Know Your Lines and Don’t Bump Into the Furniture

Spencer Tracy? Noel Coward? Alfred Lunt? Lynn Fontanne? Anonymous?

stage10Dear 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:[ref] 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)[/ref]

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”:[ref] 1955 January 24, Morning Advocate, The Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons (Syndicated), Quote Page 4A, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) [/ref][ref] 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)[/ref]

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.

In 1941 an article in a New York newspaper indicated that the task of avoiding collisions with furniture on the set was more difficult than commonly imagined because sometimes the stage was dark:[ref] 1941 June 28, Long Island Daily Press, These ‘Boys’ Have a Formula for Keeping Young, (Continuation title “Boy’s Club”), Start Page 26, Quote Page 22, Column 5, Jamaica, New York. (Old Fulton)[/ref]

“In the last play we did,” Guardino related, “there were a lot of blackouts during which the actors had to change their positions on the stage. We were always bumping into the furniture until one of the players got the idea of putting phosphorescent-coated pins on the chairs and tables.

In August 1954 Noel Coward presented some advice for aspiring actors as mentioned previously:

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.

In January 1955 Lynn Fontanne described her acting technique as mentioned previously:

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.

In December 1955 the statement reappeared in the column of Leonard Lyons. This time Lyons indicated that the lecture by Lunt and Fontanne was given at the Actors’ Studio, an influential New York organization of theatre people with a pedagogical mission. The words ascribed to Fontanne were slightly altered:[ref] 1955 December 29, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Best of Broadway: ‘Red Roses For Me’ Has Financial Thorns, (Column Section by Leonard Lyons), Quote Page 9, Column 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Old Fulton)[/ref][ref] 1955 December 30, Niagara Falls Gazette, The Lyons Den: Lunt and Fontanne, Brightest Lights on Broadway, Have Simple Recipe for Success in Theater by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 12, Column 2 and 3, Niagara Falls, New York. (Old Fulton)[/ref]

Lunt once lectured at the Actors’ Studio, where he was asked to define the school of acting to which he and his wife adhere. “That’s too general a question. I’ll have to ask my wife,” said Lunt. Miss Fontanne supplied the answer: “We speak so that people can hear and understand us, we move about the stage without bumping into the furniture or each other, and . . . and—well, that’s it.”

In 1957 a collection of quotations compiled by James Beasley Simpson was published and Lynn Fontanne’s remark was included. Interestingly, Simpson listed a date in October 31, 1954, but QI has not yet located support for this early date. The text was identical to the January 24, 1955 citation:[ref] 1957, Best Quotes of ’54 ’55 ’56, Compiled by James Beasley Simpson, Section: Theater, Quote Page 95, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

“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. . . .”

Lynn Fontanne, definition of the art of acting, news reports of October 31, 1954.

In January 1960 “The Washington Post” published a profile of Lunt and Fontanne titled “A Matchless Pair of Strolling Players”. The article attributed a concise version of the saying to Lunt instead of Fontanne:[ref] 1960 January 31, Washington Post, A Matchless Pair of Strolling Players by Richard L. Coe, Quote Page H3, Column 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Acting techniques? Alfred once made a crack about this which disguises their infinite labors: “Speak up and don’t bump into the furniture.”

In June 1960 the book publisher and quotation collector Bennett Cerf included an instance of the saying in his syndicated newspaper column. The words were attributed to Lunt:[ref] 1960 June 22, Tonawanda News, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 15, Column 1, North Tonawanda, New York. (Old Fulton)[/ref]

Asked his secret of being a fine actor, Alfred Lunt explained blithely, “I speak in a loud, clear voice—and keep from bumping into the furniture.”

In December 1960 a newspaper in San Diego, California printed an interview with the British actor Brian Aherne who reminisced about some valuable advice proffered by Fontanne:[ref] 1960 December 9, San Diego Union, Point of View: As Aherne Sees The Acting Life by Donald Freeman (San Diego Union’s Radio-TV Editor), Quote Page B4, Column 1, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

Turning from the perils of his trade to acting itself, Mr. Aherne happily recalled starring on Broadway in “Quadrille,” with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

“They know what acting is all about, those two, with no nonsense,” he said. “I once heard Lynn give a young aspirant the best possible advice on acting. She put it all in a nutshell, ‘Speak the lines loudly and distinctly and try not to bump into the furniture.’

