The rest of the world has one day in the year to make a fool or to be made one. In the theater, every night has its potential April’s fool.
In the religious Middle Ages, when modern drama began, the Feast of Fools parodied church services with a license that would make Salman Rushdie appear positively orthodox.
The Archbishop (or sometimes Pope) of Fools entered the cathedral with his procession of clerics and laymen. “Some of them,” according to one historical description, “personated females and practised wanton devices. During divine service they sung indecent songs in the choir, ate rich puddings on the corner of the altar, played at dice upon it by the side of the priest while he celebrated Mass, incensed it with smoke from old burnt shoes, and ran leaping all over the church.”
Actors are sometimes called children, and often they behave that way. Initiation into the profession may begin with a handshake, preferably on stage, during which the new actor finds a raw egg, shucked oyster or a ball of cold cream pressed into his hand.
There are times when playing--rather than the play--is the thing. During one season, members of the Royal Shakespeare Company were secretly passing an apple around on stage. Before making an exit, the actor had to palm the apple off on somebody, who in turn had to find someone else. The game recalls Dorothy Parker’s famous reply, when she was asked to participate in a pastime known as ducking for apples. “But for a single letter,” said that mistress of innuendo, “there’s the story of my life.”
To keep a long-running show from becoming stale, actors will try different readings at each performance. Florence Williams was playing in a 1935 play, “The Old Maid,” opposite Dame Judith Anderson, whose nightly improvisations made the less experienced actress miss her cues and laughs. After two months Williams finally screwed up her courage to complain. The formidable actress apologized sweetly: “Oh, my dear, I thought it would amuse you! I get so bored. “
On the other hand, even great actors are so terrified of going blank that their nervous antics will bring about the undesired effect. In a production of “King Lear,” when Edwin Booth asked Edgar in the mad scene, “What’s your study?,” he replied, with Shakespeare: “How to prevent the fiend, and to kill vermin.” “Skeeters and sitch?,” Booth suddenly came back, and it took the poor actor some time to recover.
Then there is the cue for revenge. In the 1840s, Edwin’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, was playing Cassius in “Julius Caesar” at the Bowery Theatre in New York, famous for its rowdy galleries. Tom Flynn, a mischievous comedian who had a grudge against manager Thomas Hamblin, was visiting the theater’s green room when Hamblin, ready to go on as Brutus, complained of a cold. Flynn suggested his grandmother’s remedy of inhaling vinegar mixed with snuff.
The manager began sneezing as soon as he entered on stage, and proceeded with as much nobility as he could muster: “What is that you would (sneeze) impart to me? If it be ought toward the general good (damn the snuff), set honor in one eye (sneeze) and death in the other; and I will look (sneeze) on both indifferently (curse that Flynn!).”
Flynn, meanwhile, was watching his victim’s comedy from one of the boxes near the stage, hugely enjoying the Bowery boys in the gallery becoming infected by a sneezing mania. Afterward, the enraged Hamblin rushed backstage just in time to overhear Flynn congratulating Booth: “Junius, my boy, I never thought before that your performance of Cassius was to be sneezed at.”
Every generation usually boasts of a few comics who put their talents into life, not art. Their patron saint might be Joseph Haynes, a minor English actor and major mountebank in the days of good King Charles II.
In and out of jail for extravagant debts, Haynes was seized one morning by two bailiffs, when he noticed an elegant coach carrying the bishop of Ely. Telling the bailiffs that the bishop was his cousin and would pay the 20 he owed, Haynes took his hat off to his lordship, who ordered the coach to be stopped. “My lord,” the actor whispered softly, “here are two poor men who have such great scruples of conscience that I fear they’ll hang themselves.”
Concerned, the bishop called to the bailiffs: “You two men, come to me tomorrow morning, and I’ll satisfy you.” The men bowed and left, with a warm farewell from Haynes. The next morning they visited the bishop in his palace, who asked them: “Well, my good men, what are your scruples of conscience?”
“Scruples?” the bailiffs echoed, “we have no scruples; we’re bailiffs, my lord, who yesterday arrested your cousin, Joe Haynes, for a debt of 20; your lordship kindly promised to satisfy us today, and we cannot doubt but your lordship will be as good as your word.” Seeing his good name was at stake, the bishop paid the actor’s debt.
Haynes could not resist a gag. He lost one good job at the Drury Lane Theatre by following the tragedian Charles Hart around on stage, mimicking him from behind. The audience loved his clowning more than Hart’s performance, and the upstaged actor had Haynes expelled from the company.
This led to one of Haynes’ more celebrated stunts. Roaming the docks unemployed, he met a ship’s chaplain, who had recently returned from a voyage. The comic, posing as a shareholder in Drury Lane, immediately offered the cleric a munificent position as theater chaplain. All he needed was to buy a bell (Haynes gave him the money for it) and, at 9 o’clock, call the players to morning prayers. A certain Mr. Hart might give him trouble, “being an atheist, delirious or frantic,” but that should only make the clergyman more eager to save the poor man’s soul.
The parson did as he was told, ringing his bell and calling loudly, “Players to prayers!” Finding Hart’s door open, he bawled extra loud several times, until Hart began to swear. “I have been told of your cursing and swearing and atheistical blasphemies,” said the chaplain, “but I will do my duty,” and proceeded to lay his hands on the actor and drag him away.
Convinced that the clergyman was mad, Hart finally got him to have a few drinks and tell his story, which soon got around London and reached the ears of King Charles. The merry monarch had a good laugh and ordered Joe Haynes reinstated at Drury Lane.
Unemployment (or “resting” as it is euphemistically known) is never too far from an actor’s mind, so pranks are particularly favored on closing nights, when the fear of being disciplined or fired loses its sting. Typical pleasantries include the gluing of props and seats, the substitution of wieners for cigars, or a bouquet of celery for flowers in a romantic scene.
During a recent performance of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” in New York state, the plate with John the Baptist’s head was revealed--piled high with ham sandwiches.
In a story frequently associated with Eve Arden, the actress was once playing in summer stock, delivering a long and sensitive speech, when suddenly the telephone rang. A quick glance at the smirking actor standing nearby convinced her that the interruption had been set up. Arden stopped her speech, picked up the phone, listened for a moment and then coolly handed the receiver to the perpetrator.
“It’s for you,” she said.
A common trick actors play on each other is called corpsing: The idea is to reduce one’s colleagues--preferably when they are lying dead during the fifth act of a Shakespearean tragedy--into helpless laughter. The young Laurence Olivier lost his first job in the theater because he giggled at the slightest provocation. His career was saved by Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence during the original run of “Private Lives.” They immunized him by feeding him nonsense, a sort of verbal tickling, until he ran out of giggles.
Olivier learned for life to keep a straight face. British Rail decided once to stop serving his favorite kippers on the Brighton-to-London commuter train. The actor made a tremendous fuss in the press, and finally the management gave in: Kippers were put back on the breakfast menu. The next time Sir Laurence--as he was then--entered the restaurant car, all eyes were upon him. “Kippers, sir?” asked the waiter. “No, thank you,” the actor said nonchalantly, “I’ll have bacon and eggs.”