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10 Plays That Made Audiences Faint, Scream, and Riot

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Any stage adaptation of 1984 was bound to make headlines in our current political climate. But the ones following the Olivia Wilde-starring show on Broadway have nothing to do with George Orwell or the current President of the United States. They’re all about the audience members, who are apparently fainting, screaming, vomiting, and getting into fights.

The extreme reaction is understandable to anyone who has seen the play: This version of 1984 constantly keeps viewers on edge with loud blares and bright lights, toying with the audience’s own sanity through its disjointed, fragmented structure. But that’s all just a prelude to the graphic torture scene, which features torrents of blood and a face mask full of scurrying rats (or at least, some very convincing rat sound effects).

This kind of shocking, visceral theater might feel new, but it’s been around for a while. Here are 10 other plays from the past that triggered an intense audience reaction.

1. THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD

By unknown (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Archive, Boston) -  Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

John Millington Synge’s play provoked an extreme audience reaction—but to be fair, he must have seen it coming. Before The Playboy of the Western World even opened at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1907, it was drawing ire. Synge wasn’t a popular playwright among Irish nationalists, who resented his language choice (Hiberno-English rather than pure Gaelic) as well as his themes (wives abandoning their husbands, sons killing their fathers). When the play’s premiere night arrived, that anger spilled into the actual theater. The mostly male audience members stormed the stage, outraged by the titular playboy’s weakened masculinity, as well as a group of scantily clad female cast members.

According to The Guardian, they screamed, “Kill the author!” over the actors’ dialogue. Sounds like every playwright’s worst nightmare, but Synge took a different view of the whole controversy: “It is better any day to have the row we had last night, than to have your play fizzling out in half-hearted applause,” he wrote to his fiancée and lead actress Molly Allgood the next day. “Now we’ll be talked about. We’re an event in the history of the Irish stage.”

2. DRACULA

By Work Projects Administration Poster Collection - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

If you’re not used to Dracula, he can be quite the ghastly sight. Audiences weren’t prepared for the blood-sucking count when Hamilton Deane’s stage adaption of the Bram Stoker novel hit London’s West End in 1927. For the run, Deane added a uniformed nurse to the theater staff. She would be on hand with smelling salts to revive any theatergoers who fainted. Many saw this as a publicity stunt—and it was—but the nurse came in handy. She once helped 39 woozy audience members at a single performance. Other theaters took notice; a similar nurse assisted American audiences when the play came to New York and San Francisco.

3. SAVED

Saved is a complex play about poverty, but it’s mostly remembered for one distressing scene. In it, a group of young men throw stones at a baby in its stroller, ultimately killing the child. The audiences who first saw this scene in 1965 at the Royal Court Theatre did not react well. According to The Telegraph, several people yelled, “Revolting!” or “Dreadful!” before storming out. Those weren’t the only negative reviews.

At the time, British theater was subject to a government censor, the Lord Chamberlain. He told playwright Edward Bond to remove the offending scene, as well as other obscenities, from the play. But Bond refused, which eventually landed director William Gaskill in legal trouble. There was a trial and a judge slapped the Saved team with a £50 fine. But it was the beginning of the end for theatrical censorship in the UK, which was abolished in 1968. Saved is often credited with helping artists win that battle.

4. THE GRAND GUIGNOL

The Grand Guignol is not a play, but a theater. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol operated in Paris between 1897 and 1962. In that time, the theater mounted over 1000 productions that routinely made audiences collapse. It was such a famous and influential place that “The Grand Guignol” is now shorthand for theatrical horror. That’s largely thanks to Max Maurey, who served as the theater's director from 1898 to 1914 and who supposedly judged the success of his plays by how many audience members passed out. The horrors of The Grand Guignol included eye-gouging (in Crime in a Madhouse), “realistic” throat-cutting (in The Hussy), and corpses floating in acid vats (in The Corpse Merchant). No wonder Maurey kept a house doctor on hand.

