Putting the ham in Hamlet… and lots of other shows

Have you ever seen a famous performer totally overact on stage? Tell us here!

When I was a child, I thought William Shatner was the best actor ever because of his over-the-top performance as Captain Kirk. Those offbeat inflections, extreme facial expressions and strange cadences — his acting was so obvious I figured that meant it was great. As I matured, however, I started to appreciate the fine art of subtlety and suddenly Shatner’s shtick looked pretty humorous. He was always chewing the scenery, over-emoting and pulling focus from his cast mates. It’s no wonder that once he became a star, the stage-trained actor only came back to Broadway to do a one-man show — no one else could compete!

Of course no scenery is actually harmed when an actor chews it (though a show might be). It simply means the performer is overacting or acting in a way that is distracting. Although the phrase “chewing the scenery” is sometimes attributed to noted wit and critic Dorothy Parker, who observed that a particular actor was “…more glutton than artist… he commences to chew up the scenery” in a 1930 review, the expression was actually coined long before. The earliest published occurrence seems to be in Idahoan novelist Mary Hallock Foote’s 1894 story Coeur D’Alene, in which one character disparages another by saying, “Lads, did ye hear him chewin’ the scenery, givin’ himself away like a play-actor?” And since Coeur D’Alene is about miners, not actors, that implies it was already common usage.

Interestingly, the origin of “chewing the scenery” isn’t the only thing about the idiom in dispute. Its application is debated as well. Usually it’s meant negatively, as a way of saying that a performer is overdoing it or hamming it up. But sometimes you’ll hear people (and even professional critics) use it as a compliment, especially for comedic turns. In this case, actors go all out and steal a scene or two, all while picking bits of scenery out of their teeth.

Still, it’s rarely used in a sincerely positive way when applied to a dramatic performance. Perhaps that explains why Shatner turned to comedy later in his career.

Raven Snook

Made with our friends at F*IT Club.

  • Writer: Allyson Morgan
  • Director: Mark Blankenship, TDF’s online content editor
  • Cinematographer/editor: Nicholas Guldner
  • Starring: Mara Kassin, Allyson Morgan, Amanda Sayle, and Danielle Slavick

F*It Club, a film and theatre production company, was founded in 2010 by Executive Director Allyson Morgan and a collective of actors, writers, directors, producers, and filmmakers. The company’s goal is to provide access and opportunity with immediacy. We work on short plays, short films, and short-term events, with the goal of bringing both ease and fun back to entertainment. We say “f* it” to waiting for opportunity to knock. We are seizing opportunity and making it ours. We want to make work and we want to make it NOW.

We are best known for the multiple award-winning series of world premiere, commissioned short plays known as The Spring Fling. Artists we’ve collaborated with include Brooke Berman, Hilary Bettis, Lucy Boyle, Bekah Brunstetter, Ashlin Halfnight, Nick Jones, Greg Keller, Anna Kerrigan, Krista Knight, Victor Lesniewski, Caroline V. McGraw, Janine Nabers, Isaac Oliver, Heidi Schreck, Mark Schultz, Joe Tracz, and Anna Ziegler. Find out more on F*It Club’s Facebook page and Twitter feed.