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


Laurence Burns/Evening Standard/Getty Images

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.

10 Amazing Facts About Stan Lee

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Comic book legend Stan Lee’s life was always an open book. The co-creator of some of the greatest superheroes and most beloved stories of all time, Lee—who passed away on November 12 at the age of 95—became just as mythical and larger-than-life as the characters in the panels. In 2015, around the time of Marvel’s 75th anniversary, Lee had the idea to reflect on his own life, as he said, “in the one form it has never been depicted, as a comic book … or if you prefer, a graphic memoir.”

The result, published by the Touchstone imprint of Simon & Schuster in 2015, was Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir—which was written by Lee with Peter David and features artwork by cartoonist and illustrator Colleen Doran. Here are 10 things we learned about Lee.

1. HIS WIFE WAS ALSO HIS BARBER.

As a bit of a throwaway fact, Stanley Martin Lieber (Stan Lee) revealed the secret of his slicked back mane on the second page of his memoir. “My whole adult life, I’ve never been to a barber,” he wrote. “Joanie always cuts my hair.”

2. HIS CONFIDENCE CAME FROM HIS MOTHER.

Lee wrote that as a child he loved to read books by Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and others, and his mother often watched him read: “I probably got my self-confidence from the fact that my mother thought everything I did was brilliant.”

3. YOUNG STAN LEE WROTE OBITUARIES.

Before writing about the fantastic lives of fictional characters, Lee wrote antemortem obituaries for celebrities at an undisclosed news office in New York. He said that he eventually quit that job because it was too “depressing.”

4. CAPTAIN AMERICA WAS HIS FIRST BIG BREAK.

A week into his job at Timely Comics, Lee got the opportunity to write a two-page Captain America comic. He wrote it under the pen name Stan Lee (which became his legal name) and titled it "Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge." His first full comic script would come in Captain America Issue 5, published August 1, 1941.

5. HE WROTE TRAINING FILMS FOR THE ARMY WITH DR. SEUSS.

After being transferred from the army’s Signal Corps in New Jersey, Lee worked as a playwright in the Training Film Division in Queens with eight other men, including a few who went on to be very famous: Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Saroyan, cartoonist Charles Addams (creator of The Addams Family), director Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939] and It’s a Wonderful Life [1946]) and Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

6. HE DEFIED THE COMICS CODE AUTHORITY WITH AN ANTI-DRUG COMIC.

In 1971, Lee received a letter from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare asking him to put an anti-drug message in one of his books. He came up with a Spider-Man story that involved his best friend Harry abusing pills because of a break-up. The CCA would not approve the story with their seal because of the mention of drugs, but Lee convinced his publisher, Martin Goodman, to run the comic anyway.

7. AN ISSUE AT THE PRINTERS TURNED THE HULK GREEN.

The character was supposed to be gray, but according to Lee, the printer had a hard time keeping the color consistent. “So as of issue #2,” Lee wrote, “with no explanation, he turned green.”

8. HIS WIFE DESTROYED HIS PRIZED TYPEWRITER.

According to Lee, during an argument, Joanie destroyed the typewriter he used to write the first issues for characters including Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four. “This happened before eBay," he wrote. "Too bad. I could’ve auctioned the parts and made a mint.”

9. A FIRE DESTROYED HIS INTERVIEWS AND LECTURES.

When Lee moved his family to Los Angeles, he set up a studio in Van Nuys where he stored videotapes of his talks and interviews, along with a commissioned bust of his wife. The building was lost to a blaze that the fire department believed was arson, but no one was ever charged with the crime.

10. HIS FAVORITE MARVEL FILM CAMEO WAS BASED ON ONE FROM THE COMICS.

Beginning with the first Spider-Man film in 2002, Stan Lee has made quick cameos in Marvel films as a service to the fans. He said that his appearance in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) was inspired by the story of Reed and Sue Richards’ wedding in Fantastic Four Annual Volume 1 #3, in which he and artist/writer Jack Kirby attempt to crash the ceremony but are thwarted.

A version of this story ran in 2015.

JK Rowling Reveals the Sweet Reason Why She Wrote Fantastic Beasts

Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images
Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images

With the release of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald just a week away, ​JK Rowling is reflecting on her time writing the book that inspired the first film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and why she decided to expand on the Wizarding World she had created with the Harry Potter series.

While on the red carpet for the premiere of ​The Crimes of Grindelwald in Paris last week, Rowling spoke about how appreciative she is of the Harry Potter fandom that allows her to keep writing books and films. She also revealed the reason why she wanted to continue past the original series and write these movies: Potterheads!

"This fandom is the most remarkable in the world, for me, obviously," Rowling said. "Their loyalty and their passion for these stories really is the reason that I went back, because, without that, I don’t think I would have written these movies."

So there you have it, Potterheads: you really have yourselves to thank for the ​Potter universe's continued expansion. Keep it up and maybe Rowling will keep giving us more. In the meantime, Fantastic Beasts 2 hits theaters on November 16.

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