Don’t Steal My Thunder! (Please)

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 looks so grumpy because someone stole his thunder. Jan (John) Vandergucht, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

By the way, you’re probably saying it wrong. As they like to explain in the valley, “It’s Will-AM-ette (D@*n it!).” Rvannatta at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

I can almost hear the rumbling in this picture. Shobi Ram, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

From Ox-Drawn Wagon to Airplane: Sharing Dysentery for Thanksgiving

In April of 1852, a twenty-one year old husband and new father named Ezra Meeker, set out with his wife and infant son on a trip to the West. The journey began in Eddyville, Iowa and ended more than 2000 miles away in what would become Washington State.

The Meekers certainly weren’t the only ones to make the journey over what had come to be known as the Oregon Trail. In fact, an estimated 400,000 folks loaded up their ox-drawn wagons and made the trip over at least part of the same well-worn trail west during about a thirty year span in the middle of the 19th century.

By all accounts it was a difficult journey, leaving an estimated 80,000 emigrants dead from starvation, exposure, disease, or accident. But the Meekers made it alive and well, establishing a brewing business that made them a fortune they eventually lost.

meeker_in_omaha
76-year-old Ezra Meeker in Omaha, on a mission to preserve history. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

And like I imagine most of the survivors of the Oregon Trail would claim, Ezra Meeker remembered the dangerous move westward as a transformative experience, perhaps even THE transformative experience of his life. So when it came to his attention that much of the old Oregon Trail had been plowed over and forgotten, he set out on another journey to preserve it.

In 1906, at the age of 76, Meeker put together a team of oxen and an authentic wagon to make the journey once again, in reverse, this time for the purpose of establishing monuments along the original trail. Again the trip wasn’t easy, but he made it all the way to Washington DC to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt. Then he wisely took a train back home.

Before the age of 93, Meeker managed to make the journey several more times, once by Pathfinder automobile and once by airplane, making him the only person known to have traveled the Oregon Trail by wagon, train, car, and plane.

Ezra Meeker spent more than twenty-five years of his life advocating for the preservation of the Oregon Trail, afraid that this epic journey undertaken by so many brave pioneers would fall away from the collective memory of the American people.

But what Meeker didn’t realize was that, thanks to the genius of Minnesota educator Don Rawitsch, such a thing could never happen. A student teacher in an 8th grade history class in 1971, Rawitsch was looking for a way to help his students grasp the dangers inherent in the 19th century American westward migration. What he came up with was a simple computer game in which the player leads a wagon party from Independence, Missouri to Oregon’s Willamette (which rhymes with d@#n it!) Valley.

calamity
The trail is fraught with peril.

And most likely dies along the way.

If you were an American elementary school kid in the eighties, nineties, or early 2000s, you most likely played a version of the educational game Oregon Trail. And you most likely got dysentery and died. Or maybe you drowned while attempting to cross a river, or your wagon broke down and you died from exposure, or you caught cholera or typhoid or you ran out of ammunition and you starved to death. Or maybe, like Ezra Meeker, you actually made it to the end of the trail.

If you never played the game, you now have another chance. There are some recent electronic versions available, but none, I’m sure, that are as fun as a card game based on Rawlitsch’s original idea. My sister-in-law brought a copy of it to family Thanksgiving, and let me just tell you, it provided hours of hilarious entertainment, as well as a lot of death.

The card game is filled with nods to its electronic predecessor, complete with bad computer graphics, instructions to “press the space bar,” and frequently doled out calamities, including immediate death by snakebite. Players work together as a team of as many as six pioneers, and if even one person reaches the Willamette Valley alive, everyone wins.

oregontrail
I braved the Black Friday crowds to buy my own copy of the game, because my sister-in-law won’t be here for family Christmas, and dysentery is something to be shared.

But that probably won’t happen.

Even Ezra Meeker finally met his match. In 1928, on the verge of yet another Trail journey, this time in a Model A Ford, specially designed with a top that resembled a covered wagon, the 97-year-old fell ill with dysentery (or possibly pneumonia) and died.