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Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt: "The Final Curtain: The Art of Dying on Stage" by Laurence Senelick

The Final Curtain cover
The Final Curtain cover

The Final Curtain coverShakespeare’s plays provide ample opportunity for dramatic deaths onstage, and 18th-century English actors like David Garrick transformed simple stage directions in the text into “stirring set-pieces,” as Laurence Senelick writes in the below excerpt from his new book, The Final Curtain: The Art of Dying on Stage.

Laurence Senelick is Fletcher Professor Emeritus of Drama and Oratory at Tufts University and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His many books include The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and TheatreThe American Stage (Library of America); and Jacques Offenbach and the Making of Modern Culture. The Final Curtain: The Art of Dying on Stage, from which this is adapted, is out now from Anthem Press.


As sensibility began to make inroads on sense, British critics towards the end of the eighteenth century were professing a disdain for overly energetic deaths, while the public clamored for them.  At the same time Thomas Sheridan as Richard III is praised for his exceptional dying “without the aid of a flounder-like flouncing,”1 a fictional spectator protests that such a climax is too tame:

I love to see him when you think he’s slain
Start up and stagger,and be kill’d again.2

Although the phenomenon of a “star actor” even in ensemble and state-supported companies was perceptible in the eras of Burbage and Molière, the celebrity status of Garrick firmly cemented it in place. The prominence of the star was often perpetuated by innovations, whether in interpreting traditional roles, costume reform or publicity devices.  Making an effect remained the crucial touchstone of an actor’s skill or genius.  The American essayist Richard Grant White viewed “the effect produced by the actor” “not a simple and a positive projection, but a result, the elements of which are his power on the one hand and the impressibility of the audience on the other, and it is only by the effect he produces that he can be judged…”3 Actors strove mightily to achieve original effects that would imprinted on the senses and memories of their public.  In playhouses where the audience was lit as brightly as the stage and enforced silence was not the rule, the high points had to be underlined.4

How an actor dies on stage consequently becomes a matter for dramatic criticism. The manifold deaths in English drama allowed British actors broad scope for developing new, elaborate ways of dying.  As I noted before, Shakespeare is economical with “famous last words,” so in an age of melodrama and the centrality of the actor-manager, action was interpolated to make up the deficit.  Those on-stage deaths licensed by Shakespeare’s text were elaborated into stirring set-pieces, while the duels of Richard and Richmond or Macbeth and Macduff (Enter Fighting, Exeunt fighting, and Macbeth slaine are the bare-bones stage directions) now become thrilling codas to what went before.5 Garrick, always loath to leave the stage, seems to have initiated the trend. As the defeated Thane

He clawed the earth, he seemed to be digging his grave; but
the moment approached, we actually saw death… at last he
expired, the hiccough of death and the convulsive movements
of his Physiognomy, arms and chest, gave the last stroke to this
terrible Picture.6

Whatever vestiges of neoclassic moderation lingered in the performance of Shakespearean death were obliterated by Edmund Kean. That Kean, unlike his frostier rival John Philip Kemble, worked hard on such effects is testified to by the manager Alfred Bunn. “Kean sat up all night in a room opposite the Debtor’s Door of the Old Bailey, to catch a full view of the deaths of the Cato Street conspirators; and as he was going on stage in the evening, he said to me, ‘I mean to die like Thistlewood to-night; I’ll imitate every muscle of that man’s countenance.’”7

On occasion, Kean could rein in his histrionics; as Macbeth, “he fell at last finely, with his face downwards, as if to cover the shame of his defeat.”8 For the most part he luxuriated in his last moments, coarsening the effects as his career progressed and then declined.  As Richard III, “he fought like one drunk with wounds and the attitude in which he stands with his hands stretched out, after his sword is taken from him, had a preternatural and terrific grandeur, as if his will could not be disarmed, and the very phantoms of his despair had a withering power.9 On tour in America, the statuesque devolved into the gymnastic.  “One time…he makes an ineffectual effort to rise, and falling in it dashes away his sword is despair; another time he drops his sword, and, in making a vain effort to recover, falls again… But that which gives the finishing stroke to the picture is the look which, raising himself on his elbow, he darts at Richmond.  It was Terrible…it looked a testamentary curse.10 The “glare of hate” towards Richmond had been introduced by George Frederick Cooke and soon became the much anticipated parting glance of Crookback Dick.

