Things That Go Wrong In the Night

Things go wrong in the theater, apart from the show. On the one hand, spontaneous hiccups and disasters remind us all that it’s live up there and that anything can happen. On the other hand, when something goes wrong, we feel so relieved when all is O.K. again that a round of applause is almost always the happy outcome.

“Drying”-or going up on your lines-happens to the best of them. I once saw the elderly Sir John Gielgud in David Storey’s Home lose his way during a long, important speech. No problem! Gielgud-always a good talker-veered off-course to deliver a fascinating, utterly irrelevant speech about the unpredictable English weather and the joys of gardening until, at length, he found his lines again. As he was playing a patient in a mental home, it didn’t seem to make any difference what he said. Besides, it was Gielgud saying it.

Alan Bennett, a beloved man in England (much to his embarrassment), was appearing in one of his own monologues in the West End when he suddenly went blank. He was so taken aback that he peered out at the audience and announced, “Oooh. I’ve forgotten my lines. Hang on.” He disappeared to fetch the script from his dressing room, reappearing to a round of affectionate applause.

One of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest actors, Erland Josephson, tells this sweet, typically self-effacing story about forgetting his lines one night when a prompter was on hand. But, alas, Mr. Josephson’s hearing wasn’t what it once was. “What?” he said, and the prompter gave him the line again. “What?” he said again, and the prompter gave him the line one more time. And when he finally got the line and delivered it, the relieved, delighted audience gave him what he says is the only ovation he’s ever received in his life.

When I saw Trevor Nunn’s recent production of Oklahoma! , the show began with the left half of the curtain getting snagged going up. There was Aunt Eller shuckin’ corn, but only half the audience could see her. What some of us could also see were frantic stagehands in the wings trying to set the curtain free. Aunt Eller just kept shuckin’ that corn and prayin’ the set wasn’t going to collapse. Whereupon the irrepressible Curly entered to sing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” The small mercy was that he didn’t have to sing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

Curly looked understandably stunned when he entered, cheerfully slapping his chaps. He’d come on to find half the house looking up at him, horrified; the guys were still tugging frantically on the curtain, and Aunt Eller was no help whatsoever.

Oh, what a beautiful mornin’!

Oh, what a beautiful day!

I got a beautiful feelin’

Ev’rythin’s goin’ my way .…

Oh, my. But I can tell you, when that curtain was freed at last and the audience, seeing it happen, had burst into grateful applause, you never saw a more beautiful mornin’ or a happier Curly.

Old theater story known as “Hark, the Cannons Roar”: An actor is indisposed just before the curtain goes up, and the director rushes urgently outside the stage door to ask anyone if they could say just one line at the start of the show for $100. The line is, “Hark, the cannons roar!” A man in the crowd says, “A hundred bucks? I’ll do it!” “Don’t forget,” says the director. “The curtain goes up, you say, ‘Hark, the cannons roar!'” “It’s a cinch,” says the man. He’s standing behind the curtain now. The curtain rises, a roar of thunderous cannon fire shakes the theater to its foundation, and the man says, “What the fuck was that ?”

In childhood, I always saw the circus when it came to town, and I was mesmerized by a high-wire artist who stumbled and almost fell each time he walked across the wire. He appeared every year, and every year I felt terrified for him. And then it dawned on me that he stumbled on purpose. He knew that for the high-wire artist, there’s beauty in perfection, but no thrills.

Still, there’s nothing an audience can do to help a performer in real trouble. Years ago, I saw a revival of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple , and the telephone was supposed to ring during the poker game, but it didn’t. Actors can only improvise so much. Essentially, they kept playing the poker game, ad-libbing as best they could: “What a lousy hand!” “Another drink?” “Maybe I will have one after all.” But the phone still didn’t ring. One of the actors could stand it no longer. “Aren’t you going to answer the phone?” he said to Victor Spinetti, who looked as if he could kill him. Well, Mr. Spinetti couldn’t reply, “No, it hasn’t rung yet.” So he picked up the receiver. But to make it all horribly worse, the moment he began talking into the phone, it rang.

Quite recently, I was at a West End matinee of Peter Shaffer’s sublime one-act farce, Black Comedy , when the lead actor, who was on his hands and knees at the time, farted so loud and so long that he could have stopped traffic in Piccadilly Circus. Let’s face it: It could happen to the best of us. Still, we were all convulsed with laughter, and it was touch-and-go for everyone in the cast, too-except, of course, for the unfortunate actor, who wanted to die.

Then again, Sir Donald Sinden’s beard kept falling off during his King Lear at Stratford. No matter what he did to fix it, it kept falling off. His performance, alas, became famously unglued.

Only last season, at the Metropolitan Opera’s opening night of Prokofiev’s War and Peace , a French grenadier retreating from Moscow lost his footing during the snowstorm and fell from a perilous height into the orchestra pit. The players froze and the music stopped, but all was miraculously well. His fall had been broken by a net, unseen from the audience, over the pit. The actor-an extra-took a bow with the Met’s general manager, Joseph Volpe, and was warmly applauded. A friend of mine-a purist-witnessed it happening, but said he felt cheated by the drama of it all when he learned about the safety net.

Audiences, you see, are picky, and not always polite. My friend, the journalist Patrick Giles, tells me about the near-hand-to-hand combat that broke out in the audience who’d gone to see Vanessa Redgrave in Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending several seasons ago. At one point, a chorus of boos broke out during the performance, and it was feared they were protesting Ms. Redgrave’s radical politics. The show was halted. Sir Peter Hall, its director, went up onstage to calm things down. But he was greeted by surprising cries of “Turn on the air-conditioning!”

Apparently the theater was stifling, and the protests were merely about not being able breathe. But the rickety air-conditioning at the Neil Simon clattered noisily, and Sir Peter pleaded, “If we turn on the damn air-conditioning, you won’t be able to hear the actors.” What price art? A chant began: “Screw the air-conditioning!” And as the actors looked on in amazement from the wings, it was put to a vote.

The actors won! “The protesters rose to get their money back, if they could,” Mr. Giles, our theater air-conditioning correspondent, reports. “The audience quieted down, and after a loud, long hand when the cast returned to the stage-and another when Vanessa Redgrave appeared again-the play proceeded to its superb close.”

You will have heard of the Pia Zadora Diary of Anne Frank , of course. Ms. Zadora was so bad as Anne Frank that when the Nazis came to search for her, a voice from the balcony yelled out, “She’s in the attic!”

One of my favorite heckles came from Adolph Green, of all swell people. But it was at a movie. A character says the pretentious line, “I’ve tasted of death. Have you?” Adolph (of the legendary songwriting team Comden and Green) couldn’t resist calling back: “Yes, and it tastes just like chicken!”

So, you see, acting’s a risky business-much riskier than we sometimes imagine. When it comes to the heckle, however, I think the last word should always belong to the heckled-ideally. If the actor can wittily top the put-down, the day will be more than saved: It will be made. Let me close, then, with my favorite theater story of all. If you’ve heard me tell it before, don’t stop me.

Sir Donald Wolfit, a giant and ham of the British theater-Albert Finney impersonated him wonderfully in the film The Dresser -was on tour and had just finished playing his rousing rendition of King Lear. As was the great man’s custom, he took a lingering solo curtain call and, having squeezed the last drop of applause, announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, next week we shall be offering you Hamlet . I myself shall be playing the role of the melancholy Dane, and my dear lady wife shall be playing Ophelia.”

“Your wife’s an old rat bag!” came a voice from the auditorium.

“Nevertheless,” Wolfit replied without skipping a beat, “she shall still be playing Ophelia ….