When actor Conor Madden took a rapier thrust just under his eye during the final scene in Hamlet recently, he joined a long list of actors to whom tragedy on stage has come a little too close for comfort.
The day he was injured, in a production by Second Age, company director Alan Stanford had found a replacement Hamlet before Madden had even left the theatre in the ambulance. Marty Rea, who won a best actor Irish Theatre Award for his Hamlet last year, went straight down to Cork, and went on stage the following evening. (Madden has had to miss the rest of the run, and is currently recovering, hopefully speedily.)
They thus fulfilled another venerable theatre tradition: the show must go on. Though some shows find it harder than others.
Still going on, on Broadway, is Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, the new musical by Bono and the Edge, despite out-of-control costs, car-crash reviews, and on-stage disasters. Actor Kevin Aubin broke both his wrists when being sent flying across the stage in a stunt, cast members got stuck suspended from the ceiling, and Spidey found himself stuck hanging over the audience, and had to be pulled down by his feet.
There was similar suspense at our own Abbey Theatre during a show in the 1970s. The front two rows of seats in the audience were on a lift, to enable them be lowered en masse into the orchestra pit, or raised out of the way, in order to change the stage arrangement. But they weren’t supposed to go up when there was an audience sitting on them, which was what happened to a group of American tourists when somebody backstage pressed the wrong button during a play.
There have been broken bones at the Abbey, too. In January 1936, the Abbey staged Shakespeare’s military epic, Coriolanus, for the first and only time, with a leading British actor, Reginald Jarman. At one point, Jarman had to exit stage right, and appear shortly afterwards from stage left. There was no way to cross behind the stage, and so he had to go out the side door onto the street, run around the outside of the theatre, and come in via the other side door. One night mid run, he left out the side door, ran around the theatre, slipped on the frost, broke his arm, and staggered in the other side. He finished the run.
At the Gate, Michael Cogan doesn’t recall any accidents per se, though famous Gate actors have been involved in incidents elsewhere. The theatre’s legendary founders, Hilton Edwards and Micheál Mac Liammóir, took Othello on tour to Europe in 1962, with the towering black American actor, William Marshall, in the lead. The tour was a fiasco, and Marshall became disenchanted, while Mac Liammóir, playing opposite him as Iago, grew resentful of the younger man’s prowess and arrogance. During a show in the Hague, Mac Liammóir, watching from the wings, noticed that Marshall hadn’t bothered to make a required costume change. “Look at him,” he whispered, loudly, “bloody amateur.” Marshall heard him, left the stage, knocked Mac Liammóir over a prop table (which fell with a crash), and went back on stage and continued where he had left off. (Mac Liammóir wasn’t injured, bar his pride. The story is told by Christopher Fitz-Simon in The Boys.)
Orson Welles got his break as young actor at the Gate. Later, in New York, he directed a voodoo version of Macbeth, with a Haitian cast, including an actual witch doctor as one of his drummers. In the New York Herald Tribune, the critic Percy Hammond was witheringly dismissive, bordering on racist. Welles’s witch doctor made a voodoo doll in Hammond’s likeness (apparently with the amused agreement of Welles), stuck it with pins, and then led a drumming session to hammer home the curse. Hammond died of pneumonia shortly after.
If the Gate has been spared accidents, it has nonetheless been afflicted by illness. The late Joan O’Hara contracted a vomiting bug while in a Gate production in 2000. Colgan insisted she play on, and placed a wastepaper basket in a corner of the stage, so she could throw up without interrupting the play. (He recalls soon having to replace the straw basket with a metal one. No doubt O’Hara was grateful.)
Similarly unfortunate were the pigeons that Colgan employed for his 2009 production of The Birds, Conor McPherson’s version of the Daphne du Maurier story. The pigeons were hired from UK, and carefully trained so that they would fly suddenly across the stage, on cue, in a chilling, final coup de théâtre. But they gradually fell victim to suspected psittacosis, also known as parrot disease, which can spread to humans. Colgan was forced to put them down, and would have left the production without the birds, but for his English partner, who was flying in the London critics in a bid to set up a London transfer. They sourced a new supply of pigeons, but the birds went on stage under-rehearsed. On the night the critics were in, the pigeons entered on cue, but refused to fly off. They landed, hopped around, and fluttered out towards the audience. The curtain came down hurriedly, as one of the pigeons made cooing noises at a critic. The production never made it to London.
Never work with animals is, of course, a famous stage adage. But it may also extend to dead animals. At UCD Dramsoc in the 1990s, a student director sourced a collection of cow’s skulls from a butcher, to decorate a production of Oedipus Rex. The skulls had the skin stripped off but still had bits of flesh on them, and the eyes were still in their sockets. They were supposed to be cleaned, but were forgotten about, and left in black sacks under some stairs over a weekend. By Monday, the building stank of rotting flesh. A cleaner traced the smell to the sacks, opened one, and was greeted by a bulging eyed skull. (The director somehow survived to finish his studies, and is now a diplomat.)
Plays can also be disrupted by audiences, of course. The much maligned American actress Pia Zadora, playing Anne Frank on Broadway, was reputedly so bad that, when the Germans came on stage, someone from the audience shouted, “She’s in the attic!”
Closer to home, John B Keane’s Sive was touring Kerry in 1959, and played to a lively house in Abbeydorney. At one point, a character, Mike Glavin, goes offstage to sell a banbh (a young pig) at the fair. When he returned on stage, a voice came up from the back of the hall: “Well, did ye sell the banbh?”
But unintended interventions can come from the actors, too. The final scene of Hamlet is awash with bodies: Laertes deals Hamlet a fatal wound, and then dies himself. Gertrude is poisoned. Hamlet stabs and poisons Claudius, and then dies himself. “The rest is silence,” are his last words. The stage is quiet. And then (in another UCD Dramsoc production, in which I was vaguely involved), the dead Laertes emitted a loud and prolonged fart. Around him, all the other corpses corpsed. (Laertes, too, survived, and is now a barrister.)
There was more inappropriate toilet humour in a production of The Seagull in London, some years ago, where the part of Dr Dorn was played (appropriately) by a Russian actor. It came to the dramatic final line of the play, delivered by Dr Dorn: “The fact is, Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself.” But the actor had a thick Russian accent, and what the audience heard was “Fuck this, Konstantin Gavrilovich has shat himself.”
Rather darker were the final moments of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart, at the Burgtheater in Vienna, in 2008. The scene required German actor Daniel Hoevels to kill himself with a stage knife. But they were using a new knife, having lost the original one, and the prop manager had forgotten to blunt it. In front of an audience marvelling at the realism of the effect, Hoevels slit his throat open, staggered off stage, and collapsed. He missed the artery, fortunately, and returned to finish the run, with bandaged neck.
But the show can’t always go on, especially when the theatre collapses. At Dublin’s original theatre, Smock Alley, in December 1670, there was a packed audience for Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. (This story is told by Chris Morash in his History of Irish Theatre.) The play featured a caricature of a Presbyterian cleric, droning on about the evils of entertainments; as he droned, the upper gallery in the theatre groaned and then collapsed onto the middle one, which then collapsed on the “lords and ladies” in the stalls, killing “a poor girlie”, as a Presbyterian writer at the time recorded. The writer went on to note, with apparent satisfaction, that the disaster may have been divine intervention.