Even as Hamlet, Kean could not refrain by dying by inches.  Under the effect of the poison, “his eye dilates and then loses lustre; he gnaws his hand in the vain effort to repress emotion; the veins thicken in his forehead; and his hand drops from between his stiffening lips, he utters a cry of expiring nature, so exquisite that I can only compare it with the stifled sob of a fainting woman or the little wail of a suffering child.”11 This description was provided by Leigh Hunt, who devoted a whole essay to “the beauty and fidelity” of Kean’s performance of “dying scenes.”  Evidently, such efforts deserved the full weight of critical evaluation.

The popularity of Kean’s effects opened the floodgates to ambitious tragedians who aspired to copy or outdo them.  His son Charles, in his revival of King John in the 1840s, seemed to replicate his father’s death by poison: he “rush’d in, gray-pale and yellow, and threw himself on a lounge in the open. His pangs were horribly realistic.”12

Charles Kean’s competitor William Charles Macready may be the best example of a misguided striving for the sublime by way of an exuberant death.  Despite the friendship of such connoisseurs as Charles Dickens, Thomas Talfourd and John Forster, Macready was judged by his ill-wishers to lack the temperament of a tragedian; they judged his interpretations to be forced, miscalculated and out of proportion.  Still, he was admired as a virtuoso at death scenes and it is noteworthy how much space is devoted to them in the reviews of the period.

Excerpted from The Final Curtain: The Art of Dying on Stage by Laurence Senelick. Published by Anthem Press, May 2022. Copyright © 2022 by Laurence Senelick. All rights reserved.

  1. Bell’s British  Shakespeare (London: John Bell, 1785) III, 65, note; Tate Wilkinson , Memoirs of His Own Life (York: Wilson, Spence and Mawman, 1790), IV, 206.
  2. Epilogue spoken at an amateur performance for the benefit of the Literary Fund, European Magazine (17-19 April 1792).
  3. Richard Grant White, “The Clown’s Real Pigling,” Galaxy XI, 3 (Mar. 1870): 398.
  4. I was told by an elderly actor who had heard it from Henry Irving’s dresser that when the “Guv’nor” had a strong moment coming, he would stride downstage and thump on the floor to make the gas footlights flare up.
  5. Dutton Cook,  A Book of the Play. Studies and Illustrations of Histrionic Story, Life, and Character (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1876), II, 216.
  6. [Parkyns MacMahon]  Lettres sur la Danse, et sur les Ballets as The Works of Monsieur Noverre translated (London: G. Robinson, 1760), 215-217; G. W. Stone, “Garrick’s Handling of Macbeth,” Studies in Philology 38, 4 (Oct. 1941): 609-28. John Quick’s private parody of Garrick’s spasmodic writhing was imitated by John Bannister in Don Whiskerandos’ dying scene in Sheridan’s The Critic (1779).  John Genest, Some Account of the English Stage (Bath: H. E. Carrington, 1832) VI, 602.
  7. Alfred Bunn, The Stage: Both Before and Behind the Curtain, from “Observations Taken on the Spot” (London: Richard Bentley, 1840) II, 208.  Arthur Thistlewood and four others were hanged in 1820 for attempting to assassinate the Cabinet; Thistlewood was reported to mount the scaffold “eyes fixed, as it were, in abstract thought and apparently lost to his situation.” “Execution of the Cato Street Conspirators,” European Magazine 77 (May 1820): 444.
  8. Hazlitt, “Mr. Kean’s Macbeth,” loc. cit.
  9. Hazlitt, “Mr. Kean’s Richard,” Morning Chronicle (London, 15 Feb. 1814), in Hazlitt on Theatre, 6.  Also see Champion (London, 9 Oct. 1814) in loc. cit., 22.  Cf. Leigh Hunt, “Kean’s Performance of Dying Scenes,” Tatler (23 Sept. 1831), repr., in Dramatic Essays, ed. William Archer and Robert W. Lowe (London: Walter Scott, 1894), 202.
  10. Philadelphia Mirror of Taste (Mar. 1811).
  11. Hunt, “Kean’s Performance,” 228-30.
  12. Walt Whitman, Good-bye My Fancy (1891) in Collected Writings, 10 vols. (New York: George Putnam’s Sons, 1902), VII, 51.