Spencer Tracy? Noel Coward? Alfred Lunt? Lynn Fontanne? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Some actors engage in elaborate rituals when preparing to perform a role. But the funniest advice about acting that I have ever heard avoids all pretensions. Here are three versions:
1) Speak clearly, and don’t bump into the furniture.
2) Learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.
3) Memorize your lines and try not to crash into the furniture
Statements of this type have been attributed to several noteworthy artists, e.g., Spencer Tracy, Noel Coward, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne. Would you please identify the humble promulgator?
Quote Investigator: The earliest partial match for this advice located by QI was spoken by the playwright and actor Noel Coward and published in August 1954 by the syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons. Coward used the phrase “without bumping into people” and not the more comical phrase “without bumping into the furniture”. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1
The only advice I ever give actors is to learn to speak clearly, to project your voice without shouting—and to move about the stage gracefully, without bumping into people. After that, you have the playwright to fall back on—and that’s always a good idea.
The couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were major stars of the theatre for several decades. In January 1955 the columnist Lyons reported on an appearance of the pair at Columbia University in New York City. Fontanne delivered the memorably self-effacing statement about the dramatic arts with the phrase “without bumping into the furniture”: 2 3
Alfred Lunt, lecturing at Columbia, was asked to define the style of acting he and his wife, Lynn Fontanne, use, “Frankly, I’ll have to ask my wife,” said Lunt. Miss Fontanne supplied the answer “We read the lines so that people can hear and understand them; we move about the stage without bumping into the furniture or each other; and, well that’s it.”
The two passages above were the earliest evidence of matching expressions located by QI. Questions about the craft of acting were directed at Coward and Fontanne many times during their careers. QI believes that replies similar to those given above were employed more than once.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1954 August 16, Long Beach Independent, The Lyons Den: Broadway Gazette by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 10, Column 7 and 8, Long Beach, California. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1955 January 24, Morning Advocate, The Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons (Syndicated), Quote Page 4A, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1955 January 25, The New Mexican (Santa Fe New Mexican), Press Agent Writes Of Dorothy McGuire’s Reconciliation With Estranged Husband, (Continuation Title: Lyons) by Leonard Lyons, Start Page 4, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Santa Fe, New Mexico. (NewspaperArchive) ↩