Theater and Stage

Death by Drama

Paul posted last week about a real-life murder that occurred onstage during a play. This reminded me of another onstage death I once read about in Jody Enders' book Death By Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends.

The death is said to have occurred in 1549, during a performance of the play Judith and Holofernes, which tells the Biblical (or Biblical apocrypha) story of Judith who cuts off the head of an Assyrian general, Holofernes. The producers of the play supposedly decided it would add a touch of realism if the actor playing Holofernes really was decapitated.

The details from Enders' book:

According to the legend, when Philip II made his triumphal entry into Tournai in 1549, he was greeted by a painstakingly realistic performance of the drama of Judith and Holofernes. Frederic Faber relates that producers Jean de Bury and Jean de Crehan had arranged a very special entertainment for the future monarch. A convicted heretic and murderer was to assume the role of Holofernes long enough to be decapitated during the play by another convicted felon. The latter, having been pardoned, would just as briefly assume the role of Judith, his executioner:

Jean de Bury and Jean de Crehan, duly charged with decorating the streets, had imagined rendering in its purest form the biblical exploit of Judith. Consequently, for filling the role of Holofernes, a criminal had been chosen who had been condemned to have his flesh torn with red-hot pincers. This poor fellow, guilty of several murders and ensconced in heresy, had preferred decapitation to the horrible torture to which he had been condemned, hoping, perhaps, that a young girl would have neither the force nor the courage to cut off his head. But the organizers, having had the same concern, had substituted for the real Judith a young man who had been condemned to banishment and to whom a pardon was promised if he played his role well.

The story goes that the two substitutions were accepted by the two unnamed men. Being an actor / executioner was apparently preferable to being banished, and death by decapitation during drama was preferable to being skinned alive (something that the Eel of Melun might himself have understood).

"Judith" had only one condition to meet: to provide acting so good that it wasn't acting at all. . .

The fantastic narrative next shows Philip arriving just as the axe is falling. As real blood supposedly begins to flow, it prompts applause in some, indignation in others, and curiosity in the prince, who remains implacable as the body of "Holofernes" goes through its last spasms:

In fact, as Philip approached the theater where the mystery play was being represented, the so-called Judith unsheathed a well-sharpened scimitar and, seizing the hair of Holofernes, who was pretending to be asleep, dealt him a single blow with so much skill and vigor that his head was separated from his body. At the [sight of] the streams of blood that spurted out from the neck of the victim, frenetic applause and cries of indignation rose up from amid the spectators. Only the young prince remained impassive, observing the convulsions of the decapitated man with curiosity and saying to his noble entourage: "nice blow".

Enders has doubts this onstage execution ever really took place, but can't rule out the possibility altogether.

In the story's favor: Philip II really did go to Tournai in 1549; Jehan de Crehan was a real person; there really were plays performed in Philip's honor; and Tournai had a history of executing heretics, and of offering decapitation as a "kinder" alternative to more gruesome forms of execution.

The points against the story's veracity: not a single, extant contemporaneous source mentions this onstage decapitation. The first references to it only appear several hundred years later. And it stretches credulity to imagine that a condemned prisoner would obligingly play his part in the performance, even to the extent of pretending to be asleep before he was decapitated.

Posted By: Alex - Fri Mar 18, 2022 - Comments (4)
Category: Death, Theater and Stage, Fables, Myths, Urban Legends, Rumors, Water-Cooler Lore, Sixteenth Century

Unlikely Reasons for Murder No. 8

Source: NYT for 9/23/1899.

Source: NYT for 1/6/1900.


Source: Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania)01 May 1900, Tue Page 3

Posted By: Paul - Fri Mar 11, 2022 - Comments (3)
Category: Crime, Death, Theater and Stage, Women, Nineteenth Century, Twentieth Century

A legendary moment in live theater

During a Dublin production of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, sometime in early 1986 (or maybe late 1985?), the actor Alan Devlin, who was playing Sir Joseph Porter, abruptly stopped in the middle of his performance, proclaimed, "F... this for a game of soldiers," left the theater, and headed to the pub next door to have a drink, with his microphone still on.

Surprisingly, he wasn't fired and was even re-hired for the London production a few months later.

Alan Devlin (right) during the London production of H.M.S. Pinafore

Noel Person, who was the theatrical producer of the play, later described the incident to an Australian journalist (The Melbourne Age - Aug 22, 1986):

"We had this actor named Alan Devlin who was very fond of his drink. During the show one night, he arrived absolutely bombed out of his mind. We used to fly him in from the top of the proscenium. When he came down he tried to start, "I am the mon... monar... mumph" and he couldn't. So he started again, then again, and finally said "Oh, --- it! I can't do it". And he walked out. Through the orchestra pit, in his uniform, through the audience, out the theatre and around to the pub and ordered a pint. Some of the audience thought this is taking Gilbert and Sullivan to the limit.

