They Will Not Let My Play Run, But Steal My Thunder

John Dennis? Alexander Pope? Apocryphal?

lightning07Dear Quote Investigator: To steal someone’s thunder means to take an idea, a strategy, or a policy created by another person and use it advantageously. It can also mean to grab attention by anticipating and pre-empting the strategy of another. This figurative phrase supposedly originated with an angry remark made by a frustrated dramatist. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The critic and playwright John Dennis wrote a tragedy “Appius and Virginia” which was staged in a London theater circa 1709. The effort was unsuccessful and the production closed rapidly; however, Dennis at the same time introduced an innovative new method for simulating the sound of thunder that won plaudits.

A short time later Dennis attended a performance of “Macbeth” at the playhouse and heard the distinctive sound of his simulated thunder. He leapt to his feet enraged and shouted, “They steal my thunder”. Accounts of the event vary, and the exact actions and words of Dennis are probably lost.

The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in 1727 in Alexander Pope’s “The Dunciad: With Notes Variorum, and the Prolegomena of Scriblerus”. This was a second edition of the celebrated poem which included notes and commentary by Pope. The anecdote is referred to in a note and not within the poem. In Pope’s version Dennis did not use the word “steal”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

Whether Mr. Dennis was the inventor of that improvement, I know not; but it is certain, that being once at a Tragedy of a new Author, he fell into a great passion at hearing some, and cry’d, “S’death! that is my Thunder.”

In an account from 1747 Dennis was depicted employing the verb “to steal”. The latter-day figurative phrase and the most popular modern versions of his remarks use that verb. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1734 “The Life of Mr. John Dennis: The Renowned Critick” was published, and the author commented sardonically about the purpose of loud thunder in the theater. The discussion of “Appius and Virginia” included a quotation ascribed to Dennis that matched Pope’s version: 3

If this Play had not so long a Run as it deserved, yet it was very successful in one Part of it, viz. the Thunder, which tho’ of our Critick’s own Invention, the Players had the Impudence to make Use of it in other Dramatic Performances, where that necessary Incident, is oftentimes introduced to keep the Audience awake, Mr. Dennis was very much enraged at this Piece of Theft, and could not help crying out aloud in the Pit, the first Time he heard it in another Play, ‘Sdeath! that’s my THUNDER!

In 1747 a compilation of biographical sketches of playwrights was published, and the section about Dennis retold the tale while ascribing the memorable phrase “steal my thunder” to the writer: 4

Appius and Virginia; a Tragedy acted at the Theatre Royal in Drury-lane, in the Year 1709, without Success.

For this Play Mr. Dennis invented a new Kind of Thunder, which the Actors approved of, tho’ the Play Was damned, and continued to use it, as they do to this Day. But Mr. Dennis, being a few Nights after the ill Fate of his own Play in the Pit at the Tragedy of Macbeth, and hearing it Thunder, could not help crying out alout, That’s my Thunder; by G—-! How these Rascals use me! They will not let my Play run, but steal my Thunder.

In 1761 “A New and General Biographical Dictionary” was published, and it presented a slightly different version of the remark from Dennis: 5

It would be endless to recite the stories which are told of this strange man. In 1709 he published a tragedy called Appius and Virginia, which met with no success, but for which he invented a new kind of thunder. Being at the play-house a few nights after the ill fate of his own play, and hearing it thunder, he started up of a sudden, and cried out aloud, “That’s my thunder, by G—! How these rascals use me! They will not have my play, yet steal my thunder.”

In 1791 a book about the prominent painter William Hogarth contained a discussion of his work “Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn”. The author shared a different instance of the tangentially related theater anecdote in which Dennis complained about the execution of the sound effect: 6

We are told by Alexander Pope, that stage thunder was invented by that great critic, John Dennis; and so jealous was Dennis of his bolt being wielded by an improper hand, that being once in the pit at Drury-lane theatre when the company were performing Macbeth, and hearing the mustard-bowls rattling over his head, he started from his seat, grasped his oaken stick, and exclaimed, with an emphasis that drowned the voices of the players, “Eternal curses light on these scoundrels! they have stolen my thunder, and don’t know how to roll it!”

