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Chewing the scenery

Posted by Smokey Stover on May 09, 2009 at 03:54

In Reply to: Chewing the scenery posted by Judy on May 05, 2009 at 18:33:

: How did the phrase "chewing the scenery" come about? I believe it refers to overacting.

Yes, it refers to overacting, probably because some actors, especially comic ones, make the flats on which the scenery is painted part of their act. Some purists say that, by definition, whatever a comic actor may do to furniture and props doesn't become "chewing the scenery" (or "chewing up the scenery") unless the scenery is actually involved. However, the term is also used by extension when an actor simply becomes overly melodramatic. Critics and reviewers tend to use this phrase rather freely for actors who ham it up (like William Shatner in "Star Trek" and everything else he has done.) It is also used to decribe melodramatic behavior even when no theatrical performance is involved. (Color me purist, since I don't care to see the term used when there is no scenery to interact with.)

World Wide Words (Michael Quinion) is sometimes cited in efforts to locate the first use. According to him, although Dorothy Parker used the phrase in 1930, it was actually used earlier. "[The] Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has a much earlier example from Coeur D'Alene, by Idahoan novelist Mary Hallock Foote." (He quotes the example. See the link below.)

The phrase is often used disparagingly, but when the theatrical work is either comic or deliberately melodramatic, a certain amount of chewing the scenery may be entirely appropriate. A good example of a role which invites the infliction of damage to the scenery is the comic baritone part which is found in all of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular operettas. In "The Mikado," for instance, the leading role is not that of the Mikado, impressive as that is, but Ko-Ko, the comic baritone. Having a good voice was not a requirement, although singing is--more or less. The last really famous leading comic with D'Oyly Carte (the original producer of G&S operettas) was Martyn Green. I cannot discover whether Green's most famous predecessors, George Grossmith and Sir Henry Lytton, ever acted in a manner which could be described as chewing the scenery, but there is no doubt that Martyn Green did, at least before 1959 when an accident required his left leg to be amputated. (He died in 1975.)

According to some sources, Green, in his D'Oyly Care heyday, did indeed chew the scenery, or at least bounce off it from time to time. I saw him only once, doing Jack Point in "Yeomen of the Guard," in which he did very well with a prosthesis.ª He did not, however, jump up onto the scenery.

ª Sarah Bernhardt, perhaps the most famous actress ever, suffered a similar fate, having had a leg amputated as the result of a fall. She never found a prosthesis that she was comfortable with, so when she appeared on the stage subsequently she was always in a wheelchair. Her acting has never been described as "chewing the scenery."