A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (62)?…


Steal Your Thunder

This phrase is in regular use and means that someone has stolen the glory that was rightfully yours. When you think about it, it conjures up a rather odd image because thunder is the sonic consequence of lightning and, therefore, intangible. Not the sort of thing you can put in a sack and take away.

The origin of the phrase is quite interesting and, it seems, we owe a great debt of gratitude to the English critic and playwright, John Dennis (1657 – 1734). The theatre in Elizabethan and Stuart England was a popular source of entertainment. As well as drinking in the honeyed words of the playwrights the audience was often treated to a series of noises off to add verisimilitude to climatic conditions such as a storm or thunder and lightning.

The easiest way to reproduce the sound of thunder was to beat a drum offstage or to roll a cannon ball across the floor. Some theatrical companies used a thunder machine which was a box containing a cannon ball perched on a see-saw. The motion of the see-saw caused the ball to roll and produce a thunderous roar.

Lightning was produced by throwing a powder made from resin into the flame of a candle which lit with a flash. A swivel was used to produce lightning bolts – it was essentially a firecracker attached to a wire hanging from the roof of the theatre to the floor. When required the cracker travelled down the wire shooting off sparks.

Of course, there could be mishaps. Wadding fired from a cannon on 29th June 1613 during a performance of the Bard’s Henry VIII at the Globe caught in the thatch and brought the house down!

Anyway, back to John Dennis. His play, Appius and Virginia, was produced at the Drury Lane theatre in 1704 and for the production Dennis invented a new method for creating the sound of thunder – alas, we do not know quite what it was. Despite the enhanced sound effects the play failed and closed.

In his role as critic Dennis attended a production of Macbeth and was astonished to find that his method for producing thunder was being used. Dennis was famous at the time for his vicious temper and is reported to have exclaimed at the time either, “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder” or a variant, “That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder but not my play!”. And the rest is history, as they say.

Dennis had one supporter, Doctor Samuel Johnson, who lamented that his works weren’t preserved. The good doctor’s support was not enough and Dennis died in extreme poverty having subsisted for years on the charity of those he had slandered.

So now we know!


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