5. DRY LAND

Ruby Rae Spiegel wrote Dry Land when she was still a student at Yale University. According to The New York Times, she was inspired by an article about DIY abortions to tell the story of Amy, a teen girl who asks her friend Ester to help her get rid of an unwanted pregnancy. Her eventual miscarriage is staged in extremely bloody fashion. Spiegel included a warning to audiences when the play was first produced on Yale’s campus in 2014, but a young woman still fainted. This reaction would follow the play as it moved to major cities. Men in London and Sydney also passed out during subsequent performances. 

6. THE ROMANS IN BRITAIN

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Like Saved, The Romans in Britain upset audiences so much that it ended up in court. This time, the controversial scene concerned a male rape. According to The Guardian, just the rehearsals of this scene caused a maintenance man to drop his paint can. But the first public preview performance in 1980 was mostly met with stunned silence, not the uproar everyone had been expecting. Then, a few prominent names made noise.

Sir Horace Cutler, a board member of the theater staging the play, loudly stormed out and complained that his wife was forced to “cover her head” during the scene. His reaction was nothing compared to crusading moralist Mary Whitehouse, who sent the police to The National Theatre three times. After the cops refused to press criminal charges, Whitehouse sued director Michael Bogdanov herself under the Sexual Offences Act. Since he had hired the actors, her lawyers reasoned, Bogdanov could be classified as a pimp. The case, unsurprisingly, fell apart mid-trial. But The Romans in Britain was not revived for nearly 30 years. Director Samuel West finally brought it back to the stage in 2006.

7. VOICES IN THE DARK

Voices in the Dark mainly takes place in a remote cabin. The lead character arrives there during a snowstorm. She also happens to have a psychopath stalking her. As you can imagine, things get scary. The thriller was so effective that it routinely had theatergoers shrieking during its original run in Seattle in 1994. “I just love to stand in the back of the theater and hear that audience scream,” playwright/director John Pielmeier told The Christian Science Monitor at the time. When the play made the leap to Broadway in 1999, it once again made headlines for its loud audience.

8. TITUS ANDRONICUS

There’s no exact date, but William Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus sometime between 1590 and 1593. Over four centuries later, the brutal play still has an incredible power on audiences. Case in point: the 2014 revival staged at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The production was so gory, it made over 100 audience members faint or flee the theater during its run. Much of the show’s shock is written right into the original text—Shakespeare’s play contains 14 deaths along with rape and mutilation—but director Lucy Bailey apparently mounted this production with a particular aim to upset audiences. “I find it all rather wonderful,” she told The Independent. “That people can connect so much to the characters and emotion that they have such a visceral effect. I used to get disappointed if only three people passed out.”

9. BLASTED

Sarah Kane knew how to make a debut. Her first play, Blasted, premiered at The Royal Court in 1995 to horrified reviews and sensational headlines. Jack Tinker of The Daily Mail called it a “disgusting feast of filth” while Nick Curtis of The London Evening Standard described its ending as “a systematic trawl through the deepest pits of human degradation.” Although it played to packed houses, some audience members couldn’t withstand the show’s carnage, either. Lead actress Kate Ashfield recalled seeing people faint—and it’s little wonder why, considering the play features a scene in which a soldier rapes a reporter before removing his eyeballs and eating them whole.

10. CLEANSED

Sarah Kane caused controversy a second time when her play Cleansed was revived in 2016. During the first week alone, 40 people walked out and five required medical attention after fainting. What was making them ill? The play is about a sadistic doctor named Tinker who holds people in a torture den, so there’s lots of mutilation. Someone’s tongue is ripped out 20 minutes into the show. But there’s also rape, electrocution, castration, a forced gender reassignment surgery, and a fatal injection into someone’s eyeball. The revival received mixed reviews, but it was a notable achievement for the deceased playwright, who committed suicide in 1999. The revival marked the first time one of her plays was performed at the National Theatre.

