Such mishaps form the crux of Brad Schreiber’s anthology of stage bloopers, Stop the Show! A History of Insane Incidents and Absurd Accidents in the Theater. Among its many virtues is its historical sweep, from gaffes at our local theaters, both present and centuries past, to tales of Burton and Gielgud, to Molière’s onstage death during a performance of The Imaginary Invalid.
Schreiber provides dozens of anecdotes in six categories, such as actors losing their lines, tech malfunctions and audience-actor interactions (there’s the classic saga of New Yorker critic Robert Benchley responding to a character’s Pidgin English by shouting out, “Me Bobby, Bobby bad boy, Bobby go,” before ostentatiously leaving the theater). The effect wears off from continual reading because all stage gaffes are predicated on a single joke — the collision of two alternate realities into one. The humor is nonetheless timeless and universal, so returning to the book after some time, to revisit that same joke in new shapes, provides a source of endless pleasure.
There are two anecdotes I found particularly engrossing, and one isn’t a mishap at all. It’s comedian Andy Kaufman performing at a San Francisco comedy club in the guise of alter ego Tony Clifton, warming up for Rodney Dangerfield. Clifton goads the audience by refusing to start until he has complete silence, despite being cursed and having beer bottles thrown at him. He further insults the locals by launching into an off-tune, screeching rendition of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which he keeps restarting from the top because of the crowd’s rudeness. The miniriot Kaufman instigated is an example of the kind of “danger” that theater people often speak of but so rarely accomplish.
The book closes with a touring production of Charley’s Aunt for the Inuit Indians at an Alaskan community center. The mayhem that ensued is a poem to how what we assume is “universal” may be anything but.
Causes Brad Schreiber Supports
Wellstone Action! (Sen. Paul Wellstone, MN)