By 1831 the generalized figurative expression had emerged. A London periodical called “The Eclectic Review” published an article about a book by Richard Whately. The reviewer believed that his ideas were similar to Whately’s: 7

We will not charge Dr. Whately with ‘stealing our thunder.’ We have not the arrogance to claim him as a disciple or a convert; but we do congratulate ourselves upon the accession of so powerful an auxiliary.

In 1843 a New York newspaper employed a figurative instance while criticizing another paper: 8

CHANGE OF NOTE.—After rebuking the Commercial for applying the term “haughty,” to Mr. Calhoun, although it was done in no invidious sense, we find that the Express has adopted the same phraseology. Don’t steal our thunder, it you please.

In 1854 a compilation titled “The Hundred Dialogues: New and Original” included a dialog that extended the metaphor to thunder and lightning: 9

Squire. The fellow has stolen my best story, and is passing it off for his own, before I have told it fifty times myself. The dog told me, too, he could not see the pint of it. He shall feel the pint of my boot when I meet him, a villain.

Meach. That will hardly be “doing good,” Squire.

Squire. It will be doing good and communicating too. A mean dog, to steal my thunder after telling me there was no lightning in it.

In conclusion, the earliest known version of anecdote and the vivid comment made by Dennis appeared in the second edition of “The Dunciad” by Alexander Pope in 1729. Dennis reportedly used the phrase “that is my thunder”. In 1747 an account was published in which Dennis used the phrase “steal my thunder”. The figurative expression was circulating by 1831.

Image Notes: Picture of lightning from reynaldodallin at Pixabay. The image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Joel S. Berson whose inquiry about the figurative expression on the ADS mailing list led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to Fred R. Shapiro and “The Yale Book of Quotations”.)

Notes:

  1. 1729, The Dunciad: With Notes Variorum, and the Prolegomena of Scriblerus by Alexander Pope, Second Edition with Some Additional Notes, Book 2, Section: Remarks, Quote Page 115, Printed for Lawton Gilliver at Homer’s Head, against St. Dunstan’s Church, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: John Dennis, Quote Page 194, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1734, The Life of Mr. John Dennis: The Renowned Critick; In which are Likewise Some Observations on Most of the Poets and Criticks, His Contemporaries, Not Written by Mr. Curll (Edward Curll), Printed for J. Roberts in Warwick-Lane, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1747, Scanderbeg, Or, Love and Liberty: A Tragedy Written by the late Thomas Whincop. To which are added A LIST of all the Dramatic Authors, with some Account of their Lives; and of all the Dramatic Pieces ever published in the English Language, to the Year 1747, Section: Appius and Virginia by Dennis, Quote Page 215, Printed for W. Reeve at Shakespear’s Head, Serjeant’s-Inn-Gate, in Fleet-Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1761, A New and General Biographical Dictionary, Containing An Historical and Critical Account of the Lives and Writings of the Most Eminent Persons in Every Nation; Particularly the British and Irish, Volume 4, Section: John Dennis, Start Page 85, Quote Page 87, Printed for T. Osborn, J. Whiston, and B. White et al., London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1791, Hogarth Illustrated: William Hogarth by John Ireland, Volume 1, Section: Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn, (Text for asterisk footnote), Quote Page 178, Published by J. & J. Boydell, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1831 February The Eclectic Review, Whately on the Origin of Romish Errors, (Book Review of “The Errors of Romanism traced to their Origin in Human Nature” by Richard Whately), Start Page 113, Quote Page 133, Published by Holdsworth and Ball, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1843 July 21, Commercial Advertiser, Change of Note, Quote Page 2, Column 4, New York, New York. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1854 Copyright, The Hundred Dialogues: New and Original; Designed for Reading and Exhibition in Schools, Academies, and Private Circles by William Bentley Fowle, Chapter 89: The Story Teller, Start Page 221, Quote Page 223, Published by Samuel F. Nichols, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link