time to crush out a cigarette, using several superfluous motions in the process. Same effect can be achieved by knocking out a pipe.

Anger: Crush out a half-smoked cigarette — or cigar — impetuously. Then get up or, if already up, swing round.

Surprise: Have a cigarette — or more easily, in the case of a male character, a pipe or cigar — conveniently in mouth and remove with sudden, sharp gesture.

Acute distress or shock on receiving bad news: Crush out a half-smoked cigarette with awful finality. Stand quite still, keeping hand on butt of cigarette and head lowered, thus obviating need to reveal facial expression to audience.

Subtle threat of violence: Remove cigarette — or cigar — from corner of mouth with thumb and forefinger.

Self-confidence (especially after coming into money): Enter smoking cigar at jaunty, upward angle. If character is of humble origin, band should be left on cigar.

Disbelief: Exhale long puff of cigarette smoke slowly. If the disbelieved one is a shady character, blow smoke into his face.

Amusement: Exhale cigarette smoke with head tilted upwards, and give faint chuckle.

Shyness (especially man’s shyness in presence of beautiful girl): Offer cigarette. Have difficulty in opening cigarette case. Have further difficulty in finding matches, and still further difficulty in lighting match.

Courage: Light a cigarette at every moment, of danger. All female characters and characters of the Gentleman Crook school should take cigarette with their fingers from a cigarette case. Male characters of the Tough American Hero school, however, should take cigarette directly with mouth from a pack of cigarettes.

Fear (especially guilty fear): Try but fail — at least at first, attempt — to light a cigarette.

Passion in the raw: Put two cigarettes in mouth at same time. Light both. Then, with possessive air, hand one of them to adored.