A long-time drama professor says onstage deaths reflect cultural trends as much as acting chops
No one did death quite like Laurence Olivier. In one scene, the English actor toppled from a 12-foot tower, then was stabbed while hanging by his heels. In another, as a recently deceased individual propped in a wheelchair, he caught his lifeless foot in the rug and dragged it with him as he was trundled offstage. “He was constantly looking for ways that would impress the audience,” said Laurence Senelick, who taught drama at Tufts for 47 years. “He was a master of dying.”
Olivier’s theatrics are among several millennia of onstage demises that Senelick, the Fletcher Professor of Oratory Emeritus, discusses in The Final Curtain: The Art of Dying on Stage. The book isn’t a how-to manual (that type of thing was popular in the 19th century, Senelick said, with suggestions like, “Don’t die sitting down”). Rather, it’s an examination of the way death scenes, and actors’ interpretations of death scenes, reveal how a society thinks about death.
The book grew from a paper Senelick prepared for a theater research organization. “Death is such an important part of drama. But I wanted not only to track how actors performed but the way in which their performance reflected their cultures’ attitudes,” he said. Not long after Senelick embarked on the project, the world was gripped by COVID-19—and the subject became even more relevant. “Death then seemed to be so present,” he said.
Characters die on stage in all sorts of ways. But the range of styles in playing those scenes have been vast. “The only thread is mortality,” Senelick said. “The fact that everyone will die. But each culture has its own particular approach to that.”
The Romans, for example, loved spectacle, and their deaths spared no detail. Sometimes condemned prisoners were cast in death scenes and were actually killed onstage as part of the performance. “It was blood-splattered and satisfied a public avid for gladiatorial games,” Senelick said.
Medieval drama favored the deathbed repentance. Elizabethans, by contrast, lived in a world of heightened conflict, much of it religiously inspired—think of all the fighting between Catholics and Protestants. Therefore Shakespeare and his contemporaries were writing for audiences that had the opportunity to witness violence “of some of the most bizarre and cruel varieties before their very eyes,” Senelick said. These audiences were eager for gory and ingenious theatrical deaths. (Olivier’s spectacular take on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, pierced as he dangled upside down, likely would not have been out of place at the Globe.)
By the 19th century, actors were expected to be virtuosos at death scenes. And the machinery of death changed: Disease, usually infectious disease—unseen and uncontrollable—became the cause. “We have the lady dying of consumption; we have people dying of syphilis,” Senelick said. This preoccupation with physical frailty “ties into the growing interest in psychology, in how the individual faces a long and perhaps lingering demise.”
By the second half of the 20th century, death had generally moved out of the home and into the antiseptic realm of the hospital room. The theatrical dying often became something that took place out of sight, reflecting both the physical and psychological distancing involved.
Contemporary audiences have become somewhat desensitized to dramatized death, according to Senelick. He cites “splatter films” and other over-the-top depictions of blood and gore onscreen. Even attempts to dramatize horrors of recent history, like genocide or war, can leave an audience unaffected.
“Showing masses of undifferentiated people falling over dying, doing awful things to one another, fails to get an emotional response out of the audience,” Senelick said. “Whereas the audience does respond when it can be involved in the life of the character who is now dying.”