In February 1966 widely-syndicated columnist Earl Wilson attributed the saying to Lunt:[ref] 1966 February 7, Aberdeen American-News (Aberdeen Daily News), Earl Wilson’s New York (Syndicated column), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

REMEMBERED QUOTE: Veteran actor Alfred Lunt once gave the “secret” of his stage success: “I speak in a loud, clear voice and try not to bump into the furniture.”

In March 1966 a Hollywood journalist presented a fragment of the saying as a canonical piece of advice without attribution:[ref] 1966 March 2, Pasadena Star-News, Mike Connolly: Notes From Hollywood (Syndicated), Quote Page C7, Column 2, Pasadena, California. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref]

Ex-Queen Soraya’s acting lessons paid off chest – out – ankles – crossed – knees – together – and – don’t bump – into – the – furniture, Your Highness—she signed up with Vittoria DeSica to star in “Promise at Dawn.”

In January 1968 “LIFE” magazine published a profile of the movie star Katharine Hepburn which included comments from her niece Katharine Houghton. The famous actor Spencer Tracy was Hepburn’s long-time partner on-screen and off. Tracy offered some simple guidance to Houghton near the beginning of her career:[ref] 1968 January 5, LIFE, Comeback of Aunt Kat by John Frook, Start Page 60, Quote Page 64, Time-Life Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) [/ref]

When young Katharine asked Tracy for advice, all that old family friend would give was the same advice he’s offered up to any film newcomer: “Know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.”

Also in January 1968 the American actor Herschel Bernardi was asked to comment about his approach to acting, and he attributed a remark to Spencer Tracy:[ref] 1968 January 31, Republican Courier, American Play And Actors Use Jolly London For Set, Quote Page A8, Column 6, Findlay, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref]

Fear is the greatest enemy an actor has. If you trust what you are doing, something will come out.
Also, know your lines and hit your mark and, as Spencer Tracy once said, don’t bump into the furniture.

In February 1968 the syndicated columnist Walter Winchell attributed an instance of the saying with the word “walk” instead of “bump” to Tracy:[ref] 1968 February 2, St. Albans Messenger, Walter Winchell Everywhere (Syndicated), Quote Page 8, Column 4, St. Albans, Vermont. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

Remember Spencer Tracy’s counsel to a young stage hopeful, who asked him the best way to be a success in showbiz: “Just remember your lines, dearie, and don’t walk into the furniture”.

In November 1969 “The New York Times” reported on a meeting between the prominent playwright Noel Coward and reporters held at the Savoy Hotel in London. Coward pronounced a variant of the humorous saying:[ref] 1969 November 14, New York Times, Noel Coward Nears 70, His Mocking Wit Intact, (Dispatch of The Times, London), Quote Page 36, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Coward’s recipe for success as an actor: “Speak clearly and do not bump into people.”

In December 1969 Noel Coward spoke before a large audience at the National Film Theater in London, and he offered some instruction:[ref] 1969 December 15, The Hartford Courant, Playwright States Key To Success (Associated Press), Quote Page 3, Column 1, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)[/ref]

He added some advice for young actors: “Get on, say your lines. Then get off, and don’t go crashing into the furniture.”

In 1973 the New York Times published an obituary for Noel Coward that included the following passage:[ref] 1973 March 27, New York Times, Sir Noel Coward, Playwright, Dies at 73 by Albin Krebs, Start Page 1, Quote Page 40, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Sir Noel had some advice for Method actors, who feel they must discover a character’s motivations in order to play a role: “Speak clearly, don’t bump into people, and if you must have motivation think of your pay packet on Friday.”

In conclusion, QI believes that Noel Coward should be credited with the saying containing the phrase “without bumping into people”. Lynn Fontanne should be credited with the saying containing the phrase “without bumping into the furniture”. The latter phrase has proven to be more memorable. Coward and Fontanne were close long-term friends and the expressions may have emerged from their shared ideas.

Evidence suggests that Alfred Lunt, Spencer Tracy, and others employed similar lines. However, these individuals should not be credited with crafting the saying.

Image Notes: The portraits of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were created by Van Vechten and were obtained via Wikimedia Commons which acknowledged the Library of Congress. The images have been resized and altered. Theatre interior image from tpsdave at Pixabay.

Update History: On August 31, 2014 the August 16, 1954 citation and the 1957 citation were added. The conclusion was rewritten.

(Great thanks to ajdehany whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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