"Stealing My Thunder": The Dramatic Origins Of This Common Phrase

Drury Lane Theatre, London, built 1794. Detail based on watercolor reproduction by Edward Dayes showing the audience and stage, 1795. (Culture Club/Getty Images)

It's an unpleasant feeling when someone steals your thunder, but have you ever put your rage aside long enough to wonder where the phrase comes from? Does it have something to do with Thor? Was there a weatherman situation? It actually comes from the world of 18th-century theatrical sound effects.

The Thunder Man

Dramatists in the early 1700s didn't have the fancy sound boards and computerized special effects that we have now, but they still figured out how to recreate certain sounds to heighten the audience's immersion. Wooden blocks, for example, could mimic the clop-clop of a horse trotting. Nature sounds like thunder and rain proved more challenging, but in 1709, dramatist and renowned literary critic John Dennis solved the thunder problem. For a stormy scene in his play Appius And Virginia, staged at the Drury Lane Theatre, Dennis tinkered with wooden balls and a sheet of metal to produce a realistic thunder sound.