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10 Witty Facts About The Marx Brothers
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Talented as individuals and magnificent as a team, the Marx Brothers conquered every medium from the vaudeville stage to the silver screen. Today, we’re tipping our hats (and tooting our horns) to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo—on the 50th anniversary of Groucho's passing.

1. A RUNAWAY MULE INSPIRED THEM TO TAKE A STAB AT COMEDY.

Julius, Milton, and Arthur Marx originally aspired to be professional singers. In 1907, the boys joined a group called “The Three Nightingales.” Managed by their mother, Minnie, the ensemble performed covers of popular songs in theaters all over the country. As Nightingales, the brothers enjoyed some moderate success, but they might never have found their true calling if it weren’t for an unruly equid. During a 1907 gig at the Nacogdoches Opera House in East Texas, someone interrupted the performance by barging in and shouting “Mule’s loose!” Immediately, the crowd raced out to watch the newly-liberated animal. Back inside, Julius seethed. Furious at having lost the spotlight, he skewered his audience upon their return. “The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-ass!” he shouted, among many other ad-libbed jabs. Rather than boo, the patrons roared with laughter. Word of his wit soon spread and demand for these Marx brothers grew.

2. THEY RECEIVED THEIR STAGE NAMES DURING A POKER GAME.

In May of 1914, the five Marxes were playing cards with standup comedian Art Fisher. Inspired by a popular comic strip character known as “Sherlocko the Monk,” he decided that the boys could use some new nicknames. Leonard’s was a no-brainer. Given his girl-crazy, “chick-chasing” lifestyle, Fisher dubbed him “Chicko” (later, this was shortened to “Chico”). Arthur loved playing the harp and thus became “Harpo.” An affinity for soft gumshoes earned Milton the alias “Gummo.” Finally, Julius was both cynical and often seen wearing a “grouch bag”—wherein he’d store small objects like marbles and candy—around his neck. Thus, “Groucho” was born. For the record, nobody knows how Herbert Marx came to be known as “Zeppo.”

3. GROUCHO WORE HIS TRADEMARK GREASEPAINT MUSTACHE BECAUSE HE HATED MORE REALISTIC MODELS.

Michael Ochs Archives/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Phony, glue-on facial hair can be a pain to remove and reapply, so Groucho would simply paint a ‘stache and some exaggerated eyebrows onto his face. However, the mustache he later rocked as the host of his famous quiz show You Bet Your Life was 100 percent real.

4. HARPO WAS A SELF-TAUGHT HARPIST.

Without any formal training (or the ability to read sheet music), the second-oldest Marx brother developed a unique style that he never stopped improving upon. “Dad really loved playing the harp, and he did it constantly,” his son, Bill Marx, wrote. “Maybe the first multi-tasker ever, he even had a harp in the bathroom so he could play when he sat on the toilet!”

5. THE VERY FIRST MARX BROTHERS MOVIE WAS NEVER RELEASED.

Financed by Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and a handful of other investors, Humor Risk was filmed in 1921. Accounts differ, but most scholars agree that the silent picture—which would have served as the family’s cinematic debut—never saw completion. Despite this, an early screening of the work-in-progress was reportedly held in the Bronx. When Humor Risk failed to impress there, production halted. By Marx Brothers standards, it would’ve been an unusual flick, with Harpo playing a heroic detective opposite a villainous Groucho character.

6. GUMMO AND ZEPPO BECAME TALENT AGENTS.

World War I forced Gummo to quit the stage. Following his return, the veteran decided that performing was no longer for him and instead started a raincoat business. Zeppo—the youngest brother—then assumed Gummo’s role as the troupe’s straight-talking foil. A brilliant businessman, Zeppo eventually break away to found the talent agency Zeppo Marx Inc., which grew into Hollywood’s third-largest, representing superstars like Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and—of course—the other three Marx Brothers. Gummo, who joined the company in 1935, was charged with handling Groucho, Harpo, and Chico’s needs.

