The following excerpt comes from a 1919 New York Times article titled, “When Prop or Player Fails.” The article describes mishaps on stage due to missing or malfunctioning props, a problem which has plagued actors since theatre began.
One of the most familiar and most absurd stories of histrionic presence of mind is concerned with an old-time melodrama which called for an actor to file his way through prison bars, only to be shot dead later as he stood on the wall of the prison, about to escape. The file had been brought carefully into the plot, so that the audience was fully aware that the prisoner had it in his possession. On the night in question, as he stood on the prison wall after sawing his way through the bars, the gun of the prison guard failed to go off when the trigger was pulled. The actor, however, fell from the wall as he was accustomed to, but instead of lying where he dropped, he staggered down to the footlights.
“My God!” he gasped, to the audience. “I’ve swallowed the file!” And dropped dead.
The gun which fails to go off is one of the most frequent causes of embarrassment to an actor. There is the long familiar story of the actor who pulled the trigger as usual one night, in a scene in which he was supposed to murder another character, only to be met by a click instead of the customary report. The other man, however, fell down as usual when the trigger was pulled, so the first player did what he could to save the situation. Looking from the revolver in his hand to the man prostrate on the floor, he remarked, “These Maxim silencers are certainly wonderful things,” and the play went on…
Arthur Byron of “Tea for Three” tells of a melodrama in which he was supposed to shoot E. J. Henley, only to find that the gun would not go off. He made several attempts, and then Henley whispered “Stab me! Stab me!” Byron, unfortunately, had nothing with which to stab him, so he brought about his demise by clubbing him over the head with the revolver.
Originally published in The New York Times, January 12, 1919. “When Prop or Player Fails”, author unknown.