Tag Archives: Doctor Johnson

Actor to Offstage Prompter: “Line…!?!”

It’s a calendar month since they closed down Broadway, and I have been thinking about Death. If that’s too morbid for your taste, you may want to skip this one.

The great sorrow in the present crisis is that the terminally ill are dying alone without comfort of friends or loved ones. So amidst all this terrible tragedy, appalling inconvenience, and ongoing uncertainty, I have wondered lately, occasionally, about a good last line, albeit that if one were about to cross the rainbow bridge, there’s every chance that no one would hear anything you might say…

Nevertheless, as an actor it would simply be embarrassing to arrive at the final moment and have to ask for a prompt. And with the current global challenge, including the prospect of death – the possibility at least, should you happen to inhale the wrong person’s sneeze – doing what Doctor Johnson back in the 18th century said said it did (focus the mind) – what an opportunity to get something down on paper.

Coming up with words that might endure in anyone’s memory more than an hour or two is a tricky proposition though. A sample of some very witty utterances already made includes:

“It’s been a long time since I had champagne.” Anton Checkov – Russian playwright

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“This is where the fun begins.” Ben Travers – British playwright

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“On the contrary.” Henrik Ibsen – Norwegian playwright

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Last words can be very telling in terms of the speaker’s character. A person of high moral probity might say, along with Socrates, “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius, will you remember to pay the debt?”

With an eye to a laugh, “This is no way to live.” Groucho Marx

Somewhat dissatisfied with the set, “I knew it! I knew it! Born in a hotel room and, goddamn it, dying in a hotel room.” Eugene O’ Neill – American playwright.

Do you agree with me that Death is the great taboo these days? Where once no one dared mention sex in polite society, or in some cases money, these days to talk about death at a dinner party is to be struck off future invitations.

And that can be no surprise when the prevailing culture, in America at least, takes the view that death is optional, and that with a reverse-mortgage and the right medication (notwithstanding those side-effects given in husky voice-over against bucolic scenes of happy family barbecues in television commercials). This is madness, the idea that the inevitable appointment with the “fell sergeant” can be indefinitely postponed, defies all logic, experience and evidence.

But we seldom talk about the universal leveler with each other, let along how best to go about it. Many of us find it deeply upsetting even to think about it. But how is it sensible to go fearful or ignorant to that which awaits us all?

If one were looking for advice, albeit of a markedly sombre tone, there’s the Duke’s speech to Claudio Act 3, scene 1 of Measure For Measure which begins, “Be absolute for death, and either death or life shall thereby be the sweeter…”

Or there’s Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s book, On Death and Dying

Or there are Dr Peter Fenwick’s youtube videos.

And although I certainly have no empirical proof, apart from the vivid memories of loved ones who’ve gone before, I tend to agree with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s assessment, “Change of clothes.” One hopes.

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Talking of metaphysicians who flirt with the intangible: there’s at least one of Nostradamus’s prophesies that was correct in every detail. On his deathbed he said, “Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall no longer be here.”

And for an epitaph what could be better than Spike Milligan’s“I told you I was ill.” engraved on his tombstone.

Returning to the problem of the last line. If one were minded to die with one eye on publication, I offer a few generic options here, mainly for actors:

“The Great Stage Manager in the sky is calling places (beginners/UK)”

“If I’d had just one more rehearsal, I’d be playing this differently.”

“How about a round (of applause) on this exit?”