John Dennis? Alexander Pope? Apocryphal?
Dear 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.
- 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 ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: John Dennis, Quote Page 194, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