LINE! THE PROMPTER’S ROLE
By Mari Lyn Henry
Recently I found a most intriguing feature in Playbill Magazine (1983) from the book Great Theatrical Disasters by Gyles Brandreth (St. Martinʼs Press, 1982).
In it he focused on the great actors who have completely blanked on stage during a performance or rehearsal and how they recovered or didnʼt. It is not uncommon to have been paralyzed with fear or nerves before going on stage and often the stuff that actorsʼ nightmares are made of. In all events the show went on in spite of the gaffes. So I thank Mr. Brandreth for his research.
“Like actors, prompters–many of whom are ether actors-in-the-making or actors manque (unsuccessful)–have a temperamental side to their natures. Some actors try the patience of their prompters more than others.”
“Toward the end of his career, John Barrymoreʼs eccentricity and foul temper got the better of him. Fumbling through one of his last stage appearances in My Dear Children (1939-1940 ) he dried completely and after gagging for a moment or two managed to sidle to the wings and whisper: “Whatʼs the next line?” “Whatʼs the line?” “Whatʼs the play?” came the answer from the wings.
“The captivating Ada Rehan, darling of the late-nineteenth-century American stage, was playing a demure heroine in Boston one night with a very nervous young actor cast as her suitor. At one point in the play, the young hero pressed Miss Rehan for an answer to an all-important question. Miss Rehan hesitated and was supposed to do so. This dramatic moment should have been followed by the young manʼs line, ʻYou donʼt replyʼ, but on the night in question, his nerve failed him and no words came forth.
ʻYou donʼt reply. . .You donʼt reply,ʼ came the prompt from the wings in a hoarse whisper. ʻHow the hell can I, when I donʼt know what to say?ʼ snapped back the hero.”
“Julia Marlowe, as Olivia, forgot the rest of her lines in the scene with the priest in Twelfth Night. Without a hint of anxiety, she turned to the actor and said:
- ʻThen lead the way good father–
- And heavens so shine,
- I canʼt remember another blessed line.ʼNote: The line was “That they may fairly note this act of mine!” End Act IV, Scene 3
- “Towards the end of her career, Ellen Terry became very forgetful but managed to rise above her lapses of memory with ease. In 1919, aged 72, she played the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet and could hardly remember a word. Romeo (Basil Sydney) and Mercutio (Leon Quartermaine) came to her aid and whispered every line into her ear. She then repeated each line out loud and apparently did so with such freshness and vitality that the audience was convinced it had only just come from her.”
During rehearsals for his production of Hay Fever at the National Theatre, Noel Coward gradually lost his temper with his Judith Bliss portrayed by Dame Edith Evans when she persistently got the lines wrong. ʻEdith, this isnʼt good enough. You donʼt know your lines,ʼ said Coward when his patience could stand no more.
- ʻItʼs ridiculous,ʼ she replied. ʻBecause this morning I said them over and over to myself and I knew them backwards.ʼ
ʻAnd thatʼs just how youʼre saying them now, retorted Coward.”