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

Literature | August 9, 2021

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.

Engraving of John Dennis, 1734. (National Portrait Gallery, London/Wikimedia Commons)

Stealing Thunder

Unfortunately, despite its groundbreaking special effects, Appius And Virginia was a massive flop, and Drury Lane management soon pulled the plug on the show. The next show on their schedule was Shakespeare's Macbeth, and like the good-ish sport and literary critic he was, Dennis was in the audience on opening night. When he heard a metallic boom emanate from backstage and realized the theater had quite literally stolen his thunder, he turned to his companion and said, "That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder, but not my plays?" Following the curtain call, Dennis spread the outrageous news of the thunder theft all over London.

Dennis was generally a pretty grudgey guy. Although he wrote nine plays and numerous essays, he was mostly known for the petty attitude that earned him several enemies in the literary crowd, and he lived out his final years in poverty before his death on January 6, 1734. History does not remember John Dennis for the plays he penned, but perhaps it is some comfort to his spiteful soul that we're still on about stealing thunder.

Tags: common expressions | England | literature

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.