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Behind The Curtain: Weird Off-Stage Moments At The Theater

Picture of Colm Sewell
Updated: 20 June 2016
Thespians, creatures of intense passion and excessive ego, tend to lead storied lives whether or not an audience is watching. So, it goes without saying that when you stick a bunch of these creative souls in a single workplace, drama tends to ensue. Here are five incidents of unscripted theatricality in classic works of theater.

John Dennis’ Thunder Machine

John Dennis (1658-1754) was an English playwright of little renown. Even in his own lifetime, he struggled to keep his plays in the theater, suffering poverty, marginalization and descriptions such as a writer of ‘bad odes, bad tragedies, bad comedies.’

However, it was through one of his many failures that his name lives on in the English language. For his 1709 play, Appius and Virginia, he invented a new technique for mimicking the sounds of a thunderstorm. The play was pulled early, and when he went to see the Macbeth production that had replaced it, he discovered they had borrowed his sound effect. He exclaimed:

‘This is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder, but not my play.’

Thus, coining the idiom, ‘To steal one’s thunder.’

Beckett Writes a Play About Nothing (Twice), Gets Analyzed To Death Anyway

Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s vision for his place in literature was as a great minimalist. Seeing himself doomed to live in the shadow of James Joyce if he continued to write dense literary works, he remarked:

‘I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, being in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.’

Never is this more perfectly illustrated than in his most famous play, En attendant Godot (English: Waiting for Godot), wherein two nondescript characters in bowler hats wait by a withered tree for the eponymous Godot. They get bored, ramble, bicker with passersby and chew on carrots and turnips until the sun sets, closing Act I (without Godot having made an appearance). Act II, the following day, passes more or less like the first (along with no Godot).

However, rather than being viewed at face value, it seemed to invite myriad interpretations. These included religious, philosophical and political slants. Beckett, for his part, was perplexed, commenting: ‘Why people have to complicate a thing so simple, I can’t make out,’ and ‘if by Godot I meant God, I would’ve said God, and not Godot.’

Critic Vivian Mercier offered a more lively interpretation: ‘Beckett has achieved a theoretical impossibility – a play in which nothing happens… What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.’

Phone Rings in a Theater, Actors Drag Culprit into the Plot

In 2009, during a Broadway preview of Keith Huff’s harrowing drama, A Steady Rain, starring Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig, a thoughtless audience member left their mobile phone ringing. Jackman, not missing a beat, responded in character: ‘You want to get it? Grab it – I don’t care … It doesn’t matter … Just turn it off, unless you’ve got a better story.’ Craig joined in too, intoning with a touch of bad-cop bravado: ‘we can wait…’

The Australian and British pair did this while maintaining their characters: two American cops, who, having accidentally placed a child in the custody of a serial killer, are grappling with the issue of personal culpability.

Give an Oscar to the Audience

There’s a famous line attributed to playwright Oscar Wilde who, after the first performance of Lady Windermere’s Fan, was reportedly asked by a friend on how it went.

‘Oh,’ he responded languidly, ‘the play was a great success, but the audience was a dismal failure.’

This certainly sounds like Wilde, who has had countless witty retorts attributed to his name. Best among these is the time when, entering the United States, a customs officer asked him if he had anything to declare: ‘Only my genius,’ was his response. Or the time when he told a friend how he had been laboring over his writing the previous day. ‘I was working on the proof of one of my poems all morning and took out a comma.’ he said. ‘And in the afternoon?’ his companion asked. ‘In the afternoon,’ he replied, ‘I put it back in again.’

However, this particular anecdote appears to have been ‘Wildely’ misquoted. It sounds like exactly the kind of thing he would have said, except for the fact that audiences loved Lady Windermere’s Fan. Wilde did, however, take to the stage afterwards to review the audience, but instead he gave them two thumbs up, stating:

‘Ladies and Gentlemen. I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendition of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.’

Shakespeare: Sex, Puns and Rock N’ Roll

For a playwright quoted more often than anyone else in the English language, analyzed ceaselessly for centuries and featured as a compulsory subject of study for basically anyone who has ever suffered formal education, there is shamefully little information available surrounding the events of William Shakespeare’s day-to-day life. What we do have, however, speaks to the troublesomeness and wit evident in his work. For example, the recently uncovered groupie story.

Shakespeare, like a bygone Quentin Tarantino, had a troop of favored actors with whom he regularly worked. Richard Burbage, in particular, was an actor who he often specifically wrote parts for (earning the lead in first performances of Hamlet, Othello, Richard III and King Lear, among others). But more than that, they were close friends and seemed to have a strange rivalry too.

As a contemporary diary recounts, after a performance of Richard III, Burbage was approached backstage by a female fan. She expressed her delight at the night’s performance and desire for another privately, offering her home address and suggesting the actor use the pseudonym Richard III for their rendezvous. However, Shakespeare had been eavesdropping on the conversation, and when Burbage arrived at the house, he discovered it was too late, for The Bard had already arrived. Shakespeare later sent him a note:

‘William the Conqueror was before Richard III.’

Shakespeare engraving by Martin Droeshout | © Armbrust/WikiCommons
Shakespeare engraving by Martin Droeshout | © Armbrust/WikiCommons