David Bruce: The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Audiences, Censorship, Children


• John Barrymore could be temperamental on stage. Mr. Barrymore once grew irritated at an audience that coughed too much, so he flung a fish at it and cried, “Busy yourselves with that, you d*mned walruses, while the rest of us proceed with the play!”

• After watching Eve Ensler perform her play The Vagina Monologues, an entranced 70-year-old man told her that he “finally got it.” A few weeks later, he brought his girlfriend to the play, and she thanked Ms. Ensler.


• Jewish actor Zero Mostel was a victim of the blacklist during the McCarthy era. While he was working on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the services of Jerome Robbins, who staged songs, were needed. Mr. Robbins had been a friendly witness in the House Un-American Committee hearings, and people worried that Mr. Mostel might not want to work with Mr. Robbins. But Mr. Mostel said, “We of the left do not blacklist.”

• Mae West was often faced with censorship. For example, she wrote and starred in a play titled Sex, about a group of prostitutes. As a result, she was arrested, put on trial, found guilty, fined $500, and sentenced to 10 days in prison. Although she wore a prison uniform like the other prisoners, underneath she wore her own silk underwear.

• Ancient Roman playwrights suffered from censorship. For example, they could be put in prison or exiled if they defamed a very important person. However, they figured out a way to avoid punishment and still attack their targets. They set their plays’ locations in Greece and made their characters — which were sometimes based on important Romans — Greeks.


• Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár was very leery of child actors because of an experience that happened during a play staged by Max Reinhardt’s Vienna Repertory. The play called for a five-year-old boy who had no lines. Because the part was so easy, the nephew of the stage manager was called into action. Unfortunately, it was a dramatic scene in which one of the characters shouted, and this scared the boy so much that he wet himself on stage. Also unfortunately, the stage was raked (that is, slanted), and the stream of urine began to flow downstage — directly toward the prompter’s box, where the prompter was sitting. Of course, the audience members in the high seats were watching the stream of urine, which was clearly visible, and wondering what the prompter would do. Just before the stream of urine reached the prompter’s box, the prompter’s hand reached out and diverted the urine away from his box.

• While he was in kindergarten, children’s book author Tomie DePaola hoped to get the lead role in the class production of Peter Rabbit, but because he talked so much, his teacher gave him the minor role of Flopsy instead. In his dancing class, he had learned that when acting on stage, he should react to what the other actors did. Therefore, when the actor playing Peter Rabbit did anything, Flopsy reacted — opening his mouth in shock, waving his arms, putting his hands over his ears. Naturally, all this reacting got a lot of attention and gave the audience pleasure — with the result that Flopsy stole the show. Afterward, Tomie’s mother made him apologize to his teacher and to the child playing Peter Rabbit, but Tomie apologized when no one could hear him, because he wasn’t very sorry.

• While on tour in Edinburgh, Scotland, John Gielgud played the lead role in Macbeth. Unfortunately, he found a matinee of Scottish schoolchildren very difficult, as they giggled during the performance and threw paper cups. However, Mr. Gielgud was astonished when they laughed when his character kissed Lady Macbeth at breakfast. When he made a speech a few days later, he mentioned his astonishment at the laughter, and the next day a letter appeared in The Scotsman and explained the laughter: “We do understand Mr. Gielgud’s feelings, but perhaps he did not realize that husbands and wives in Scotland do not kiss at breakfast-time.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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