John Dennis was not a very successful playwright in the early days of the 18th century. I would say he wasn’t very good, but as I’ve not actually read any of his plays, I can’t fairly make that claim. What I do know is that if it remembers him at all, history tends to paint him as more of a critic, and also maybe a little bit of a hothead who was once dismissed from college for wounding a fellow student with a sword.
He was also apparently a pretty clever problem solver because when, in 1704, he needed a good rumble of thunder for the production of his play Appius and Virginia, at London’s Drury Lane Theatre, Dennis came up with a new way to make it happen.
I do enjoy a good rumble of thunder. My family and I have lived in the St. Louis area in the Midwestern US for about eight years now, but our previous home was in the Willamette Valley of the Pacific Northwest where we were for just a few years.
We loved a lot about that area. We really did. The friendly people, the warmer temperatures, the ability to grow almost anything without much effort were all great things, not to mention that we could be either playing in the snow on a mountain or fishing for crab on a beach in a little more than an hour on a Saturday morning.
But it almost never thundered. Oh, it rained. A lot. It rained those tiny, swirling droplets that coat everything and against which an umbrella is useless. It just didn’t really storm. Having grown up in the Midwest where the rain means business and often comes with high winds, hail, huge flashes of lighting, and loud cracks of thunder, I missed it.
The only time I remember a storm when we lived on the west coast, I slept through it and only knew about it because a friend mentioned how terrible the thunder had been the previous night. Now, her terrible thunder was probably my low, distant rumble that makes me smile because I know it’s finally really springtime. But in that moment, I found myself getting desperately homesick. I held it together, but I was pretty upset at the thought. I kind of wanted to yell that she’d stolen my thunder.
I realize that’s not what the phrase “to steal one’s thunder” is really about. It refers to showing someone up, which my friend most certainly didn’t do just by waking up to a storm I slept through. But the phrase didn’t start out that way.
When Appius and Virginia, a play you’ve probably never heard of, despite its innovative thunder, got pulled early and replaced with a production of Macbeth, which you probably have heard of, John Dennis decided to pick himself up and go to the show.
Since you’ve heard of it, you may recall that Macbeth begins with three witches and some thunder and lightning. This particular production of Macbeth, at the Drury Theatre, began with innovative thunder using the same technique recently developed by John Dennis.
The story goes that he jumped up from the audience and declared something to the effect of (not all sources agree on the precise wording): “You won’t run my play, but you’ll steal my thunder!”
I suspect he used some harsher words, too, but whatever he said it is generally accepted that John Dennis coined the idiom “to steal one’s thunder.”
I realize that fun stories like this one are rarely true, but I haven’t been able to find anyone shouting on the internet that it’s not. Frankly, I’m not willing to expend more effort than a quick and shoddy Google search on this particular project, partly because I don’t want to be party to anyone figuratively stealing Dennis’s thunder.
No matter what the phrase might mean today, for frustrated playwright John Dennis and for this midwestern gal, it will always feel just a little bit literal. I’m happy to report that this past week I celebrated having my thunder back. My part of the world experienced its first good thunderstorm of the season. It sounded just like spring is supposed to sound. It sounded like home.