"The guy that was playing Dick Deadeye and the girl who was playing Buttercup, well, they freaked. But they were very experienced actors. So they cut to the end of the first half. The understudy was already in the show so they began the second half with him."

Happily, Noel Pearson hired back Mr. Devlin for the show's London season. "I got him to sign a contract in blood: he had to be in the theatre an hour before or he got paid only half his salary until the end of the run; we gave him a minder... When we opened at the Old Vic we had publicity like you never saw. On the opening night, when he appeared on stage, he practically got a standing ovation."

On Twitter, someone who was in the audience that night has posted their memory of what happened. An excerpt below:

The first verse went perfectly well. It was when Devlin came to the second verse, and discovered that he couldn't remember it, that the visible trouble began. He improvised by simply repeating the first verse. And again, for a third time. People started to wonder.

Then he tried to leave the coracle. Surmounting he brim of it - about two feet high if my imperfect memory serves - gave him great difficulty. But after a couple of attempts he managed it, and stood center stage, swaying slightly as though in a moderate breeze.

After briefly considering his options, he then announced "ah f*** this for a game of soldiers," hopped down into the orchestra pit (with more adroitness than you'd have expected from his swaying), strode along the central aisle through the audience, and left by the main exit.

Posted By: Alex - Sun Feb 06, 2022 - Comments (1)
Category: Inebriation and Intoxicants, Theater and Stage, 1980s

Going to the Dogs

The 1986 play "Going to the Dogs" is the only play ever to have featured an all-dog cast. You can watch most of it on YouTube, if you can tolerate watching barking dogs. Parts 1-3 below, but there's 7 parts in total.

More info: wikipedia

Des Moines Register - Sep 21, 1986

Posted By: Alex - Wed Nov 03, 2021 - Comments (4)
Category: Theater and Stage, Dogs, 1980s

The Odd Couple Opera

Article source: Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) 20 Aug 1972, Sun Page 363

Posted By: Paul - Fri Oct 01, 2021 - Comments (0)
Category: Humor, Television, Theater and Stage, Opera

America Hurrah!

The recent obituary for the playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie brought my attention to his masterwork, America Hurrah. Two caveats:

1) The players in these clips appear to be amateurs.

2) You are encountering the parts out of order and incomplete, and might have missed something important.

Nonetheless, after the first clip, let us know when you bail! But wait! Maybe you'll need the second segment to make up your mind.

Posted By: Paul - Sat Sep 18, 2021 - Comments (0)
Category: Ineptness, Crudity, Talentlessness, Kitsch, and Bad Art, Theater and Stage, 1960s

Stripper Unsexy?

Source: Nanaimo Daily News (Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada)14 Sep 1957, Sat Page 2

Posted By: Paul - Tue May 25, 2021 - Comments (2)
Category: Theater and Stage, Lawsuits, Sex Symbols, 1950s

Isotopia—an atomic pantomime

In 1950, Muriel Howorth, who was a great believer in the benefits of atomic energy, wrote and staged a ballet/pantomime about the atom. It was titled Isotopia: An Exposition on Atomic Structure. This description from Time magazine, Oct 30, 1950:

Last week in Aldwych's Waldorf Hotel, Mrs. Howorth's high-minded Atomic Energy Association of Great Britain (membership: 300) celebrated its second anniversary with an atomic pantomime called Isotopia.

Before a select audience of 250 rapt ladies and a dozen faintly bored gentlemen, some 13 bosomy A.E. Associates in flowing evening gowns gyrated gracefully about a stage in earnest imitation of atomic forces at work. An ample electron in black lace wound her way around two matrons labeled "proton" and "neutron" while an elderly ginger-haired Geiger counter clicked out their radioactive effect on a pretty girl named Agriculture. At a climactic moment, a Mrs. Monica Davial raced across the stage in spirited representation of a rat eating radioactive cheese.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find any pictures of the event. But you can read the entire pantomime over at

Muriel Howorth, founder of the Atomic Energy Association of Great Britain

Posted By: Alex - Sat May 15, 2021 - Comments (0)
Category: Theater and Stage, Atomic Power and Other Nuclear Matters, 1950s

The Evil Eye

I wish audiovisual recordings had been available in 1898 to capture this play.

Source of quote.

Posted By: Paul - Mon Mar 15, 2021 - Comments (3)
Category: Excess, Overkill, Hyperbole and Too Much Is Not Enough, Theater and Stage, Special Effects, Nineteenth Century

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Alex Boese
Alex is the creator and curator of the Museum of Hoaxes. He's also the author of various weird, non-fiction, science-themed books such as Elephants on Acid and Psychedelic Apes.

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Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.

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