7. CHICO ONCE LAUNCHED A BIG BAND GROUP.

Chico took advantage of an extended break between Marx brothers movies to realize a lifelong dream. A few months before The Big Store hit cinemas in 1941, he co-founded the Chico Marx Orchestra: a swinging jazz band that lasted until July of 1943. Short-lived as the group was, however, it still managed to recruit some amazing talent—including singer/composer Mel Tormé, who would go on to help write the “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” in 1945.

8. THEY TESTED OUT NEW MATERIAL FOR A NIGHT AT THE OPERA IN FRONT OF LIVE AUDIENCES.

With the script still being drafted, MGM made the inspired choice to let the brothers perform key scenes in such places as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Once a given joke was made, the Marxes meticulously timed the ensuing laughter, which let them know exactly how much silence to leave after repeating the gag on film. According to Harpo, this had the added benefit of shortening A Night at the Opera’s production period. “We didn’t have to rehearse,” he explained. “[We just] got onto the set and let the cameras roll.”

9. GROUCHO TEMPORARILY HOSTED THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Jack Paar bid the job farewell on March 29, 1962. Months before their star’s departure, NBC offered Paar’s Tonight Show seat to Groucho, who had established himself as a razor-sharp, well-liked host during You Bet Your Life’s 14-year run. Though Marx turned the network down, he later served as a guest host for two weeks while Johnny Carson prepared to take over the gig. When Carson finally made his Tonight Show debut on October 1, it was Groucho who introduced him.

10. SPY MAGAZINE USED A MARX BROTHERS MOVIE TO PRANK U.S. CONGRESSMEN.

Duck Soup takes place in Freedonia, a fictional country over which the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) presides. In 1993, 60 years after the movie’s release, this imaginary nation made headlines by embarrassing some real-life politicians. Staffers from Spy got in touch with around 20 freshmen in the House of Representatives, asking some variation on the question “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?” A few lawmakers took the bait. Representative Corrine Brown (D-Florida) professed to approve of America’s presence in Freedonia, saying “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.” Across the aisle, Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) concurred. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a different situation than the Middle East.”

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‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ Could Have Been a Meat Loaf Song
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Imagine a world in which Bonnie Tyler was not the star performer on the Royal Caribbean Total Eclipse Cruise. Imagine if, instead, as the moon crossed in front of the sun in the path of totality on August 21, 2017, the performer belting out the 1983 hit for cruise ship stargazers was Meat Loaf?

It could have been. Because yes, as Atlas Obscura informs us, the song was originally written for the bestselling rocker (and actor) of Bat Out of Hell fame, not the husky-voiced Welsh singer. Meat Loaf had worked on his 1977 record Bat Out of Hell with Jim Steinman, the composer and producer who would go on to work with the likes of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand (oddly enough, he also composed Hulk Hogan’s theme song on an album released by the WWE). “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was meant for Meat Loaf’s follow-up album to Bat Out of Hell.

But Meat Loaf’s fruitful collaboration with Steinman was about to end. In the wake of his bestselling record, the artist was going through a rough patch, mentally, financially, and in terms of his singing ability. And the composer wasn’t about to stick around. As Steinman would tell CD Review magazine in 1989 (an article he has since posted on his personal website), "Basically I only stopped working with him because he lost his voice as far as I was concerned. It was his voice I was friends with really.” Harsh, Jim, harsh.

Steinman began working with Bonnie Tyler in 1982, and in 1983, she released her fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night, including “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It sold 6 million copies.

Tyler and Steinman both dispute that the song was written specifically for Meat Loaf. “Meat Loaf was apparently very annoyed that Jim gave that to me,” she told The Irish Times in 2014. “But Jim said he didn’t write it for Meat Loaf, that he only finished it after meeting me.”

There isn’t a whole lot of bad blood between the two singers, though. In 1989, they released a joint compilation album: Heaven and Hell.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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