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'Call a Medic!' - Theatrical Emergencies From the Past


A month ago, Taron Egerton made headlines for collapsing on-stage during the opening preview of Mike Bartlett's Cock. His co-star, Phil Daniels, allegedly said 'Stop the show. First aid!' before the curtain came down and a doctor was called up from the audience. Following an unscheduled interval, the show resumed with Egerton's understudy, Joel Harper-Jackson, completing the performance in his place. Egerton was back for the second preview but, following a temporary Covid-related absence, it has recently been announced that he will not be returning to the production due to 'personal reasons'.


In the following post, we look back at some more serious stage emergencies of the past, including a few entertainers who lost their lives in-front of the crowd...


Molière


The great French actor-playwright Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) suffered pulmonary tuberculosis and collapsed onstage during a performance of one of his own plays, La Malade Imaginaire (translated The Imaginary Invalid or The Hypochondriac.) Playing the character Argan, the 'hypochodriac' of the title, he suffered a violent fit of coughing but insisted on completing the performance. After the curtain fell, he collapsed again and was carried back to his home, dying shortly after. The date was February 17th 1673, and - having neither received the last rites nor renounced his 'dishonourable' profession - he was given an unceremonious burial four days later. The superstition that the colour green brings actors bad luck allegedly stems from Molière wearing green at the time of his death.


Edmund Kean


The legendary British actor Edmund Kean, renowned as perhaps the greatest actor of the early-19th Century, saw a similar end to Molière. Known for his fiery, thrilling stage performances, Kean reportedly led an equally vigorous private life . He had many affairs - supposedly managing to squeeze in romantic liaisons between acts whilst performing - and also suffered a crippling drink-problem. His heady lifestyle finally caught up with him on 15th March 1843 when, aged just 45, he collapsed in the arms of his son, Charles, whilst appearing as Othello. He returned home and died a few weeks later. His alleged final words were 'dying is easy; comedy is hard.'


1984 - No Laughing Matter


An undeniably tragic year for comedy - no less than three beloved British comedy personalities lost their lives in 1984, and all suffered the same cause of death.


On 15th April, Tommy Cooper appeared in-front of an audience at Her Majesty's Theatre, Haymarket, in a televised variety show 'Live From Her Majesty's'. He was preparing to perform his magic cloak trick when he slowly slumped onto the floor. The crowd - assuming the pratfall was part of the act - laughed on as he exhaled his final breaths. The live-feed cut to a commercial break and his death was officially announced soon after.


On 27th May, Eric Morecambe (of the great British double-act Morecambe & Wise) collapsed whilst leaving the stage at the end of a performance at the Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury. He was immediately rushed to hospital but died at 3am the following morning. It was his third heart attack.


On 5th October, Leonard Rossiter (famous face of British sitcoms Rising Damp and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) died in his dressing-room whilst appearing in Joe Orton's Loot at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue. Having appeared for his first scene, he failed to return for his next cue. He was discovered slumped in his dressing-room armchair, having suffered a massive heart attack.


And finally...


To round-off an otherwise wholly-morbid blog post, here's a well-loved anecdote involving the great Sir Ralph Richardson. Whilst appearing in Brighton for a pre-West End run of What the Butler Saw (another play by Joe Orton), Ralph Richardson broke character mid-performance to ask the auditorium, 'Is there a doctor in the house?' When a doctor revealed himself, Sir Ralph looked up and said, 'Doctor, isn't this a terrible play?'


If you have any stories of legendary stage accidents/theatrical disasters, please feel free to leave a comment below.

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