The world, a stage?

S Upendran

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

So said the Duck of Avon…. or was he the Swan of Avon? Does it matter? I don’t give a hoot, do you? I mean it’s been over four hundred years since this loony who for the life of him couldn’t figure out how to spell his own name cashed in his chips. I’ve got inside info that our boy wonder spelt his name in 171 different ways. Yup, you heard me right, 171 different ways. Can you beat that? A bunch of crazies (a few fruitcakes call them ‘researchers’) who had nothing better to do with their time had a dekko at everything that this here mother of all English playwrights ever wrote. Their verdict? When it came to writing plays, this short, bald dude with his funny lip fungus was top of the box. Mama, he was cat’s whiskers. You know who I’m talking about, right? Of course you do, cos this here honcho needs no introduction. I’m talking about Mr. William amazing Shakespeare, and the weird lines at the beginning are from his comedy, ‘As You Like It’. Reading them, you feel like saying, “Whatche talking about, bro? You been smoking pot again? Life’s a stage! You gone loco or what?”

Shakespeare Now hold your horses just a minute. What if Mr. Smarty Pants Shakespeare isn’t all that cuckoo? What if he figured it all out? What if this cloud cuckoo land we dumb folks take so seriously is nothing more than a stage and we loonies are just a bunch of hams playing ‘many parts’? Sets you thinking, eh? Kind of makes you wonder, don’t it? I did a lot wondering myself, and all it gave me was a splitting headache. But I can tell you this, English sure does have a ton of idioms from theatre. Take the example of ‘limelight’. You need to be no rocket scientist to figure out that actors are a jealous and insecure bunch, and the only thing that rocks their boat is making the headlines. Yessirre, these folks are hell bent on hogging the limelight. And it ain’t no surprise that this here expression ‘limelight’ comes from the world of theatre. The story goes that in the 1820s a guy called Goldsworthy Gurney while fussing about in his lab said, ‘Let there be light’, and lord almighty there was light. This dude figured out that by heating a piece of lime in a flame of burning oxygen and hydrogen you can become God: you can produce your own light. (Now before you get any bright ideas, let me tell you this here lime is not the fruit, but calcium oxide. So don’t you go around burning the fruit none!) Anyways, Goldsworthy called this here light ‘limelight’: light produced by lime, and went back to pottering ways. Years later, Thomas Drummond asked himself what this here light could be used for; when bam, it suddenly hit him: it could bring light to the Dark Ages. The story goes that before Drummond could foot it crying ‘Eureka’, he got whacked on the head again, and a booming voice said: “I didn’t say Dark Ages, you schmuck. I said dark stages.” And His will was done. In 1837, the limelight was first used in a public theatre at Covent Garden in London. A little bird told me that at the end of the first performance, the actors huddled up and crooned, ‘You light up my life’.

Actors figure that another way of staying in the limelight is by upstaging all those around them. ‘Upstage’: I reckon you have the smarts to figure out that this here expression also comes from the world of theatre. Here’s the lowdown on this word. Stages in the old days weren’t level; the back portion which was slightly raised was called ‘upstage’. One way an actor got the drop on someone was to move upstage. You might think moving upstage is a pretty dumb thing to do cos the bozo is walking away from the audience. But just use your noodle a bit. When our man moves upstage, what happens to the grease paints who are in the front of the stage? Well if they wish to continue with their blah blah blah with the cool dude at the back, they have to turn around: and turning around means having their back to the audience. I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell don’t like to see a ‘back’ in action. I’d rather see the face of a dude at the back of the stage rather than a back in the front of the stage. Result? The dude at the back has upstaged the geezers in the front!

I figure an actor who’s hogged the limelight for some time and has upstaged his peers, needs a place where he can take a load off his feet and unwind a little. And that’s what the green room was for: it gave the downtime needed for the actor to chill. This eyesore got its name from the colour on its walls. You guessed it Sherlock, they were painted green. Why? Coz some guy who was obviously colour blind sold the idea that ‘green’ was a soothing colour for the eyes. But I ask you, how in tarnation can green be soothing for the eye? If you are willing to buy that bull, I’m figuring looking at a bunch of jealous guys is as good as being in a green room. After all, didn’t our boy wonder say jealousy is ‘the green eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on’? When the actors were pooped, all they had to do was to feast their eyes on a bunch of jealous dodos sitting in the wings!

If you ask me, the theatre is full of ‘sidey’ characters; I guess this is as good a reason as any as to why they make their entrance from the side! These sides which the audience cannot see are called ‘wings’. Actors often wait here, take a quick swig of something strong before making their grand entrance. Sometimes, actors go on stage without really knowing their lines. In such circumstances, they depend on the prompters hiding in the wings to whisper the lines to them. If they cannot hear the prompter, they make up their lines. They wing it! In case you’re wondering if I’ve been winging it, well, that’s for me to know and you to find out. Time for moi to make my exit!

Editor’s note: If readers are wondering about the strange manner in which this columnist has chosen to express himself, let me set their wonderings at rest. The writer found himself on a virtual stage, in front of the readers of this magazine, and the limelight went a bit to his head!

The author teaches at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. He can be reached at

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